Hand-Picking Lenses


In my line of work I have come across all kids of comments as a response to my photographs, mostly positive (oddly enough). While in the field, I run across individuals quoting the infamous "wow, you've got a great camera" line upon getting a sneak peek at my work, but most often they comment on the 3D depth of my photographs. It's amazing that most people actually notice this trait that the majority of my photographs push forward, intentionally - and it's even more exciting to see the appreciation for something that is such a technicality yet is so important to what I do - it's exciting! These qualities come from a vision first a foremost, and a way of seeing the world through pre-visualization before even considering any equipment, at least on my behalf. It is important to know that no equipment in the world will do what you cannot, and regardless of how expensive it is, it doesn't make art for you. Only an artist makes art, only a professional can do it repeatedly and only a real photographer can combine the two. 

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How I choose a lens

For me to choose a lens it must have certain traits which stand out to me, and are complimentary to my "mind's eye" of how I see the world. I never buy a lens because it's an f/1. whatever or because it "looks cool". I never buy a lens because 500 other people think it's the greatest thing since sliced bread. And I certainly do not buy lenses based on price tags which are hung upon them either physically(at the store) or virtually(online). 

My choice to purchase a lens has to first and foremost be driven by a need, or a lack of some kind in my kit for a specific genre which I am active in. For instance, if I were to ever start photographing wild life I would need to seriously reconsider my lens choices. I would then have to start thinking and researching lenses which will fill my requirements while not forgetting the importance of choosing a lens that reflects my mind's eye. And so based on that we will pretend that I am buying some new lenses, and I will start enumerating in somewhat logical order the traits which I pay attention to when considering a new lens purchase. 


1. Character

To me sharpness is one of the LAST THINGS I ever consider in a lens. It just doesn't matter! The only lens sharpness nazis you will ever see are the new comers to photography and allot of amateurs - period! Real photographers just don't care! Now I'm not saying sharpness is a bad thing, and that it's pointless to pursue it, I am however saying that it's at the bottom of my list of important traits of a lens I choose to purchase. The most important trait for me is an albeit immeasurable one - character! If a lens doesn't have mojo, feel, personality and life, then I loose interest immediately. To me there is nothing worse in a lens than a technically "perfect" one, which is soulless - NOTHING, its the worse combination! This is the #1 criteria and the one with most weight in my choice for a lens. And unfortunately, most lenses fail here from the get go. This includes the latest and greatest from nearly everyone in the world, with a few exceptions. Canon, Nikon, Pentax, Sony, Fuji and on and on, they all fail at consistently making lenses with mojo anymore!

Character is the magic of the lens. It is that incredible quality that makes it pop, full of life and has a personality that just paints the scene the way you see it! One gets used to their lenses, and how they will respond, and a bond forms between the photographer and his lenses. Character is how the lens handles bright parts, and dark parts together. How it reacts to subjects being close to and far from it. It is how it renders the 3D space, front to back and projects it on to a 2 dimensional plane (which is a photograph) - Character is how the out of focus areas are rendered, and how smooth and non distracting they look. The way it behaves with the subject of focus, and how it relates that to the background in a creamy and extremely pleasing way. It is how it bends the lines and geometry of a subject to create a sense of depth and scale, making that subject pop out as if 3D!  Character is the way colors are rendered, and how the contrast is represented. It is how it bends the billions of rays of light coming into it, and redirecting them to the sensor for a complete and focused image - and all lenses have a different "look" to them because of their inherent optical design. All of these together actually define far more than "sharpness" alone. Character defines smoothness and clarity all at the same time, and much more. It takes optical engineering genius to pull that off. And the sad truth is that only a few companies in the world posses that, unfortunately. 


2. Micro Contrast

Pretty much anyone can tell you what contrast is - it is the difference between the light and dark. It can also relate to scale, weight, color, etc. But micro-contrast is a bit different. When we talk about lens contrast, we are not talking about the aforementioned qualities. What we're talking about is the ability of the lens to differentiate between smaller and smaller details of more and more nearly similar tones - for instance being able to gracefully differentiate between several different, subtle shades of blue and represent them beautifully. This is also referred to as "microcontrast." Savants talk about resolution and contrast being the same thing. Ultimately, they do go hand-in-hand, because you can't distinguish contrast without resolution and you can't distinguish resolution without contrast. So to some degree Micro Contrast behaves like sharpness, but isn't - it's better. Sharpness is a subjective term used to describe how much detail is in an image and it usually describes the biting edge that it has. I don't like edge, but I do like detail - and this is what micro-contrast provides in a lens. The more micro contrast a lens has, the finer and more effortless the details come out, without that sharp edge that is hard on the eyes to enjoy. A lens with high micro contrast is milky and smooth but has tons of small micro details that offer an incredible amount of perceived clarity all at the same time. It's the premiere or luxury clarity that can only be gotten from premium glass and it cannot be faked with the sharpness slider in Photoshop!


