The Maddening, Amazing Phase One 240mm Blue Ring Lens

 In News, Phase One, Phase One Lenses, Phase One XF, Steve Hendrix

Brad Kaye recently wrote an excellent article on the Schneider-Kreuznach 55mm Blue Ring Lens. In the spirit of taking a closer look at a particular product, I decided to write about the Schneider-Kreuznach 240mm Blue Ring Lens. In doing so, I’ve subjected myself to writing about one of the most frustrating and rewarding lenses in the entire Phase One lens lineup. We’ve all had lenses like that – when they’re good, they’re oh so good. But when they’re bad, we cry like little babies. Such is the nature of photography. Or… is this just me?

So why then do I refer to a lens that costs $7,290 US dollars as maddening? Surely it must simply be perfect and great all the time, every time. Ok, let’s step out of that fantasy world for a moment and view this situation through the lens of reality, as it were. First, from a physical standpoint, this is not a small lens (cough! cough!). Ok, I’m being too kind – this is quite a large lens. How large? Quite. But how large is it comparatively? Here are some comparisons:

Phase One 240mm: 1600g / 56.4 ounces – 169 x 105mm/ 6.7 x 4.1 inches

Fuji 250mm: 1420g / 50.1 ounces – 203.5 x 108mm / 8.1 x 4.3

Hasselblad 135mm + 1.7x: 1372g / 48.4 ounces – 195mm x 81mm / 7.7 x 3.2

Canon 70-200 EF: 1480 g / 52.2 ounces – 199mm x 88mm / 7.8 x 3.5

Wait, this can’t be right.
OMG, my reality has been tampered with!

These are all current lenses for long-ish telephoto use, that cover Phase One, Fuji GFX, Hasselblad X, Canon EF. Yes, the Phase One 240mm is the heaviest lens, but just barely – all of these 4 lenses are around 50 ounces each. But it is easily the shortest of the group. So despite offering by far the largest sensor for their camera system, we can surmise that Phase One has created a telephoto lens that is not realistically any larger than a competitive lens from even smaller format cameras. Bravo, Phase One!

But – this is still a large, heavy lens that will be used with 100mp and 150mp sensors. It is not image stabilized. And this contributes to the challenges in using it and getting the most out of it. This involves a number of considerations.

This is not a good lens for street photography! I just wanted to warn you in case you were tempted. This does then beg the question – “Can I hand hold this lens?”. The answer is yes, of course. Of course. Of course. Think Thor at the end of Endgame with Quill* – and imagine Thor is the 240mm lens and you are Quill, and the lens is telling you that yes, you are in charge. Of course you are. No. You. Are. Not. The only way that you would really be in charge would be if you have a good tripod/head combination attached to this lens. That, my friends, is the appropriate navigator.

A word about that. Tripods and tripod heads often have weight capacity specifications. Whatever stated capacity you think you should use for this lens, you should probably double it. I would say if your tripod head is not rated at least for 40+ pounds load capacity, you’re playing with fire. On another note, there is the matter of lens support, meaning something like this:

Hejnar Lens Support

Now – why should you use this? 

A) To help support the weight of the lens and relieve stress from the camera bayonet

B) To reduce the possibility of vibrations, which will blur your images

C) To further fool onlookers that you’re shooting a major motion picture

The answer is all of the above! 

But only to a small degree. I have asked Phase One about this – they demurred on the question of motion picture making, but they did indicate that the primary function of a lens support device in this case would be to B) To reduce the possibility of vibrations, which will blur your images. Importantly, they weren’t particularly firm on this, or the question of bayonet support. To get a truly firm answer on the risk of your camera lens bayonet being shorn from the front of your XF camera (and the 240mm lens with it), you might have to track down one of the engineers who designed the XF camera, ply them with drinks and then somewhere around 1am, ask the questions for the 4th time. Good luck with that.

Here is my take. For me, what can already be a challenging configuration to arrive at pin sharp images is further challenged by navigating a lens support device thingy. Yes, onlookers will ooh and aaah, but you still have to put the thing together. The question remains – Will you enjoy that? What is your tolerance for that? If your tolerance is high, you may opt to add this item to your kit – it may be helpful in reducing vibration, say on a windy day. Ultimately, I cannot say how helpful it will be – your mileage may vary (sorry for spelling that out). I personally find the implementation of a lens support device such as this troublesome to navigate to some degree, so my enthusiasm is a bit dampened from an advocacy standpoint. I would have loved a built-in tripod collar instead, but … foiled on that score.

How close can I shoot with this lens?
Pretty damn close!

