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!!
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:
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.....
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......
long before the days of high ISO's or IS. A quick shot.
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......
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......
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.