Tag Archives: lens

Normal views and wide views

Many photographers lust after new cameras and lenses.  Indeed, many spend more time lusting after new equipment than they do consummating – err… working on the relationship they have with the cameras and lenses they already own.

For my large format camera I have one lens.  It is a 180mm lens, and that roughly corresponds to a ‘normal lens’, i.e. one that has about the same perspective as the human eye, or, in 35mm terms, it is about the same as a 50mm lens.  It’s a very fine lens, but there are times when I want a lens with a wider view (say, 90mm), and another with a telephoto view, such as a 300mm.  It is simply(!) finances that preclude me from buying these lenses, I lust after them all the same…

So what to do when trying to make an image that would benefit from a wider view?  In July I made a series of photographs on a very foggy morning at Glen More on the Isle of Mull.  I was trying to photograph the glen near the edge of a lochan in the valley, whilst showing something of the scale of the valley – but the 180mm lens only covered about half of the valley.  So one of my studies involved a triple exposure, moving the camera round a little at a time to include one side of the valley, the bottom of the valley, and the other side.  The ground glass of the large format camera includes grids and markers for various purposes, so it was relatively easy to measure this out.  I think the resulting image manages to communicate something of my view of the scene that morning:

Glen More, Isle of Mull (Ilford FP4+, triple exposure)

Glen More, Isle of Mull (Ilford FP4+, triple exposure)

The use of a 90mm lens would have enabled me to capture the entire breadth of the glen, but the image would have been different: is it important that the image doesn’t ‘look like’ the glen did?  For me this communicates what I saw, even though the hills are not really this precise shape.  I would still like to have a wider lens, but my lusting after such a lens has lessened somewhat since seeing the interesting and rather pleasing result that can be achieved with just the 180mm lens that I already have – in this context it was perfectly possible to communicate the image in my head using the equipment I already had.



Medium format photography: sometimes, bigger really is better

And here is another exciting post: I have to say, I can barely cope with all this photographic excitement, I’ll need to go and sit down in a dark corner and cuddle up to my tripod or something if this keeps going!

A colleague at work invited me over last Friday to look at his Mamiya 645 ProTL: he had told me on a train journey to work a few days before that he had bought it a few years ago – and had never used it!  So he was thinking of selling it, but wanted to let me borrow it with a view to eventually perhaps buying it from him rather than putting it up for sale somewhere.  Very generously, he’s letting me play with it until September – so I can take it with me on holiday and try it in lots of different settings.  There are 80mm and 150mm lenses (approx. 50mm and 95mm in ‘normal’ 35mm film format), and the camera has a motor winder.  He has also given me a couple of rolls of Fujichrome (Provia 100F), and lots of rolls of monochrome film.  All the film is out of date, but has been kept in a fridge so should be absolutely fine.

And there’s more: as he was getting this out for me, he also came across his old Rolleiflex 2.8C (number 13 here; there appears to no direct link), along with a collection of filters for monochrome photography (orange, yellow-green etc.).  And he wanted to give this to me as he was no longer using it… So I went home that day with two medium format cameras and various accessories, one of them mine, the other possibly to become mine!

I had been wondering about moving into medium format photography for a while, primarily because of the tremendous image quality that it offers with the bigger film, but the cost of doing so was putting me off (my overdraft needs nurturing, not more abuse!).  So the gift and the loan offer from my colleague took me very much by surprise, and I really welcome it.  Yesterday I dropped off the first Fujichrome (Mamiya) and Ilford (Rolleiflex) films to be processed.  I suspect they’ll be rather bad, but I look forward to lots of practice, and I’ll begin to put images up here too!

Of course, I’ll now need to get a scanner that can cope with this size of film… anyone want to buy my present scanner?!

Thoughts on ‘progress’ and loyalty and contemporary cameras

One of the (to my mind) coherent arguments against digital cameras is that in the longer-term they cost more than film cameras.  The idea behind this is that with a film camera, once you achieve a certain quality of body/lens, there is only limited additional quality that can be achieved by replacing the body.  So whilst it might make sense to buy new lenses periodically (that is another argument entirely that I will perhaps return to another time), there is generally little point in replacing a body unless you’re a professional who needs a faster autofocus, motorwinder or whatever.  But for most of us, we can buy a decent film camera body and be done with it, just spending our hard-earned money on occasional lenses.  Then we can direct our attention towards actually taking photographs with all this expensive stuff we’ve bought.

