Do You Really Need Modern Lenses for Film Photography? Featuring the 35 Lux AA + 50 Noct 1.2 compared to their current version
In our modern era of image stabilization and high ISO digital photography, shooting wide open is no longer required in low light. Nowadays, we can stop down to increase depth of field in suboptimal light for the sake of increasing sharpness and focus accuracy. Yet despite all the advances in technology, we still prefer to shoot wide open in low light - mainly for the bokeh. Though truth be told, the only reason why we even do this is because we can. With advances in autofocus technology along with focusing aids, getting tack focus wide open in the dark is no longer a hardship. Whatever problem we used to have is a thing of the past.
By contrast, shooting film today is definitely a thing of the past. It's no wonder then that shooting wide open with film is significantly more trying than digital, especially with a manual focus rangefinder. Consequently, the correct practice to follow is to stop down when shooting film, given the absence of high ISO, image stabilization, and focusing aids. One needs to widen the depth of field, in order to increase the chance of getting focus.
But what is a film photographer to do, when the available light is insufficient? We cannot bump up the ISO, with film already loaded and shot halfway down the roll. And we cannot slow down the shutter speed, given the reciprocal rule. The only solution left is to shoot wide open with a very fast lens. The only problem is, your shooting fundamentals had better be up to standard. If not, you're going to miss focus, since the paper thin depth of field leaves no room for error.
There's no more unsettling doubt when shooting wide open on a manual film camera than reframing a shot after confirming focus. For the sake of composition, you're forced to shift your camera out of confirmed focus, thus potentially losing focus altogether. It isn't an ideal situation, but again, what is one to do when the available light isn't enough to stop down for greater focus accuracy?
So it was under this cloud of uncertainty I found myself, when I conducted the shoot for this article.
I wanted to see if it made sense to use modern lenses when shooting film. From my perspective, modern lenses are designed to optimize sharpness on digital capture, since it's suppose to retain greater detail at resolutions beyond that of film. That I'm assuming based on the anecdotal evidence I've experienced with digital and with film. But to know for sure, The only way to be certain is to compare the performance of a modern lens against that of a vintage lens, while shooting the same film on both cameras.
But which film to use?
I had decided on Cinestill 50. I wanted to use the finest grain film I had, in order to optimize the sharpness of the image captured by the modern lens. I wanted to make sure that I handicapped the comparison in favor of modern lenses in film capture. I had to dismiss any suspicion of bias against film which I might be accused of having.
Unfortunately, the sky wasn't cooperating on the day of my shoot. It was noticeably overcast. Cinestill 50 wasn't the best choice, since it wasn't fast enough to provide me sufficient available daylight to shoot stopped down with greater focus accuracy. As a result, I was forced to shoot wide open.
Given insufficient available light, the two lenses I used for this comparison were the current version Leica 35mm f/1.4 Summilux ASPH FLE and the vintage 35mm f/1.4 Summilux Double Aspherical (AA). I needed the extra stop to shoot above 1/30th of a second, for the sake of the reciprocal rule.
Then for good measure, I also included Cinestill 800 for this comparison. For this second part, I decided to shoot underground, in the Hong Kong subway system. The lenses I selected for this part of the comparison were the current version 50mm f/0.95 Noctilux ASPH and the vintage 50mm f/1.2 Noctilux Double Aspherical (AA).
Admittedly, Cinestill 800 was fast enough for me to shoot stopped down. However, given that I had two of the fastest lenses around, it wouldn't make sense not to shoot wide open for this comparison. Besides, I really just wanted to see how these two lenses rendered bokeh on film.
So much for the correct practice of stopping down on film.
In evaluating the images captured, I can find no advantage in using modern lenses for film photography. Film grain isn't fine enough to properly demonstrate the resolving ability of modern lenses - even at ISO 50. There isn't any noticeable increase in sharpness. Nor does it seem that increased details are retained at higher magnification. From that basis of comparison, both modern and vintage lenses appear to be equally sharp on film.
With that said, the vintage lenses used in this comparison appeared to render film capture with greater tonal range than its modern counterpart. In fact, I am of the opinion that there is an illusion of sharpness rendered by the vintage lenses in this comparison, when both focus and proper exposure are achieved. The resulting effect is an increase in contrast which creates an impression of greater clarity and implied sharpness.
I just think the vintage lenses look better on film. From that perspective, I don't think it makes sense to use modern lenses when shooting film. You're basically paying a premium for a benefit that cannot be demonstrated in film photography.
Having said that, I realize my lens selection for this comparison isn't what one would consider as being common, and probably less so helpful. It would've made more sense to compare the previous version 35 or 50 Summicron to the current version. But honestly, wouldn't you rather see a couple of rare lenses rendered wide open on film? I know I would. Still, my opinion stands. It just makes more sense to use older lenses designed for shooting film when shooting film.
So take my advice. If you only shoot film, buy vintage glass.
All images have been optimized in Lightroom, using the same presets per image set, except for color balance, and missed exposures on occasion. All images have been cropped, because the full negative scan would not have been at the 2x3 aspect ratio.
PS: I love the light leak on the title image. Also, wouldn't it be nice if camera manufacturers made a film camera with 5 axis in-body image stabilization?
*** UPDATE March 24, 2018 ****
I finally have an explanation regarding the poor results from my film scan. The film I used on this blog post was damaged by X-Ray. I had forgotten about them, and have been traveling with them unprotected. This was never a problem when I used to shoot film, back in the day, since I never shot pass ISO 200.