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.