12.27.2014

Would you buy a specific type of camera body just to accommodate one particular lens?



It's a pretty sure bet that I would. My recent re-fascination with owning a full frame Nikon camera started innocently enough, I'd purchased a D7100 (APS-C frame) and just for fun I took a gander at the used, manual focus Nikon lens case at Precision Camera. My eyes locked onto two lenses that I wanted to add to my meager, existing collection of good Nikon vintage glassware. I own the Nikon 50mm 1:1.2 ais lens and find it to be pretty remarkable when I stop it down just a tad. I couldn't resist the pricing on two very clean brothers to that lens, the 55mm f2.8 Micro-Nikkor ais lens and the amazing and wonderful, 105mm f2.5 ais lens. These are both well made lenses that were built in the 1970's and 1980's when it was assumed that a lens would be made from metals that worked well together to reduce friction coefficients and to expand and contract, in concert, with heat and cold. Everything about the lenses is industrial strength and there are no small, electronic parts that will eventually fail and be impossible to replace. The glass on both lenses was/is immaculate and the focusing smooth through the entire focusing rack. 

I owned both of these lenses when I shot with the system in the film days and had always assumed (incorrectly) that they had been superseded by more modern designs and manufacturing methods. But the reality is that the lens companies have learned more how to fudge tolerances and assembly variances than they have learned better ways to design lenses for ultimate quality. Most companies still depend on very classic designs and  the makers use ED and aspheric elements to compensate for the necessary slop required to cost effectively mass produce products in large numbers, without hand adjustments. 

The last 105mm Nikon lens I owned was the 105mm f2.0 DC (or "defocus coupling") lens. It's outrageously good and it's the lens I used to make the three images (one above and two below) for the Austin Lyric Opera for an ad campaign years ago. I used the good camera of the time, a Kodak DCS 760 which was not full frame but it was closer than APS-C as it had a 1.3x crop factor. 

Once I bought the (under $200) 105mm 2.5 ais back a few months ago I put it on a D7100 and did a few tests. When the lens was stopped down to f4.0 it was very sharp across the frame. At f5.6 it was brilliant. But more importantly I really liked the very subtle transitions this lens made in tones and the graceful way the focus falls off. It must be one of the "bokeh lenses" that people discuss with such rapture. When I compared it to modern lenses there was a difference not in sharpness or resolution but in contrast and tonal transfers (the gradation from one tone to the next) that made this lens seem much more appropriate to me for current portrait work. The only issue was the focal length; it's a bit too long for a smaller frame and an even smaller studio. 

That was the slow motion rock slide of ideas that started pushing me toward getting some sort of full frame Nikon mount camera. I wanted badly to use this lens especially, but also the 50mm f1.1:2 at the angles of view for which they were designed. Didn't really matter to me which modern body to get as long as it used the right sized sensor to give me back those two focal lengths that I enjoyed using in "the good old days."

Well, after waiting all day for the post man to arrive the D610 I bought landed in the office. I went through and quickly adjusted all the menu items which was simple as they are largely (almost completely) identical to those of the D7100 and the D7000 before it. The first lens I put on was the 105mm f2.5. I plugged in the focal length and maximum aperture information to the camera and shot some test frames. The long focal lengths and fast aperture actually helped me achieve good focus manually and when I framed a few shots I was in my visual happy place. Two lenses make FF fun and situationally desirable: the classic 50mm and the classic 100-105. In third place is that in between focal length, the 85mm. Now I need to e-mail some of my favorite models and do some fun, studio portrait tests. Fadya, if you are reading this......



Below is a shot of the grumpy photographer/writer/editor of this site. What a serious looking guy. This must have been during the years in which he did not own a Nikon 105mm f2.5 ais lens......


Make him smile ( a little ). Buy a Kindle copy of his 

I bought some interesting cameras this year. Some are better than others. But let me tell you which one was the most FUN.


Men, guys, males seem to love measuring the horsepower, noise, teraflops per second, megapixels and degrees of weatherproofiosity more than they love actually using their cameras to make artsy stuff. Or even stuff that looks like art. When colleagues call to ask me about a camera or a lens the things they want to know all center around the overall impressions of sharpness, lines per millimeter, delta of color accuracy and other very objective measures. They rarely ask me things like: "How loud is the shutter? Does it have a nice sound or a clacky chintzy sound? Is the camera nice to hold in your hand? Does the camera feel good when you use it? Does the lens have character? Does the lens make people's faces look nice?"

