11.24.2010

The 35mm lens and why no one should care if it's the best in the world or not.


I wrote a little piece the other day about using a couple of new lenses on the Canon 7D.  And in the past few weeks I've also talked about buying and using two different macro lenses, that, at first glance, seem to be so close as to not make too much of a difference.  People seem adamant about two things in response to my idle chatter about cameras and lenses.  First, they want me to proclaim definitively which one is best.  And then, secondly, they want me to stick with whatever proclamation I've made thru thick and think, no matter what else comes on to the market.

Some readers want me to write more about the Olympus Pen cameras.  Others are still chagrined about my divestiture of most Nikon stuff.  Others want me to choose between one of those "damn" ever propagating 50mm lenses and be done with it.

And it's made me think that there must be two different schools when it comes to buying and using gear. The first school (which I am not part of......) holds that there's one ultimate camera and in each focal length, one ultimate lens.  The people in this school take no prisoners.  No holds are barred.  If you buy a  Canon G12 and you like it you're stuck until you find it's superior replacement at which time you are obligated to acquire the new camera and banish the older one to the tender mercies of the used market.

The other school of thought is dominated by indecision and the fear of potential regret.  We buy what we think will be a good and workable camera or system and learn why we like it and why we don't.  And then, instead of replacing it when it's myriad faults are revealed to us we tend to hold onto the things we liked about the camera or lens or system and then go out and supplement it with something that complements it.  In the days of film cameras this was an enticing strategy on a number of levels.  We'd buy a Nikon F5 system to shoot events and sports.  But we'd decide that we needed more resolution and smoother tones for portraiture so we'd buy a Hasselblad system and use it in the studio.  If we found ourselves doing more and more product work we'd buy a decent 4x5 system and the holy trinity of view camera lenses and use that as well.  Finally, because we all wanted to be cool we'd buy the ultimate "carry it with you everywhere" camera, the Leica M(X) and.......carry it with us everywhere.

But buying a complementary system didn't give us an apparent license to get rid of the first system or, in turn, the second system.  And often, because the cameras did not go out of fashion and were rarely superseded over the course of a decade, they held their value very, very well.  I shot with a Leica M3 that I bought with a 50mm Summicron lens for over ten years.  When I bought the M3 it was considered pretty pedestrian and cost me about $400 with the lens.  Ten years later I sold it to buy some newer Leica cameras and it fetched $1200 without the lens.  Prices had gone up.  The supply had gone down.

When I made the somewhat ill-fated decision to sell off my Hasselblad gear and answer the siren call of the Rollei medium format SLR system I was able to break even on my original H-blad purchases as well.

Digital changed a lot of things.  It changed a lot of buying patterns.  As more and more amateurs entered the higher end of digital it seemed that budgets would only stretch to one camera at a time.  And dealing with the used market was like playing musical chairs.  When new models were rumored people began to undertake a complicated calculus to figure out when to divest themselves of their current body in time to be ready to buy the newest body with the least amount of fiscal damage.

This "all and nothing" approach, I think, is mostly responsible for the search for perfection that goes on.  If a person is going to limit themselves to one camera at a time they logically want to find the body that will do the most for the them for the longest period of time.  The importance of not making a buying "mistake" becomes paramount.  But it's counter-logical.  No camera currently on the market is superior on all counts and all of them will, by most standards, became obsolete within a year or so.

I have a lot of friends who are professional photographers and they tend to be more "big tent" about cameras.  They find one they like and keep it around until it's resale value has fallen so far that it makes more sense to keep using it than to get rid of it.  And what I'm constantly reminded of when I survey the commercial market is the fact that, inexorably, the images we created are headed to the web the majority of the time.  The technical requirements of the final users really don't change nearly as quickly as the model introductions of the manufacturers!

I guess the assumption of my readers, who wring their hands at my purchase of Canon gear over new Olympus gear, is that I've abandoned the Olympus brand altogether.  Of course it's not true.  They're still in the tool box.  I've just decided that the Pens are the Olympus cameras I like shooting with the best.  I've thinned out my collection of E cameras and lenses but I still have several bodies in that niche as well as a handful of lenses.  But the point is that I keep cherry picking the cameras that I've enjoyed shooting with over the years and they rarely get put out to pasture.  The Kodak bodies are a good example.  I still find reasons to dust off the DCS 760 and the SLR/n, not because either of them are great at high ISO's or shoot at ten frames per second but because they have their own color palette and have a long toe and a long shoulder that makes them superb for shooting portraits.  It's all about the curves not necessarily about the DR.  It was the same in film.  People liked Tri-X best because it had a long and graceful curve from the first indication of detail in the shadows to the last vaporous dew drops of highlight detail.  The curve made the tonality, not the dynamic range.  Same with digital cameras.

I have a Sony R1 which is pretty remarkable.  Every job I ever shot with it was lucky.  No one should get rid of their lucky camera!  And ditto with my Olympus e1.  Nice curves, both physically and electronically.....

But the bottom line is that the pursuit of the best is pointless.  DXOLabs just did a paper on an interesting topic.  They discovered in their testing that most of the benefits of fast lenses are lost to digital cameras when you open up the lenses past f4.  Imagine that!  It doesn't get any brighter in the pixel wells.  Why does the camera exposure go up?  They surmise that camera companies, knowing that you aren't getting the f-stops you're paying for ramp up the file gain to compensate.  That of course gives you more noise and may explain why their tests show that the Canon 85mm 1.8, for example, is more highly rated for ultimate image quality than the much more expensive 85mm 1.1.2 L lens.  Interesting.

