Ugly Lens, Beautiful Photos – My Experience With Cheap Gear

It was still silent out there in that world of snow, with the occasional breeze cutting through. Every so often the soft boot crunch of a dog-walker outside would set me up off the couch looking out the front window to see dog steam puffing and the potential pop of color in a winter coat, a pair of gloves or even a dog leash . That red string slicing and softly dragging through the void rich starkness of snow brings to mind the red umbrella of Saul Leiter.

This sight, simple, yet truly beautiful, still brought me moments of begging for spring and the wash of vibrancy it ushers.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I am primarily a black and white film user, but every so often, there is a tugging at my eye that I can’t ignore. In this article though, the draw for color has been replaced with the need to know the possibility of a certain piece of gear.

Living in Spokane, Washington, there are some truly beautiful landscapes around every corner. The camera that’s the subject of this article is a great medium format camera for landscape shooting. But I mostly use it in whatever way fits the moment. I tend to walk around my neighborhood and the not too far surrounding areas almost everyday. Work and other things often weigh in and affect this privilege, but I try my darndest to do a few blocks here and there on even the sleepiest of days.

Movement is very important to me, whether it is the movement of my feet, my eyes adjusting to a scene, my mind wandering through its bubbling bog of ideas or my move to purchase an amazing camera and lens (for the second time) because I just couldn’t cut a certain thought free. One particular thought was that I had let go one of the best made film cameras of all time, and one that was fitted with a beautiful kit lens as well; the Mamiya C330 Pro F, wearing the lovely Mamiya Sekor 80mm f2.8 on its front. I was so impressed by this camera. The way it leaned into my hands so comfortably when composing and how it offered so much control and so many options during use. I really enjoyed my time using that camera, but then came life, and I had to sell it.

That’s where my story with the formerly-owned pristine Mamiya kit ends, and my current journey with a very well kept C330 (with one of the ugliest 80mm lenses I’ve ever seen) begins.

This story is more or less about the wonders that can be explored (and explored confidently) with a lens that doesn’t seem like it could give good results. Because the truth is, we can spent hundreds or even thousands of dollars less on a beat-up lens and still get sharp, well balanced, contrasty, and flare free results, even with glass that looks like it was pulled out from the bottom of Indiana Jones’ side bag 33 years after his retirement. Hairy, dinged and dusty, rough as an elbow and still shining.

The snow has been replaced with trees heavy in themselves, leaning and giving off their scents. Puffs of green dotting along lane after lane beside other long stemmed flowering cities and fluffy ground covers. Some wearing clusters of lovely thin layers, yellow, white, pink and so on, inviting bees and butterflies for seasonal conversation and sending them off with gifts.

This is the blue sky backdrop where my new kit was welcomed in. I first opened the box it came in and was a little worried. Having bought it online and in “heavily used” condition, where the photos were not so telling, I was unsure of what to expect. Right away I noticed the circular scratches covering both lenses. Looking a little closer I saw what looked at first like specks of dirt, or maybe some kind of lens coating issue. I quickly ran to my room and grabbed some cotton swabs, a little isopropyl, and gave them both a visit to the doctor.

I cleaned the lens bodies, for there was a bit of grime all over, and lastly the elements themselves. That’s when I noticed there was definitely an issue. The issue wasn’t with the shutter mechanism or the aperture blades being sticky, or any of the common issues that one finds when buying old gear (and especially older leaf shutter lenses). It was something I had never seen before on any other lens, and it sort of freaked me out.

Pitting. There were tons of tiny little dings all over both front elements. Now. I don’t know if you have ever experienced this yourself, and if you have perhaps you’ll understand, but if you haven’t, let me tell you that it’s horrifying!

I didn’t know what to do, and I bounced around in my head whether or not to contact the seller, start looking into potential repair, possibly look into buying new front elements… the list goes on. Eventually, having given some time to look and focusing inside and outside through the bright finder of the C330, I decided to load the camera with some Kodak Tmax 100 and go for a walk. It was a bright day, and I figured this would be a great time to test for softness and flaring or any other aberrations that may accompany such an ugly set of lenses. I gave the camera a little pat on the back, dropped an extra roll of Tri X 400 into my shirt pocket and headed out.

