Please note: this is not intended as a format war but a perusal of recent possible advances in lens design.

The lens (for whichever format) is designed to do a specific task for the intended camera and image receiver notably film but recently digital receivers. In designing the lens it is unlikely that the design will greatly exceed the understood capabilities of the intended receiving medium and can obviously only use the current known technologies.

Medium format
The lens for medium format effectively stopped evolution or development around fifteen years ago (with the exception of the Hasselblad H system) with many lenses being decades old both in design, manufacture and technology. This is, in itself, not a bad thing for the film user as the lenses were "optimised" for film use rather than digital capture and may be the best that can be economically expected especially as the medium format product was essentially marketed to the professional user with high product expectations.

The medium format lens could be viewed as a mature product.

The lens for 35mm continues to evolve. Over the last fifteen years new designs have been brought out, new technologies introduced and with a slight expansion of the reference timeframe, whole new lens ranges have been introduced e.g. Canon EF lenses and the Contax N mount lenses. The 35mm lens was generally targeted at the consumer market with average product expectations the exception to this would be the Canon L range and Nikon ED range which were targeted and marketed to the professional user with high product expectations.

In the "days of film" the lenses were designed for the capabilities of film and the expected end product use few users were expected to enlarge to a 24"x20" for example. Even before the recent new introductions new technologies were being constantly introduced e.g. flourite elements that improved the potential capabilities of the lens.

Digital capture has made the marketplace more aware of the theoretical failings of a lens it is easier now to see the edge rendition of a lens at 100% than when looking at a neg or slide. It can be argued that the theorectical failings of a lens cna be irrelevant to an image when viewed as a web image or printed A4, they may only be noticeably detrimental to an image when used at a large size, however the market can now easily see a lens is soft in the corner at 100% therefore the lens is a bad lens.

There were some howlers of lenses but they were some stellar lenses produced before digital capture made performance assessment much easier. With the advent of higher resolution bodies (D3 etc) the "older" lenses have been redesigned/superceded by new versions that not only incorporate newer technologies such as nano-coatings but have supposedly increased resolution to match the demands of the new sensors. Nikon, Canon and Leica have or are replacing most of the lenses aimed at the professional market with new designs (though Canon still have difficulty making a sharp wide angle :o).

The 35mm lens can be viewed as an evolving product.

New v old
If the potential capabilities of the new 35mm designs are accepted for digital, is there any advantage to the film user of adopting these new lenses over the older versions, other than having the latest toys to play with?

What has not been seen are reviews/tests/examples of a newer lens used with film. It may be the case that film cannot "resolve" (for want of a better term) the increased resolution of a newer lens and the capabilities of a new design are over-enginered for film use and a waste of specification or it might be that the newer lenses can take 35mm into a newer realm of rendition?

Until newer films are produced with finer grain size the 35mm user will always contend with grain size as the potential limiter however, if the newer designs can be sharper in the plane of focus, sharper in the frame edges, with good rendition of out-of-focus areas and not have gained sharpness by increasing the lens contrast then there may be a spin off benefit to the film user from the digital evolution!

35mm v medium format
At the risk of starting a format war, consider the following:
  • For the same size enlargement of the same film type, medium format will show less grain.
  • For the same field of view a 35mm prime pro lens will have a wider aperture than a medium format equivalent.
  • A wider aperture can enable the use of a slower film with reduced grain size.
  • A new small design might be better than an old medium design wide open.

The personal interest here is that the preference is to shoot with diferential focus gained by wide apertures on 35mm equipment equipment that has been retained from previous use rather than purchased specifically for current use with the thought of specifically buying into second-hand medium format for quality gains (apparent grain size), knowing that extreme wide apertures would be used - the gains of apparent grain size might be reduced by the old lens performance in comparison to the potentially greater lens perfomance of a new 35mm lens design with larger grain size.

This is an almost theoretical thought and one that may not be able to be answered accurately without side-by-side test examples, which are unlikely. However, with no experience of shooting medium format "wide-open" and most medium format seems to be shot at f8 or smaller there is a thought that might suggest a good small neg is better than an average large neg?
Who has shot the latest Zeiss, Canon L or Nikon ED wide open on film with direct comparisons to medium format wide open on film?

If you have managed to reach this far, there are thanks due and apologies for not having a more concise writing style. If there are any comments or thoughts, that would be welcomed.

I will say that a photo actually taken on the worst lens with the worst format is better than the photo not taken on the best lens with the best format!

*Taking the EF200 F1.8L to the grave*