With digital, it’s been a whole other issue, as bodies have improved remarkably over time.  Ken Rockwell describes this rather memorably as ‘digital rot‘, and Bruce Percy and many others have also made similar points in the past: people who buy digital cameras will tend to want to buy new digital cameras when ‘the next model’ comes out.  In the longer-term, therefore, digital shooting costs more than film shooting, even taking into account developing and printing costs, because you buy new bodies every few years.  With digital cameras, the manufacturers keep telling us, there is a marked difference in newer models: better metering and white balancing to make sure the images are better exposed, Active-D Lighting to deal with light/dark differentials (which is what Nikon calls it, I’m sure Canon will offer an equivalent though I don’t know what it is called), more megapixels, greater dynamic range, and so on…

And yes, to be sure, there is a huge difference in Nikon’s early digital cameras and more modern ones (for example, the professional level D1H that was discontinued in 2006 had a 2.66 megapixel sensor, compared to the 12 in my D90).  However, I am increasingly unconvinced that all this is changing as rapidly in contemporary times as it did in the past.  I write this as the ‘replacement’ for the D90 is hitting the shops, Nikon’s D7000.  Yes, it looks very good, and I’m sure many people will buy it, and some of those people will make absolutely stunning images with it.  But is it really so-o-o-o much better than the D90 that I should feel the need to go out and buy one?

But… but… the pixel-counter-nutheads will say, how can you ask that?  Surely it’s newer, it’s better, it has more megapixels (16, as opposed to the D90’s 12… as if that really mattered! – see below), it can shot 6fps instead of ‘just’ 4.5fps, it puts the milk on your cornflakes for you and makes your tea… ok, probably not those last two.

For all practical purposes, in the DX camera range (Nikon’s cropped sensor cameras), the D90 has , until now, probably been Nikon’s most user-friendly digital camera producing better images than anything else in this price range.  It perhaps even surpasses the D300, as this is heavier (though made of metal and therefore sturdier), with less easily accessible options (though they do shoot a little faster and have one or two additional imaging features).  Unless you’re a professional taking hundreds of images every day, this is no better than the D90, as to all intents and purposes they use the same sensor and processor.

Now the D7000 has come along.  It is an improvement on the D90, but I don’t feel that it gives me that much more than the D90 has given me already.  To be sure, if I was now looking to upgrade from the D40 as I did a year ago (Nikon only list the D40x on their website – the D40 was much the same with a 6mp sensor), I would seriously consider a D7000 as well as the D90, but having the D90 now doesn’t make me want to move to the D7000.

I think we need to get away from the mentality that just because the camera manufacturers tell us that something is new and better, we believe them!  They cynically presume an inherent disloyalty to the products they themselves sell us: we are no longer supposed to feel so attached to our cameras, instead willing to give them up for something ‘better’ just because it fits their marketing cycles.  What we really have are fantastic machines that 10 years ago would have been way beyond anyone’s imagination, and I for one, feel I barely scratch the surface of what my camera can do.  I have taken about 10,000 shots with my D90, but know that I am continually learning how to use it better.  The early great photographers always said, ‘know your camera so that it becomes second-nature to use it’.  I’m quite happy to admit that only after the first 2-3,000 or so shots did I feel I was beginning to really understand what my camera was doing and what I could expect of it.  Getting to that point opens me up to using it more creatively, to experimenting with some of the capabilities that lie hidden in the menus or the way it interacts with particular lenses – and only once I’ve got all that sorted out, can I engage with it much more intuitively and create images that centre on the key themes of lighting, composition, visualisation and so on.  Buying a new camera gets in the way of that, at least for me – I found it initially quite difficult to move from the D40 to the D90, as certain things kept not happening that I was expecting to happen, and other things did happen that I hadn’t expected!

The only real upgrade at this time, I think, is in format.  If I was going to change from the D90, the DX sensor D7000 is not where I’d go.  If money was not an issue, I would be interested in the full-sized sensor D700 or D3x – but that would in turn necessitate other lenses…

So if you’re anything like me, don’t fall for the camera manufacturers’ hype.  If you have a great camera that you like (and most cameras can be great cameras in the hands of those who know how to use them properly), then stick with it – show it loyalty, and it’ll reward you with images that emerge from your intuitive abilities and interests.  And you’ll be doing the environment a favour too…!