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3. Aperture

I'm assuming that if you're reading this article you have a basic grasp of how a camera works, and specifically what an aperture is and what it does. I am also writing under the assumption that you understand the optical effects of different apertures on the final photograph. 

To me aperture is a very important aspect of a lens design. Because I only shoot with prime glass (fixed focal length lenses - non zoom-able), my choices for aperture is generally quite easy. With zoom lenses, it is incredibly difficult to find a lens that has the character I need, and an aperture that can satisfy my needs. With primes, however I am able to pick from a relatively wide range of lenses, all of which have significantly larger apertures than most zoom lenses, so the decision is made simple. Where I make my distinction is between different prime lenses. I generally like the largest apertures I can get my hands on in a given focal length. So if I have two choices, I will almost always pick the larger lens. 


4. Focus helicoid 

Having a very smooth, and short throw physical focus helicoid is very important in preserving the quality of my photographs. I am a purist, and therefore I use manual focus lenses exclusively. All of my lenses that I own or plan to purchase currently are all manual focus lenses. And the reason for that is because of the mechanical focus helicoid. A helicoid is the mechanical system with which the lens is able to move elements inside it to shift the focus plane forwards or back. It is what the focus ring is attached to, and having a mechanical one, as opposed to an electronic one is crucial to me. All modern autofocus lenses have electronic focus helicoids that I feel compromise the ability of the photographer to, at a moment's notice respond to and place the proper subject in focus. Although they do they same thing, the manual lens has a more direct hand to camera coordination and is far smoother and quicker to work. An autofocus lens needs to be told where to focus, however a manual lens with a mechanical focus helicoid allows the photographer to instantly grab control of the focus intuitively using hand-eye coordination. The more experience the photographer has with manual lenses, the faster and more accurate they get. I have been shooting exclusively manual lenses for over 2 years, and I don't have any fundamentally good reasons for switching to autofocus. 


5. Aperture ring

Having a exclusive manual focus lens collection, the lenses I use inherently, by design have an aperture ring build in. This ring is what allows one to change the iris size of a lens to allow more or less light in according to the situation. It is also used as an artistic effect and a powerful tool for telling stories and captivating the attention of the viewers. The reason it is important to have an aperture ring, in all lenses I purchase, is because I prefer physical control over the iris without having to use menus and buttons to change it. It is part of how I shoot, and even more importantly a part of the ability to have a multi-system, highly adaptable lens kit which works on numerous cameras via adapters. Not having physical access to focus, and aperture ring greatly decreases one's flexibility in using that lens on different systems. 

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6. Adaptability 

As mentioned as one of the last points in #5, Aperture Ring, one of the strongest reasons for purchasing manual focus, mechanical helicoid lenses is that they're highly adaptable, and this goes as the 6th criteria  with which I choose a lens. Using a good quality adapter, the photographer is able to mount and use their beloved lenses which were sought after with great care, a lot of time, effort and cost on a large array of other stills and video cameras. Having this option is incredible and fantastic because now the beloved lenses which define that photographer's style, look and feel can continue to be used when the photographer purchases into a different camera system. However now, having paid attention to adaptability, they are able to be virtually limitless in their camera upgrades while keeping the soul of their work alive through their lenses. This is another great example of why I choose the lenses I use for my work. 


When combining these six crucial lens parameters, I have been able to give myself boundaries which will preserve my vision as a content creator, and allow me to be highly flexible with the ever changing digital technology. Camera bodies come and go, and although I have my favorites, they will be upgraded every 3 years on average. But lenses stay around for decades. They are the soul and feel of my work, and continually purchasing lenses according to the criteria which I have defined for myself allows me to be consistent in choosing lenses with magic, and soul going forward. I hope this bite gives you an idea of how and why I choose the lens I do, and why I don't use the standard system lenses that are made for my cameras - I adapt and choose outside of the range, and it is satisfying to me that I have lenses which capture what I see with my mind's eye regardless of what system they were initially designed for. 


I will cover the equipment I use in subsequent articles with explanations for why I chose the gear I use. 


Thanks for checking in,

Daniel Curtean
Creative Director

Daniel CurteanComment