Rating: 3 stars ★★★
Quick verdict: Crudely made in parts and massively expensive, but unexpectedly liberating to use with surprisingly good optical quality
Lomography is such an amazing company because we never know what to expect next – or how much it’s going to cost.
So the Neptune Convertible Art Lens System sounds such a great idea and exciting too. The idea is that you attach a base optical unit to your camera, which also contains the aperture mechanism, and then attach any of three different front lenses to get three different focal lengths.
These three front lenses are the ‘Thalassa’ 35mm f/3.5, ‘Despina‘ 50mm f/2.8 and ‘Proteus‘ 80mm f/4. Is this just too crazy to work? Maybe not, because apparently it’s been done before, by optical pioneer Charles Chevalier in the late 1830s. Lomography may produce some weird lenses, but they’re rooted in real photographic history.
But then there’s the price. £839 is A LOT of money, so these obviously have to be rather good lenses made to a very high standard of both optical and mechanical engineering. After all, there’s no autofocus and no automatic diaphragm control, so the money’s got to go somewhere, right?
Well, er, it hasn’t gone into the base unit. The front lenses feel convincingly solid and well-made (if oddly shaped), but the base unit they attach to looks like it’s made out of aluminium, and feels rough in almost every sense.
To be fair, the focus movement is smooth enough, but the aperture ring is rough, hard to turn and has no click-stops at whole aperture settings.
And when you attach the front lenses, via a short-action bayonet twist, there’s no detent at the end of the turn. You turn them until they stop and hope there’s enough friction in the movement to stop them un-turning and falling off. Actually, there was, and they didn’t, but the whole setup still feels way to cheap for this price tag.
This obviously didn’t bode well for optical performance, but this is where the Neptune kit sprang another surprise. These lenses are actually pretty darned good. Admittedly, modern prime lenses would probably be that much sharper, but the Thalassa, Despina and Proteus are nevertheless capable of sharp, clear fine detail when handled properly – and they were tested on a 36-megapixel D800, a camera which can show up the slightest optical flaws.
The lenses weren’t just sharp, they proved pretty much distortion free and delivered very good contrast and saturation. So these are not novelty, lo-fi lenses designed to make your pictures look artfully soft – these are properly crisp, proper lenses.
But using lenses of this type does require a real mind-shift. First, you have to get used to manual exposure with no help from the camera meter – these lenses don’t even have coupled diaphragms, so the camera’s meter has no way of knowing what aperture you’ve set.
This means a lot of trial and error, but also a lot of interesting discoveries. You realise that you can actually gauge the exposure pretty well yourself, and that it’s often better to use your own judgement about an exposure that looks ‘right’ than it is to leave it to your camera’s meter or a histogram. You get happy accidents where overexposure has produced a light, ethereal feel your camera’s meter would never have allowed, or you see for the first time that underexposing darker, richer colours makes them much more intense, almost luminous.
Focusing manually is also a refreshing change and reminds you that cameras are actually quite simple. To get something sharp, you turn the focus ring – and that’s it. No worrying about which focus point to use, which mode to pick, whether you need release priority or focus priority, and no waiting while the camera focuses. The shutter fires right when you press the button – amazing.
There is one more thing. All three front lenses are smaller than a modern 50mm prime. You don’t even need a camera bag since they’ll pop into even the most bijou jacket pocket.
It’s not all plain sailing. The Proteus 80mm f/4 doesn’t have much depth of field, especially wide open, and the optical viewfinder of a DSLR isn’t sharp enough or big enough to offer a visual guide to when it’s in focus. The alternative is to switch to live view, zoom in and focus under magnification, but that takes time. For longer focal length lenses like this, the precision of autofocus really is an advantage.
The Neptune System comes with a macro adaptor and additional bokeh plates for creating different bokeh effects, but the test sample didn’t come with those so it’s not possible to offer an opinion on how well these work. You can get it to fit Nikon, Canon or Pentax DSLRs, but Lomography makes adaptors for other brands too.
So what’s the verdict? Some of the construction feels shoddy, and the Neptune Convertible Art Lens system costs way too much, but that’s Lomography for you.
The results themselves, though, are unexpectedly good, and the experience of using these lenses is such a refreshing antidote to the electronic over-control of modern cameras, that you can almost bring yourself to forget the price. Almost.