PS The difference in the D7000’s 16 megapixels and the D90’s 12 is as follows:
D7000: 4,928 x 3,264 – D90: 4,288 x 2,848
This means 640 x 416 pixels more, crammed into the same sized sensor (which brings its own problems, as I understand it…) – if my maths is right, this is about a 13% increase in image size.  In practical terms, unless printing huge advertising hoardings, this is totally irrelevant.  In fact, even for advertising hoardings, it’s probably irrelevant since you’d never look at the image closely enough to see the individual dots that make up the image.  If you want proof of this, the next time you see an advertisement for shampoo at a bus stop, go right up to the image and look very closely at the model’s face and hair to see all the little pixels that make up her ‘smooth’ skin and even ‘smoother’ hair – they are anything but smooth when viewed closeup!  But we don’t normally do that, and that is what makes these small differences so unimportant in large prints.  Get over the megapixel mania and think about how you produce sharper images using the light you have and the lenses you use – it’s about art, not pixel-counts!

Edward Said’s ‘Orientalism’ and a new lens

Although I don’t remember exactly when it was (it may have been when I was in Cairo in 1997), I vividly recall the sensation I had the first time I read Edward Said’s book Orientalism.  It was a mind-blowing experience – the ways in which he addressed constructions of Otherness, how it became possible to rethink what it meant to write about anyone, anywhere, and anything, what doing that meant… and all these things continue to fascinate and intrigue me, impacting on my writing and research, and on how I live.  I tend to re-read most of Orientalism once a year, and find more in it each time I read it.  Of course, many scholars, reputable and less-reputable, have engaged with his work in more or less helpful ways, but there is no doubt that Said transformed numerous disciplines through his work, including visual arts.  Each year now at the university where I work, I teach a course in which I introduce undergraduate students in some detail to Said’s thesis.  I love watching them wrestle with the topic, seeing how for most of them, it unsettles them, realigns their thinking, and makes them work through their world-view, thereby challenging numerous preconceptions about themselves and the world as they have hitherto known it.  This is one of the things I have been doing at work this last week.

And the connection to lenses?  Yesterday my new ultra-wide-angle lens for my Nikon D90 arrived: the 10-24mm.  I’ve owned and used a variety of lenses over the years, including what are generally regarded as wide-angle lenses (28mm in traditional 35mm format, 18mm in Nikon’s cropped frame format).  I’m very aware that photographing at 28/18mm can do strange things to perspective, and it is very noticeably different to shooting at a standard 50/35mm.  For my FM2 camera, I’ve recently acquired a lovely 28mm to complement the existing 50mm lens – that’s wide, but not crazy.  This new lens takes wideness to a whole new level – photographing at 10mm (15mm in 35mm format) does really wacky things to what you see, and from playing with it yesterday afternoon and today, I feel as if I need to relearn how to see things with the camera, at least if I want to use this lens to its full advantage.

Although wide-angle lenses are popularly seen as being able to ‘get more in’, that is actually rather boring.  Here are two such boring shots taken from the same spot a few seconds apart, at 19 and 10mm (the latter with my shadow in it – oops!):

Lots of beach

Lots of beach (19mm)

A bit more beach

A bit more beach (10mm)

The wider angle doesn’t really do much for the image, does it?  The advantages of such a lens, it seems to me, lie in the possibilities offered by exploiting the distortions it creates, rather than seeking to ignore them, as these two beach shots show.  So here are a couple of snapshot images that show precisely that kind of distortion being used, again at 19 and 10mm, both taken from exactly the same spot, immediately after one another:

Portobello Public Art

Portobello Public Art (19mm)

Portobello Public Art

Portobello Public Art (10mm)

In other words, this lens, more than anything else, is about re-imagining the world, thinking about it in a different way.  Of course, as soon as we look through a camera’s viewfinder we are looking at the world differently: the artificial nature of the perspective offered, the reduction to two dimensions rather than three and the corresponding ‘flattening’ of multiple layers of three dimensional vision – all are a function of new perspectives on the world.  But I think I have become used to the changing perspectives offered by ‘normal’ zoom lenses as they move from pretty wide (e.g. 28/18mm) to fairly strong telephoto positions (e.g. 300/200mm) – I usually know what I am going to see at different focal lengths and can ‘see’ my image accordingly, often before I lift the camera to my eye.  With this new lens, I’m reminded of the transformative shift in world-view I gained by engaging with Said for the first time: the radical shift in perspective of my own position coupled with the excitement offered by his views, made for a fantastic journey of (self-)discovery.  With this new lens, I feel I am starting to do the same kind of thing: as when I first read Said, I can guess at the road ahead, but the radical shifts in perspective offered by the weirdness of the lens’ abilities require re-seeing the world, re-imagining my place in it, and making it something I feel at home in again.  This involves practice, both in the sense of learning and getting better, but also in the sense of usage and engagement, and that is what I am looking forward to with this fantastic new lens.

