With the release of high-quality modern lenses that are made to satisfy our insatiable appetite for sharpness, it seems that they also come with a curse. Unlike older classics that shone with their stunning look and feel, along with their beautiful rendition qualities that resulted in particularly attractive photographs with subjects popping out of the scene (also known as “3D pop”), it seems like modern lenses are no longer equipped to give us this magic – they are made to look flat and dull, lacking the character of the old classics. In this article, we will go through a number of different images shot with modern lenses and compare them to their classic counterparts and see how they do. Grab a cup of coffee, sit tight and put on your glasses, because you will need them. And yes, that even applies to those with 20/20 vision.
Note: Since this is a rather controversial subject, I highly recommend that you read the whole article through, especially the last paragraph.
It is a known fact that many photographers lust after the latest and greatest gear on the market. While it is understandable why one would want the latest generation DSLR or mirrorless camera, it might be a good idea to hold off on the latest versions of lenses. Why? Because modern lenses are only made to yield the best sharpness possible. This means that they are essentially over-corrected for astigmatism, spherical aberration, chromatic aberration, distortion, vignetting, coma, and many other aberrations, some of which are yet unknown to mankind. As a result, we end up with big, bulky, and heavy lenses that have way too many lens elements. And if you know anything about optics, you should already know that more elements rob of light, tonality, micro-contrast, depth, and feel – things you cannot gain back or replicate in post-processing. This is very serious to the level that we can safely make the following claim (backed by the evidence presented below, of course): modern lenses trade beautiful life-like rendition and 3D pop for ultimate sharpness.
Table of Contents
The Lies of Lens Manufacturers
For the past 10+ years, camera manufacturers have been continuously lying to their customers. They are making modern lenses with all kinds of new lens elements that are supposed to correct different lens aberrations. Never before we were faced with so many confusing lens elements that require an optical dictionary to make any sense out of them: aspherical, low-dispersion, extra low-dispersion, super low-dispersion, high-refractive index, fluorite, etc – you name it! And that’s not even counting all the crazy coatings like: nano, super integrated coating, SWC, HD, eBAND, Spectra, T*, BARR, and so on and so forth. It looks like lens manufacturers are engaged in deception and confusion tactics to make people as unaware of what they are doing as possible. And it seems to be working quite well for them too. Just take a look at how profitable lens manufacturers have been getting, pushing all that “super duper” meaningless glass. On top of that, we now have manufacturers like Zeiss, who are appealing to all the sharpness freaks, by making lenses that have as many lens elements as there are people who believe in spherical earth theory, resulting in optical junk that weighs more than the camera itself and costing as much as a used car. Photography websites are paying too much attention to meaningless things like sharpness and bokeh while forgetting about things that truly matter in photography: tonality, life-like rendition, depth, 3D pop, micro-contrast and color precision.
Lastly, I still cannot get over the fact that all modern lenses no longer use lead as part of the chemical formula when making glass elements. Lead glass is far more efficient than non-leaded glass when it comes to its refractive index, so if manufacturers continued to use as much lead as possible when making lens elements, we would not have to add those robbing corrective lens elements that make our images look dull and unreal. I am not sure what EPA and FDA were thinking – it is not like anyone would be eating those lenses in the first place! And who dumps their lenses in the trash? I don’t. And I know of many others that don’t. I can statistically prove that photographers don’t just trash their lenses – we mostly resell or keep them.
It truly boggles my mind to see such trends in our industry! Enough of ranting, let’s jump to images and side-by-side comparisons to prove that modern lenses are junk compared to their older counterparts. Let’s start with the death of the 3D pop.
