Why You Should Choose a Lens for Its Character, Not Its Performance

For most people, the criteria for choosing a lens include sharpness, speed of autofocus, microcontrast, custom buttons, and weather sealing. For this photographer, the most important factor is its character.

Photographer Peter Coulson runs you through four of his favorite lenses — all with a very similar focal length — when working in the studio, revealing the dramatically different ways that each one renders the same scene. For many, it will be refreshing to hear a professional of several decades discussing the importance of how a lens makes you feel and what emotion it can bring to your images rather than how sharp it is in the corners or how much it breathes.

By coincidence, the company making the lens that Coulson finds most exciting is the same company that makes the lens that I enjoy the most when out photographing the forest. 7artisans make slightly quirky, affordable lenses that are not ashamed of their lack of contrast or soft corners, giving us a reminder that different tools can suit different jobs and that technical perfection is not every photographer’s ultimate goal.

Which flawed lens in your kit gives you the look and feel that you enjoy the most? Let us know in the comments below.

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26 Comments
Off White's picture

Microcontrast, or fine gradations of shading are severely lacking in most modern lenses. The never ending quest for sharpness in high element count lenses produces flat, sterile images.

Rich Umfleet's picture

I like the character of my old Minolta film lenses paired with my Sony a7III.

Zdenek Malich's picture

That will be one of the reasons not to upgrade canon EF 50/1.2 and 85/1.2 for anything newer...

Tetsuo Sabin's picture

Sure, why not!

Deleted Account's picture

I don't use it often, but I have the 7Artisans 25mm f/1.8 and very much like the way it renders.

Douglas Liebig's picture

I agree with this article. While shooting for a client, I'll use a modern sharp lens. When shooting for myself I often use the following four lenses. A Porst Super-Weitwinkel 28mm f/2.8 I picked up for under $50. A Kilfitt Makro-Kilar D 4cm F2.8. A Zenith Helios-40-2 85mm f1.5 for the swirling bokeh. Or a Meyer-Optik Primotar f/3.5/135 for the bubble bokeh. All of them have a lot of character which adds a lot to an image.

Deleted Account's picture

Eh? Its "character" is defined by its performance which is defined by its design.

I seriously hope these forums don't turn into ill informed subjectivist nonsense like the "high end" audio brigade!

Too many make assumptions without taking all the variables into account. "Micro contrast " for instance? What does that mean...and in what context? Film or digital? High or low iso? Chip resolution? Shooting ghastly jpegs or processing raw files...which software.

Lens designers work with the laws of physics to create optics with a specified performance optimised for the intended application..

I've been taking pictures for 60 years, pro 36 of them..every kit and lens you can imagine..35mm, 66, 67, 69..digital of course. What can be said is older lenses designed for film are often not optimal with digital sensors because they were not designed for them (exit angle) but too many variables to make any objective assessment in terms of one being "better" than another?

Certainly older lenses are not "nano" coated resulting often in lower contrast, which like the toe and knee of the film sensitivity curve may bring welcome compression in shadows/highlights.

Horses for courses and choose whichever lens you have a preference for but let's keep some objective perspective on it?

Paul C's picture

Agree ! It's all about the performance !!!!

I can take away resolution and contrast and increase distortion - if that's what I want. But I can't put it into a photo if the information wasn't there.

The ability to lock AF on eyes faster and more reliably delivers more working images from a portrait session.

Less distortion and smearing at field edges means I need to crop away less in landscapes.

Better lens stabilisation gives me more freedom to compose in lower light.

Better coatings means I can shoot closer to light sources.

Overall - a high performing lens delivers me more and better starting points for developing final images than a lower performing one.

Then - the orly remaing issue tends to be --- the price !

PS - for fans of the "Helios Swirly Bokeh" lenses - save your cash and learn to use the "Spin Blur Filter," buried inside of the Blur Gallery portion of the Filter menu bar in P'Shop. Use your web search engine to look for "Adam Welch - How to Simulate a Swirly Bokeh in Photoshop" for the tutorial

Michael Clark's picture

On the other hand, the flat field correction you want and need for that landscape will kill the pleasing broken you want for outdoor portraits. Too many folks think the "best" lens for shooting flat test charts from relatively short distances is the "best" lens for every use case. That's not true. Neither is the assertion that effects added in post look the same as the real thing.

Insisting that the way you prefer to shoot is the only correct way for everyone to shoot just shows either your insecurities or your lack of awareness that not everyone wants their photos to look the same way you want your's to look.

