There are many resources about black and white film and its representation of color, perhaps one of the most important is Ansel Adams’ book The Negative, which I encourage every b&w photographer to read. That book was the door to a whole new experience in film, the challenge to understand and represent colors in monochrome, the incidence that the type of film emulsion and the filters you use have in the final image. But how did we end with the types of films that we have today? How was the evolution of monochrome film in its quest to represent “accurately” the colors that our eyes perceive?. Months later I found in LFI Magazine a series of articles by Torsten Andreas Hoffmann about composing in Back and White which provided me some light to those questions and finally lead me to write this post.

  1. Black and White films and their reaction to color.-

Black and white photography is based on the multiple representations of gray tonalities and how every single color provides its own shade of gray.

In order to better understand how each color is transformed into a gray tonality we should first understand how colors are perceived by our eye and then how it is captured by film.

Our perception of color.

Visible light is formed by electromagnetic radiation in the wavelengths between 390 – 710 nanometers (approximately). In other words visible light ranges between the invisible infrared light and ultraviolet light, everything in between (390 – 710nm wavelengths) are the colors that the human eye can perceive.

Image source: Wikipedia

Have you ever wondered the meaning of the spectral sensitivity chart that you find in the data sheet of your favorite b&w film? Well it turns out that black and white film is also sensitive to the different colors of the light spectrum, this is called spectral sensitivity.

Spectral sensitivity and the evolution of film

Through the history of b&w film, photographic emulsions were evolving in their sensitivity to the wavelength of colors in order to translate them into adequate shades of grey.

In the early days, the photographic emulsions were sensitive to blue, violet and ultraviolet light, but only slightly sensitive to green, and practically insensitive to the rest of the spectrum. In 1873 Hermann Wilhelm Vogel discovered dye sensitization which allowed photographic emulsions that were sensitive to green, yellow, orange and even red.

Types of photographic emulsions

Orthochromatic emulsion: a photographic emulsion with extended spectral sensitivity in the yellow-green region. They are high sensitivity to blue, generally correct sensitivity to green and bright yellow, but has too low sensitivity to orange and is practically insensitive to red, as it does not register wavelengths longer than approximately 560-600 nm (medium yellow to orange). Furthermore, orthochromatic emulsion has decreased sensitivity in the 500 nm area (pale blue) and so it reproduces brightness of blue colors more accurately. These films record red color darker than expected, they have special use in landscape photography because they render foliage luminously comparable to the eye perception, however you have to be careful if there are red reflecting surfaces such as rocks, tree bark and flowers because it will render white dark. It can also be used in portraits where it will emphasize skin and darken a ruddy complexion.

Currently, Rollei provides an orthochromatic film labeled as Rollei ORTHO 25, which is slow speed film (ISO 25) with a spectral sensitivity range 380 – 610nm

Ilford Ortho Plus Spectral Sensitivity

Note: the previous chart corresponds to Ilford Ortho Plus film which I believe is now discontinued

Isochromatic emulsion:  a photographic emulsion with increased sensitivity to yellow-green. They are excessively sensitive to violet and blue, but has generally correct sensitivity to yelow, slightly low sensitivity to green and registers wavelengths up to 620-650 nm (orange/red), so it’s not sensitive to deep red color.

Panchromatic emulsions: Panchromatic means sensitive to all colors of light. This is a photographic emulsion capable of recording red subjects, as its sensitivity range reaches wavelengths of 660-730 nm (orange/red to red). They have decreased sensitivity in the 490-540 nm area (blue to green). Early Panchromatic films were, however, still much too sensitive to blue light (what resulted e.g. in pictures with too bright sky and clouds invisible against white background), therefore required a yellow filter for correct representation of blue color brightness.

Panchromatic films first appeared in the early 1930’s. Further developments have been a matter of improving the linearity of spectral response. Kodak moved wholly to panchromatic by the mid-1950s.

Types of panchromatic emulsions

Originally there were three types of panchromatic films, Type A, B, and C.

Type A. It has increased blue sensitivity but reduced in red; it’s sometimes called orthopanchromatic. Examples of these films are Efke /Adox ISO 25 and ISO 50, and Fujifilm Acros 100 and Neopan SS 100. These films render blues lightly and greens, yellow and red darker.

Acros 100 spectral sensitivity

Note: the chart above corresponds to Fuji Acros 100, this is one of my favorites films, really high quality and surprisingly cheaper than other ISO 100 films.

Type B. Almost all modern panchromatic film fall in this category. They have a spectral response close to what the eye perceives; it can be made to match the eye’s response more exactly with a suitable yellow #8 filter. A typical panchromatic film is a bit too sensitive to red color as compared to yellow and green.