There isn’t anything special about my setup. No grip, just strapped and hanging there waiting to be scooped, held and cranked, and I did just that. Walking through that day glow looking at all the houses and parked cars with rosebush back drops, tulips hugging tulips the way they do, watching cats maneuver through yards and follow squirrel tracks. I looked for test images to make terrible negatives, sure that the resulting images would my new lenses out to pasture. Then I would reach out in some new direction to try for a solution to the problem of the pitted lens.

I wandered down alleys, finding new growth climbing the sides of blinding white sheds and garages leaning with time. I don’t use a light meter so I was really going for the gusto here, trying to see how well the lens could handle the brightness. I knelt down in a shaded area under the trees, trying for images that gave the lens some respite and would push it from the other end of the spectrum. I don’t fully know what I was expecting to find, but probably some sort of fogged out, soft images with lots of weird distorted points that I would see, and give up on, lightly tossing the negatives into my bowl filled with scraps for future negative collage.

I carried on, probably walking for about an hour. Finishing the roll of Tmax and loving the general feel and function of the camera again. Oh, the familiarity of knowing. I loaded up the Tri X and went through maybe three images before circling back to once more find myself outside of my house. I went inside and got prepared to develop the roll and see the results (with no small amount of hesitancy).

I develop all of my black and white film (except for Ilford XP2, which is a C41 process film) in Cinestill Df96 monobath, so it’s a very simple process. I know it, I like it, its consistent, and it takes no time. After developing, I hung the negatives to dry and looking at them while they just hung there in the dim light of my room, I didn’t see much to prompt an conclusion in how the lens performed, so I told myself to chill and carry on doing something else for the time being.

I went out into the living room with my tripod and a flash and decided to shoot the rest of the Tri X with flash. Doing some self portraits and stuff with a banana and just whatever I could think of in the moment for the last few frames, I still had some reservations. Not knowing how much detail would be lost even with the wonderful crispness that adding flash can bring, I trudged on. The roll ended, I went to the kitchen shook and wiped out the Patterson, the reels and loaded up the Tri X for development. I figured that while this roll was drying I could scan the Tmax and see what I was dealing with, and then sandwiched by both discoveries I could truly have answers. So I did just that.

With the Mamiya sitting just beside me on the table, I scanned image after image from that walk just hours before and what I saw was very surprising. Mostly very usable images, with the right amount of contrast and, yes, yes, some blown out highlights, which I was expecting. But that is not the lens’ fault, that was user error. Not using a meter sometimes jeopardizes my final image, but never in a way that I can’t fix it in post with software or in the darkroom. So I wasn’t bummed or caught off guard, knowing that blown highlights wasn’t something to expect every time I used the lens. I continued scanning and continued to be happy to know it performs well while the flash roll dried, hanging there… looking at me. What to expect next!

Then the time came. I don’t shoot flash in this way, nearly ever. The most flash photography I had really done up to this point was with point and shoots. So the flash I had attached was nothing fancy, some little Vivitar deal. And for this reason, the flash roll had me more nervous. No meter, indoors, with flash, without much experience, with a lens that I was still unsure of.

Let the scanning begin!

Frame after frame, yet again, I was stunned. Not by the subject matter or composition, but by the amount of detail in the highlights and shadows. The mid tones were there making an appearance as well! I was so happy, and really pleased that I didn’t make a huge mistake. I was convinced that in the future I could be scrolling through lenses or looking at lenses in a free or cheap box and find a lens that normally would be on the price side or about to be thrown away, pick it up for dirt cheap because of how “ugly” it was and end up making some, to me, perfect images.

I really think this is a mostly unapped market for buyers and the resale value and potential is not guaranteed, nor should it be at this stage, but it’s so worth it. If you are looking for something that has been used into the ground but still has much more to offer, based on your budget, having more options, your work flow or just finding it on a shelf somewhere, pick it up, pop it on whatever camera you are wanting to use that day, and give it the time of its life. These lenses aren’t being newly made and this could be that lens’ last ride. I’m truly happy that the last time this Mamiya Sekor was used by the previous owner was not her last moment to shine. With me, it will get to experience a whole new life in all of its glorious, banged up brilliance.

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