Deleted Account's picture

What you say is reasonable, but you end up with a solid academic paper at a certain point.

David Pavlich's picture

Naaaa...choose the lens that does what YOU want it to do, not because it has 'personality'. Not all of us are pro portrait shooters. I wouldn't consider a lens that is all warm and fuzzy to photograph wildlife or architecture, something I do shoot a lot of.

I would suggest that for this sort of article, the title should be something like 'Why I like less than perfect lenses'. The 'I'm telling you what to buy' sort of title ensures that many will enter the read/video with a negative take, right or wrong.

Tetsuo Sabin's picture

What if what I want it to do is look a certain way and have personality? Lol

Tom Reichner's picture

I agree, David.

When "you" is used in the title, that means that the author is telling me why I should buy lenses. That is so haughty and assuming.

More care should be taken when writing titles, so that they are non-assumptive and so that they do not serve as clickbait.

The goal of a title should NOT be to get people to click on it, because that is unethical and self-serving.

The goal of a title should be to accurately summarize the article so that the potential reader knows what the article is about, and can thereby make a decision for themselves about whether they want to read it or not.

Michael Clark's picture

In all fairness to Coulson, though, he probably had zero input into what was said in this article about a video he made independently of it. For that matter, Andy probably didn't get to choose the headline, either. Editors usually write headlines, not the author.

Tetsuo Sabin's picture

If people did this, without concern for cost, Nikon would get much more respect. Their lenses are lovely. My favorite with vignetting off is the 50mm 1.2/f S lens for Z-mount. Convince me otherwise.

Deleted Account's picture

Their glass is on point.

charles hoffman's picture

If you are sophisticated enough to discern "character" in lenses - as opposed to flaws or aberrations - you can achieve the same "look" by starting with a clean image and adding the perceived subtleties in the digital darkroom

Deleted Account's picture

Acknowledging the truth of your point, why would you make a decision which would increase your screen time?

Andy Day's picture

Of course that's true, but some people simply enjoy the act of shooting on distinctive lenses as it gives a completely different feel to the process of photography, feeding people's sense of creativity and passion for their own work.

Rhys George's picture

Knowledge of light is far more important than any other equipment, the ability to create good light when it’s not there or utilise existing light and enhance its effect counts for far more than trying to create interest with a lenses characteristics. I can light a boring subject and get the most out of it, good luck making something look interesting with whacky looking bokeh and lens flaws, in a black out studio. Sounds like one of those stupid social media ads for lens filters that add astigmatic light effects onto high key elements. Or prism effects hell why not get a crystal ball and hold it in front of your lens like everyone on Instagram was five years ago 🙄. Give me any camera and kit lens with 8 good lights and modifiers over some obscure lens any day. Utterly pretentious cr*p.

Douglas Liebig's picture

It is incredible the level of arrogance and indignation people express here. It's almost pathetic. People, shoot what YOU like. Enjoy YOUR process. Who gives a flying $*#^@$ what someone ELSE likes to shoot with? Or why THEY like to shoot with it! Are you, the commenter, THE authority on photography? Like anyone HERE has all 200 years of history, process, technique, and all the other peripherals that go into making photographs of ALL types nailed down...
If someone stated with the level of certainty that most of these posts have been written with that a painter, "Must use these specific paints with these specific brushes on this specific medium." they would be laughed at and dismissed INSTANTLY.
Get a grip, it's A R T.

Deleted Account's picture

+1

Dan Smith's picture

It's not my favorite lens, but a lens I love because of its flaws is a Quantaray 24mm macro. It's soft, af is too slow and loud to be useful at all, distortion is weird, terrible fringing, but it is so unique and light that it's almost always in my bag for personal projects.

Rich Umfleet's picture

I'm waiting for the article that explains to me why I can buy a lens, camera or equipment for any reason I please. According to everything I read, lately, I'm buying everything for all the wrong reasons. I guess, I bought it because I want it isn't a good enough reason anymore.

David Pavlich's picture

Hear, hear! It's your money! I will NEVER understand the angst shown by so many about how other people spend THEIR money. Why anyone chooses to buy anything is nobody's business. My lone caveat is budgetary considerations. If one buys something that they can't afford or are taking money from important things like food or rent, then it becomes a problem in my little corner of the world.

Rich Umfleet's picture

I only have 1 non-native lens and it was still expensive. I'm such a bad, bad man!