TriX spectral sensivity

Note: Trix is without question the most famous panchromatic film.

Type C. It has extended red sensitivity. Here we may found the Superpanchromatic which had additionally increased sensitivity to red colors (in the 620-680 nm) and generally a high speed (such as the Ilford Delta 400). One of the purposes of this type is to achieve a higher effective speed under rich tungsten illumination.

Delta 400 Spectral Sensitivity

Note: Above Delta 400.

Some special panchromatic films readily found today are:

Rollei Retro 80s which is a film with an extended red sensitivity that falls near into the infrared spectrum (approx. 780nm), this characteristic enhances its capacities in portrait and nude photography.

Kodak T-Max films which have reduced blue sensitivity, thus the effect of tilting the curve toward red, but not an increase in red response or extension into infrared, this enables the response of the film to be closer to the response of the human eye, blues may be recorded as slightly darker tones.


Nowadays, there are still a couple of different b&w emulsions to try, experiment, tame and love, unfortunately the price of film is increasing due to the lack of demand and the high cost of manufacture. The task is to look for the emulsion that matches your eye and your photographic style, stick to it and dominate it, many photographers love TriX and have been faithful to it for ages. Personally I like Fuji Acros 100 and Ilford HP5, followed by Kodak Trix and the now defunct Kodak Plus X, I am trying now Ilford FP4 as a substitute.

Now go out there and love some film.

No sabiamos lo que venia… que ingenuos

Segun Mario, la tipica estructura de casco de la hacienda de finales de los 60s. Mínimo la báscula estaba “trucada” por esos días.

Explorando los Amates. Hacia unos dias habia conseguido unos rollos Kodak Pro 100 y decidí probarlos junto al Elmar 50mm 2,8.

Este encuentro debió darme una señal acerca del retorno

El Elmar proporciona buenos resultados tanto en el detalle como en el bokeh

“Las plantas que nos donaron fueron las primeras en arruinarse”.

La Cooperativa comercializa su propio café en el mercado internacional.

Foto para el análisis sociológico del expectador.

Atravesando el maizal antes de llegar a la primera cascada.

Paradise Lost y el cambio al Nikkor 105mm 2,5 para algunas tomas a la distancia.

Happiness is… a clean waterfall!

Después de una hora mas de recorrido llegamos a la segunda cascada. El hombre blanco y la naturaleza.

Improvisando dialogos.

Perspectiva Natural

Aun faltaba mucho por recorrer, pero comenzó la lluvia y tuve que guardar la cámara.

El Gobierno de Japon le condonó ciertas deudas al Gobierno de El Salvador a cambio de apoyar y promover Cooperativas como la Santa Adelaida. Se instaló un pequeño beneficio, pero se dejo a la suerte de los cooperativistas su mantenimiento y reparaciones.

La finca cuenta con un pequeño restaurante. “Una señora que le gusta venir nos enseñó a hacer quesadillas” (Buenísimas por cierto) Un barista los esta capacitando para la preparación y presentación de capuccinos, espressos y otras bebidas.

Cordillera del Bálsamo

The film of choice to start the Sonnar Summer was the Fuji Acros 100. I chose to go with this moderate speed film in order to be able to shot wide open and at suitable hand held speeds. In addition it is an ultra fine grain film that will test the resolving power of the lens.


I am very happy with the results of this first roll, I tried to test the lens under different conditions:

Portrait of my friend Caroline, wide open f/1,4 1/15 of a second. The famous dreamy 3D feeling.

Wide open and at the closest range possible 46mm. The focus spot is on the second film canister. The shallow dept of field is notable.

My Blackberry died for a couple of days and I had to use the trusty back up Nokia. Sometimes I miss having the M2 as a back up, I hope not to need one anytime soon. I like how the image fades away with the Sonnar wide open.

We went to the beach with my parents and my brother, we played a match of UNO while waiting for lunch. I won, twice. This was shot at f/2,8 if I recall.

A Night Shot. Maybe F2.8 at 1/8 of a second.

Beauty Salon, f/8 at 1/125. The lens is quite capable to render fine details. Beauty Salons are over crowded with signs and generally include the image of a celebrity.

The famous Sonnar glow.

I like the vignetting and the tonality of the lens. Almost all the shots were taken with a Yellow light filter which helped for the contrast of the image.

I have come to terms with myself and the equipment that I will be using. At least for the time being. I have named this period the Sonnar Summer. It begun with the arrival of the Nikkor 50mm 1,4 in ltm mount. I acquired this lens after a long journey with the different 50mm I have used. The quest for the perfect 50mm lens is a long one and it may never end, there are too many options considering the different factors involved such as speed, manufacturer, size, coating, age, construction, etc. In the end I believe that the most important factor is the lens construction, since this will be the one that will provide the overall rendering of the lens. It is true that not all Double Gauss, Tessar, Sonnars, Biogons will provide the same image than their other similar counterparts, moreover even among these constructions are many derivations, however you may have an overall idea of the image it will generate.