Now, before your taste has completely soured, let’s recurdle this situation. This lens is a fantastic optical performer. And it has to be, because if it is not, then why tangle with all the above? Telephoto lenses for medium format can be almost as stubborn a category as wide angle lenses. A minimum of choices, and a lot that leave something to be desired. Remember, we are talking about a camera system that you acquire for one reason, and for one reason only: to excite those onlookers – NO! – to capture the images you want to capture in the highest quality possible from any camera system. One could assign any number of cliches that might be appropriate – no pain/no gain, no risk/no reward, but however you wish to frame it, nothing beats this.

So getting back to that hand holding question – yes you can, and you might get lucky, but that’s not what this lens is for – I am not even going to go through every single aperture and assess each of them – you can do that on your own. But you’re likely going to find the best quality in the f/6.3 – f/9.0 range. And in this range, it absolutely crushes it. But this is a telephoto lens, as in yes, you can shoot at distance so far that if you yelled they could not hear you, so you would have to use the telephone to call them and then they could hear you (this is where the term telephoto came from ). And so what you should know is that due to this magnification, your depth of field is going to be a challenge. So I tend to lean toward the smaller aperture end of things. Just know that the below files would look even more amazing at f/5.6 or f/8. But of course my depth of field would suffer even further.

As it stands, this tower that I photographed below is rendered sharp as a tack. I did not hand hold this, I used my Induro Carbon Fiber tripod and an Arca Swiss Cube. Very importantly, I have set my XF to use the Electronic Shutter with the Phase One IQ4 150. I want no mechanical movements happening with this exposure and the Electronic Shutter fully and completely eliminates any of that. For this capture I was using live view to focus with, and I had my drive mode set to Delay + 3.5 seconds (optionally, you could use the Vibration Delay Drive Mode of the XF Camera). I then proximity tapped the exposure button while in live view, and 3.5 seconds later I had my sharp as a tack image. BTW – you did know that you don’t have to really hard tap the LCD screen, right? It’s a proximity screen, like your iPhone. Just almost touching the screen will engage it. For this reason, I sometimes dispense with a remote release cable.

Schneider-Kreuznach 240mm Blue Ring Lens on the left and with 2X Tele Converter on the right.
Zoomed 100% – Schneider-Kreuznach 240mm Blue Ring Lens on the left and with 2X Tele Converter on the right.

The above screen shots are at default settings, no sharpening added, I did have to oomph up the shadow values on the capture with the Schneider 2x Tele Converter, and as I was shooting at f/11 and f/12, I did have the Diffraction Tool engaged in Capture One (which I recommend for anything f/9 or above with this lens), and I always have my Luminance Noise Tool set to Zero as my custom default. This tool by default is set to a value of 50 in Capture One, even when shooting at base ISO. And this produces a loss of detail, for absolutely no reason, since there is no noise to smooth. So – change that default setting! 

I also instructed the Chromatic Aberration Tool to analyze the image, rather than rely upon the default setting. With the 2x Tele Converter, this is necessary, chromatic aberration can be present when the 240mm is paired with the 2X TC and with the default setting of the CA Tool. About that 2x Tele Converter. There are mixed feelings about this piece and deservedly so. First, it’s another element in the chain, it makes your lens physically even longer. And yes, it adds challenges. First, your 240mm lens becomes a 480mm lens – magnification is increased, depth of field shrinks. Your max aperture is f/9…. Sensitivity to vibrations is even more pronounced. You may shoot it and just not come away with anything good. But – the resolution is amazingly there. It certainly has to be one of the best performing Tele Converters ever made. 

Another tip – using the rotation dials of the XF Camera for Focus Nudge will keep you from having to turn the focus ring manually to dial in your focus point, and in doing so, you will not see your scene behave like it is on a trampoline in your viewfinder, because the camera body is centrally supported versus you – effectively – pushing down on the end of the lens as you adjust focus with the focus ring. Unfortunately, when using the 2x Tele Converter, you cannot use the Focus Nudge tool, as it relies upon the auto focus motor for the focus stepping. But with the native 240mm Lens itself, you can.

Back to depth of field – can you perform focus stacking with the 240mm lens? Why, yes you can. And if so, why would you not – wouldn’t that improve your depth of field? Now your results can vary, of course. There is the small matter of registration issues with continuous shooting with a large, heavy telephoto lens. if you do attempt Focus Stacking, using Electronic Shutter is an absolute must. Don’t even think of trying it without. I know – those of you who are bereft of IQ3 100 or IQ4 models have no Electronic Shutter (but we have a solution for that, it’s called an upgrade path).

One day last October I had the foolish idea of photographing a yellowjacket** nest that was buried in a pile of dirt (from my earlier in the year procrastinated attempt to create a vegetable garden). Opportunity knocked for those yellowjackets and they took advantage and made a nest in my eternal mound of dirt. This project allowed me to – again, foolishly – investigate the close focusing capabilities of this 240mm telephoto lens. So there I am sitting about 4 feet away from a substantial nest of yellowjackets and I quickly realized that at that distance and with that degree of magnification, my depth of field was going to be really nil. Because I wanted to maximize sharpness, I was shooting this at f/8 – pretty shallow.

