2.27.2011

How to get the best images from your lenses. And a quicky review of the Zeiss 85mm ZE.

I'm not quite finished with the project that has temporarily sidelined the Visual Science Labs English language blog but I thought I needed a break from all the discipline of writing a book and I didn't want to miss the opportunity to toss out a "Sunday Rant."  So, "Hi Everyone!"

In the course of researching facts for the book I've become aware of how much is accepted for "fact" by the great majority of web users.  A case in point is the anecdotal acceptance or condemnation of this or that lens.  One reviewer is not able to focus the lens well and in months and weeks the web froths up these facts like egg whites in a souffle and pretty soon it becomes "general knowledge" that X lens is unsharp.

I've learned the three best ways to get the best results out of any lens you happen to buy and I want to share them with you right now.  1.  Put the right subject in front of your lens.   2.  Only put interesting subjects in front of your lenses.  3.  Never put a boring subject in front of your lens....

Back to the general rant.  When I started researching Zeiss lenses for the Canon EOS cameras I started reading all sorts of reviews that talked about focus shift and soft performance with the 85mm 1.4 until you got to an f-stop of about f4.  Reading these things stopped me from buying this lens for months and months.  Recently I decided to forget all that I'd read and try the lens myself.  On my own cameras.  I had high hopes, afte rall I'd tried and then purchased both the 50mm 1.4 and the 35mm f2.0 Zeiss lenses and they have both been stellar performers.


I ponied up for the 85mm and just shot 2,000 frames with it on both the Canon 5dmk2 and on my current vogue camera, the Canon 1Dmk2N.  I never use the "focus and recompose" method when I'm working close.  It doesn't take a crash refresher course in trigonometry to understand that when you are working in close with a long, fast lens depth of field will be small, human focusing errors cost big time, and little shifts of distance make for big problems.

The lens is wonderful.  When I follow good focusing procedures the camera and lens combination rewards me with results that I like very much.  And that brings up an important point:  Good focusing technique takes practice.  Whenever I write a column about the need to consistently practice technique I get lots of feedback from people with non-photo jobs virulently defending the possibility of having good technique in spite of sporadic and periodic engagement with their tools.  I'll just summarily say,  "I don't think so."  Take the camera to work and practice focusing while you're waiting for the next great thought to strike....

When used properly no microadjustment was required for either camera.  No special stopping down routine was needed.  Just straight forward technique.


How to get the most out of any lens?  Use it all the time.  Experiment and engage.  Be fearless.  And never insult your lens by putting crap in front of it.  Literally or metaphorically.  (Non color corrective) filters make good coasters.  Not good adjuncts to carefully designed optical systems.  Cats are fun to pet but have visual relevance only to your close family.  This goes for most cars, most girlfriends and boyfriends and nearly every overweight person you've found parading around in a swim suit (unless you are Martin Parr).  This limits your range of subject possibilities enormously but it does serve to concentrate your talent and focus it rather than dilute it like a pound of ice in your Big Gulp cup of cola.

If the fish aren't running try another stream or take a break to eat a sandwich or watch the clouds go by.  If you're out for a "photo walk"  (which really just means a walk with your camera along.  Do we really need a special phrase for it?) and there's no interesting subject matter a quick detour into the mysteries of convenient cracking paint and accommodating shadow doesn't make an equivalent replacement for the subjects to which you are really attracted.  We're not in an image race here.  It's not enough to fill the bucket if all you're filling it with is chum.


Why did I buy yet another 85mm lens?  I always wanted this one.  The economy has been kinder this year and seems to have a trajectory that gives me a sense of relative security and happiness.  I've been doing more and more video projects and I like the look and feel of the MF Zeiss lenses and their buttery focus rings.  I've loved the focal length for years and always wanted to know what the Zeiss version added to the equation.

I bought it on my way to speak at Dennis Darling's photo class at the University of Texas School of Journalism, on Thursday.  I used it yesterday in Pedernales to photograph a doctor for an ad.  I used it this today to photograph Selena out at Willie Nelson's place.  I shot 1200 shots this morning.  I like a lot of them.  Do I think you need this lens?  Nope.  If you have something in this focal length that makes you happy you're set.  Will this lens make me a better photographer?  Not as much as getting more sleeping, showing up more places and getting my book project finished probably would.  Did I really need it to pursue the video business?  Nope.  I have a perfectly serviceable Canon 85 that works just fine for video.

So why?  Sometimes I like to reward myself for long jags of work.  Sometimes I like to see if other brands have something special (they generally don't).  I was nostalgic for manual focusing.  It's the same reason people buy sports cars with manual transmissions.  And no,  it's not logical and it doesn't make any sense.  Some times I do things just to make myself happy.

Remember:  The number one way to get better stuff out of your lens is to put interesting subjects in front of it.  There is no other thing that will work so well, and across all formats.  If you are shooting something just to show off your technical skills or the technical qualities of your gear you missed the point.  But my regular readers know that nothing matters if the photo is not interesting....

Back to work.  Hope everyone is well.

 Zeiss 85mm at f2.8,  Handheld

All the best from Austin, Texas.  From Kirk Tuck.

21 comments:

Dave Jenkins said...