I have tried many of these constructions, the Double Gauss Planar and its derivative Summicron, Color Skopar f2.5, and Nokton f1.5 and the triplet Heliar f2, all of them great performers but that have been passed on due to low speed (Color Skopar), big size and finder blockage (Nokton 50 1.5), coating blemishes (Summicron), or a moment of doubt (I wish I still had the Heliar).

But I still haven’t  found what I am looking for, until I finally found the Rollei Sonnar 40mm 2,8. I love this lens and the images it produce, this lead me to learn more about the Sonnar design and fell for it. You may read my short investigation of the Sonnar Design Here.

With that in mind I decided to sell my 50mm at the time – the sharp ZM Planar f2 – for something faster and able to produce images with a vintage 35mm film feeling (although a stellar performer, the Planar renders images that seems too digital to me), thus I acquired the Nikkor 50mm 1,4 in Leica Thread Mount. I chose Nikon because back in the day they were really committed with the Sonnar design and manufactured lenses in 50mm, 85mm, 105mm and 135mm with such lens construction.

Enter Nikkor 50mm 1,4

I sent the lens to Youxin Ye to have it CLA’d he removed the oil from the blades and cleaned the optics to the best. The lens has some cleaning marks on the front element and some separation in some inner element that it is visible when you open the lens up to f1,4 but it hasn’t affected the photos at all.

Dante Stella provides a shot description of the lens that is very useful, you may read it here.

The lens is based on the Zeiss Sonnar 50mm 1,5. It consist of seven elements in three groups, with a single positive lens in the first group, a cemented triplet in the second group formed by a positive lens in the second element a low-refractive-index lens in the third element and a negative lens in the fourth element, plus another cemented triplet in the third group consisting of two negative lenses and one positive lens in between.

Specifications: Nikkor 50mm f/1,4

Filter Size: 43mm
f/Stop Range: Full stops from 1,4 to 16 with a phantom stop for f/22
Minimum Focus Distance: Range finder coupling ends at 1 meter and continues up to 46cm
Angle of View: 46.8°
Elements/Groups: 7/3
Length: 41mm
Barrel is made of brass with a chrome finishing.
The diaphragm consist of 12 blades which provide an almost perfect circle at every aperture
This lens is optimized for wide open shots at close distances, it generates dreamy images with a creamy bokeh.

This lens will joint the Rollei Sonnar 40mm 2,8 which is on its way back from DAG after being CLA’d and the “legendary” Nikkor 105mm 2,5 that has just been sourced from Bellamy all the way from Japan. Thus I have the set of Sonnar lenses that will cover the semi wide angel 40mm, the standard 50mm and the short telephoto 105mm.

Join me in the next post with the pictures from the first film roll with the Nikkor.

Part 4.- There is nothing new under the Sun.

Standard  Sonnar lenses had to adapt in order to survive in the 35mm arena. In the late 1960’s Zeiss reformulated the lens into a configuration of five elements in four groups with a slower speed of f/2,8 this was the Sonnar 40mm f/2,8 for Rollei 35 cameras. Despite such changes, the design principles of the original Sonnar are kept. A similar Sonnar construction was used in the 1981 autofocus point and shot camera Nikon “Pikaichi” L35AF 35 mm f/2.8; the 2003 Rollei Sonnar 40mm f/2,8 in Leica thread mount; and with an additional rear element in the 2004 Zeiss C Sonnar T* 1.5/50 ZM in Leica M mount. It is worth noticing that with the Pikaichi Nikon was able to create a wide-angle lens (35mm) from the Sonnar design which is unfit by nature for wide-angle lenses.

Lens design for the Nikon “Pikaichi” L35AF 35 mm f/2.8

Based on the original Sonnar 50mm f/2 configuration (six elements in three groups, with a single positive lens in the first group, a cemented triplet in the second group and a cemented doublet of negative and positive elements in the rear group), the new Sonnar lens was integrated with the third element substituted by an extremely low-refractive-index material, that is, air. The three-element cemented lens was an excellent invention to reduce the interface with air, which contributed to the realization of a lens system with increased transmittance and minimized ghost in those days when the antireflective coating on the lens surface was not available. However, in the age of advanced coating technique, the need for a cemented lens was obviated. Then, the second lens was removed and the four group five element system configuration was developed.