Death of 3D Pop – Too Many Lens Elements
As stated above, modern lenses rob them of special qualities that result in life-like images. While all images are two-dimensional, when shot with enough subject isolation, it is possible to create a 3D effect, where the subject naturally pops out of the scene, giving it depth and dimension. This is obviously not quantifiable or measurable, which is why you won’t see discussions on “3D pop” in various reviews, but they are easily seen in images. Let’s start by discussing a photograph so that you can understand what I mean exactly by “3D pop”:
The above photograph was captured with the classic Nikon NIKKOR 85mm f/1.4D, a stunning lens in every way. While the lens is not very sharp wide open, don’t discount its resolving power capabilities – stopped down even slightly, the lens is insanely sharp! But that’s what a normal review would have you focus on – “sharpness”. What about the other optical characteristics that make it a far superior lens compared to its new replacement, the Nikon 85mm f/1.4G? First of all, it has a unique way to draw subjects, something very few other lenses can. Immediately, you can see the stunning depth and phenomenal rendition in every photograph and the above image is proof of that. Even at f/4 (stopped down to bring more of the cat into focus), the cat clearly pops out of the scene, while the background appears beautiful with stunning bokeh, which helps draw the viewer’s attention to the center subject of the scene. The colors of the cat and the greenery right next to it appear life-like as if the cat is right there with you. The photograph was taken late in the afternoon and the light bounces everywhere, making tonal transitions impeccable.
Modern lenses are incapable of producing such depth and 3-dimensionality for a number of reasons. The main reason is the number of elements – too many corrective lens elements rob light, making subjects appear dull and lifeless. The Nikon 85mm f/1.4D has a total of 9 lens elements in 8 groups, which is already a bit too high for a prime lens (ideally, you would want a lens that has between 5 to 7 lens elements max), but it is still better than what its replacement, the Nikon 85mm f/1.4G has to offer – a total of 10 elements in 9 groups! That one extra element on the 85mm f/1.4G design was completely unnecessary, but Nikon included it to add more sharpness through corrections, which obviously makes subjects flatter in comparison. That’s why many photographers refused to upgrade to the newest version because they saw how dull it was compared to the classic.
The Nikon 85mm f/1.4D is not a sole example of a beautiful lens design that results in so much depth. Even the Nikon 50mm f/1.4D classic added a dimension to photographs its modern counterparts cannot:
Look at how smoothly the focus transitions from sharp to creamy – the subject looks stunning at f/2.8, while the background adds both depth and tonality to the image, creating a very life-like 3D effect. Even the out-of-focus regions of the cat (specifically its darker fur spots) have distinct lines that do not appear “muddy” and “washed out”, something we often see too much on modern lenses. Having shot with the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 Art, I saw so much of this behavior in photographs, that it was seriously disturbing. The Sigma 50mm f/1.4 Art is a beast with way too many corrective lens elements, making it a lifeless and dull lens that is only capable of rendering flat images in the field. I am yet to see a beautiful image from this lens for that reason alone!
Prime Lenses vs Zoom Lenses – Glass is Evil
The biggest optical abusers are, without a doubt, zoom lenses. They are particularly evil when it comes to robbing subjects of light, texture, and depth. Don’t believe me? Put a zoom lens and a prime lens side by side and you will immediately see a huge difference between the two when it comes to 3D pop, rendition, tonality, and texture. Once you see how bad zoom lenses are, you will only want to shoot with prime lenses, period! I know these are very bold claims, which is why I prepared a couple of side-by-side images for you:
Which image do you think is from a zoom and which one was made by a prime? The answer should be very apparent – the “before” image (the one with the brighter corners) was shot with the Nikon 24-120mm f/4G VR zoom lens, while the “after” image was shot with the Nikon 85mm f/1.4D. I took this photo at 85mm on the 24-120mm and right after capturing the shot, I immediately noticed how lifeless, flat, and dull it looked when compared to the image from the 85mm f/1.4D. If the images are too small to judge, why don’t you try opening them in full size using this link from the 24-120mm f/4G VR and this link from the 85mm f/1.4D?
