5.06.2010

The Argument in Favor of Obscure Lenses.

I've always loved this image.  It's of the actor, Rene Zellweger long before she acted in her first movie.  Probably shot in 1991 or 1992.

Of course I love the pose and the hands and the way the images falls off to black but I also love the look of the lens that was used to make the image.  These days everyone is obsessed with absolutely sharpness above all things.  Well, that's not entirely true......some amateurs are also obsessed by home many different focal lengths you can cram into a zoom lens.  But most photographers love the process of quantification and measurement (I know I do....) and so DXO test that "objectively" measure overall quality reign supreme.

But what if you don't want pathological sharpness?  What if you're looking for a softer portrait?  A more subdued landscape?  Are there other lenses that no one ever talks about.

I took this image nearly twenty years ago but it's important to understand that the EOS system was already on the market.  In fact, the same lens mount is still in use and the lenses designed for the EOS film cameras are still around.  I shot with some Canon EOS film cameras back then and in this instance I used a lens that I didn't appreciate as much as I should have.  It was Canon's 135mm f2.8 soft focus lens.  It had a setting ring on the front that would allow you to dial in three strengths of softness or use the lens as a very sharp optic with no "negative correction".  I'm pretty sure it worked by introducing aberrations or softness by putting the elements at the "wrong" distance to each other.

At any rate, Rene and I were just messing around in the studio on a Saturday morning.  Her right arm is draped over the back of an old wooden chair that I also neglected to appreciate enough.  To her right (camera's left) I was using a 250 watt incandescent light bulb shining through a tattered and stained 40 inch umbrella.  I had a stack of softboxes at the time but came to think of this umbrella as magic.  I think I still have it.......  The umbrella was as close to Rene as I could get the curved surface while the light was as placed to just evenly cover the edges of the umbrella.

I souped the ISO 50 Pan F film in Rodinal 1:100 for nearly 18 minutes and made the original print on a soft surfaced (G surface) Kodak paper.  I've reprinted it many times but it just wants to be printed on a matte surface.  The above image is a copy shot of the print.  It conveys what I want you to see better than a scan of the un-interpreted negative would and retains the lower contrast feel of the paper.

That lens is long gone from my equipment drawer but every time I see this image, and others from the same day,  I have a twinge of regret that stings just a bit.  I let the momentum of the market push me onto a different path and spent years chasing sharper, sharper, sharper  when I should have let the subject whisper to me just how it wanted to be portrayed.  

There are other lenses that I regret selling.  I'll try not to make that mistake again.......

7 comments:

ajcarr said...

Back in the days when I shot 35 mm film, I used the effect that if you took a Russian Helios-44-2 (an old Zeiss double-Gauss Biotar design) and unscrewed and removed the rear group of 3 elements, mounted the lens on an extension tube, then you got a 116 mm lens with poor correction of spherical aberration, and thus a gorgeous soft-focus effect. You can find a Helios-44-2 58 mm f/2 with preset apertures, 42 mm thread mount, on eBay for a reasonable price; 42 mm thread extension tubes are also cheap.

Tack-sharp is not always good, but equally, if you want a softer focus then the bokeh has to be good.

Alun

Craig said...

The 135mm f/2.8 Soft Focus is still in production today. I've never used it, but it's interesting to see that you liked it.

Today's cult of sharpness annoys me. I knew I had gotten away from that sort of technology worship when I realized one day that I understood what Cartier-Bresson meant when he said, "Sharpness is a bourgeois concept." Bad art does not become good art by being tack-sharp and otherwise technically precise, and good art can survive being technically imperfect (and sometimes it needs to be).

(Btw, I believe she spells it Renee, preferably with an accent over the penultimate E.)

kirk tuck said...

Craig, The spelling of both the first and the last name changed since I first met her.......

I agree with you entirely about the cult of sharpness. Well said.

Tyson said...

I've been eyeing that 135 sf for over a year now, but have never taken the leap. I suppose there's always been something else on the list of things I'd like to play with. I simply saw it as a relatively fast 135 for an incredibly low price. it's good to know that the soft focus feature can be used well. Perhaps I'll be getting a new bit of fun shortly. Enjoying the blog, Kirk.

Robert said...

I loved the fifty posts you made today especialy the parts about seperating the art of photography from the technology of it. I usualy dont understand much more than what I need to to acomplish my goals. But I do remember I used to love shooting ilford pan f 50 when my class mates were shooting tri x and tmax. I dont have the space for a darkroom but I have no desire to get caught up in HDRholigraphic3dsmellography that someone is developing hardware for at this verry moment. so I'll continue making the images with feeling the best I can with the tools at my disposal. Thx for the inspiration

very1silent said...

Picking up a used copy of that lens is very cheap. I got one on ebay for $170 a couple years ago, replaced the AF/MF switch for another $20, and have been using it on and off ever since.

Using it drives me towards darker backgrounds, in large part because the lens is somewhat flare-prone when presented with large bright areas inside the image.

steveH said...

It's been a long time since I did any darkroom work, but I still recall how much I liked using Rodinal. Different concentrations could return some very nice results, whether hard or sharp or soft...

Now that the kids have all grown up and moved out, their bathroom is sort of underutilized. Wonder if I can find another 5x7 view camera around somewhere?

More to the point, could I sneak it past my wife.