In the end it's all a compromise.  I have a friend who shoots with a Nikon D3x and all the best Nikon glass.  But he hates his tripod and shoots everything handheld.  He's over 50 and drinks coffee.  Do you think that sensor is delivering $8,000 worth of magic?  Maybe.  I have another friend who does the same thing in the Canon system.  He knows his technique but like all of us it goes down the drain as the day and enthusiasm fades.

I've been looking over the 136,000+ images I have in my Lightroom Catalogs lately.  I found some I shot in Madrid back in 2000 with a Nikon 990 point and shoot camera.  It had a whopping 3.4 megapixels of resolution.  The files, on the screen, look great.  I looked at some exterior architectural stuff and some corporate portraits we shot with the Olympus e-10 (4 megapixels) and they looked great.  In fact, if you mix it all up and look at the work over the decade of digital the only time you see differences is when we tried to go beyond the safe ISO of our times or when we tried to enlarge past a certain point.  I don't see "leaps and bounds" improvements in the "bread and butter" space of flash lit headshots, daylight lit architecture and landscapes.  If anything there are some color nuances that I think have been abandoned in the pursuit of greater accuracy which were more emotionally satisfying in their flawed iteration.

So, back to the new lenses.  Let's try this on for size....according to Leica lens expert, Erwin Puts, when you double the diameter of a lens element (critical to the making of faster lenses) you increase by a factor of 8X the complexity of manufacture.  Tolerances become much more critical.  In fact, it is so much easier to make a perfect f4 prime lens than it is to make a decent f1.4 lens for ten times the price that many of the f4 primes from earlier days from Nikon, Canon and Leica still rival the latest "L" glass and "gold ring" glass from Canon and Nikon.  If we take as a given that the race for smaller and smaller pixel sites (needed to increase pixel count) has marginalized the light gathering capabilities of the sensor at anything wider than f4 and that f4 lenses can be made to incredible standards less expensively, then I've got to wonder at why so many people are buy fast glass.  If the cameras ramp up the exposure gain, pre-raw conversion, then the noise equals out.  Doesn't matter if you shoot at 1.4 or 4 the noise characteristics might be the same.  Again, according to DXO the $1300 Canon 50mm 1.2 is about as good at f2.8 as the $90 "nifty fifty".  So what's the point?

Here's the point.  All of the lenses have some signature that makes them output photographs that look a certain way.  The 35mm Summilux Aspheric from Leica, when used on a camera with big pixels, can drop out a background and keep a foreground very sharp.  The Nikon D700 is almost as sharp as the Canon 5dmk2 in actual use because the bigger pixels make more efficient use of the output of the lenses.  The 35mm Canon lens I referenced yesterday has pretty much the same performance at f4 and smaller as it's $1500 brother.  The Canon 85mm 1.8 (which I own) is rated higher than the 85mm 1.1.2 (which I used to own back in the film days.....).  So ultimately there is no right or wrong.  We get to pick which lens we want to use for what.  I picked the 35mm f2.0 because I know I'll use it mostly handheld and mostly around f4.  In that capacity it will be about as good as the more expensive but faster lens.  For the difference in price I can also own a couple of zoom lenses that also cover the 35mm focal length.

I have a bunch of different 50mm lenses because they all do different stuff well.  I want a beater to put on the front of an 60D for those days when I think the camera and lens might not make it back alive.  I want the 50mm Carl Zeiss lens for those times when I want a wider portrait lens on a 7D and I have a Nikon 50mm 1.1.2 with an adapter ring for the 5Dmk2 for those times when I think I want fast and sharp all at once.  And none of them is the ultimate lens.

Finally,  why do I have the 60mm Macro EFS and the 50mm Macro EF lenses, simultaneously.  Well.....because sometimes there is no logic.  You just want what you want and you buy it because life is short and it's fun to have toys.  And the 60 EFS is ostensibly optimized for the density of pixels in the cropped frame camera.  And it acts like a 90mm portrait lens on a cropped frame camera.  And the 50 Macro is a cheap legacy lens with really good performance that works really well with the full frame cameras.

If I took all the emotion out of my lens and camera preferences I'd have three boring L zooms that cover all the focal lengths I might shoot and I'd shoot them the same way all the time.  And if I did this business logically I'd find the job or type of job that pays the maximum amount with the minimum effort and I would do it over and over and over again.  But I hate working that way.  I love things to be different all the time.  I love to take chances.  I love to find new ways to do things and new ways to light things.

And it think it is this passionate curiosity that keeps my love of photography alive and by extension keeps my clients interested.  It's a tough business to be in.  Let's not make it tougher by adhering to pointless dogma and demanding an objective measure of perfection.  Art should be subjective and the choice of tools motivated more by intuition and impetuosity than some sort of rigorous spreadsheet of facts that tends to homogenize and rank our gear.  And then apply a value.

The value comes from the photographs well seen.  Not from the choice of tools.

Most people who read here say that they like me to explain why I do what I do.  But amazingly, when I talk about seeing or emotion or context I get no feedback.  Put up a tiny paean to a $300 lens and we get 20 comments in six hours.  And readership for weeks.  Not sure how I should handle it.  Not sure it really matters.  I am nothing if not capricious.  If I feel like buying a new lens (even if it's exactly like one I already own) I'll buy it.  And if I feel like writing about it you can pretty much count on me doing that too.

I guess you noticed.....I don't really do short blogs.  Another rule shot to hell.

Happy Thanksgiving!



the holidays are upon us.  I humbly submit that a good book about photography will be most welcome by the photographers on your list.  Here are a few suggestions: