Here are a few recommendations I can make, based on my own experience. This is by no means a complete survey.
Executive Summary: Most lenses for large format are quite good. For general shooting conditions, the images they make are often indistinguishable. Some of the best large format lenses are diffraction-limited: at their best settings they deliver the maximum resolution allowed by the laws of optics for their focal length. The advantages of one lens over another often boil down to secondary considerations like size, weight, filter size and price.
Large Format lenses have been made since the beginning of photography but in recent years the big four manufacturers have been Schneider, Rodenstock, Fuji and Nikon. In most popular focal lengths we can find lenses of similar description from each of these manufacturers. They're all very good and in most cases only a trained eye or rigorous tester can distinguish any differences between them.
Because Large Format lenses have been manufactured over a long period of time, models and brands still circulate in the used market that were made by illustrious design houses of yore: Kodak, Zeiss, Goerz, Wollensak, Cooke, Voigtlander, Bausch and Lomb, Dallmeyer, Ilex, Meyer, Pinkham and Smith, etc. These "vintage" designs are still in use today. In some cases, they perform so well that except at extreme enlargements, no difference can be discerned. However for certain applications - portraits for example - some older lenses with optical imperfections are preferred, even sought out.
With regard to resolution, many modern lenses for Large Format do not offer dramatic improvements over earlier versions: what they offer is greater coverage and reduced flare. Starting in the 1940's, manufacturers started coating lenses to minimize internal reflections which cause flare and loss of contrast. Coatings made possible lenses of complex design with many internal elements. Without effective coating and special optical glass, modern designs like zoom lenses would be useless. Vintage lens designs were purposely simple with a minimum of air/glass surfaces to avoid flare and reduce size and weight.
If we use a good lens shade, avoid harsh lighting and subjects which require extreme view camera movements, images made with vintage lenses can be virtually indistinguishable from those made with new gear. See this comparison of a 1990's era Nikkor 200mm M with two Bausch and Lomb 8x10 Protar Series V from the 1930's and this article which compares a 1950's era Schneider 90mm Angulon with a circa 2000 Schneider Super Symmar 110mm XL.
Vintage lenses have many-bladed irises, effectively round at all settings. This actually makes them superior for certain applications. Click here for further discussion.
If we're shooting a modern digital camera with a high-resolution sensor, there is no advantage to using Large Format lenses - even if we can figure out how to mount the lens. Therefore the answer is... No.
Large Format lenses deliver good performance over a very large circle of illumination. This is a sensible approach because images made on large sheets of film (or large sensors) require only modest enlargement. Lenses designed for digital photography illuminate a comparatively tiny sensor area: even a "full-frame" sensor is only 24x36mm. Resolution must be optimal because significant enlargement is required.
General purpose lenses are good for photographs of landscape, architecture* and miscellaneous subjects at moderate to long distance. For these applications we value lenses of excellent sharpness with a wide circle of coverage. When we're shooting in the field - walking or trekking with our equipment - we appreciate lenses of compact size and light weight. Here are a few lenses which meet that description:
The Fujinon A series of lenses represents an innovative compromise in lens design. Like their plasmat cousins (Sironar, Symmar, etc) they provide excellent correction and wide coverage. Unlike standard plasmats which open to f/5.6, the Fujinon A series only open to a maximum aperture of f/9, a modification which makes them considerably smaller in size and weight and allows them to take comparatively small filters. While standard plasmats are corrected for distance-shooting at a ratio of 1:10, 1:20 etc. Fujinon A lenses are corrected for slightly closer work, more like 1:5. This "intermediate" correction makes them well suited for both Macro and Landscape photography.
The Fujinon 240 A weighs only 245 grams and takes 52mm filters, yet it has a 336 mm circle of coverage: enough to function as a portrait lens on 4x5, a normal lens for 5x7, a wide-angle for 8x10 and an excellent close-up lens for all 3. This lens is so small, it's a delight to carry into the field and is ideal for portraits in 4x5. It does nicely for 4x5 landscape too. This 4x5 photo was taken with a Fujinon 240 lens. In the 12x15 print, you can clearly see details in the legs and wings of the fly on the lower right.