It is very clear that the image from the 24-120mm f/4G VR looks very flat – take a look at the out-of-focus regions, where the lens is not even capable of showing enough out-of-focus detail. Everything looks mudded and washed out. Now take a look at the center of attention – the green tomato. It looks dirty and ugly, with a mixture of colors that weren’t even there. It is as if the lens is adding color that wasn’t there in the first place. And that makes sense, with a total of 17 lens elements in 13 groups, this lens will never be able to produce what a simpler 9-element lens can. The above is an example of why zoom lenses are so evil. Zoom lenses are only capable of making 2-dimensional images that look flat and lifeless. Keep in mind, that when it comes to glass, top quality to crap quality, they all have dielectric capacitance, which makes up energy, which makes up light! To make it simple, if you want to create beautiful images, never use zoom lenses and especially avoid using lenses with too many corrective lens elements.
And please, don’t even get me started on superzooms. They are the curse of modern optics…
Lead Glass vs No-Lead Glass – Makes a Huge Difference
Did you know that lens elements which contain a big amount of lead have a much higher refractive index compared to non-lead glass? It is a well-known fact and the reason why older lenses used to be simpler in optical design! The thing is, when you have lead glass, you don’t have to worry about correcting spherical aberrations as much, because unlike regular glass, lead glass can transmit more light and automatically correct most aberrations out there. Lead is why some of the oldest Nikon glass used to weigh so much but think of all the benefits they gave us – stunning depth in images, indisputable tonality that cannot be obtained with modern lenses, and such amazing levels of micro-contrast and clarity. Take a look at the below image to see what I mean:
The old Micro Ai-S 55mm f/2.8 classic is a very small lens and yet it packs 285 grams of weight on it thanks to lead-filled glass, while the modern 50mm f/1.8G is so much lighter at mere 185 grams. The difference is very clear when you shoot with both side-by-side – the 55mm f/2.8 has a stunning rendition with a 3D pop that the 50mm f/1.8G will never be able to produce, no matter how much you try. Take a look at the above example with the same Bengal cat. Stopped down just by one stop, it yields sharpness unlike any other modern lens and it packs so much depth and clarity! The cat is beautifully isolated from the background scene and the lavender colors stand out very clearly from all the greenery as well. On a modern lens, it is hard to distinguish those colors because everything gets thrown into the mix, making images very muddy and ugly. This image has so much tonality to it – look at every shade of color and you will see that nothing gets mixed up anywhere. Even though the cat is not back-lit, the lens does such a phenomenal job at color renditions, that the cat just pops out of the scene. This is yet another showcase for the stunning 3D pop we never see on modern lenses.
Here is another example of a lens that has quite a bit of lead in it:
Without a doubt, the NOCT-Nikkor 58mm f/1.2 is a stunning lens in every way and there is no modern lens that can do what this lens is capable of, including the ability to render life-like subjects. While it might not be super sharp wide open at f/1.2, stopping the lens to just f/1.8 produces results that will satisfy any pixel-peeper out there. Just take a look at how much detail there is in the cat photo above – you can literally see every whisker and piece of fur, and if you look at the ear details, you can even see the individual blood veins inside the ear! There is a lot of color separation we witness here, from brights to darks, everywhere in the scene. Even the green trash bin in the background appears beautifully smooth and there are no distracting bokeh elements or rings to be seen anywhere. The cat pops out of the scene and it almost looks like it is walking right at you – that’s how powerful a lens can make an image appear. Capture a few shots like this and put them in an international photography competition and you will be guaranteed to win, especially if the judge is going to be knowledgeable enough to understand everything I have discussed so far in this article (Note: just in case, send the judges the link to this article, so that they know what to look for).