Just curious -- do the Zeiss lenses in Canon mount have focus confirmation? (Doesn't sound like you would use it if they did.)

I just got an adapter from an eBay seller to use my OM lenses on my Canon digital bodies with focus confirmation. So far, so good.

I used the OM system for a long time, but switched to Canon in 1993 because I felt I needed autofocus for the photojournalism I was doing at the time. However, I've always felt that if Olympus had come out with a professional body with focus confirmation, I could have stayed with the system. They did make a focus confirmation body called the OM-F, based on the OM-10, but I was afraid it wouldn't hold up for rugged work. If I had it to do over again, though, I would probably buy several OM-F bodies and take my chances.

kirk tuck said...

Dave, Yes. The ZE's all meter in all modes and provide focus confirmation. I only trust it stopped down to f4 and smaller. Not for wide open. Thanks.

mshafik said...

Hey, nice to see you back, I had to follow you on twitter to keep up with you. :-)

One point I heartily agree upon, trying lenses yourself, I'm facing the same dilemma with a 28~30mm prime on my crop sensor camera, I wanted a cheap one and your mention of the 35mm f/2 made me consider it but I am tempted by the Sigma 30mm f/1.4 and despite all the praise and focusing problem reports I decided I would try it out for myself. You just gave me a confidence push; if I may say so.

Koert said...

Very funny and very true too.
Beautiful photos as ever, especially the one before last!

SimonL said...

Ha! Knew you couldn't stay away for the full 2 weeks :o)

Bill Beebe said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
kirk tuck said...

Simon, you're reading me like a cheap novel.... :-)

pccrs said...

nice skin color. Was this straight out of the camera?

kirk tuck said...

Yes.

Jessica said...

Beautiful. I've always had a yen for those lenses. But not pockets deep enough. Until that changes, I'll read your blog!

Bold Photography said...

I've been on a rant in the forums about using good technique... It's truly stunning how many people want their equipment to do all the work and thinking for them. ... and then they wonder why they're not happy with the results.

I helped out on a photo excursion with a bunch of kids on Sunday - and while I'd have loved to talk more about technique with them, it was mostly about trying out different angles to get a better/different composition (they were mostly using point/ shoot cameras). I did bring my tripod and showed how that can help with technique...

I've had my eyes on the Zeiss lenses and when we finish fixing the various appliances that have given up their respective ghosts, I'll get one :-) (Probably one nearer to 35mm).

Dean Forbes said...

A question and a comment:
- What f stop were the first group of photos taken at?
- You don't elaborate much about focusing technique. For people at shallow f stops, focus on the eyes. Simple.

Anonymous said...

Great pictures!

Anonymous said...

You started ranting on technique and somehow you got side tracked. I would love reading your take on technique.

kirk tuck said...

Anonymous, people have developed the bad habit (due to the way AF sensors are distributed in their camera viewfinders and the fact that, for so long, the center AF sensors were the only ones worth a crap...) of focusing with the center portion of their focusing screen and then moving the camera up or down or side to side to actually compose the shot the way they want to see it. It's critical to focus after composing so the distance between your focused point doesn't change during the process of recomposing. With a good screen and a fast lens it's entirely possible to use the ground glass to sharply focus. Again, without moving the camera and recomposing. If you were to do an experiment you might try this: Have someone stand in front of your camera, six feet away. With the tripod at eye level tilt down and focus on someone's waist take note of the distance on the scale. Now aim the camera at their eyes and refocus. Take note of the distance. There's almost a foot difference in the point of focus and yet the waist and the eyes are in the same plane of focus. But they are at different distances from the POV of your camera. Use those edge sensors or focus manually. Long, fast lenses used close up just don't work with the "focus and recompose" technique.

The other part of the tech rant is just practice. It takes practice and refreshers to shoot a gun, drive a car well, make a souffle and so much more. Focusing requires discernment squeezed from practice. That's it.

obakesan said...

Kirk

" With a good screen and a fast lens it's entirely possible to use the ground glass to sharply focus"

and a well aligned focus screen

or you could just focus off the sensor in live view via a good EVF such as th G1/GH-1 (and the 2 versions).

I'll be very pleased to see something like a Nikon S2 sized package that does full frame 35mm.

Poagao said...

I've always wondered about the term "photowalk". When people told me what it was, I said, "How is that different from 'walk'"?

John Small said...

Thank you for these thoughts - you've hit a sweet spot (for me anyway). I like to shoot cropped, a little but not too much. Rather just right and the 85mm on a cropped sensor or 105mm on full frame or 35mm film is just right (for me).

These throw the background out of focus, but not too much. They crop, but not too much. They allow for more content when one backs up, again with the background out of focus - in this case, just right.

If I had to choose one focal length, this is it. Others prefer ultra wide angle, some a normal perspective and some long lenses. I do too often. But this essay is the sweet spot. And as you have said before, one lens per walk is also just right (most of the time).

Thanks again.

DZ said...

"The number one way to get better stuff out of your lens is to put interesting subjects in front of it." You seem to do that well!

Lionel Pesqué said...

Did you change the focusing screen on your 5DMkII ?

kirk tuck said...

Yes, I installed the G screen from Canon. It works well.