What I learned when I dragged a Hasselblad on vacation. The myth of perfection.


It was 1991 and most of my assignments were being done on medium format film with one or another camera from Sweden.  There's a myth that floats around the web like a party guest who's drunk and won't leave, that all the pros back in the film days used 35mm cameras.  Well, I know the four or five hundred sports shooters did but the other 200,000 professionals mostly used medium format...except for the ones that used 4x5 inch film.  With the exception of documentary photographers and event photographers very few pros used much 35mm for real work until the late 1990's and, even then, would quickly scurry back to medium format, given a choice.

Anyway, the dollar was strong and Belinda and I decided to take a real vacation, not just a quick jaunt to the coast or a long weekend in San Francisco or New York.  A real vacation.  Two weeks or so and out of the country.  We headed to Italy.  I packed light.  I brought a Hasselblad 500 C/M with two lenses:  a 50mm f4.5 and a 100mm Planar f3.5.  I also brought along about 100 rolls of Kodak Tri-X (magic film).  The camera was rudimentary.  Just a waist level finder and a couple of 120mm film backs. No meter. No autofocus. No motors.  Just my eyes, my brain and as much cool industrial art as Hasselblad could cram into a body.  My back-up plan?  Buy another camera on site if this one failed.  But I was using Hasselblads in the studio, shooting 20 or 30 rolls a day for years and I hadn't had one fail on me yet...

So, what did I learn hauling that around?  Well, to start with I like medium focal length lenses and I could have just left the 50mm at home.  The 100 was about the equivilant of a 60-65 mm lens on a full frame, 35mm style camera and it always seemed just right.  I learned to judge exposure by using the little slip of paper that came packed from Kodak with each roll of film.  They had printed pictograms of the most common exposure situations and the accuracy was better that anything we get using a meter.

I learned, with 12 exposures on a roll to be discerning about what I shot.  I also learned to be patient.  If I shot too much too quickly I'd be out of film just about the time something really cool was happening.  I learned that old, waist level cameras were invisible and anonymous.  And I learned for the 10,000th time that the square beats the crap out of all other photographic formats.

When I got back home I learned that a big negative trumps all the technology in the world for image quality.  I learned that 120 mm film made contact sheets where each individual image was big enough to judge with the naked eye.

Belinda in Siena.

Belinda in Verona

And I've learned over the years that the pursuit of perfection in photography is great if you are trying to exactly replicate a box of laundry detergent or a stereo receiver for an advertising project but that perfection tends to suck the life out of images that are meant to be savored and enjoyed.  

I'm happy if something is in focus.  I'm happy if the image reminds me of an experience and I'm happiest when I can see the grain.  When I can see the grain I know it's art.

Finally, if you are shooting art for yourself you really only need one lens.  Not an all purpose lens but a lens you can believe in.  A lens that, when you look through it, makes everything look more exciting and more real.  A lens that matches the vision in your heart.  All the other lenses are bullshit.  They make them so professional photographers can do stuff the way clients want it.  Really.  If you don't get paid to do this stuff just narrow down and narrow down until you find a lens that makes your vision sing and then sell the rest.  You'll argue and you won't believe me but if you do it you'll be so much happier with your work five years from now.  Honestly.  It's the one thing I've learned chasing business and clients.  You compromise your vision.  One lens is all you need.  In fact more lenses just cloud everything up.

The best fashion shooter I ever met just had one lens.  It was a Hasselblad 150.  The front element looked as though someone had put a cigarette out on it.  She didn't own any other lens so she never had to think about which lens she would use or how she would work.  She just did her work and it was stellar.  No choices, just the right choice.  No confusion just vision.  Amazing.  But now we're all so fearful we feel like we need to have "all of our bases covered" even when we're just doing this for fun.  That's why it's not as much fun.  

Zooms are for sissies.  I have a collection. I'm just a sissy.  Show me the guy with one 50mm lens and no bag and I'll show you an artist.  Or at least a guy without a back problem.....

You won't listen anyway.  Go ahead and buy whatever you like.

Ahhh. The sweet smell of desire.

The shopping gene is irresistible. It's fun and entertaining. And it never stops. The image above was shot on the Via Condotti in Rome. Shopping central. In the spirit of a week spent doing commerce and making money I thought I'd go on a virtual shopping spree and also let you know what stuff I've already bought that I really liked.  Shall we?

So everyone has either ordered or already gotten their brand new, Olympus OM-D cameras and they are delighted.  But have you thought of an extremely cost effective back up body for those times when you want to sport two primes at a time????  You might want to consider the sturdy and reliable little EPL1.  You can pick them up right now on Amazon, brand new, for less than $150.  Why would you?  Have you ever wanted to take your camera somewhere......dangerous?  But you were reticent to do so because, well, it's an expensive tool?  Stick your kit lens on an EPL1 and go forth courageously.  The files are just as good as those that come squirting out of a current EP3.  And you can add the VF2 or VF3 finder for the ultimate in usability.  At $150 it's disposable cheap.  