Like the others in the A series, the Fujinon 300 A is remarkably small and light, considering its performance. It has a generous 420 mm circle of coverage, takes 55 mm filters and weighs only 410 grams: much less than comparable lenses for the 8x10 format, for which it serves as a normal lens. 300 mm is my favorite focal length for 5x7, equivalent to a 200 mm lens on 4x5.
Because of its wide circle of coverage, when used on 4x5 or 5x7 cameras, the 300 A can function as a wonderful longer lens for portraits and gives tremendous accommodation for view camera movements. It is also superb lens when used close-up on any format. This 4x5 image was taken with the 300A, with a lot of rise. A small section from the top shows plenty of detail, way off-center. This portrait was made on 5x7 film. The 300 A was discontinued by Fuji, but you can see it listed in this 1981 catalog.
The 200mm Nikkor M is my favorite lens for use in the field. It's very small and weighs only 180 grams - but it's razor sharp. It comes in a Copal 0 shutter and takes 52mm filters. Unlike longer lenses for 4x5, it renders images with only a slight sense of compression and distance.
(Lenses don't create perspective or flatness: subject distance does. With shorter lenses, we need to move in closer to the subject. If we move in too close, we get a distorted "stretched-out" effect known as foreshortening. If we step back too far, the subject looks compressed. At close range, the distance between a horse's eyes and nose is substantial, but from a great distance, it's rather small. There's a reason why the most popular focal lengths for portraits are of moderate length: they give a look which is least contrived and distracting: neither foreshortened not compressed. Here are some pictures made with a Nikkor 200M lens on 4x5 film. On 5x7, a 300mm lens (12-inch) gives the same basic perspective).
The Nikkor M series are Tessar designs: they are very sharp but have less coverage compared to "standard" Plasmat designs such as Sironar, Symmar, etc. On the other hand, they are small in comparison. Nikon says their M lenses are APO (highly color-corrected) at infinity but I have found that Tessars work very nicely at moderate and close distances too. Except when shooting at genuine macro distance like 1:1 and beyond, these lenses are excellent.
* For photographs of architectural interiors and facades we often need lenses which provide extra-wide coverage to facilitate extreme view camera movements. Fuji and Nikon lenses for these purposes generally have the name "Wide" or "W". The Schneider Super-Angulon and Rodenstock Grandagons designs fall into this category.
The Rodenstock APO-Sironar-S lenses are superb. They are very sharp, have excellent control of flare and have lovely blur rendition. The MTF charts for this line of lenses is impressive: click here to see the Rodenstock lens catalog. Note that most lenses in this category give their best performance at f/16 and f/22.
This 4x5 image was made with a 150mm Rodenstock APO-Sironar-S lens. The tonality and detail is...delicious. As you can see from the detail section, this lens is quite sharp. It weighs only 230 grams and takes tiny 49 mm filters. Yet it covers 231 mm - enough to for 5x7 as a wide lens and plenty for 4x5 as a normal lens. Here are some pictures made with a 150mm APO Sironar-S. Sironar-S lenses are corrected for 1:10, which makes them fine performers at all but macro distance.
The Fujinon 450C is a compact lens with long reach and tremendous coverage. Mounted in a Copal #1 shutter, it weighs only 270 grams, takes 52 mm filters, yet covers 486 mm, enough for the 11x14 format. It makes a nice portrait lens for 8x10, a long lens for 5x7 and it's a very long lens for 4x5, but it's smaller and lighter than most lenses. The 300C is another in the same family: C stands for Compact !
This image was made on 8x10 with a 450C. It tells the whole story.
The Fujinon 400T is a telephoto lens for 4x5: even though it gives a 400 mm effect, it requires only 250 mm of bellows draw. It works great on cameras like the Tachihara wooden field camera - which is otherwise limited to 300 mm lenses of "normal" design. Mounted in a Copal #1 shutter, it takes 67 mm filters and weighs 700 grams.
This 4x5 image was made with the 400T, at a great distance from the subject. Here is a detail section of the negative. Here is another one taken with this lens: sharp as a tack. If you want a long lens for 4x5, but your camera has limited bellows extension, then telephoto lenses are a great option. Fujinon is not the only brand.
