10.19.2009

Maybe the best current zoom lens in the world?

Much as I love my new Canon G11 I still find it rewarding to shoot with other cameras. I was out shooting photos on Sunday with my friend, Emily and I wanted to do some images that utilized shallow depth of field; not a strength of really small sensor cameras.

I decided to use a lens I've come to value above all the others in my equipment collection: The Olympus 35-100mm 2.0. My images just don't do justice to this optic. It's not a shortcoming of the lens it's because I need to spend more time getting my brain dialed into the things that make
this lens really unique. It's incredible sharpness when used wide open and the fact that wide open for this particular zoom lens is f 2.0.

Here's a sad admission: As analytical as I'd like to think I am I tend to work more by reductive trial and error than by illuminated epiphany. I don't really go out on a shoot with a fully formed image in my mind. I have to set up and shoot, then look and change. Rinse, repeat. Eventually I'll luck into a confluence of lighting styles, background treatments and even expressions that work for me and I'll spend time repetitively polishing those few meager skills until they work as a cohesive combination. Only when I reach that point do I get any kind of nice feedback about my images.

I bought the 35-100mm to replace the longer focal lengths I sold off when I switched from the Nikon system to the Olympus system. I like the idea of the lens alot. I've used it for a number of straightforward jobs but nothing that would really test the unique qualities it provides. That's the sad aspect of buying gear while the economy is in the toilet, there are fewer opportunities to do the kind of big production work that lends itself to pushing gear to the edge and marveling in its performance.

That being said, I find the 35-100mm is so good that it gives me more confidence in even the most pedestrian jobs. Combined with the image stabilization built into the Olympus e30 body the whole unit is formidably well suited to shooting anything I would have done with the Nikon equivalents with the exception of black cats in coal mines. The smaller imaging sensor gives me the same kind of depth of field at 2.0 that I got from the Nikon 70-200mm 2.8 at f 2.8 but with much better image correction wide open. Stopped down to f4 I feel that I get the kind of sharpness that the Nikon provided between 5.6 and 8.0.

Honestly, either system would work equally well. So would the Canon equivalents or the Sonys. Wide open depth of field is something special and when you want it no amount of Photoshop manipulation takes its place.

Does this invalidate everything I've said about the Canon G11 compact camera? Hardly. Wide open DOF shots get as repetitive as anything else in photography. It's just another technique. When I'm ready to move on I find the smaller cameras have equally important advantages. Sometimes, many times, more depth of field is the "hot application" but it's good to have avenues to both techniques.

While I was out on Sunday I did find a short coming that is endemic to all the current SLR's that isn't shared by their pint sized proteges. It's the flash sync speed. What good are all these fast optics if we have to shoot them at f11 in order to do cool fill flash in bright sunlight? I set up a large scrim to block the sun and took test shots for natural light. Everything looked pretty cool at 1/4000th of a second f2.8. But the scene just fell into the "blah" zone when I added in the light from an umbrella'ed Profoto 600b. Why? The sync speed on my e30 stopped at 1/250th and that limited the range of f/stops I could use to those that gave me too much DOF.

I shot some stuff on my G11 at 1/800th of a second at f 7.1 but when I tried to sync faster I ran into the relatively long burn time of the Profoto 600b at full power. Going up on the shutter speed, even though it would still sync, gave me less and less light because of the flash becomes less efficient. It stays on longer than the shutter stays open.

This is an ongoing issue. Especially for people in Texas who want to shoot at impractical times.

I'm adding a new camera parameter to my short list of requirements. I want an SLR that can sync at all shutter speeds. Every darn one of them. If I want to shoot wide open with a fast lens in sunlight then by God, in the 21st century we should have that option. It was available on the Kodak Retina Reflex 35mm SLR film cameras over 50 years ago. It's absolutely not rocket science.

It is a feature that the new Leica S2 offers on their new series of announced lenses for their new medium format camera. But in light of the current economy I don't think it's practical to spend $35000-45,000 just for this particular feature. Might just be more cost effective to dust off one of the old Rollei 6008's and a some of the PSQ lenses.

The other option is to use FP flash but, as with the Profoto, the faster the shutter speed the lower the power I get with them. This limits me to bundling a bunch of expensive shoe mount flashes together or working with the light ridiculously close to the subject. I'm give it another try.

But back to the main topic. Fast zoom lenses. They fall into the categories of problem solvers. They make stuff look cool. And f2.0 with a 70-200mm equivalent is something we could only dream of just a decade ago.

Workshop Notice: There is still time to sign up for my lighting workshop. It's this Sunday here in Austin, Texas (October 25th). I'll be teaching a daylong workshop with small and conventional flashes. We'll do most of the morning inside the beautiful One World Theater on Bee Caves Rd. and we'll spend most of the afternoon trying to wrestle sunlight to the ground outside. You can register at www.precision-camera.com Hit the link for more details.

It's the last lighting workshop I'll be teaching in 2009 and it should be raucous good fun. Your choice of one of my books is included in the workshop price. Just saying.