In this post I would like to talk about the color rendering capabilities of my vintage 50mm lenses.
I’ve often read about the famous “Leica colors” and the “Zeiss colors” and because I couldn’t afford the Leica Summicron-R 50mm f/2 (or any Summilux or Leica-R lens for that matter) I went with Zeiss lenses only.
Why is color rendition important?
In my article about color casts I explored the influence such a color cast can have on the colors in a picture when the White Balance isn’t set accordingly. In my article about radioactive lenses I covered the reason for the strong yellow-ish color cast of many a lens that contains one or more thoriated glass elements and I show how you can cure the resulting color cast with a simple and rather affordable desk lamp from IKEA.
When your lens has a strong color cast, your pictures are likely to look like this shot I took with the Fujinon 50mm f/1.4 wide open and many hours before sunset. The white balance was set to daylight which resulted in neutral images with my Color-Ultron for example.
If you were to shoot film with this lens, the pictures would inevitably turn out warm and cozy unless you process them accordingly. The same thing can and should be done with digital files. I recommend to always shoot RAW and not leave any important decisions to the camera.
You can decide upon white balance, contrast, saturation, exposure, etc. much easier when using a large screen and good lighting (not glaring sunlight on the camera screen) and not having to hurry between shots.
How did I measure the color rendition?
When you have been raised in Switzerland during my childhood (and the childhood of my parents and grandparents) you learned to associate the word “color” with “Caran d’Ache“. 🙂
Unfortunately, I do not own a brand new set of Caran d’Ache pencils (they cost 2$ per color) anymore but we do have some leftovers from the past.
So I lined up a choice of various colors in a row on my ground plate made of slate on my couch table.
The right side faced towards the window with sunlight coming through clouds and I set up my Lastolite reflector (white) on the left to fill the shadows. This way I wanted to stay as “natural” as possible.
The camera was mounted on a tripod facing down at the pencils at an angle.
I took the first series of pictures wide open and the second series at f/4 to compare the influence of contrast on the colors.
In Lightroom I set the White Balance according to the slate (neutral grey) and the camera profile to “Camera Standard“. I then corrected the exposure for all shots as best as I could so that they would look similarly bright.
Color Rendition wide open
This first series was shot wide open (meaning f/1.4 for the speedsters, f/1.8 for the fast fifties and f/2 and f/2.8 for the Helios and the Tessar respectively).
I took the first shots with the Yongnuo at a closer distance, therefore the frame looks similar to the one from the Helios (58mm focal length).
All the other pictures were taken at the exact same height and have not been cropped.
To me they all look pretty much the same..
You can see that the Fujinon and the Yongnuo are extremely soft wide open lacking some contrast, whereas the Helios and the Tessar look rather good in that regard.
The Takumar and the Color-Ultron almost can’t be told apart, except for the Ultron being a little sharper. Same goes for the Nikkor and the Pancolar, they look so similar.
Color Rendition at f/4
As I mentioned before, I don’t really care much for the small apertures in fast prime lenses. I’m aware of the fact that most of these lenses would have their “sweet spot” around f/8 with sharpness, contrast, etc. being at their best. However, at f/8 I cannot use these lenses unless it’s extremely bright outdoors. Additionally, my focus confirmation (the camera being a 1-series body) will likely still work but with limitations.
Now, shot at f/4, all the lenses produce a similar depth of field and the contrast should be quite good for all contenders.
Either my calibrated screens aren’t good enough or my eyes just suck but I honestly don’t see any “Zeiss colors” or any difference whatsoever.
Do you see it?
The color rendition of my vintage 50mm lenses seems to be rather good – the colors look natural and saturation and contrast are nice – and no one lens displays any anomalies in the field of competitors.
The simple explanation for that will likely be that I do not leave the camera with setting the white balance or foolishly presetting it according to the weather. That would result in the Fujinon still looking rather warm (bronze-ish) and the Pancolar looking extremely warm (yellow-ish). The Takumar holds up pretty well now, after curing most of the color cast.
My conclusion, therefore, is that color rendition is rather unimportant in the digital ages but may well affect people shooting film (and not knowing how to process it correctly) or people shooting jpeg with their white balance set according to the weather.
Monitors and Colors
I figure that some monitors might have trouble with the colors. To the bare eye the colors (except for the two purple ones which are really close!) are all clearly distinguishable but it might not be as easy depending on your screen.
I have calibrated my screens using a Spyder 3 colorimeter with the Spyder 3 Pro software and the color reproduction on my screens is pretty good, though I would love to have screens that cover the Adobe RGB color space.
On one hand I find it really important that colors look real on the screen as well as on prints.
On the other hand you must consider that, unless you display your photographs in an exhibition, most people who look at your pictures do not have calibrated screens and do often even use smartphones for that purpose. With Samsungs AMOLED leading the field of false color reproduction devices you very rarely get adequate colors on a smartphone screen. In my experience you’re on the safe side when your device has an IPS screen.
Conclusion: don’t lose your mind over color accuracy in post processing unless you print your pictures.