Hello yellowjackets. Please disregard me.

So I decided to focus stack it – even though the only head I had with me at the time was an old Sirui ballhead. So, sure – let’s focus stack a Grand Central Station version of a yellowjacket nest – great idea Steve, good luck with that. Well, I did try it – and yes, there is a sort of a Grand Central Station type of effect that can be seen here. But what fascinated me was that there were a few yellowjackets- I shall call them the JF Sebastians* – who somehow, decided to stay put. Throughout the entire 16 capture sequence, they stayed put (except for a stray antenna). And it’s an extraordinary result, even with the antenna motion, on the JF Sebastians, you can count the hairs.

Grand Central Station yellowjacket nest.
JF Sebastian yellowjackets from the 16 shot Focus Stack.

But of course, excellence does not reside in a bubble. When it comes to lenses, what sets them apart is how good they are comparatively, relative to other lenses. And recently, I was following a thread on the GetDPI forum, which we regularly participate on and exclusively support with a paid contributor sponsorship. And someone mentioned that the Fuji GFX 250mm lens was superior to the Phase One 240mm lens – they said it as if this was an obvious fact. This was part of a general discussion debating the advantages of one system over another, and when this came out, I thought hmmm, is that so? Being the Missouri type (though I’m not from there), I had to see for myself. So I set up the Fuji GFX 100 and the 250mm GF Lens and also set up the Phase One IQ3 100 and the 240mm BR Lens (100mp to 100mp, to be fair, you see). We of course sell Fuji GFX systems, and I think a lot of the Fuji 250mm GF Lens, I consider it one of the best lenses in the lineup. 

Fuji GF 250mm on GFX 100 on the left, Phase One SK 240mm on IQ3 100 on the right.
Zoomed 100% – Fuji GF 250mm on GFX 100 on the left, Phase One SK 240mm on IQ3 100 on the right.

The results? I think it is hard to pick a winner. It was hard – as it always is – to do the test comparatively. The sensor size is different, so I had to approximate the distance differently when setting up both shots, and I shot the Phase One 240mm a bit more stopped down to try and make the depth of field more of a match. The focus points are just a bit different, I think the Fuji focus point is a bit more forward. But you’d be hard pressed to find a loser.

So, there you have it. Should you consider the Schneider-Kreuznach 240mm Blue Ring Lens? Abso-YUP-lutely – I think it is worth the effort. This lens is equivalent to a 154mm relative to 35mm format. An argument could be made that it could work as a long telephoto portrait lens, it’s an f/4.5 max aperture, but on a 54mm x 40mm sensor, this is probably closer to an f/2.8 – ish, relative to 35mm. Below is a link to the lens new in our online store. However, I can also tell you that currently we have several Certified Pre-Owned 240mm units in our inventory, which can save you some cheese.

https://www.digitalback.com/collections/bodies-lenses/products/schneider-kreuznach-240mm-ls-f-4-5-af

Fast Facts

  • Up to 1/1000s giving unique control in mixed lighting
  • Internal focusing, no external component movement when lens focuses
  • Exceptional performance whether you’re shooting beauty, landscape, sports or wildlife
Optical Construction:8 Elements, 8 Groups
Angle of View:16.5°
Aperture Range:f/4.5 – f/22
Diaphragm:Automatic
Focusing System:Auto Focus / Manual
Minimum Focusing Distance:170cm / 5.58ft
Maximum Magnification Ratio:0.17x
Area Covered:327 x 242mm / 12.9 x 9.5in
Equivalent 35mm Focal Length:149mm
Filter:86mm
Lens Hood:Bayonet
Dimensions:169 x 104.5mm / 6.7 x4.1in
Weight:1600g / 3.53lb / 56.44oz
Mount Compatibility:XF 645 Bayonet
Supported Systems:XF Camera System, 645 DF/DF+

* For non-cinephiles, there are some references above that may have gone swoosh over your heads.

  • Quill and Thor – at the end of the Marvel movie Endgame Thor and Quill have a bit of a funny control tussle on board Quill’s ship.
  • JF Sebastian – in the original Blade Runner movie (from 1982), when Roy Batty meets JF Sebastian, who works for the Tyrell Corporation, he says “I like a man who stays put”.

** Spellcheck will flag the spelling of yellowjackets when used as a single word, but when referring to the stinging insect, it is indeed one single word. I recommend the very entertaining and informative book “Sting of the Wild” by Justin Schmidt, which comes complete with a pain scale for insect stings for more information. Also, Justin was featured on a Radiolabs podcast some years ago with a memorable segment titled “Ouch”:

https://www.wnycstudios.org/podcasts/radiolab/articles/233143-pain-scale

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