Why and how photographers went crazy testing lenses.
In 1946, Army Sergeant Harry Martin (yes, our Harry, who runs the Checkrated program and writes Time Exposure each month), stationed then in occupied Japan, bought four cartons of cigarettes from the PX for a buck apiece. At Shinko, an outdoor market in Yokohama selling cameras, he traded the cigarettes for a new Canon S 35mm rangefinder camera with 50mm f/3.5 Nikkor lens.
Although many Japanese products, including cameras, seemed attractive, most of the American public was convinced that anything made in Japan was junk worth no more than a handful of cigarettes. So, it's not surprising that, in 1950, American photojournalist David Douglas Duncan ignored the coaxing of fellow photojournalist Jun Miki to try Miki's 85mm f/2 Nikkor lens. Miki gave up, but, using the lens, snapped a low-light candid of Duncan. The next day, Miki presented an 8x10 black-and-white enlargement of it to the unsuspecting American, who was in Tokyo on assignment to photograph Japanese artwork.
|QUALITY COUNTS: Amazed at the quality of high-speed 1950 Nikkors such as the 50mm f/1.5 (left), many photojournalists switched from German lenses (right).|
Duncan was astounded by its clarity, sharpness, contrast and snap. He immediately made plans to visit the Nippon Kogaku (now Nikon) factory, where he spent some days testing and comparing the Nikkors with his own German-made lenses. He subsequently replaced many of his Leica III screwmount lenses with Nikkors and used them to cover the Korean War, which began days later.
The news of Duncan's switcheroo caused a riot of lens-swapping among virtually all the photojournalists who would stop off in Japan before traveling on to Korea. Favored Nikkors were the 50mm f/1.5 and f/1.4, 85mm f/2, and 135mm f/4. Life magazine imported some 20 Nikkor outfits for its photographers, after having them tested by the Eastern Optical Company in New York City. Eastern reported they were the equal of the Zeiss lenses, and that the Nikkors varied less in quality from lens to lens. The New York Times ran an article about the Nikkors' excellence, and Popular Photography devoted 10 pages to Duncan's photos and lenses. Duncan may very well be credited with helping to begin the turnaround in American estimation of Japanese quality.
Who created these magical lenses? Not the Japanese. Internal air-glass surfaces usually caused such large-aperture lenses to produce considerable flare and light scattering. Japanese optical experts admired Carl Zeiss high-speed Sonnar lenses, which minimized these effects. In the 1920s, Zeiss' chief optical designer, Ludwig Bertele, developed a seven-element lens for Contax cameras with only four internal air-glass surfaces, reducing internal reflections. This increased apparent sharpness and snap by heightening contrast. (Lens coatings would later increase contrast still more.) It was this design that Nippon Kogaku adopted for its 50mm f/1.4, f/1.5, f/2, and 85mm f/2 Nikkors, which were initially available in Nikon and Contax bayonet mounts and Leica thread mounts at very reasonable prices. U.S. servicemen snapped them up. Now, the optical cat was out of the bag. Lenses could and did vary in quality. Amateurs and pros read about Nikkor vs. Zeiss, and wanted to be sure their lenses were as good. Lens testing became an obsession.
In and around New York, some pros took their lenses to Mitch Bogdanovich of Eastern Optical, who had supervised the Life magazine tests. He examined lenses using an optical bench. Some camera repairmen bought benches and provided similar lens comparisons.
In the 1950s, Wallace Heaton in London, perhaps England's most prestigious camera shop, guaranteed that any camera sold had been tested and passed by the shop's technicians. A few top pros would each borrow a half-dozen samples of a lens from a dealer, take them home for testing, and return all but the best one. Amateurs busied themselves photographing spreads of classified newspaper ads to compare center and edge sharpness of the tiny type. Others photographed exterior walls, analyzing the relative sharpness of center and edge bricks.
More advanced systems soon followed. Photographing high-contrast U.S. Air Force resolution-test targets and reading the finest lines was championed by the Japan Camera Inspection Institute and Modern Photography magazine. The latter sold USAF targets and directions for using them. Finally, Popular Photography's SQF testing, now in its 17th year, provided a far more complete and accurate indication of how lenses behave. But SQF isn't a testing system you can do yourself, nor do we think it's available from any other source.
How much can our tested lenses vary from the ones you buy? As little as modern technology and production will allow. But, hard as they try, no lensmaker can achieve zero-tolerance production for all characteristics. As precise as modern optical technology and production techniques may be, allowable tolerances do exist for most measurable lens characteristics. Positive characteristics never cancel out the negative ones exactly. Element shapes vary, as do clarity of molten glass and element spacing. Ergo, lens A won't match lens B precisely, and, although part of the same production run, will test slightly differently.
Regardless of cost, could two special lenses be made that duplicate each other exactly? Maybe, but I'd hate to think how many cartons of cigarettes they would take. By the way, Harry's 1946 Canon S is now worth about $4,000. Some junk.
Ask Herbert Keppler
Q: My digital camera uses AA-sized batteries. What should I carry for emergencies?
A: Lithiums. Sure, they're expensive, but they weigh little, last at least five years at full power (unused), work in extreme climates, recycle fast, and provide one hell of a lot of shots per set. Make sure your camera can use 'em.