For this reason most of the professional shooters I know tend to make a bee line for the cameras that check the most boxes in the categories of things that can be measured and quantified.  They tend to gravitate toward high megapixel counts and sensors that make less noise at high ISO settings. They even love battery statistics. For these shooters the number panel and lists of comparisons on DXO Mark is a godsend. They can research cameras by the numbers and buy confidently without ever having to touch a camera first. This is the primo target market for gear like the Nikon D810. Or medium format cameras with the new Sony MF chip. Yes, if they buy based on those quantified reviews or spec sheets they will indeed have a camera than can do most of the stuff they expect but I feel like buying cameras is more like dating.

You could have a checklist when dating that goes along the same lines as a spec sheet. If you are looking for a person to date you could find out how fast they run a mile, what their imputed I.Q. is, how tall they are, where they got a degree and in what, and other similar metrics but until you actually sit across the table from a prospective romantic partner you'll never really know if you click. You'll never know if spending time with them is more of a burden than a joy, an obligation rather than a treat. I contend that the same relationship exists with cameras otherwise everyone in the amateur and general professional ranks would be shooting with whichever camera clicked all the boxes with the most ("if some is good more must be better!").

But when I watch my female friends or my acutely artistic friends chose cameras the whole process is more or less turned upside down. They may ask the consummate linear thinking guy to share the results of his hundreds of hours of painstaking camera research when they go to buy a camera but all the pages of charts and graphs and numbers go right down the drain when they actually go into a store and start playing with all the stuff that's available (and they will).

The artists and most of the women photographers I know go into the selection process with a whole different mindset. They are looking for an extension of their hands and eyes. They are looking for something that will integrate into the way they move through their artistic lives and they seem unwilling, almost incapable, of being happy only with the measured "best," A camera has to be more than the sum of its numbers to make this demographic pull out the credit card and get the transaction into gear.

To this group the way the camera feels in their hands is the number one consideration. If it isn't immediately comfortable and in some way tactilely familiar they are not motivated to "give it time" and "get used to it." So, they are looking for a solution that matches what their hearts and minds tells them is the right choice. To this group design is also a major factor; in some cases the quality of the overall design might even be the most important consideration because these folks are truly visual people and they will only buy products and devices that they can enjoy looking at and handling for long periods of time. Much the way that artists and design oriented people will gladly spend hundreds more dollars to buy a beautifully design Apple iMac computer rather than a workable and efficient PC. They know that they will have to look at the product they buy for years to come, in some cases for hours every day and they have a much lower tolerance for mediocre designs. Their brains don't balance out the cost/performance/design equation the same way in which spreadsheet jockeys do.

For them there is a visceral aversion to poorly designed tools or interfaces that drives them away from using the product so that any cost savings is savaged by their aesthetic filters. And they have a point; why introduce yet another piece of visual pollution instead of producing something that adds value? Bringing anything into their domain means that the product must contribute to the overall ecosystem rather than just sitting around churning and whirring.

I am drawn to cameras that have certain characteristics. I want them to have a visual personality. I want to be comfortable looking through the finder. I am not looking for the most exact finder but the finder that is most inviting and engaging. I want shutters that thump like the closing door of a Bentley automobile rather than clacking around like unmuffled industrial machines. I want to feel an affinity for the haptics of a camera. Holding it should make me want to hold it more. So, I am often at cross purposes with what most people assume is the role of the camera in a professional business. The belief is that a pro buys the camera with the highest resolution, the highest degree of sharpness and the lowest possible electrical noise at all settings.  By general "guy" consensus I'd have a box of D810s unless I could afford the finest medium format digital cameras.

And, being a guy, I do bounce back and forth, caught between prevailing convention and personal taste. I just bought a Nikon D610 to assuage my insecurities after being pounded, day after day, by the assumption that any professional portrait photographer would absolutely want a full frame, high resolution sensor so they could create noise free, smooth skin tones images that also have the potential to create portraits with very, very narrow depth of field. One eye in focus and the other one out. Go fast, long lenses!!!

I buckled and I'm not proud of it because I absolutely know I can get the images I really want and need from APS-C cameras and even the best M4:3 cameras. But I have the money and I can buy the "safety blanket" type of cameras for those every once in a while engagements when clients presume to know about the business of making portraits and will demand gear that is au courant. In most regards it goes back to our previous blog discussions about the safety of staying in the median levels of the herd.