Modern Prime vs Classic Prime
Let’s take a look at another example of how bad modern lenses are compared to their classic counterparts with fewer elements. Take a look at the below image of the same cat, captured right after sunset:
It hurts my eyes to look at this image for a number of reasons. First of all, this was shot with the modern Nikon 105mm f/2.8G VR Micro, a lens with 14 total elements in 12 groups! That’s a heck of a lot of elements for a prime, don’t you think? Especially when you compare it to the classic Nikon 105mm f/2.5 lead glass that only has a total of 5 lens elements! You would think that a lens with 3x the number of optical elements would yield stunning images, but that’s definitely not the case. I am not sure what Nikon was thinking with such a complex optical formula, but it is clear that they messed up, especially when a lens with only 5 elements can easily outperform its modern counterpart in every way. If you have ever shot with the legendary 105mm f/2.5, you would know exactly what I am talking about!
Grand Unified Theory of Everything
On a somewhat unrelated note, I am happy to report that I stumbled upon the Grand Unifying Theory of Everything (physics) while doing research for this article. If you aren’t familiar, the biggest problem in physics today is that quantum mechanics and general relativity (small-scale and big-scale physics) aren’t compatible when you’re dealing with high-gravity, small-scale environments, like the singularity in a black hole. And when two theories aren’t compatible, you know that one (or both) must be wrong.
It sounds like very complicated stuff, but I realized how simple this problem really is when you just approach it intuitively. Think about a camera lens, and how it works. As I’ve just shown, lenses with very few glass-to-air surfaces have far more 3D pop and micro-contrast than the newest lenses on the market that various corporations are trying to sell. But how could this be true when light is the fastest-moving object in the universe — which is exactly what quantum mechanics “claims”?
No, this effect would only be possible if light wasn’t the fastest object in the universe — if there was something faster that raced ahead of the light, then rebounded on the glass to block part of the incoming light. And that something is the ether.
For all of history, from the Ancient Greeks to modern-day scientists inspired by Nikola Tesla, the fact of the ether has been well-known. But when “scientists” like Albert Einstein started talking about general relativity, corporations lapped it up. Why? Simple. The existence of the ether means that people can harness free energy via the natural power of the universe. But if corporations can convince everyone that it doesn’t exist, oil and energy companies across the world can rake up hundreds of billions of dollars every year.
The existence of the ether has been well-known for millennia, but it wasn’t until my simple glass-to-air thought experiment that normal people could understand how simple it is. Even Nikola Tesla agrees: “Explaining the workings of the universe without recognizing the existence of the ether is futile.” Since neither quantum mechanics nor general relativity is necessary given the existence of the ether, their supposed incompatibility is a non-issue (although it wasn’t my intent, my glass-to-air thought experiment also explains why magnets and magnetism work — something that even corporate-backed scientists like Richard Feynman said they couldn’t easily explain).
Sorry to go off on a tangent, but this really shows the duplicity of today’s camera and lens corporations. They have known for decades that the ether exists and that their new lenses would be low-contrast and ugly. But profit drives everything in this world, which is why today’s lenses are so unusable.
Let’s wrap up the above information into a simple summary: only buy classic low-element prime lenses with lead glass elements – everything else is junk, as proven by the image samples and comparisons in this article. Sell every modern lens you have (you should have no problems with this, as long as you keep stating that it is “sharp”), especially if it has more than 9 lens elements. Unless you want flat, lifeless images that lack 3D pop, depth, dimensionality, clarity, micro-contrast, and tonality, you should never touch zoom lenses, especially superzooms – don’t trade beauty for convenience. Why bother spending all that money on modern lenses, when classic lenses from 10+ years ago are so much better in every way? Those corrective lens elements (especially plastic aspherical lens elements) are the work of the devil and should always be avoided at all costs. And lastly, don’t be a victim to modern-day marketing – there is absolutely no need to buy expensive, high-end lenses. Aside from sharpness, they add nothing else to your images, period.