Notice the diaphragm in this vintage Heliar lens and how many leaves it has: The aperture is almost circular at all settings. This helps retain lovely out of focus rendering - something overlooked in many modern lenses. Nowadays, most lenses have only 5, 6, or sometimes 8 blades.
When everything in an image is in focus, diaphragm shape doesn't matter. But for portraits and close work where blurry points of light appear in the image, having a round diaphragm makes a difference. You can see an example portrait here and example photographs of flowers here and here.
If you plan to make photos with lots of specular highlights and want round artifacts, then find an older lens with a round diaphragm. If it's in an old shutter you can use it as is, provided the shutter is in good shape. If not, you can get a barrel-mounted lens and use either a Sinar Copal Shutter (see below) or have it mounted in an old shutter (see below).
Portrait lenses - also known as "Soft Focus" lenses - are designed to produce images with conspicuous aberrations: blur, glow, diffusion, halos, etc. These lenses were popular in years past because they soften imperfections in the skin and render the subject with a pleasant ethereal quality. Jim Galli and others on the Large Format Photography Forum have done extensive shooting with vintage portrait lenses, some of which go back to the 1800's (Read discussion here.) Many of these lenses allow you to control the "softness" by rotating a dial which moves one lens element relative to the another.
Here is a set of photos I made using a very old and very rare 9 inch Kershaw Soft Focus lens, provided by portrait photographer Eddie Gunks. The Kershaw produces a strong halo effect which can be quite beautiful. One method of determining the ideal portrait length for lenses, is to simply add the length and width of the film edges. On 4x5 film, 4 + 5 = 9 inches or 225mm.
Reinhold Schnable has re-introduced the Wollaston Meniscus lens, one of the earliest designs of all. It's a superb lens for "pictorial" effects and comes with a set of perfectly round apertures. He makes them in a variety of focal lengths and configurations.
There are also modern portrait lenses, such as the Cooke Portrait PS945. It's a wonderful lens that is still being manufactured by Cooke, a venerable name in the world of still and cinema optics. The Rodenstock Imagon and Fujinon SFS are no longer made and give similar results - but every portrait lens has its own "personality". With these modern designs, uncorrected aberrations diminish as you stop down the lens, so you can control the effects by your choice of aperture. Stopped down sufficiently, they behave like ordinary lenses: razor sharp. The Imagon and the Fujinon SFS also come with special filters which modify the look and shape of highlights and halos. To read a copy of the instruction manual for the Fujinon SFS lenses, click here.
Not everyone is fond of the full diffusion effect. To some, it looks contrived and distracting. However, when opened to just the right aperture, these lenses provide a sublime blur rendition and a very mild "soft focus" effect. Here are some photos made with a 180mm Fujinon SFS lens, a 3-element design. Stopped down a bit, it shows just a trace of the special "portrait" effect in the highlights and the overall blur rendition is only slightly exaggerated.
For further insights and great photos shot with a wide variety of vintage lenses, see the work of Jim Galli.
Contemporary photographers often consider long lenses appropriate for portraits because they flatten facial features and blur the background. However, the traditional portrait length is shorter and often better-suited because we include some of the environment around the subject, not just the head and shoulders. With only a moderately long lens, we come in closer and the resulting images have a greater sense of intimacy and emotional depth. Here is a portrait made on 4x5 film with a vintage 210mm lens: a classic portrait length for that format. The background is out of focus, but the photograph has an element of presence and spaciousness.
This effect applies not only to portraits, but to a wide variety of subjects. For photographs made with a lens of equivalent classic portrait length on 5x7 inch film, click here. To view a series taken with a vintage 9-inch portrait lens on 4x5 inch film, click here. A horizontal viewing angle of 30 degrees seems ideal.
The traditional method of determining portrait length is to add the width and height of the film or sensor. On 4x5 film, 4+5 inches = 9 inches or 225mm. If we deduct the blank film edge and remove 1/2 inch, that gives a focal length of 210mm, the classic portrait length for many 4x5 shooters.
