That Vintage Lens

Eight years ago I read about a vintage lens photographers admire for the bright, “dreamy yet sharp” images you can make with it. One reviewer liked the “organic” transition from sharp to blurred. Another mentioned clean contrast, and another praised the color rendition. What interested me most was the “delicious” bokeh. Making photographs with soft, out-of-focus backgrounds was something I dreamed of doing long before I had a capable camera. I was already enjoying a macro lens for that ability so I thought maybe the vintage lens with all the enthusiastic reviews was worth trying. What is it? An Asahi Super-Takumar 50mm f1.4, an all-manual, solidly-constructed piece of glass from the 1960s and 70s. I created a post about it four years ago and today I’m revisiting that vintage lens.

The lens.

In the fall of 2014 I bought one at a reasonable price (far less expensive than new lenses), along with an adapter to fit it to my camera, a Panasonic Lumix G-3 at that time. I took it out right away and sure enough, the photographs it produced were different from anything I’d made with a digital lens. I had a lot of difficulty focusing the lens but there was something appealingly old school about the photos, even when they weren’t focused right. The results I got were unpredictable compared to my modern lenses. It clearly wasn’t suitable for everyday use. But to express a different view of the world, using it was more than satisfying.

You may have seen my 2018 post about the Takumar but I don’t expect anyone to remember the details so here’s a quick overview. The Takumar 50mm f1.4 is capable of sharp definition and great contrast but many people enjoy using it more for the classic, slightly soft rendering it produces. Often I’m looking for an expressive quality in my photography, not a clinically accurate recording of reality. When I use the vintage lens I tend to look for subjects that don’t require edge-to-edge perfect focus. It’s hard to describe what kind of scene is likely to work best – you really have to get to know the lens. For that, some adjustments are necessary.

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1. One of the first photos I made with the Takumar. October 2014.
2. Sharp enough without feeling cold. Birches, October 2014.

Manual lenses can be a challenge for those of us who are used to digital cameras. You can’t use autofocus – there’s no electronic communication from lens to camera. And if you’ve been spoiled by focus peaking (the digital camera feature that highlights what’s in focus so you can put sharpness exactly where you want), then you’ll have to figure out another way to evaluate your focus. (I’ve read that it’s possible to use focus peaking with manual lenses, but I haven’t figured out how to do it). The viewfinder image is too small to judge whether the focus is correct and even on the screen, it’s very hard to see what you’re doing. I put my reading glasses on and turn the focus ring slowly while examining the LCD screen, a very deliberate process. For close-ups, I might rock toward and away from the subject in tiny increments. If I want to ensure a usable image I’ll make several photographs at slightly different focal lengths.

Another step in the process is setting the aperture – you have to take your eye away from the camera and look at the aperture ring on the lens while you turn it. With my regular lenses, an intuitive flick of the thumb is usually enough to change the aperture but a manual lens requires a little more thought. There won’t be any information in the viewfinder or on the screen to remind you what the aperture is. Nor will there be any data about lens settings when you download the files. It’s mechanical, not electronic.

Does this sound tedious? Yes, it’s a challenge. But slowing down can be good. Like many people, I have a tendency to move quickly from one thing to the next. This lens forces me to be more deliberate.

These photos are arranged chronologically, from 2014 to 2022. The earliest are jpegs – I didn’t begin shooting in RAW format until 2017. All of the images have been processed to varying degrees.

Like many Super Takumar 50mm f1.4 lenses made with a thorium lens coating, my lens had a yellowish cast. In some situations the added warmth was pleasing but ultimately I decided I didn’t like dealing with a yellowish hue in every photo. In February 2021, I removed it using a technique I read about online that involved leaving the lens in a box for several days with a blacklight bulb shining on it. After that, it was easier to color-correct and process the photos.

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3. Reflections of fall color from a Japanese maple by a pond at a botanical garden. This was probably made at f2 but the camera can’t record data from the lens, so I’m not sure. November 2014.
4. Japanese maple. Purists don’t like the edges on the bokeh bubbles and the tendency of the lens to produce flare and fringing. I can live with those imperfections. November 2014.
5. We took the ferry to Vashon Island and came across this very photogenic, old building. November 2014.
6. In January 2015 I brought the lens along on a trip to southeastern Arizona.
7. By 2016 I had switched from the Panasonic Lumix G-3 to an Olympus EM-1. Both cameras use the same lens mount so I didn’t need to buy new lenses. The Olympus had more features, was very weather-resistant, and weighed less. Red elderberry leaves and shadows, April 2016.
8. Wildflowers and grasses have gone to seed. September 2016.
9. Autumn leaf color using an in-camera effect called soft focus and the Takumar. October 2017.
10. Another photo that I made using the same in-camera filter and the Takumar lens. October 2017.
11. A view through the whitewashed windows of a conservatory in Tacoma, Washington. November 2017.
12. Volunteer Park Conservatory. In this photo, the colors changed in processing. November 2017.
13. Two ferns, Bracken and Sword fern, declining with the season. December 2018.
14. Twigs in the rain at home. December 2018.
15. I really enjoy using the lens wide-open and getting lost in tangles of twigs. It’s like entering another world. March 2019.
16. A Madrone branch with peeling bark. The focus isn’t quite sharp anywhere in this photo but the all-over softness works well, I think. August 2019.
17. A view through the plastic siding of a greenhouse. January 2019.
18. Twisted safety fencing. October 2020.

19. Hyacinth leaves. February 2021.
20. Madrone bark. March 2021.
21. Stormy skies over the Salish Sea. October 2021.
22. Heart Lake reflection (converted to black and white). March 2022.
23. Intentional camera movement. Gumweed (Grindelia integrifolia), September 2022.

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If you’re thinking of trying “that vintage lens” check several online sources to find the best price and don’t forget to order a good adapter. And give yourself time to get to know the lens.

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I just heard that Pharoah Sanders died on Sunday, at the age of 81. I used to listen to him, Miles, Coltrane, Santana, and so many others on New York CIty and Newark, NJ jazz stations back in the early 1970s. A fellow art student who was born in Harlem and freshly returned from the Vietnam war introduced me to modern jazz, a complex music culture that seeped deep into my psyche. Hearing Leon Thomas’ soothingly tenor on “The Creator Has a Master Plan”, a collaboration with Pharoah Sanders, brings back a whole era. May they both R.I.P.

The Gentle Pharoah Sanders (1940 – 2022)

“The Creator Has a Master Plan” from the album Karma on Impulse! Records, 1969.

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