I’m in the process of researching rangefinder lenses. My ultimate goal is to find a set of reasonably-sized lenses that give me the performance I need at a price that will allow me to use them in the real world without worrying if they get dinged, broken, or even stolen. I am not a lens collector nor am I playing cameras and lenses, chasing performance for performance’s sake. I am a normal person. And I think I’ve found a normal approach to the issue of lens vignetting.
This is a real world exercise that I started after becoming frustrated by several unsatisfactory lens purchases. Some of those purchases were unsatisfactory because the gear wasn’t what I expected based on reviews I found online. In other cases, I felt I spent too much money for what I got. It is easy to be critical of gear reviewers, but I can also appreciate that it can be difficult for a gear reviewer to make a value judgment for their readers particularly if they were paid or sponsored to make the review.
This discussion is relevant because I am currently testing the Voigtlander 28mm f/2 Ultron II VM lens. On the one hand, I find myself holding a cost effective, small footprint, fast at f/2, 28mm rangefinder lens that performed remarkably well in varied situations over the course of several weeks. On the other other hand, when I shoot wide open outside in bright sun my images look like this:
Considering the strong vignetting, the reaction of some lens reviewers, pixel peepers, fanboys, and forum dwellers would be something along the lines of “Silly, foolish, person, how can you buy anything but “the best” and expect it to be any good? Are you surprised?”
My past experience with rangefinder lenses confirms the generally accepted consensus that images made with wide angle rangefinder lenses (especially legacy lenses) are prone to exhibit color shifts and unacceptable vignetting when used with digital sensors. Given that it would cost hundreds if not thousands of dollars to buy a rangefinder lens with less vignetting, my reaction was different. I asked myself a variation of the banal question pondered by armchair philosophers and freshman college students around the world. “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”
It turns out that a variant of that hackneyed question may be apropos when purchasing, testing, and reviewing wide angle rangefinder lenses. “If a lens vignettes and no one sees it, does it really vignette?” I theorize that it does not.
In support of this theory I present the following evidence. If I had applied a lens correction import preset to the image while it was being imported into Lightroom, the image would look like this…
Debating the presence or absence of vignetting on a philosophical level is largely academic. What is not academic is spending hundreds (or in the case of Leica – potentially thousands) of additional dollars to prevent an optical “flaw” that nobody may ever see or care about. Lens reviewers and manufacturers would have you believe that vignetting, or more accurately the ability of a lens to prevent vignetting, is important. In 2021 when we’re using modern digital sensors and processing software, I am not sure that is the case.
In the past, there was a good argument against correcting vignetting with software. With legacy digital sensors, correcting images made with a strongly vignetting lens with software resulted in an increase in noise and/or a reduced dynamic range in the corrected area.
I attempted to test my theory that these issues aren’t really issues anymore. Although my testing was less than scientific, using a Leica M10 and a Panasonic S1 (Kolarivision thin sensor conversion), I could not create a situation where alterations in either noise or dynamic range after vignetting correction with software had a deleterious effect on the image. My testing was not exhaustive and I concede that there might be a camera/lens/lighting combination that will cause an issue. Nonetheless, my current position is that in the vast majority of situations, the argument against correcting vignetting with software is a dated argument that is primarily valid for legacy digital sensors and film purists.
What about film?
In my experience with rangefinder lenses, oftentimes they will have better performance (e.g. less vignetting) when shot on film compared to digital. Nonetheless, lens vignetting remains an issue whether you shoot film or digital.
For the film purists who print directly from negatives and skip any intermediate digital step, vignetting is an issue. Full stop. Although, I haven’t made a darkroom print in nearly thirty years, I can remember trying to dodge and burn and it was a hassle. I expect that if I were making film prints directly from negatives, lens vignetting would be a headache that I would try to fix in camera. If you are a film purist, you are encouraged to ignore this entire discussion, or maybe use a center weighted neutral density filter like the one that came with the Fuji G617.
For other film photographers, including film photographers like myself who either scan their images with a digital camera or receive digital images back from the lab, you can to a moderate degree correct vignetting on film scans just as you would a primary capture digital image.
I understand that making this suggestion is a serious transgression in some film circles where post processing is anathema to the craft (with a capital C), but for our purposes it doesn’t fundamentally change the thesis. If you are a film purist who refuses post processing, you will need to make a value judgement. Is your dedication to film purity worth the hundreds or thousands of dollars you will spend to maintain that purity with the few images you shoot with wide angle lenses at wide open aperture with homogenous backgrounds?
A Real World Example
I was shooting the Voigtlander 28mm f/2 Ultron II VM lens on location in Salt Lake City. It was 110 degrees outside, the sky was clear, and the sun was shining. The conditions were terrible for a portrait but that was the only time I was offered. The goal was to create a relatively high key, sparse, expansive image with a bit of tension. The billions of flies adjacent to the Great Salt Lake didn’t help the situation and limited the patience of the subject to about eight minutes.
I was shooting relatively wide open with hopes of getting at least some use out of the the flash. With blowing winds and no assistant, a reflector was not a realistic option. I was aware of the potential for vignetting in this type of situation. I also knew vignetting would ruin the image. My heart skipped a beat when I saw vignetting on the image in the camera. Fortunately, the client didn’t notice the vignetting in the EVF because she forgot her glasses.
After correction, this was the final image. Nobody except me ever saw the vignette.
No harm. No foul.
As a general rule, I encourage people to be cautious about reviews that mention vignetting as a primary drawback of a lens. Take those types of lens reviews with a grain of salt and ask yourself “if a lens vignettes but nobody ever sees the vignetting in an image, does it really vignette?”
While you’re asking yourself questions, you may want to go on and ask yourself another. “Is spending hundreds or thousands of dollars and/or is carrying around a larger lens that might cause you consternation if it needs to be replaced a reasonable approach to the “problem” of a lens vignetting at open apertures in images with homogeneous backgrounds, or is it a fool’s errand?”
If you are playing cameras and lenses and you are chasing performance for performance’s sake, your math might be different than mine. Conversely, if you agree that lens vignetting is a value judgment rather than a deal breaking technical fault, you might find that you are in good company here.
I didn’t know it at the time but when I contacted James (head camera-liker at Casual Photophile) about this article he responded, “I always mention vignetting in my lens reviews but I spend about two sentences on it, and the second sentence of the two invariably says “but you can correct this in Lightroom in two seconds, so it doesn’t matter.”
Some lens reviewers and manufacturers seem to insist that lens vignetting is a major issue. For what it’s worth, I won’t fault you for challenging the orthodoxy and fixing lens vignetting with software rather than your wallet.
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