But you may want something a bit more upscale and a bit more flexible as your cheap as free back up body to your new, gleaming masterpiece.  I strongly suggest snapping up one of my favorite cameras of all time:  The Olympus Pen EP2.  You can snag one right now, new with warranty, for only $269.  You get a second control dial and really nice styling on the body.  Of all the cameras I own it's got to be the most fluid and enjoyable to use.  I'm adding another one at this price because I think cameras like to hunt in pairs, I always like having more batteries and I'd love to walk around and shoot with the 45mm on one body and the 25mm on the other.  VF-2's on both, please.

Included just for show.  Snap up a clean one if you can find one.  It will be the ultimate photo collector's item in five years, or so.....

The next thing on my list is an adapter to use different lenses on my micro four thirds cameras.  I already have an adapter that lets me use the older, Olympus Pen lenses on the bodies but lately I've been thinking about sticking Sony Alpha lenses on the front of the EP2.  I didn't think it would be possible since the Sony Alpha's have electronic aperture settings but apparently Fotodiox makes one.  It's right here.  So, for a whopping $39 I'll have access to even more lenses.  Most interested in plugging the 30mm macro onto the EP's and seeing how that works.  (I haven't tested this one yet so caveat emptor...).

Speaking of Sony Alpha's I've been thinking about the two extremes represented in the lens line.  At one end you have dirt cheap plastic lenses that have great performance in a mediocre container and, at the other end you've got "no holds barred" performance in great tubes of alluring metal and white paint.  Here's my favorite cheapster:  The Sony 35mm 1.8 dirt cheap lens.  $219.  This is my "normal" lens for the APS-C Sony bodies.  It's extremely light weight and very nicely sharp at nearly all of the aperture settings I'm interested in.  If I break it or lose it I won't think it's the end of the world.   At the other extreme though sits my Sony 70-200mm f2.8 G lens.  And if I lost this one I'd be plenty pissed because it would cost me two thousand dollars to replace it.  But it does what I bought it for:  It's fast, it's sharp and clients get all woozy when I pull it out of the bag.  It actually gets about 10% of the use I get from the 35 but when I do need it (for swim meets, cross country meets and fancy portraiture) I'm glad I bought one of the best.

Circling back to cameras for just a minute.  I live in fear of being somewhere far from the studio and being caught with a dead battery in my camera.  But every time I head to the camera store to buy spares I'm stunned by the prices that Olympus and Sony (and Nikon and Canon) want for their camera batteries.  In desperation I tried some no name batteries I found on Amazon in my EP2 and EP3 and I was pleasantly surprised.  The brand I've been buying is called, Maximal Power, and, at $10 a wack they are wonderful.  No failures in two years....

As you know, I've written some books about lighting.  I try to be neutral and stick to the facts and that works well in a book about, say, LEDs.  I'm loving the LED Lighting for Digital Photographers because it's the first book about LED light for photographers in the entire book industry.  I actually have a MONOPOLY!!!!!!! Yeah for me.  If you haven't bought a copy yet please follow the link and at least read some of the reviews. You might not realize how badly you actually need this book. Almost as badly as I need you to buy it..... (kidding, of course.)

But if you poked me, or watched me work, you'd realize that my real love in lighting is the use of big, soft sources.  I've used Photek Softlighters for years but I've been on the look out for something bigger (72 inches) and sturdier (thick, fiberglass rods instead of crimp-able metal rods) and just as cost effective.  I've finally found my ultimate umbrella system.  It's from Fotodiox and it's a 72 inch umbrella with a white (or silver, if you need a bit more contrast) interior, a black backing to control spill, and (super bonus) a white diffusion cover to make it the ultimate umbrella/softbox combination.  I bought one and I'm thrilled with it.  Well made and, when used well, soft but directional.  It may be the perfect Kirk Tuck Lighting Modifier (KTLM).  I have the product bookmarked and I need to go back and get two more as back up.  When I find something I really like I want to get a few more in case the product changes or the distributor gives up....

Also available in Silver....  You'll probably want to use this one with a nice monolight or flash head instead of an LED....

If you are overwhelmed with technical product and lighting tools I can change course here for second and recommend a book.  It's by superstar photo documentarian, SebastiĆ„o Salgado, and it's a decade long photographic study of Work in the industrial Age.  It's an amazing book.  If you are into photo journalism and black and white photography you'll be delighted by the work of a master in both...

Finally, after having worked with my favorite tripod for a year I can whole heartedly recommend it for just about everyone.  It's handmade in Germany.  It's constructed of wood and metal.  It doesn't absorb heat or transfer vibration and chicks really dig the organic nature of it.  It's the Berlebach tripod.  You'll need to buy a tripod head separately.  That's your call.  Just don't put a cheap tripod head on a work of art.....  There are bigger and techier tripods out there but none with more useful personality.  An older post on the Berlebach's: http://visualsciencelab.blogspot.com/2010/07/tripods-love-em-or-hate-em-sometimes.html

I'm heading out to lunch with a new dining companion.  My dog.  She and I are going to P.Terry's for burgers.  She'll love the adventure and she never minds when I sit there and talk to her about camera gear.  In fact, I think she likes it.  She's always sniffing around the rangefinders.....