If a Lens Vignettes But Nobody Sees It, Did It Really Vignette?

If a Lens Vignettes But Nobody Sees It, Did It Really Vignette?

2000 1125 Matt Wright

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. 

Conclusion

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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Matt Wright

Matt Wright is a part-time photographer in San Diego and Salt Lake City. As a sometimes lapsed Leica fanboy he is currently researching rangefinder lenses at the Leica Lenses for Normal People website [https://www.leicalensesfornormalpeople.com] and can be found on Instagram @leicalensesfornormalpeople and @themattw.

All stories by:Matt Wright
21 comments
  • The topic question is bit “questionable”. Nobody sees lens vignetting then we photographers who knows exactly where vignetting came from if any. “Nobody sees” I mean that average observer will see vignette but probably doesn’t know if it is a lens and actually doesn’t care if it lens. Observer
    watching at photo and may like or not vignette detail.
    There is opposite situation when vignetting is added in post intentionally. Does lens producing vignette or not is irrelevant. It is always on us – photographers to make output result and observers who will like or dislike, or we can talk about some aesthetic, basic rules, artist freedom, or just taste of clients who ordered exact look.
    In your case knowing your lens, you could step back and then crop field of view just enough to remove corners from the final pic.

    Question like this leads to question about validity of editing in post: yes or no. Ansel Adams and H.C.Bresson come to my mind in such situations. One made whole lab with customized enlarger, and develop whole technic of dodging and burning. He is an inventor of zone system. His final product was single print he used to work on hard. Heard he only borrowed those prints to reprint them further.
    Other one was famous on black edge on majority of his prints as prove that it was original of what he see in viewfinder in a moment of taking a shot. (Well with Leica RF camera. or any RF you can’t really see exact frame due to the parallax)

  • Martin South of France July 12, 2021 at 2:45 am

    To get a true comparisson of the quality of an old lens first it needs to be stripped and cleaned. I have yet to buy any old glass that does not have some amount of dust/dirt/haze on it. Some of my glass is around 100 years old , some dates from the 60/70’s and some is brand new. I have bought new old stock only to find that it too appears to be clean but on closed inspection no, there has been an ultra fine coating of what I assume was oil on the glass. Hard to spot but gave the lens a very soft image as if there was a filter on it. More recently a Planar I have had for many years was sent to Mark Hama in the US for servicing. The lens came back as new and at this point truly could be compared to modern glass. So imho first stop before using any older glass should be a strip down and clean…..then a comparisson. I never understand how many people review old glass on whatever cameras without having a lens that is back in as new condition. If I used for example one of my medium format cameras without first making sure the glass was as clean inside as it possibly could be, everything from sharpness to colour rendition/ spread would be comprimised.

  • Leica Lenses for Normal People!

    • Who are “Normal People?”

      • I took it to mean people who can’t necessarily afford to walk into the Leica store and buy every “best” lens. People who buy their lenses and cameras to use them rather than to display them or use as investments. People who want good image quality and performance but understand and embrace that some practical compromises must be made when deciding which lens/camera to buy. I could be wrong about this, but that seems to be the connotation on Matt’s site and in this article.

      • Nikonia Van Summicron July 23, 2021 at 1:57 pm

        Normal folks are just your everyday person who enjoy taking pictures and not fuss over spec. They step-up to a camera because they have enough interest to explore something beyond the phone camera, but not enough interest to care or spend money on super duper hypnosonic magneto drive electro techno motors with unicorn soft whisper auto focus with a gigantor f0.95 apheristastic low disperlusional lens handmade in Germany by Dieter from Sprockets (from pre-assembled modules in Portugal and Thailand) in a dust-free factory next to a gothic cathedral who has Ken Rockwell on a stain glass window next to the holy water.

  • Paul Hoppe Photography July 12, 2021 at 10:30 am

    I always wonder about the obsession with technical lens specs and vignetting, sharpness, microcontrast, chromatic abberations and whatnot. Technical perfection is far from everything. Besides it is mostly a non-issue once stopped down. Playing with vintage glass made me appreciate the immense quality of even the cheapest kit lens of today.

  • Lovely article, but I am mostly excited about the review of the new 28mm — it’s the first time I’ve been excited by a new lens

  • Sawburn7 (@sawburn7) July 12, 2021 at 2:47 pm

    Surely based on your final image, which has quite a lot of adjustments made to the exposure, and the entire removal of the light stand, vignetting is the least of your worries? If you aren’t bothered by the kind of manipulation required to remove an element from inside the frame, removing a lens characteristic should be equally un-worrisome.

  • 😉
    Excellent!
    Bravo!
    I love to read that!
    My wider lens is the Voigtlander 15mm M f.4,5 Mark2. I manage the vigneting by loving the best qualities of the lens for me : light, compact, very sharp. I do not care about vigneting on film and digital under 35mm, because this is quite normal, only a few exceptional lens are vigneting free suche the Zeis ZM Biogon-C 21mm f.4,5 which works perfectly on films but very poorly on digital !!!
    So, I make up my mind.

  • As someone who routinely adds a light touch of vignetting to film scans, I struggle to find fault with this apparent lens ‘issue’. Lenses that naturally vignette have character. When we add a subtle vignette digitally, it can be a great way of reducing sky brightness and creating interesting moody corners for subject isolation. An example from my Insta: https://www.instagram.com/p/CQQEa3iHDv3/

    • Yesssssss!
      Agree.
      Very good.

    • Absolutely. I usually add just a little in post. I like the vignetting. I look at it as a way to direct the viewers attention to what the subject of the photo is. Never a heavy amount but a touch. The original photo looked perfect to me.

  • On the other hand, lens reviewers need to keep their enthusiasm in check. One popular reviewer was exited to report that a Nikon 35 F1.8 G-FX version does not vignette with 52mm filters. It is a 58mm front end. Well it does vignette. I could have just been satisfied with my DX version and worked with the full frame vignette it produced. You have got to own a lens to know a lens.

  • Arthur Gottschalk July 13, 2021 at 2:57 pm

    Typical response of digital photography: “Fake It Till You Make It.” Yes, anything can be corrected by computer. But some of us still think the authentic photo is the one made before “corrections.”

  • Thanks for including the lighting rig in the first pic. Good to see how you lit the model. Was the cloning out of it simple for the final image?

    I do think people get too hung up on the gear, not on the end result.

  • Great article and a refreshing take on the subject. I admire some older lenses for their less-than-perfect qualities and also don’t mind some vignetting. And if theres too much it can always be fixed in post. However I am guilty for shelling out more money than I can afford for one lens. But only one.

    Love that photo, nicely done!

  • One sure-fire way to help deal with lens vignetting, especially with vintage lenses, is to adapt them to a crop-sensor mirrorless digital camera. You’ll be picking out the sharpest part of the frame by doing this, and excluding most of any vignetting. But that pesky crop factor does come into play, meaning your 28mm wide lens is now a 42mm normal lens.

  • I’m surprised that the examples in this article were shot wide open, or close to it. Surely these would have each benefited from being stopped down, as much for sharpness as for elimination of vignetting?

  • Excellent writeup. A well written piece on how “fancy” gear sometimes doesn’t matter. Corner sharpness is another battle cry of reviewers, but if someone’s work just ultimately ends up on Instagram as the main form of sharing, it really doesn’t matter.

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Matt Wright

Matt Wright is a part-time photographer in San Diego and Salt Lake City. As a sometimes lapsed Leica fanboy he is currently researching rangefinder lenses at the Leica Lenses for Normal People website [https://www.leicalensesfornormalpeople.com] and can be found on Instagram @leicalensesfornormalpeople and @themattw.

All stories by:Matt Wright