P.S. I hope our readers realize that this article is a satirical piece, aimed at poking fun at those individuals and websites that post nonsense information about lenses and their “unique” qualities. In an upcoming article, we will reveal some facts and hopefully put some of the above arguments to rest. If you had fun reading this article and you can relate to some of the terminology and claims used in the article, please share your thoughts below :)
the image from the zoom simply looks better. color is a bit cooler. but the bokeh looks much nicer with soft edges on the plant stems compared to hard edges on the 85 1.4. no idea what you call “flat” and how can it be so obvious when to my eyes the opposite is true.. could it possible be that you prefer warmer colors?
If only life were so simple! Zoom lenses have been used by professional film makers for decades in an industry with little tolerance for compromise. Sure there are wonderful vintage lenses and there is a special character to many lenses that are normally considered subpar There are also great modern lenses. Many modern lenses are designed to accommodate video needs that so many modern EVF cameras are capable of. The Zeiss of today isn’t the Zeiss of yesteryear. So many lenses are made in China or similar locations. But then, modern lenses makers have computers to help figure it all out.
Apparently no one in the comments has heard of the angry photographer. THIS ENTIRE ARTICLE IS SATIRE. Nasim does not believe the 3d pop, micro contrast and other nonsense. Nor does he believe in the ether. He is making fun of it. I love collecting and using old ai-s lenses, but they are not superior to modern lenses. Nasim does great lens reviews that quantity performance – as opposed to subjective I’ll-defined terms like 3-d pop. Bokeh, which gives rise to pleasing background isolation can be quantified- 3-d pop?? Not so much… Let’s just say it is not defined, so there is no way to quantify it.
And fwiw, the angry photographer is a hoot. I nearly lost it watching his sensor cleaning video (which is also tongue in cheek). Not sure I’ve ever laughed that hard.
Fantastic piece of satire Nasim. Has just enough of that ‘truthiness’ feel to seem plausible. Well done!
Modern lenses are generally about making the focus plane flatter and reducing the general sizes of circles of confusion arriving at the focus plane. The artifacts created by off axis rays seem to generate un-sharpness by activating pixels beyond the target pixels on the sensor like a halo. On film the effect is pleasing because the halide layer is thin and the colour corpuscles are randomly sized and spaced. On a sensor the pixels are square and regularly arranged. The flat field correction on an expensive lens is about having as large an image circle as possible and that way the portion of the image circle used for the image is flat enough.
The centre of the image circle is furthest forwards (the actual plane of focus is a large sphere) and it will have the tiniest circles of confusion to project onto the camera’s flat focal plane and, as we go out to the corners the circles of confusion get larger because the plane of focus the projected is further from the sensor, which is the camera’s plane of focus. Lenses are inherently distorted because the film plane is flat and the focal point is on a spherical plane of focus, In image making terms this is a problem if you only photograph flat surfaces, (test charts are flat and rectangular); in real photography we do not focus flat rectilinear things,
With a spherical plane of focus and the cameras flat rectilinear sensor, we can move the point where focus and the cameras focal plane are coincident around in the frame. This way we get separation of the point of focus from other areas in the frame. That’s the three dimensional pop we crave.
Stopping the lens down removes more extreme light beam angles and reduces the average sizes of circles of confusion. Smaller circles of confusion describing the image appear to us as greater depth of focus and increased contrast. What appears as acceptable sharpness is actually a reduction in the average size of circles of confusion.
The newer lenses set themselves the task of making the focal plane very flat by projecting the image like a telephoto would; almost perpendicular and with generally very small circles of confusion. Their relative lack of curvature of projected focus field means that areas in the frame not at critical focus are not significantly different in terms of size and shape of circles of confusion, from the area that is actually critically focused. We lose the image pop as a result.
The difference between in-focus and out-of-focus areas is smaller. The lens looks sharp but the normal depth cues are less apparent.
I love the older lenses because they render more like my eyes do. Lenses are now very large and complex and whilst we can be excited by them in certain measure as technical marvels, they lack key pictorial qualities that we crave. In most cases printing at low colour bit depth hides most of the difference between our favourite vintage primes and their modern counterparts since and all that remains is a sense of extra sharpness in an otherwise underwhelming print comparison. When we make high-end prints or, use wide gamut screens the old lenses demonstrate significantly more character.