You might not always win but you probably won't lose.

This is all a lead up to my basic assertion that prodigiously spec'd cameras are rarely the most fun cameras to carry around and use. Especially if you carry a camera with you everywhere (and I do mean everywhere except in the swimming pool) and use it often. In fact, every full frame, high specification camera I've ever owned has been relegated to the trade-in zone within six months or so of initial acquisition. Many of the Canons and Nikons were disposed of because of their boring jelly bean designs. Some were dumped because they did everything very, very well but they felt wrong or were too bland. Some didn't put up enough fight to be challenging and provoking. But most are just too large and ponderous and obvious.

And before you call me a format snob I'll put the GH4 into the same camp as the bigger format jelly bean cameras. It does everything it should do perfectly. Its menus are clear and concise but, in the end, the GH4 is a boring camera. Why do I keep it? I keep it for the projects I do for the clients who need video and I keep it because it does all those work things perfectly. But the handling and the mind/hand/camera integration isn't exciting or captivating or inspiring. It's just good, like so many other cameras out there.

When I look back over this year of Samsung, Nikon, Panasonic, Sony and other cameras the ones that  I've consistently enjoyed working with, playing with and shooting have without a doubt been the Olympus OMD EM-5 cameras. I've paid the least money for them and I've bought the least esoteric lenses for them but they flat out get down on their hands and knees and beg me to take them out shooting. To take them out walking and out to eat. In fact, there are a number of jobs I've done for clients this year that could have been done much more efficiently and with less post processing, hands on correction than the EM-5s but the EM-5's innate appeal caused me to push the more capable cameras out of the way and chose the more interesting and engaging EM-5s in their places.

I'll go further and confess that even though the EM-1 has a much superior finder, and I love looking through it, the overall design and understated profile of the EM-5 trumps the EM-1, in my mind, every single time.  It's the camera I compare every other new camera to. It's the reason I've divested other cameras. There's something about the combination of good results (NOT the best results), good handling and sublime design that keep me coming back.

So, yes, I have a Nikon D610 on the way (Where the hell is the USPS???? I got their text that the item is "out for delivery" at 8:05 am this morning---who are all these people in front of me?) and I have GH4s and Nikon D7100s and 7000s languishing all over the office but when I get a call from a friend with an invitation to go out for coffee it's one of the EM-5s that swings over my shoulder, on a very specific strap, and comes along for the ride. If I see some scene of great beauty the camera is almost transparent to me and to the subject. It helps me remove a cognition barrier between my eye and the subject and that's the highest quality feature of any camera I can think of.

When I shoot with a big camera of the highest possible technical potential I find myself avoiding shots where the technique at hand would be detrimental to the overall performance of the camera. I would not try to handhold a D810 with a fast lens (which might have performance issues in the corners) at slow shutter speeds because I feel like it's an affront to the potential of the camera. I have no qualms about trying shots that don't always have the highest possibilities for success with the EM-5s because the camera encourages me and seems to goad me to take chances. And why not? They are agile and stealthy enough (even when used directly) to make the attempts painless. Not so with an uber-camera which subtly infects your sub-conscious with the idea that you should have brought a tripod, you should stop down to the sharpest aperture to take advantage of the amazing resolution, that you should have also brought some lighting to make sure......blah, blah, blah. Just another case of trading joy for measurement.

When we go through this exercise and talk about cameras being fun someone always writes to let me know that I am wrong about which camera I should like. Someone will recommend I try a Pentax K5sii or a Leica M240 (as through it never dawned on me to test one). They misunderstand the most important part of the whole argument that the non-technical-metric-centric camera buyer already knows: It doesn't matter which camera you like. My brain, my hands and my eyes are different from yours. We all have to find the cameras we like on our own. It's the basic reason why all technical camera reviews are mostly mindless numbers crap. All current cameras are, for the most part, more advanced and capable  than their owners. It's more important to find the fun, addictive camera than the "best" camera. The people who leave the hobby or give up the profession are generally the ones who have collected all of the best technical gear only to find that it didn't really make a difference in their visual experiences and, for the most part, just got in the way. The people in it for the long haul learn, over time, that there is a balance and that the fulcrum of that balance sits much further over to the side of handling and visual design parameters than it ever did on the technical side.  

And all this is pretty much why I am declaring the Olympus EM-5 the absolute most FUN camera I have the pleasure of using all year long.




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