Sunday, April 16, 2023

Soft Focus Pictorialist Effects ~ part Three

It's been such a long process of thinking, considering and trying to use soft focus lenses that I've developed a sense that my story includes looking into the morning mirror to see Don Quixote reflected back.  There's just enough self recognition in this Madness for me to question why I even bother, but bother I persist.  I know the windmills aren't what I've taken them to be, if only I could work out how.

In deepening my understanding of how to use meniscus soft focus lenses I am beginning to build a matrix of relevant information that I feel/hope/believe I can use to determine when a soft focus optic is "right" for me to use.

As a starting point, in the first two posts in this series I looked at how a Dastardly Difficult to Master 85mm lens behaves with close-up subjects.  In this post I would like to move the lens back a little from the subject and explore how the Pentax 85mm f/2.2 Soft renders at mid-distance

Before I get to the comparison images I'd like to share the nuggets of years of conversations with those who really know and to (*shock*, *horror* men don't usually do this king of thing) carefully read the lens' instruction manual.

While I knew this intuitively, I don't think I fully appreciated it until very recently.  A soft focus lens' aperture controls the level of softness the lens returns.

Duh.  Obviously.

Yet, if I look carefully at the effect of aperture on image softness, at some point the center of the image becomes clear to reveal an already existing at wider aperture underlying sharpness.  The transition areas from sharp to soft can be tricky.  In the case of this Pentax, the lens "resolution hole" that appears in closeup images around f/4 has a transition zone that swirls the edges of the scene.  

I don't find this pleasing.  It reminds me too much of the swirly out of focus rendition that Helios 40, Petzval, and many other early and now Hipster-Have-to-Have lenses deliver.  With one exception, I've never viewed a swirly background image that I could fully appreciate.  The swirly effect for me gets in the way.  Alex Timmerman's work being the exception.  OK.  Maybe two photographers.  Sally Mann makes incredible images from time to time in this style, too.

What this means to me is that while being strictly true that aperture controls the level of lens softness in meniscus photographic optics, the fuller answer is a bit more subtle.

As an aside, large format film soft focus lenses don't normally show much problem in the transition areas from sharp to veiling under-corrected aberration softness.  

Yes, if I look carefully at the edges of Chetworth delGato's work that I'm using as a reference, I can see a similar effect to what I've encountered with the smaller format Pentax, but the 9inch Pinkham & Smith Semi-Achromatic transition effect seems to be a bit more subtle.  I'll bet dollars to doughnuts that part of the reason is the way the transition zone is hidden by the way the subject is lit.  I'll keep this point in mind as I go along.

I am now of the thought that large format film lenses have been designed with a larger field of view than the small format Pentax, and that the gaping "resolution hole" that can form as a lens is stopped down is often _outside_ the field of view when using big sheets of film and longer soft focus lenses.  How do I feel this is true?  Look at instances where a lens' field of view is smaller than the film format.  I'll explore this, too, in the near future.

While mulling all of these things over in my wee-little brain, Bonzo Din suggested that the instruction manual for the Pentax 85mm f/2.2 Soft might provide important clues on how to use the lens.  Translating from Japanese, he found the lens was made for close-up and portrait work.  It is strongly hinted that landscape work with this Soft lens is best used in conjunction with a tele-converter.

There it is.  Truth.  Which underscores that fact that, if it's available (and in this case it often isn't), it pays to read the bl**dy manual.

The Pentax 85mm f/2.2 Soft is a close-up lens or a portrait optic.  Period.  It is not, repeat not, a general purpose lens in the sense that it might behave consistently across a wide range of subject to lens distances.  It doesn't.  Rendition consistency is lost on this lens.  It wasn't designed for that.  It's a two trick pony. If landscape photography is a goal, then a tele-extender is recommended.

In this post I will consider how the Pentax 85mm f/2.2 Soft behaves as a portrait lens.   I will use myself as the subject.  Viewer discretion is advised.

Setup ~ 

  • Composition -
    • Considering the "resolution hole" that opens in the middle of the frame starting around f/4, the subject's head (mine) was placed dead center in the field, right in the middle of the "resolution hole," so as to try and achieve the best possible sense of sharpness
    • If the head was placed nearer to the edge of the frame I know it would be distorted and covered with too much veiling under-corrected spherical aberration softness coming from what I'm calling the "resolution hole"
  • Camera - 
    • Sony A7, 100ISO, 2sec timer, "A" mode
    • Sony Remote Trigger so the subject could remain seated
  • Lens - 
    • Pentax 85mm f/2.2 Soft at f/4, f/4.8, f/5.6
  • Bogen tripod 
  • RawTherapee - 
    • Similar image processing settings applied to all images so as to observe optical differences
    • Vanity Alert - I used a red filter in BW conversion to suppress the skin imperfections and to raise the skin tones to something I found pleasing


Comparison ~

As always, click on the image and enlarge to 100percent to see whatever there is to be seen.

To facilitate the following comparisons, open Chetworth's image in a window, and then open my images in an adjacent window.


Autoportrait ~ Pentax 85mm f/2.2 Soft at f/4

Pentax 85mm f/2.2 at f/4

The underlying sharpness of the face and shirt collar regions are visible, but to my eyes, the overall image appearance is just slightly too soft, particularly when compared with the 9 inch Pinkham & Smith.


Autoportrait ~ Pentax 85mm Soft f/2.2 at f/4.8

Pentax 85mm f/2.2 at f/4.8

Of the three comparison images here, I feel this is the best balance between center sharpness and edge softness drop-off.  The face and collar regions are reasonably sharp.  The sleeve at the bottom of the image is not offensive to me.  The "resolution hole" isn't quite as obvious as in the following example.

Comparing this image to Chetworth's, it's not half bad at these viewing sizes to my admittedly aging eyes.  My image isn't as sharply lit as Chetworth's.  His model is far more interesting than mine.  And  I would expect the 5x7inch film image to be sharper in reality around the face and shoulders than in the above photo.  

But I have to say I'm pleased with the above result.


Autoportrait ~ Pentax 85mm Soft f/2.2 at f/5.6

Pentax 85mm f/2.2 at f/5.6

Compared with the prior two images, I feel the face and shirt collar areas in this f/5.6 image are the sharpest.  The transition "resolution hole" from sharp to soft is the most promenant, too.  If I'd lit this a little differently I might've had more success in hiding the effect.

What I've confirmed for myself is that aperture controls can be a little tricky on a lens like this.  It takes a delicate touch to extract the most out of the optic.  I can't just put the lens at a certain aperture by looking through the viewfinder and seeing something that looks good in-camera.  No.  It's more subtle than that.

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