5.23.2010

Favorite Focal Lengths. I don't have many.

                             Shot near the Spanish Steps in Rome.  Nikon F100 and the
                             Nikon 85mm 1.4  Tri-x  Printed on Paper. 


Michael Johnston's been talking a lot about lenses lately, over at TOP and he got me thinking again about the "desert island" lens.  Which one could you live with forever.  But this time, rather than waxing romantic and conjecturing which lens yielded the best stuff for me, I decided to go through the collection of my prints that seems always float to the top of my attention, and actually do a quick rough count and see, realistically, what I end up using without thinking about it.

I presumed it would be one of the many 50mm lenses that I seem to take with me almost everywhere.  But after a bleary eyed stroll through the nostalgia laden Ilford Gallerie boxes it dawned on me that almost every image I've ever shot, that I like, was shot with a fast 85mm lens.  The one lens which I don't own today!!

                              Image taken in a Paris Apartment on a cold, rainy November
                              day back in 1992 with a Canon EOS-1 and the first iteration of
                              the Canon 85mm 1.1.2 on Agfa 400 film.  Paper Print copy.


If I remember correctly the first 85mm lens I owned was the original FD breech lock mount Canon 1.8.  It was big, heavy and very well made and I used it extensively to photograph my then girlfriend, now wife of 25 years, as we were dating.  I don't know what I traded it for or why I got rid of it but I remember what a delicious combination it was when paired to the almost forgotten Canon EF SLR body.

I used it to take photographs of Belinda when she was taking print making classes at UT and she looked like this:

                            Belinda at UT studio class.  Painting.  Canon FTB or EF with the 
                            85mm 1.8 FD.  Tri-x.  Probably bulk loaded.


I can't remember ever leaving my apartment without the camera over my shoulder and an extra roll of bulk loaded tri-x or HP5 (whichever was cheaper at the time) in my pocket.  We lived with our cameras in an almost fetishistic way back then.....but we knew them like the backs of our hands.....

    Same combo.  I love the OOF background.  Not an expensive lens but so much more fluid than 
    today's defacto zooms.  I can't think why I moved on from this lens and camera combo.....


Then there was the Leica M period and I have to say that the only lens that makes sense for me to this day with the Leica M cameras is the 50mm.  And the best expression of this was probably in tandem with either the M3 (100 % finder image) or the M6 .85  camera.  I wonder if I moved on from the M's because the 75 was to short and unwieldy while the 90's were just a hair to long.  Not to mention that dropping one's 75mm 1.4 on to pavement was horribly expensive and traumatic.

We'd all like to think of ourselves as fearless photojournalists but I doubt many of use are like James Natchway or Don McCullin, ready to dodge bullets and shrapnel to get in close to fierce fighters with a 21 or 25mm lens.  When I walk the streets I use the 50mm but sometimes, on a warm up day, while recovering from jet lag and still street shy, I found that I have a tendency to take......the 85mm because I can stand off a bit and take shots I might not be ready to take closer.  It's kind of a chicken thing and after the warmup day I make myself get a little closer.  But it's a comfort to start shooting with a little distance and work your way in......

                              Man carrying a loaf of bread home in the evening.  Low light 
                              long before the days of high ISO's or IS.  A quick shot.

                               Louvre.


I've been shooting with the Olympus system lately and the lenses are fantastically sharp and nuanced.  But here's a downside, there's nothing like an 85mm 1.8 in the system. There's the 50mm f2 but it's too slow to focus and it's a bit too long for my taste.  The 14-25mm only reaches out to a 70mm equivilent while the 35-100 covers the focal length but at 3 pounds is much too big and unwieldy for a street shooting lens.  If they want to capture/retain the serious shooter it's time to unleash those fast primes we've all been waiting for.  They were able to do it quite nicely with the Pen F lenses from the 1960's and 1970's, there's no reason they couldn't do a 42.5mm f2 lens for the e cameras today.  I know they'd sell a couple to me......

                                Just in front of Printemps, in Paris.  A blind man and his dog.


In the meantime I guess I'll snap up something from another system to make due.  Most of my photographer friends see the 85mm as a portrait length and I agree that it's a great casual portrait lens for loose compositions.  When I get serious about portraits I usually reach for a 100 or a 135mm but sometimes the 85 can be handy......

                             One of my favorite shots of Renae.  She was the world's absolute 
                             best assistant.  And not only because she was telepathic and charming.


That's my case for the 85mm.  Blame Michael Johnston for revving me up about lenses.  I do agree with him that they are the critical gear.  Cameras are fun, lenses do the heavy lifting.  I've used 85mm's from Canon, Nikon, Contax,and Leica R (actually an 80mm Summilux but I let it slip in....)   and I'd love to tell you which one is the ultimate optic.  But here's the problem, they're probably all better than all but the most recent high res cameras so they would all qualify as equally good.  The cheapest one I shot with was the old Nikon 85mm 1.8 ai I got used for $105 years ago.  The most expensive one I used was the Leica Summilux at around $1800 new when I got mine but if you want one today they are $4695.  The slowest one I played with the was the first generation EOS 85mm 1.1.2 which took several seconds to lock focus in good light and an eternity in bad.  The fastest auto focusing 85mm I've owned was the Nikon 85 1.4.  It focused fast in any light, and on an F5 it was peerless.  The one that shot the best images for me was the old FD 85mm 1.8.  It was new to me and very exciting.  It was the first lens I owned that did wonderfully shallow depth of field.