Cropping a 24x36mm "full-frame" sensor to the 4x5 ratio so that we can make prints at 8x10, 11x14, 16x20 etc. we arrive at 24x30mm. Since 24+30 = 54, a 55mm lens is the ideal traditional portrait length for the full-frame format, giving a lovely sense of proximity and a horizontal viewing angle of around 30 degrees. 50mm on this format is equivalent to a 200mm lens, also very suitable. See this photograph of a vase for an example. Notice the sense of distance and compression: not too close, not too far. Not too round, not too flat. Just right.
Normal lenses for landscapes and portraits (like the ones above) are optimized for shooting at an average distance, at a ratio of 1:10 or more. For very close work however, normal lenses do not perform at their best, particularly as we reach out towards the edges of lens coverage. Once we focus close to 1:1 and beyond, macro lenses come into their own.
Macro lenses are designed for shooting in ratios of at 1:1 and closer. Like other modern lenses, macros have a complex design: many elements, several groups. They are similar to general-purpose lenses, but have different internal designs which are optimized for very close shooting. They produce a wide image circle, enabling full use of view-camera movements for control of perspective and depth of field. The Rodenstock APO Macro Sironar, Schneider Macro-Symmar HM and Nikon Macro Nikkor-AM (ED) lenses fall into this category.
Most Macro lenses open to f/5.6, which makes it easy to view the subject and achieve precise focus at close distances, even under poor lighting. They usually come mounted in a shutter or a Sinar DB lens board. This photo was made with a 210mm Rodenstock Macro Sironar N, at around 2:1 magnification. Here is a gallery of photographs made with that lens.
Process lenses are designed to make color separation negatives in "process" cameras used in the photo engraving industry. They are optimized for shooting flat surfaces at 1:1 magnification. They are often available in barrel - without a shutter - and are thus priced lower than other lenses of comparable focal length. They don't have a lot of extra coverage, but they are very sharp and their images have very low distortion.
The Goerz APO-Artar, Schneider G-Claron, Nikon APO Nikkor and Rodenstock APO Ronar lenses fall into this category. They generally open to f/9 and are thus comparatively small and light. If you have a Sinar shutter, you can use them as-is. Some of them come in shutters and some people purchase them in-barrel and proceed to mount them into a shutter. Here's a photo made with a 150mm APO Nikkor lens. I mounted it on a simple cardboard lens board and used it with a Sinar Copal Shutter.
Their optics are rather simple: 4 or 6 elements in 2 groups, a symmetrical design, with modest coverage - which works very well when shooting straight ahead. This image was made with a 240mm APO Nikkor, at around 1:1 magnification. Because they open to f/9, they can be a little difficult to focus when working at a close distance in dim lighting. For other applications however, f/9 is plenty wide enough: this image was made outdoors, with a 360mm APO Nikkor, on 5x7 HP5+ film.
Here are some photos made with a 610mm APO Nikkor, on 4x5 TMY film.
Some of the finest lenses are mounted "in barrel". They have have no shutter of their own: just a diaphragm. Many vintage and modern lenses are available in barrel. Some are wonderful old portrait lenses. Others are modern process lenses taken from high-resolution engraving machines - like the APO Nikkor series, which are affordable, easy to find, small, light and razor sharp at all distances. Buying barrel-mounted lenses can save you money, size and weight.
The Sinar Copal Shutter lets you shoot with vintage and barrel lenses. It fits onto the front standard of Sinar cameras, just behind the lens board. You set the shutter speed with the dial at the top. The Copal shutter is self-cocking and precise exposure times go from 1/60 to 8 seconds. Of course, you can still use lenses that are mounted in a standard shutter if you like: just leave the Sinar Shutter open.
Sinaron DB-Mounted lenses (like the one on the right) were made to work directly with the Sinar Shutter. You set the aperture, not on the lens, but on a large dial at the side of the shutter. With DB-mounted lenses, you can operate everything from behind the camera: there is no need to walk to the front to close or open anything. No need to cock the shutter, because it is self-cocking. You can preview depth of field by gently squeezing the cable release: Otherwise, the lens stays wide open for best focus and viewing. Pictured at right is a 210mm Sinaron DB, a Sinar-mounted 210mm Rodenstock Sironar-N lens. Sinar chose Rodenstock lenses for their Sinaron line, but you can mount any lens of reasonable size.
