When Bad Lenses Go Good

Fireworks are fun to shoot, and easy for both the photographer and the lens.
Fireworks are fun to shoot, and easy for both the photographer and the lens.
The AF Nikkor 35-135mm f/3.5-4.5 is a nice-looking lens, but that is just about its only redeeming feature.
The AF Nikkor 35-135mm f/3.5-4.5 is a nice-looking lens, but that is just about its only redeeming feature.

In response to a recent post about the sharpest lens I own, in which I talked about cheap or bad lenses being capable of good imaging in certain circumstances, Robert commented, “I’m wondering what would be an extreme example of ‘some of the world’s crappiest lenses are sharp in certain circumstances.’ ”

While I own some pretty amazing lenses, I also happen to have a handful of bad ones. A lot of things make or break a lens, with image quality at the top of the list. But that’s not all.

One small thing the 35-135mm has going for it is that it makes nice 14-point sunstars, thanks to its seven straight aperture blades.
One small thing the 35-135mm has going for it is that it makes nice 14-point sunstars, thanks to its seven straight aperture blades.

Consider the case of the AF Nikkor 35-135mm f/3.5-4.5 zoom, which, like many of the bad lenses I own, came with a camera I bought in 1998. Not only does this lens yield images littered with chromatic aberrations, spherochromatism, field curvature and soft corners, it a is also heavy, slow to focus, and has a genuinely awkward macro interface.

But like many bad lenses, I can get this one to make decent images, in certain circumstances. For example, on sunny days with the sun at my back and the lens stopped down to f/11, a scenario I only face very occasionally, this lens is perfectly sharp. Shooting backlit, late-day action or news at high ISOs or at nearly wide open f-stops, however, is another story.

Bright day, flat field, small aperture, low ISO: even the worst lenses do fine under these circumstances.
Bright day, flat field, small aperture, low ISO: even the worst lenses do fine under these circumstances.
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2 Comments

  1. If I may, some more examples, these from the Canon EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 “kit lens”, often derided as Canon’s worst lens of the digital era:

    http://farm1.staticflickr.com/39/79211421_4503c5fed7_b.jpg
    http://farm1.staticflickr.com/72/204391126_09c2f1df33_b.jpg
    http://farm5.staticflickr.com/4057/4586768637_7601f6c11f_b.jpg
    http://farm1.staticflickr.com/80/235614603_d6581ca9ec_b.jpg
    http://farm1.staticflickr.com/38/78329204_03130f4f8a_b.jpg

    At least two of those were shot “on the fly” with little or no preparation or forethought — accidentally good. In other cases, it was the light and preparation that made the images decent.

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