Vintage Pentax Bokeh

StirlingBartholomew

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Vintage Pentax Bokeh (a story)

By June 2011 I had been shooting almost exclusively for a year with the Zuiko 50-200 F2.8-3.5, which I picked up used from a friendly guy who lived in South Park (Seattle). I had it mounted on an E-520. To tote this configuration I picked up a mint condition Eastpack Chaos at Goodwill for the price of a latte at Grand Central Bakery. By June of 2011 I was tired of toting this outfit. I had been watching the prices of mirrorless cameras and decided on the Lumix G2 when it hit $300 at B&H. With two adapters I could shoot with four lenses. Two m42 mounts, a radioactive SuperTakumar 55 f1.8 and Vivitar 135mm F 3.5.
On warm August day in 2011 I set out for my first serious shoot with the G2 and the ST 55mm f1.8. The previous week I had done some shooting with it locally and noticed right away the impact of G2's weak AA filter while shooting industrial subjects one evening in South Seattle. I saw several examples of moire on venetian blinds and ship lap siding. The raw images were crisp at default sharpening in LightRoom. I was pleased with the results. The G2 with Pentax lens at f4-f5.6 performed well at rendering industrial subjects.
The following Sunday afternoon I headed up SR99 via the historic Alaskan Way Viaduct to Fort Lawton for a long walk with the G2 + radioactive 55mm f1.8, a camera so light you hardly notice it. It was a sunny August day with atmospheric diffusion. What I call Light in August. I shot some images of the Parade Field at Fort Lawton which gave my my first impression of the special quality you seem to get with old glass. It isn't really the Orton Effect, more subtle than that. At time I hadn't even heard of the Orton Effect. It was much later when I tried to duplicate the look I brought back from shooting on this perfect day at the Fort that I discovered the Orton Effect. This quality of light is similar to certain scenes from Gettysburg (1993) particularly the morning of July 3, before the Confederates open the cannon barrage against Cemetery Ridge.
After shooting with this configuration for several months I developed a sort of mythology about the radioactive lens. I associate it with the look I got on one August day at Fort Lawton. I didn't spend much time critically analyzing my attitude toward the old glass. This is why after a few tests yesterday I was somewhat disillusioned to discover that my three old Pentax 50mm/55mm lenses appear to have almost identical BOKEH in the near background.
I did a simple test. From a fixed position sitting in a chair I focused at 4' on a crystal carafe illuminated from the right by a large window, sitting on an antique dark oak table with a row of books in the background 14" behind the focal distance. I took three shots at 1/100th wide open with each lens. IS mode 1 at 55/50mm settings. I shot the same sequence with the Zuiko 50mm f2 Macro. Opened these up in LR and compared the bokeh on the book covers 14" behind the focal distance.
I looked at the type on the book spines and noticed a difference between the Pentax glass and the Zuiko. The type was rendered by the Zuiko as soft on the edges but nothing chaotic. The Pentax glass all looked the same. The type was chaotically busy with echos radiating and flares of the bright spots. I couldn't detect much difference in the level of softness. But rendering of edges with high contrast was very messy on the Pentax and not messy at all on the Zuiko.
This is not an exhaustive test of bokeh. I have shot landscapes with the Pentax lenses and haven't payed much attention to Bokeh. The subject is typically a long distance from the lens. The transition to OOF is much more gradual. I don't really study bokeh. I have, on a few occasions, found the OOF background distracting when shooting a human subject. This isn't science. I am not a Bokeh aficionado. I don't haul around 200mm F2 lenses. In my youth I typically shot with my Nikkor 85mm F1.8 stopped down to F4. I used the Nikkor 200mm F4 for tight portraits not for the bokeh, just because I was taught to shoot that way as an apprentice of Merlin Parker who was winning PP of Washington wedding album competitions with portraits in the early 70s. Shooting for the studio I used a 150mm lens on a 6/7 cm camera. I also worked at the light table marking negative sleeves for cropping and sending out lab orders.
 
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fortwodriver

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The idea of bokeh is too recent to have been applied to the design of any of those film-era lenses. There were a few lenses on the market that were designed with specific distortions to soften facial features and Zeiss had a bunch of filters you could get for their medium format lenses that used all sorts of optical distortion to soften an otherwise cold-rendering lens for portraiture. Nikon had some stuff too. They weren't all that popular.

It especially became popular as more and more digital camera users decided there was no point in learning how to light a scene, and it was easier to simply try and obliterate the background. That makes photos lose context quickly. A photo with a smoothly-defocused background could have been taken anywhere, any time.

If you look at photos taken around the time those film lenses existed, most of the pro work used lighting on a scene for separation rather than blurry backgrounds. Wide apertures were advertised more as a "get out of trouble when the light got low" feature.

When those Pentax lenses were designed the goal was sharpness and some compromise in field curvature that would give the typical user a suitably sharp photo of an object or person that's not plane-flat.
 