Lightroom 3’s lens correction feature

It’s bit geeky, but I’m very excited by the arrival of Adobe’s Lightroom 3, which was delivered this morning (although Adobe clearly got very confused about delivery – they initially said it would come yesterday, then it was predicted for the end of the week at the earliest!).  I know that many people have been trying out the pre-release beta, but I didn’t have the time to play with that and hope to make it all work consistently, so I’ve been waiting for the full release.

I installed it this afternoon and tried out a couple of new features, and the most impressive for me so far is the lens correction facility.  For a whole series of lenses (mostly Canon and Nikon, of course, reflecting most people’s usage) there are pre-programmed profiles, and for my Nikon 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6G VR DX the correction really seems to get it right!  I’m sure more lenses will be added over time; it’s also possible to create your own profiles for less common lenses (this doesn’t seem too complex, but I haven’t yet tried it).

I would offer a couple of my own images here to demonstrate how it works, but this short video from Adobe does a better job of explaining it all than I could.  The crop tools are the same as in Lightroom 2, so if you know that you might want to skip the first little bit, but from about 5 minutes in, the video does a great job of showing how buildings (for example) can quickly and easily be ‘re-straightened’.  Of course, this has always been possible in Photoshop, but doing this in Lightroom in this way is so incredibly easy: not least since multiple images can be dealt with at once without opening each image in Photoshop.  And because all Lightroom edits are non-destructive, it is easy to undo/adjust any changes (incidentally, I almost always only ever make changes to virtual copies of my images – that way the original is readily accessible in case I want to take a completely different developing approach).

I don’t expect this to be perfect in all circumstances, but it will work in many.  The nice thing is that this will go some way to ‘rehabilitating’ my 18-200 zoom, which I was beginning to only use at around 24mm because that is the only time when straight lines really come out as straight.

So for me, the lens correction alone makes the upgrade to Lightroom 3 worth the investment!

Technology and art

Nikon introduced the first zoom lens before I was born, which was a 43-86mm lens – by all accounts an absolutely horrific piece of equipment.  It was so unbelievably bad that it gave zoom lenses a bad name: I, for one, grew up with the idea that all zoom lenses were terrible, which they are not.  Even by the time I was aware of zoom lenses (mid-late 1970s), things had actually moved on substantially, and there were many great zoom lenses available.

Ever since I began to take my photography more seriously, I have used zoom lenses, and I have mostly enjoyed using them.  One of the latest ones, that I really like, is the 18-200mm, which is fantastic as an all-round lens, even though it produces slightly ‘saggy’ horizons when used wide.  It is great for portraits as well as a good travel lens.  But… but…

I also bought a prime last year, the gorgeous little 35mm, and it is so light and produces such beautiful images that it is a joy to have on my camera (it’s about equivalent to a 50mm on a full 35mm frame; the same as I have on my FM2).  I find I use it more and more frequently.  The aperture goes down to f1.8 to produce lovely blur in out-of-focus areas.  I’ve also now invested in a 50mm f1.4, which for my D90 is about 75mm.  This I expect to be great for portraits, especially with the wide aperture; on the basis of a few sample shots, I can already tell that it produces really creamy blur with naked skin.  But I can also see that it will also be useful for certain kinds of landscapes.

There is something about the simplicity of using prime lenses that I find really attractive.  Zoom lenses make me lazier, but with a prime, if I want to frame something in a particular way, I need to make myself get up and move to another location, to walk closer or further away, to think differently about how I approach a subject.  It makes for a more interactive engagement with the environment I’m in and that – for me – is a very appealing aspect to photography.  I tend to think that it’s not really about taking a photograph, but about making an image, and making requires much more personal engagement than taking!

At some point, you can therefore expect to read about the purchase of a wide prime too… (but unless I win the lottery that I don’t play, I expect this to be in the very distant future, given the high prices of these lenses!).