Notes on photography
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March 13, 2015
By Michael Erlewine (

I am a Nikon user, which was just the luck of the draw. Of course I have the requisite lenses, like the triumvirate, Nikon 14-24mm, 24-70mm, and 70-200mm lenses, but I seldom use them. Why is not hard to explain. While they are remarkable lenses in their own way, none of them are highly corrected. Somewhere along my journey of photography, I began to see the difference in lenses and ceased to find satisfaction in the ordinary degree of lens correction. Too bad for my pocketbook!

In the process of searching for what I originally called ultimate “sharpness” in lenses, which of course I initially assumed (falsely) was a just matter of better resolution, I gradually realized that resolution alone was not the answer. So I then fell into deciding that acutance (micro-contrast) made all the difference in what I was searching for. That held my attention for a while. Micro-contrast is very satisfying (and important) indeed.

But then, very gradually, like the sun coming up, it dawned on me that the icing on the cake, the tip of the top, so to speak, was not just resolution and not just acutance, but lens correction, you know, all the hideous fringing we try to ignore or do away with.
Somehow, perhaps almost subliminally, I could see the difference just by looking at photographs taken with highly-corrected (APO) lenses.

And that discovery started me on my journey of finding highly-corrected lenses. I have written extensively about the virtues of apochromatic (APO) lenses, those lenses that have been corrected for the various aberrations, etc.

Unfortunately, Nikon does not have many highly-corrected lenses in their current offerings. So I found myself wandering off-campus into other brands, lenses from Leica, Voigtlander, Zeiss, and so on. Of course, many of these lenses did not fit the Nikon mount, so in my search for APO lenses I found myself (with help from experts) rigging various mounts, searching for helicoids, and converting lenses to the Nikon F-mount standard.

To recapitulate, I first gravitated to higher-resolution cameras (Nikon D3x), and then to those without AA (low-pass) filters (Nikon D800E, D810), D7100) which improved micro- contrast, and finally to apochromatic (highly-corrected) lenses. These three steps together brought me what I was looking for in my original quest for “sharpness,” in particular that last step, APO lenses.

Pretty soon I wasn’t using Nikon lenses for much of anything other than family photos and a few other things. Instead I was using highly-corrected lenses like the Coastal Optics APO 60mm f/4 macro (forensic lens), the Leica Elmarit-R 100mm f/2.8 APO macro, and most of all the Voigtlander 125mm f/2.5 APO-Lanthar lens. This last lens,

the Voigtlander 125mm was, for my work, the perfect macro lens. It was fast, had a focus throw (lens barrel) of a whopping 630 degrees or so, went to 1:1, and was highly corrected.

At that time I knew of no other lens that had all those qualities. Of course I had a pile of Nikon macro lenses (200mm Micro-Nikkor, 70-180mm Zoom Micro-Nikkor, many Micro- Nikkor 105s, etc.), but they all were not well corrected. Then, with the help of a few lens experts, I fell down the rabbit-hole into the world of exotic industrial lenses. Now here Nikon shines!

This group includes lenses specially made to view computer monitors (CRT-Nikkor-O), transfer Hollywood films (Printing Nikkors), reproduce whatever (Repro Nikkor), and grace photo-enlargers (El Nikkors). And it was not just Nikon, but incredible industrial lenses can be found from Zeiss and many others. In fact, the world of fine enlarger lenses has barely been touched so far. Much research remains to be done, with incredible bargains available to those who do it.

And these industrial lenses really are exotic. Some are very fast, like the Repro-Nikkor, with a wide f/stop of f/1.0 and no focusing mechanism. Another is the 55mm CRT Nikkor-O (oscilloscope) at f/1.2. And the enlarger lens El Nikkor 105mm APO lens f/5.6, with its marvelous almost 3D qualities. I could go on, pointing out lenses like the classic four lenses for the Nikon Multiphot machine (19mm f/2.8, 35mm f/4.5, 65mm f/4.5, and 120mm f/6.s) or the Zeiss Luminars, the Leitz Photars, etc.

Years ago I learned about many of the lenses from the brilliant lensman Bjørn Rørslett at this site:

Most of these industrial lenses are a major PITA when it comes to mounts. Most are none-standard, so I have a whole box of adaptors, helicoids, and several bellows to help them out. And they are not walk-around lenses either; most don’t go to infinity, some only work at one distance, like 1:1, and so on. Why bother?

“Bother,” because within their limited range, they offer some incredible opportunities for photographers. At least I think so. And in the midst of all of these exotic lenses, along comes Zeiss with their Otus line of APO lenses, which opens up another vast doorway to photographers.

I had a number of Zeiss lenses prior to the Otus series, lenses like the Zeiss Macro- Planar macros, the 100mm and 50mm, and others. While the Makro-Planar macros were very sharp, they also were very not color-corrected, so their resulting photos were too “contrasty” and color-fringy for my work.

However, the new Zeiss Otus APO line (55mm, 85mm, and 135mm) are just of incredible quality when it comes to correction. Although they are not made for close-up,

I am making them work close because the results are worth it. I use small amounts of extension to bring them close, although as a rule I never use extension.

Anyway, those are some thoughts about the value and beauty of specialized lenses. I would love to hear about some of the special lenses readers use, if you have time.

I have many free articles, books, videos on lenses and close-up photography for those who want to learn more or see examples. You kind of have to dig around a bit on the site. Look under Macro-Stop, but also “Free e-books” and Articles:

This image, taken yesterday, was taken with the Nikon D810, a bellows, and the El Nikkor APO 105mm f/5.6 enlarger lens, one of the Nikkor exotic industrials.
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