Contax Distagon T* f/2.8 21 mm has 15 elements in 13 groups. I dare you say this lens has no 3D pop. Lol.
The kind of atrticle that shills write to promote buying new modern lenses instead of buying old vintage ones.
So.. I love the article and I had the same experience with lenses of fewer elements. The color rendition and contrast is simply not the same. I also always check photographylife for my lenses.
However, and I hope this was the “satirical piece” / “poking fun” part of the article, I really don’t understand how and why this was related to “ether”/”Tesla” & co. In my understanding, all glasses bend light, even so slightly. The more elements, the more cumulative “bending” you get. Some are intentional (added glass to remove chromatic and various optical aberrations etc), while some are not (loss of contrast, color rendition etc).
So.. This left me with: oh nice article, nice pictures to illustrate and… wait what ? If I didn’t observe those things before, I would discard the whole article because of that..
Seriously, I am indeed a “scientist”, doing photography for 10+ years, including astrophotography. What “The existence of the ether means that people can harness free energy via the natural power of the universe.” does even mean ? Harness how ? And convert into what ? Also “Since neither quantum mechanics nor general relativity is necessary given the existence of the ether”: I am possibly quite ignorant but.. how come ? Let’s say the ether exists (its definition ?), how does it render useless quantum mechanics and general relativity ? I am just not following..
Having said that, and since Science is indeed very dear to me.. Science is to discover the law of natures (we are not inventing anything, that’s innovation, another field) and for that, we create imperfect and incomplete models that are not the reality but are helpful to understand parts of the reality and make predictions. Neither quantum mechanics nor general relativity fully explain the laws of nature, but that’s not their intent, those are models, very useful for what they are (predicting celestial object movements, explaining how heavier atoms are built through massive explosions and harnessing that energy to power your home, your supermarket, your global internet, etc).
So like for heliocentric vs geocentric, same observations (yes less elements = better contrasts and color renditions), but very different explanations.. is it an undefined “ether” substance that somehow (how ?) explain this loss of contrast/color rendition or is it just the light being bent by glasses as it’s always the case for every optics..
Sorry for the long message, but I did like the article and that was a very very odd ending, very subjective and full of self-explanatory self-sufficient claims.. So just in case… Yes, earth is not flat, take a $200 Maksutov telescope and look at the rotations of Jupiter (360° in 10h, so that’s right, a full easily observable 36° in just one hour!) or Mars (25h, about the same as earth). Yes we do send rockets into space and yes we have been to the moon, just look at the pictures of the moon surface taken from the spacecraft, this simply couldn’t be taken done from earth (resolution of that lunar region).. And if you think Scientist are that wrong or suspicious, by all means, it’s not a sect, and yes our models are not perfect, they are… models ! so do your studies, then look for a phd thesis job – there are plenty everywhere – and prove us wrong.
Other than that, happy new year :)
There is no logical way to derive the shape of the floor underneath you by looking at the lights in the ceiling. Plus, we can see too far.
Micro contrast does exist. Lens elements are a factor as any air to gap surface decreases contrast. However, there is more than the number of elements. Pick up a Zeiss Contax 28-85 zoom. It has 16 elements. It also has classic Zeiss rendering with 3D pop and micro contrast regardless of the high element count. The high element zoom will still have more 3D pop and micro contrast than a competitor’s lens with one third the elements. Here is another article on micro contrast. This one claims the Otus has the highest micro contrast. It also has the largest number of elements. lenspire.zeiss.com/photo…-chambers/
What a load of crap. Why not just write what you think and then back it up? Idiot.
Whoa there. Nobody is coming to confiscate your lenses. I prefer my fd lenses over munch effect lenses well before I read this article.