Archived posting to the Leica Users Group, 1999/03/13

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Subject: [Leica] existential pleasures of engineering (2)
From: Erwin Puts <>
Date: Sat, 13 Mar 1999 16:06:49 +0100

Recently a Lugger got many messages as he noted that some older generation
lens showed image 'defects' that the newer one had corrected. Many persons
tried to convince him that the older lens still had its merits and that he
should not go for the ultimate quality. My question here is simple: why not?
What is wrong with trying to find the best equipment available, disregarding
for a moment the ability to exploit this new image potential. There is simply
an existential pleasure in knowing you have the best equipment and that you
can improve on your own abilities and your equipment will grow with you.
In my view there is nothing wrong with selecting the best equipment money can
buy in the 35mm world. And it is up to any buyer to define for her/himself how
to use this equipment and enjoying the use or ownership of a product of
precision engineering.
The Leica M series is a remarkable adaptable instrument to many uses.
There are Leica users who sell pictures and make a living out of this
activity. There are Leica users who produce artistically pleasing pictures of
great human interest.
There are Leica users who make pictures of real life objects and try to excel
in capturing the finest possible details with the utmost clarity.
There are Leica users who try to combine all these approaches in one style of
photography. (Emil Shulthess is one of these persons)
There is not any logical argument why any of these approaches is inherently
superior or should be designated as the best (or the only) way to use Leicas.
Recently it has been proposed that Leica users should stop searching for the
best in image quality as the example of HCB 'proved' that great masterpieces
can be made with the older equipment. Again this argument is not valid. The
value content of HCB pictures is its representation of the human condition in
its geometrical forms. HCB never was interested in any special optical
qualities of Leica lenses. His priorities were quite simply of a different
order. The argument that what is good enough for HCB should be good enough for
every Leica user, is a very thin one. Why should HCB's imagery be the norm for
everybody? Again it boils down to the position that only a certain class of
photographers are allowed to define what is the proper use of a Leica as they
seem to claim to use the instrument in its proper way. This argument is
circular of course. HCB simply used the equipment available to him at his
time. As did Eisenstaedt. It would be a bit rash to claim that some masters of
the Leica (artistically speaking) should be used as an example to limit the
quest for the ultimate image quality. At least the Leica optical designers
still think that the potential for improvements in optical quality is very
In this same category we find the often quite forcefully stated expression
that photographically old and new lenses perform on the same level.
And that by implication the quest for improved image quality is futile or at
least not necessary. Or it is said that the improvements are not worth the
trouble. In any case we note a Luddite attitude here. Modern Leica lenses have
a generally much higher level of aberration correction than earlier versions,
much smaller blur circles and a very different balance of residual
aberrations, including the secondary spectrum. You can see this in every
conceivable image characteristic. It is a bit disappointing to note that some
observers dismiss the improvements as irrelevant for contemporary photography.
Of course if you shoot with the high sun in your back, use apertures of 1:5,6
and smaller and print on small-scale color prints, the differences will be
small. Still the knowledgeable observer will note a higher overall contrast
and a much crisper rendition of textural detail with the new lenses. And not
every lens shows these improvements in the same scale. As example the second
generation of the Summicron 50mm (from 1969) exhibits more aberrations than
the third (current) generation. Still in practical shooting the chance that
you will note these 'image defects' is small. But if you happen to take
pictures of objects with many very fine obliquely oriented textural details
and high flare conditions, you will see the difference. And that is the point
of current improvements: get optimum results whatever the level of subject
detail or flare or contrast.
Sometimes these differences will only become visible under controlled and
comparative test sessions. And this brings us to the next story. Lens testing
should not be representative of the demands of real life photographers in real
life photo shooting sessions. I am not sure where this myth comes from as the
supporters of this myth never explain what exactly they mean. It seems to be
that the traditional test pattern (two dimensional and black-white bar line
patterns as used by the USAF charts) is the scapegoat. Now no serious tester
will base his conclusions on such a test pattern unless suitably educated into
its interpretation. Used as a rough form of MTF related information it still
has merits. Used as a simple resolution chart it is not of great use. That you
may not interpolate from a two dimensional test pattern to a three dimensional
reality is refuted by all optical handbooks and all optical design programs.