StirlingBartholomew

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On Sunday evening I went to Fort Lawton in Seattle a favorite site for photographers and did some shooting wide open at f2 with the 4/3 mount Zuiko 50mm f2 Macro. Two things I noticed. You need to focus for every shot. The focus will not hold for several exposures. I noticed this while shooting so I didn't miss any shots.

The other thing I noticed was the depth of field when the subject is only a few feet away is very shallow at f2. Shooting some wild flowers at sundown I had to choose the exact focus point for each shot and the rest was OOF unless it just happened to be in the same focal plane. I see people online shooting with f .95 lenses which is two stops larger than F2. Can't imagine a situation in which I would want a shallower DOF than F2.

I found the bokeh of this lens acceptable at F2 through F4 shooting up close. Obviously I am not a Bokeh aficionado. The reason I haven't posted shots here is the IMHO images need to be viewed in LR on large monitor to evaluate these issues.
 

LilSebastian

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On Sunday evening I went to Fort Lawton in Seattle a favorite site for photographers and did some shooting wide open at f2 with the 4/3 mount Zuiko 50mm f2 Macro. Two things I noticed. You need to focus for every shot. The focus will not hold for several exposures. I noticed this while shooting so I didn't miss any shots.

The other thing I noticed was the depth of field when the subject is only a few feet away is very shallow at f2. Shooting some wild flowers at sundown I had to choose the exact focus point for each shot and the rest was OOF unless it just happened to be in the same focal plane. I see people online shooting with f .95 lenses which is two stops larger than F2. Can't imagine a situation in which I would want a shallower DOF than F2.

I found the bokeh of this lens acceptable at F2 through F4 shooting up close. Obviously I am not a Bokeh aficionado. The reason I haven't posted shots here is the IMHO images need to be viewed in LR on large monitor to evaluate these issues.

Just remember that the depth of field (bokeh is the quality of out of focus area) is dependent on more than just f-stop. Focal length and distance to subject matter too. Using a macro capable lens close to the subject will greatly reduce the plane of acceptable in focus area. 50mm and f2 just compound the issue to make it more noticeable. If you did a portrait shot 10 feet away from a person, the DOF would not be so extreme.
 

StirlingBartholomew

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Messages
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The idea of bokeh is too recent to have been applied to the design of any of those film-era lenses. There were a few lenses on the market that were designed with specific distortions to soften facial features and Zeiss had a bunch of filters you could get for their medium format lenses that used all sorts of optical distortion to soften an otherwise cold-rendering lens for portraiture. Nikon had some stuff too. They weren't all that popular.

It especially became popular as more and more digital camera users decided there was no point in learning how to light a scene, and it was easier to simply try and obliterate the background. That makes photos lose context quickly. A photo with a smoothly-defocused background could have been taken anywhere, any time.

If you look at photos taken around the time those film lenses existed, most of the pro work used lighting on a scene for separation rather than blurry backgrounds. Wide apertures were advertised more as a "get out of trouble when the light got low" feature.

When those Pentax lenses were designed the goal was sharpness and some compromise in field curvature that would give the typical user a suitably sharp photo of an object or person that's not plane-flat.

Interesting history. You are certainly correct about lighting. Portraits were all about lighting and today I see people shooting with five figures worth of gear who appear to not know much about lighting. It's pretty obvious that shooting a portrait against the light at sundown isn't something you do if you are anything like familiar with portrait lighting. Your 200mm at f2 isn't going to fix the problems with with flat light on the subjects face surrounded by a halo of flare. That's fashion shoot cliche adopted by everyone else.



in 1974 I was dabbling in soft focus when I shot my last wedding for a childhood friend Steve Graham. It was my best and last wedding shoot. Inspired by the work of Sally Mann and the infamous David Hamilton. I had been told by an older colleague that smearing Vaseline on a cheap filter (Vivitar UV) you could get that desired look. I didn't want grease on my gear so I used a few globs of glue on the filter and and increased the number until I got some flare. I did some tests and showed them to the Grahams before the wedding. I shot all the portraits with that filter in place. Merlin Parker my portrait mentor was doing Monte Zucker portraits for weddings. We did almost nothing but portraits. Shooting 12 rolls of film wasn't atypical. This wedding was judged by the customer as a huge success. It was a good shoot and the last shoot. Everything worked out. And I just handed the negatives to the family a few years later so they could get more prints. I wasn't doing portraits any more.

EDIT: Obviously I wasn't inspired by Sally Mann in the early '70s. I do recall a famous ad campaign for Two Fingers Tequila which was shot on a film similar to Ansco 500 which was a film I used on several occasions. Lots of grain and softness. I used it for street photography shooting with a Nikkor 85mm F1.8 and for B&W Kodak Recording Film 2475. Lots of street portraits with these two films.
 
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