Sunday Rant: Hubris.

Promotional images for the play, August Osage County.  Zach Scott Theatre.

It always happens this way.  I talk all about technique and miracle lenses and I start believing that I'm as smart and talented as I've led myself to believe I am.  And so the universe comes back around and kicks my butt.  I'm fifty-five.  I haul my reading glasses around with me all the time and I should be wearing the bifocals I own but I usually can't be bothered.  Today I went to photograph a famous playwright under available light in a dark theater.  I'll blog about the shoot another time but for right now it's all about my own hubris.

I packed a quick bag of stuff.  I was intent on using my Zeiss lenses on a 7D and a 5Dmk2.  I was so confident that I'd be able to make the combinations work even though the subject has dark skin and the theater I was shooting in was dimly lit and had black walls.  I brought along a pair of reading glasses so I could review images.  And it's a good thing I did because my rate of keepers was dismally low.  I just haven't practiced manual focus enough to make the 50 and 35mm lenses sing sharp in dim light.  The 85mm was relatively easier.  The other two?  Like pulling teeth.  

I could have packed a 35mm f2  AF lens and a 50mm AF lens.  I have them both in the drawer.  But I was out to prove (with a swagger) how superior the vaunted Zeiss glass could be.  What an asshole.

Now I had the distinct (dis)pleasure of throwing out about a third of my shoot to technical issues.  Oh hell, there were no technical issues.  I just couldn't hit focus reliably today.  Even with the cool screens I put in the cameras.  Didn't I test them?  Sure I did.  I walked all over downtown Austin in bright sunlight over the course of a few weeks and startled myself with the biting sharp results.  But that's not the same as trying to focus in dark, flat light, with a moving subject while handholding the camera.  Now I've embarrassed myself.  And I wasn't going to tell anyone because I shot lots of frames and I have good coverage for what my client needs, but I thought I would come clean to remind people that good technique takes unyielding practice and that sometimes the best tool for the job at hand isn't the most impressive tool but simply the one that will do the job best.

And while we're at it we might as well kick around a few mortality issues.  I had perfect vision right up to the age of 42.  I mean I could count the feathers on an eagle flying a mile above me with the sun right behind him and I could read 2 point typed from inches away.  Then, like nearly everyone else, my eyesight changed.  I compensated.  But there finally came one of those embarrassing moments that finally pushed me to the eye doctor with my tail between my legs.  

It was the mid-1990's.  Business for photographers was booming.  We were buying 5 series BMW's and dropping cash on big Hasselblad systems. We just couldn't miss.  I ordered a brand new Hasselblad 203F with the 110 f2 Planar, the 150mm f2 Sonnar and the 50mm f2.8 Distagon.  What a gorgeous package.  The 203F had a focal plane shutter which meant medium format with fast lenses and a top shutter speed of 1/2000th.  Very revolutionary compared to the Hasselblad V series cameras.  And pricey.

I took the camera along on a shoot at Motorola.  It should have been a piece of cake.  I was photographing a group, lit with flash, sitting in two rows in front of a canvas backdrop.  But no matter how I turned the focus ring I couldn't get a good, sharp image on the screen.  I finally called over my assistant and she focused the camera and swore it was in.  We did a Polaroid and it was good.  So we shot and moved on.  But I was convinced that the fault lay with the camera and lens.  I boxed up the camera and the offending lens and sent it off to Hasselblad for evaluation.....along with a spitty letter.

About ten days later I got a call from a person with a Scandinavian accent.  The conversation went something like this:

Them:  "Mr. Tuck, I have your Hasselblad camera here in front of my and we have thoroughly tested both the body and the lens.  They are perfectly calibrated."

Me:  "Well, what was wrong with them when you got them.  What did you have to calibrate?"

Them:  "Oh no, Mr. Tuck.  You misunderstand.  We got the package and your letter and immediately sent them to the lab for testing.  We didn't have to make any repairs or adjustments.  Both were perfect right from the box."

Me: (fueled with hubris):  "That's impossible.  I know what I saw.  I couldn't get the finder into sharp focus!"  (Anger and frustration amply present in my voice....).

Them: "Forgive me Mr. Tuck but I must ask,  how old are you?"

Me:  "I'm forty two."

Them:  "And may I ask when you last paid a visit to your oculist?  (pause) Your eye doctor?"

Me:  "I never go.  I have perfect vision...."

Them:  "You did, Mr. Tuck.....but now.....?"

They kindly sent me the camera and lens back and I did go to see the "oculist" and was fitted for a pair of reading glasses.  The doctor recommended bifocals but I scoffed.  Two weeks later I went back and got the bifocals as well.  The camera worked fine right up until I exchanged it for a digital camera, years later.