Okay.  I've talked myself into another one.  I'll get it figured out in the morning.  


      






13 comments:

Kyle Batson said...

Some of my favorite shots are definitely with my Minolta 85/1.4, but I don't take it with my often because it's big, heavy and conspicuous. I like the idea of an E-P2 with a 40mm f/1.4, but I'll have to wait until I get around to picking up the Olympus.

Craig said...

I've been reading and commenting on Michael's articles too. In this era of cheap, slow zooms and insanely expensive, heavy, reasonably fast zooms, it's fun to find other people who like primes and like to talk about them.

The lens that spends more time on my cameras than any other is a Nikkor 85mm f/2 AI-S, though I agree with you about the "chicken thing" to a degree. I've had it in mind lately to spend more time with my 28mm f/2 and 20mm f/4 lenses in order to develop more of a habit of getting in close to things.

On the other hand, sometimes I actually do get close to things... with a 200mm lens at its minimum focus distance. This usually means really colorful, fairly large subjects, like the Japanese maples near my workplace that turn blazing red-orange for just a few days in October before their leaves turn dark and fall off. The 200mm lens lets me immerse myself in the dazzling colors. It's a really nice effect. I'd have to say that 200mm is another of my favorite focal lengths, though it's a fairly specialized thing.

Nicolas said...

This blind man with his dalmatian dog has been shot several times by Willy Ronis, in Paris on the Boulevard Haussmann. His name was Stéphane Commène and he died in january 2001.

Craig said...

Since you mentioned Canon FD lenses, I thought I'd mention that I recently attended a workshop where one of the other guys was using your new favorite, the Olympus E-P2, and he had a Canon FD 80-200mm lens on it (with an adapter). He was quite pleased with the results he got from it. This thing of putting ancient MF lenses on m4/3 cameras may be catching on!

Geir said...

I understand that we are talking 35mm equivalent 85mm here. There should be a standard way of communicating this, since some people like me use the fourthirds standard, which doubles the focal length (or rather: crops it), while others again crop 1.5 or 1.6 or 1.33 even. I don't have a suggestion, but reading photomags, they never make this clear to us readers.
To your article: I would go for the Sigma 30mm f1.4. It crops to 60mm on my Olympus, is quick and sharp. It's quite close to the 85mm, and gives me excellent images. You should try it.

Selbosh said...

Interesting read. I've been looking into getting myself a nice Samyang 85mm 1.4

David Holt said...

Well at least for micro 4/3, how about the Voigtlander 40mm 1.4 in M-mount, or the 40mm f/2 in F-mount? They're only an adapter away!

Dave Jenkins said...

I mostly use zooms these days, but still have and use the very fine Canon EOS 85/f1.8. I figured at one time though, that I had used an 85 for about 65-70% of my work. Even in my TLR days, shooting a 75 or 80mm lens, I often found myself cropping a 35mm sized frame out of the middle.

I used the Olympus OM system for 13 years before aging eyes dictated a change to autofocus. I seem to remember that Oly made a 40mm pancake lens. If so, and if you can find one, that would get you pretty close. Also, wasn't there a 38 or 40 for the Pen system?

Curt Schimmels said...

I'm a bit confused by two statements. While I agree that the 50mm F2 is slow, its crop factor would put it at 100, which you say is a little long. Later in the article, you say for portraits that you would reach for a 100 or a 135. Did I not understand the context of your first statement?

kirk tuck said...

Curt, I like the 100 for more formal portraits. I'm sorry I wasn't clearer about that. But I like the looser crop of the 85 mm for just about everything else. Including more casual portraits and especially candid portraits.

Curt Schimmels said...

Thanks for the clarification. It makes sense with regard to the level of formality, and mimics some of my own thinking around use of equipment depending on the formality of the image.

I also want to compliment your photography in this article, in light of your preference for square images. Each of these is composed very well for what I assume to be their native 3/2 or 4/3 format.

dearj said...

Don't forget the Konica Hexanon 40/1.8 is dirt cheap and easily adapted to 4/3rds -- regular or micro. I have one rattling around that I keep meaning to get to ...

Ezequiel Mesquita said...

The 40mm/1.8 is a beautiful lens and very compact. In the film days I used to shoot with Konica and loved that lens. I have mounted it in my E1 with great results, though it fits a little loose and I'm not that good to make a reliable washer. But I hope it will be a lot more comfortable to use with the EPL-1 and Konica adapter I have ordered. BTW, I love your Paris streets series Kirk. Exemplary candid shots.