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Cheap plastic lenses

by
Jon Cone
published on 12/19/2010 19:00:00

Zeiss Icon 21mm f2/8 Distagon

Last year at this time, I bought a Zeiss Icon 21mm f /2.8 Distagon lens for my Canon 5D. Describing it as sharp as a razorblade from corner to corner would not be an exaggeration. At f/16 the lens is immaculate. At f/2.8 it is more my style, with a depth of field as narrow as a razor blade. I shoot mostly wide open at f/2.8.

This year, I had my heart set on the new Zeiss Icon 35mm f/1.4 Distagon lens for my Canon 5D. And not just because it’s razor sharp from edge to edge when stopped down. Rather, I wanted an even tighter depth of field. But, it is not released until Spring.

Diana+ 38mmSo, with the lens budget in hand I considered the 24mm tilt and shift Canon. And for whatever reason…I decided on a $60 Diana 38mm plastic lens and a $60 Diana 110mm soft focus lens. Both of these cheap lenses had Canon EOS adapters, but had little to compare in relation to the quality of a Zeiss glass or the Canon TS. I was nostalgic for Diana qualities.

I studied photography in college at Ohio University. Arnold Gassan had all first year students shoot with Diana plastic cameras. Actually, we shot with Diana plastic cameras and chewing gum. The amount of light leaks in these cheap cameras was exorbitant. They required Wrigley’s spearmint, or Bazooka bubble gum. We learned that photography was independent of the amount our parents were willing to spend on us to buy us gear, or in my case how much I could earn in summer jobs to afford my first Pentax.

However, the Diana had these qualities that were also endearing. The focus was soft; the aberrations severe; and the lens would vignette, all looking much like the imagination sees when it looks outwards from somewhere inside.

So these lenses arrived and found their way on to my camera. I discovered that a plastic lens coupled with a very sensitive sensor produces more aberration and distortion than I remembered when shooting 120 film with the actual Diana camera. And yet it matches some imaginative process that has been hibernating within. With 53 year old eyes and too many pairs of glasses to find shooting easy, the lens does not exactly require precision in focus. It twists as if to imitate a wide range, but has only a few spots in turning its axis to find close-up, mid focus and infinity.

But, the best part of this is my disdain for using effects filters in Photoshop. I love naturalistic photography what can I say? The Diana allows me to shoot, automating everything I dislike about Photoshop on its own. It softens, distorts, produces all kinds of surprises, while remaining innocent of intentions. It even causes a grain to appear, nearly like old color film. Where does this grain come from? Why would it affect the sensor to cause it? I can only imagine that the light scattering through the plastic produces its own misalignment through the sensors filters. But, I love it.

Studying its imperfections is allowing me to begin to gain control over it. I know how it reacts to contrast, to backlit subjects, and with low light. Finally, I am beginning to find precision in its focus even while at the same time I take advantage of its lack of focus. Unlike the Zeiss, it is far more dependent on me to point it where I imagine.