Front-mounting a lens in an Alphax or Betax Shutter is another attractive option: all you need is an adapter. SK Grimes did a wonderful job with my 1950's Red Dot Apochromat Artar lens. The barrel-mounted lens fits into the front of the Alphax #4 shutter and can be replaced with another lens. Grimes made the adapter and it works perfectly.
For a list of shutters and their sizes, see the SK Grimes site: USA sizes for US-made shutters like Ilex, Alphax, Betax and Metric sizes for Copal, Compur, Compound etc. For USA shutters, flange information is given as inches diameter and threads per inch. For example, the Alphax # 4 Shutter opening is 2.618 inches wide, and the threads are 30 per inch. For metric shutters, flange information is given in mm and threads are listed in millimeters per turn. See How to Measure Threads for further information.
Normally, a shutter is positioned between the front and rear elements of a lens: the shutter mechanism provides both the shutter and the adjustable aperture or iris. When front-mounting, we place the entire lens in front of the shutter (just as we do with the Sinar Copal shutter). If the lens has its own iris (as do barrel-mounted lenses), we get to keep it - which is usually a good thing since vintage barrel-mounted lenses have round apertures with many blades. The Artar has a 14-bladed iris, making it effectively round at all settings.
On the left you can see the Alphax #4 Shutter on the front of my vintage wooden 5x7 camera, a Kodak 2D. The Red Dot Apochromat Artar lens is screwed into the adapter. The Alphax shutter has speeds from 1/2 to 1/50 second, as well as B (bulb) and T (time exposure). On the right the same lens is mounted on my 4x5 Tachihara Field camera. Grimes made an adapter for the Alphax #4 shutter to a standard Technika board.
On 5x7 film masked to the 4:5 ratio a 10 3/4 inches (273mm) is an ideal "portrait" length, equivalent to a classic 9 inch lens on 4x5 film. (The Cooke Portrait PS945 Lens mentioned above is a 9-inch lens.) Here is a gallery of photographs made on 5x7 film with a 10 3/4 inch Goerz Red Dot Apochromat Artar lens, mounted in an Alphax #4 Shutter.
Here is a photo that compares the bokeh or blur rendition of 4 different lenses of standard "portrait" length: 210mm Heliar, 210mm Tessar, 240mm Fujinon A, 240mm APO Nikkor. These lenses represent a sample of designs old and new. In this comparison, all the lenses are stopped down to f/11, and the contrast has been adjusted so that they all match.
After adjusting for minor variations in contrast, it is virtually impossible to see any difference whatsoever between the blur rendition of these lenses. Can you tell the difference ? At moderate degrees of enlargement, it's impossible to tell the difference between these lenses altogether. We're left with other, more practical issues like coverage, size, weight, filter size, price, availability, etc.
Here is another photo which compares the bokeh or blur rendition of 3 different lenses of standard "normal" length: 150mm Heliar, 150mm APO Nikkor, 150mm APO Sironar-S. These lenses represent a variety of optical designs: 5-element Heliar, 4-element Dialyte, 6-element Plasmat. All the lenses are stopped down to f/11 and the contrast has been adjusted so that they all match. After adjusting for minor variations in contrast, it is very hard to see any difference between the image rendition of these lenses.
A word to the wise: beware of articles where the author relies on subjective terms like creamy, biting, buttery, etc. The best way to compare the signature of different lenses is to shoot the same subject under identical lighting and examine the resulting images side-by-side. The differences, when present, are oft-times exaggerated.
Note: These bokeh tests do not evaluate the rendering of sun-stars and specular highlights. Points of light take the shape of the lens aperture. These tests simulate typical scenes which do not contain bright spots. For more on how lenses with circular aperture render specular highlights, see Vintage Lenses: Round Apertures above.
Here are some collections of photographs made with a variety of large format lenses, at different apertures and film sizes.