The moral of the story is not that you shouldn't use manual focus cameras.  Or that you shouldn't try to keep pushing the envelope.  I guess the moral is that we all age and we all change and while it's tough to admit some things get harder.  And you have to practice more than the young and the spry. 

The thing that gets in the way is.....hubris.  En garde. 


Wolfgang Lonien said...

A while ago I had real difficulties reading my 19" monitor at work. Same reason. So I went and got Zeiss glass for my glasses (no bifocals yet, didn't want those), and my boss gave me a bigger monitor - and now everything is better again. For the moment.

Yes, we constantly change.

But recently, when my E-520 struggeld in a low key setup, I switched to manual and focused myself. The viewfinder is set to -3.5 diopters, and I did pretty well - none of the images was out of focus (well they shouldn't be, with the aperture set between 5.6 and 8 in the studio). But the 50mm Olympus macro is like a 100mm on full frame, so it was pretty easy.

Next time maybe I should try a Nikon, since I've read and heard often enough that those are the low light monsters, and can focus on the black cat in the coal cellar...

Jim said...

One thing I can tell you don't want for photography is the 'progressive' or 'no lines' lenses in your eyeglasses. They're great going to the supermarket and reading labels without constantly putting your reading glasses on but they suck fr looking at large computer screens or for focusing a camera. Not only that but if you turn your eyes instead of your head all the straight lines curve. Stick with your straight bifocals or single vision reading glasses.

Anonymous said...

And yet you delivered a competent job, figured out the problems, figured out a methodology to "fix" future issues, wrote a great blog and posted a triptych that stumbles over the line between art and photography. All in all, a nice job for someone supposedly saddled by hubris. That's why you are a pro.

Steven Alecxander said...

I loved my Leica R4's, and suddenly they just wouldn't focus, I tried a Nikon and damit it refused to get sharp photos. Consulted my brother-in-law and a pair of glasses made both those camera take tack sharp images and adding a plus three to the viewfinder of my Leica M's greatly improve their sharpness.
Ain't life wonderful

Jeffrey Friedl said...

Sort of tangential to the moral of your story, but even with MF lenses, the "in focus" indicator in camera (green dot with Nikon bodies; dunno about Canon) still works. It may not be accurate enough when using a fast lens wide open, but it's worth keeping in mind.

mbka said...

Well I bit my tongue when I read your posts about the MF lenses because I remembered how I always struggled in low light with MF. Even back when I was only myopic and astigmatic, now I added presbyopia. I was so in awe! Now I'm comforted, thanks.

Re: practice, I just came back from volunteering at a kids run. I open your blog and see your marvelous swim shots. I open my files and it's just - ridiculous. I can't even shoot running 5 year olds. Maybe 1 in 30 keeper ratio, and that being very generous on "quality". Mostly I missed my intended targets completely. Only the group shots and candids after the race worked out. Granted the 1D I wanted to rent was out of stock and so I went with my slow CDAF G1, that didn't help, but the truth is just I never shot sports really and I just don't know how to get a clear shot under moving crowd conditions.

My hubris was worse than yours though: no practice whatsoever, not even ages ago. Bonus ridicule, I imagined I'd need no longer than 90mm (eq.) lenses. For sports. Haha. Ah well. Lucky someone from the school shot the whole thing in video.

Bill Millios said...

Beware the oculist. When the glass shines, it shines for thee.

Gerry Walden said...

We have all been there I guess. Around the same time I got my first reading glasses my local newspaper seemed to get a new, clearer press. Strange coincidence! ;>)

Nick Giron said...

It's great that you're taking pictures for a living instead of hunting.

You would have starved.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your post. I am dealing with a slightly different issue. I've been extremely nearsighted all my life. Never had trouble focusing with glasses. And then I started needed progressives. Getting them adjusted for reading and computer work was no problem but I find myself taking my glasses off to focus, especially when using an LCD screen. Being near sighted, I have extremely good vision at very short distances - something I'd have lost if I had gotten a LASIK or similar procedure.

Steve said...

I started wearing specs when I was 11, with increasing myopia for years. Then from about 25 to 40, no changes ... then the presbyopia began to creep in, so it was time for progressive lenses (which worked wonderfully for me).

Now I'm in my 60s, and the myopia has almost disappeared (20/20 at my physical last week), but not the presbyopia. I can hardly wait to see what comes next. Weird.

As for photography, adjustable diopter viewfinders don't get anywhere *near* the amount of praise that they deserve. (Too bad I have to keep the glasses around to see the LCD panel and status indicators. Or the medium-format camera's controls, for that matter.)

Bold Photography said...

I'm on exactly the same boat as Steve is - just a few years younger... I got my first pair of bifocals recently.

And yes, I'm humbled each time hubris shows its head..

mbka said...

Steve, interesting - I'm mid fourties, exact same myopia history as you, and the myopia is slowly coming down now with presbyopia ramping up. Your example sounds encouraging actually.