Sonnar design C Sonnar T* 1.5/50 ZM

Since then, the Sonnar name (though not actually meaning a Sonnar design) has been used to designate the prime lens of some 35mm compact cameras such as in the Contax T series, being normally found in the five element in four group configuration, with max aperture of f/2,8.

The renaissance of the rangefinder system in the early 2000, brought two new “real” Sonnar standard lenses compatible with the Leica M mount, the Rollei Sonnar 40mm f/2,8 released in 2003 which followed the same lens configuration of the Sonnar design used in Rollei’s 35 cameras from the 60’s-70’s; and the Zeiss 50mm f/1.5 C Sonnar ZM announced at Photokina on September 2004. The Rollei follows specifically the reformulated design from the late 1960’s; on the other hand the Zeiss C Sonnar design consist of six elements in four groups, with a positive single element in the first group, an air-spaced glass instead of a cemented triplet in the second group, a negative single element in the third and a cemented triplet similar to the original Sonnar 50mm f/1,5 in the rear group.

From mid 2000’s the mirrorless interchangeable-lens system has been gaining terrain in the photographic arena. The mirrorless system cameras allow using the old Sonnars with Leica Thread Mount and Contax mount through the use of an adaptor. By having no flipping mirror the SRL technical barrier has been surpassed and new standard lenses of Sonnar designs may appear once again for this format.

It finally seemed that this was going to happen when on December 2011 Sony partnered with Zeiss to launch the Sony Carl Zeiss Sonnar T* E 24mm f/1.8 ZA for the Sony Nex system.

Unfortunately this lens is not a Sonnar design, it only bears the Sonnar name which is more a marketing strategy, Sonnar here means that it is a high-grade, light-sensitive lens. This lens features a construction of 7 groups in 8 elements (2 aspheric surfaces, 1 ED) and has a focal length equivalent to 36mm on the 35mm format.

With the new optical advances and the race to obtain the utmost sharpness from an objective it is very difficult that standard lenses with the Sonnar design will be developed and released to the market.

Standard Sonnars are native to 35mm rangefinder photography and you may only fully exploit its attributes with a rangefinder camera; that symbiosis is particularly seductive, it is the combination used by the early photojournalists, it is classic, a high mark of optical engineering, an unique expression of character, that is the photographic approach that I have embraced, that is the raison d’être of the Sonnar Summer.


Chapter II.- The Sun goes down only to rise again.

Part 3.- Ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone                                                                                          (The struggle of the 35mm standard length and the positioning of the fast telephoto)

Technical and cost factors marked the decadence of standard focal length Sonnar lenses.

In the late 1950’s and early 1960’s with the advent of the SRL revolution the popularity of the rangefinder cameras declined and companies such as Leica and Zeiss Ikon favored to adventure in the new system in detriment of their rangefinders. Other companies that had used the Sonnar design in the lenses for their rangefinder cameras such as Canon and Nikon were now taking the lead of the SLR market and by the end of the decade had completely abandoned the rangefinder system.

At the end of the Rangefinder era, the standard focal range Sonnar’s struggled to make the transition into the new SRL system. The 50mm Sonnars had a short back-focus length which provided an advantage in the Rangefinder cameras but made them incompatible with most SLR cameras due to the space required by their moving mirror, consequently the standard focal range in 35mm photography was now dominated by lenses following the Planar optical design, while only telephoto Sonnars made the transition into the SLR system.

The advancement in the coating techniques allowed to arrange glass elements isolated without getting objectionable reflections and stray light, without needing to combine elements into a group; moreover the fabrication of cemented triplets was more expensive than the fabrication of isolated elements.

In 1961 Zeiss Ikon ceased the production of the Contax IIa/IIIa cameras and with them the reign of the once revolutionary Sonnar came to an end.

And everything under the sun is in tune, But the sun is eclipsed by the moon

The Sonnar design is still today the basis for compact high-performance medium telephoto lenses with speeds up to f/2,8. A key point of characteristics of the Sonnar lens is its power arrangement which is of a telephoto type. The construction of the lens does not allow a large angle of view, but a fast lens of a relatively small size is viable.

The Gauss design lens realizes a higher performance than the Sonnar desing lens. But, it is inevitable that an employment of the Gauss design leads to a larger lens size. The Sonnar lens offers short barrel lengths and less saggital coma flare than Gaussian lenses, plus very elaborate correction of lens errors and very even corner – to corner illumination. The difference between designs is evidence that “A basic lens character is determined by a lens type”. The Sonnar lens has a characteristic that aberration fluctuation at a close range is large. Namely, the closer the lens is focused to the closest focus distance, the softer the subject image becomes and flare is increasing. It can be said that the characteristic of this seemingly shortcoming is well suited for portraiture or photography of a fixed still subject and the lens delivers an exquisite imaging characteristics.


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