My Albert Watson Phase.

I've been talking about my favorite lenses lately and I thought I would be remiss not to mention my all time favorite portrait lens, on that I may re-buy and have adapted to the Sony a99, if possible.  That lens is the 90 mm Summicron for the Leica R cameras. Sharp and yet flattering, it is a chameleon of a lens. I used it almost exclusively when I (rarely) shot 35mm film portraits back in the 1990s.

The initial images were wonderfully detailed on film but the overall look of the file was of lower contrast that some of the other system lenses, like the 80 Summilux. The images from that lens (especially portraits) came into their own when printed on slightly contrasty papers. Now, in the age of scans and digital optimization I find the lens's rendition the perfect starting point for portraits. The slightly lower contrast does a great job retaining both highlight and shadow detail and, as you build constrast it reveals a strong set of bones under the surface. You can go a fair distance in raising contrast without blowing out highlights or blocking up details.

And for me the 90 on a full frame is just heaven. Perhaps it is having used a 90mm focal length that keeps me from warming up to the 85s as portrait lenses. That may be why I like the old 60mm so well on the Nex cameras.  I think that by the time we are photographers we've developed an unconscious predilection for certain focal lengths and our allegiances forever lie there. In situations where commerce and profit are removed I have no desire whatsoever to shoot with a 35mm or 28mm lens. Wider is less appealing still.

While I come back again and again to the 50mm lens for situations that reward context the focal lengths between there and 90 are like "no man's land" for me. Vague and fruit-less.  Ah, but 90 to 135 is so sweet. I often fantasize about a future time in which I'll retire and walk the earth with a camera and a small back of lenses. From 85 to 135mm. Nothing wider, nothing longer. Because, that's the way the world looks best to me.

A psychiatrist and I discussed this very issue over coffee one day. He suggested that wide shooters were unable to commit. Commit to a framing. Commit to essential elements and to commit to a disciplined use of space. Longer shooters, he suggested, were decisive and loved cutting down a frame to the essentials. Whether he said this to ease my fevered brain, knowing my choices, or whether it was an epiphany of his years of practice, I take it to heart and now harbor yet another photographic prejudice.

Doesn't matter. No one is keeping score. Just thought I'd trot out my favorite...


  1. Hmm... Sometimes wide shooters just like dramatically exaggerated perspective. You can, after all, do close-ups with an ultrawide -- you just have to get really, really close. Try taking a close-up of a good-sized flower with a close-focusing fish-eye lens sometime.

    1. Follow-up thought: One could, then, turn the psychological argument around and claim that telephoto shooters are playing it safe and keeping their distance, declining a direct, intimate engagement with the subject. :)

      But for portraits, while I've seen good work done with wide-angle lenses, I tend to agree with you, Kirk -- for my own portrait shooting, I tend to favor something in the 100-135mm range.

    2. Posh. There's no reverse argument. Long rules. Short drools... :-)

  2. Yes, you can physically swap out the Leica R mount for the Sony Alpha on most R lenses: http://www.leitax.com/Leica-lens-for-Sony-cameras.html

    If you keep it as an R lens, though, there's also the new Metabones Speed Booster adapter for Leica R -> Sony Nex that would make it a ~96mm f/1.4 on the Nex: http://www.metabones.com/product/sony-nex/leica-r-lens-to-sony-nex-adapter-detail

  3. For a moment, I thought I had a buyer for my 80mm Summilux...

  4. Beautiful portrait, one that I don't ever remember seeing.

    I disagree on the Psychoanalysis of wide-angle shooters.
    I contend that wide-angle shooters know that the world is complex, but to create a good image, one needs to find the focus in the confusing world. Work hard to eliminate distractions. Make sure that there is a progression from near, to mid to far. They commit but they understand context.

    Finding focus with a tele, now that's easy ;-)

    1. Agreed. Shooting wide means that you have to be more committed to framing and organization. Otherwise you wind up with a confusing mess.

    2. I agree as well. When I shoot wide I take every element in the frame into account, and the interrelationship of the elements. I like the challenge - I definitely find it harder than tight portraits without a telephoto and definitely requires more focus from me. Shooting without a strong artistic intent is bad for telephoto but for wide angle it's absolutely terrible.

      Best regards,

  5. A quick followup to my previous post.

    3 of the 4 photos in this post where shot a 28mm equivalent. The other at 50mm.

    Not quite a beautiful as Renae. But focused and committed, I believe.

  6. Been down that road. Buy an R8 and use film. The Nikon 105 2.5 ais is another favorite.

    If you can get a lens converted to the Sony Alpha mount, send me an email. If you post positive results here, the price of a 90 cron R will go up and the lenses will sit on shelves - unused.


  7. I love my 50's as well but sometimes I find them to be too short (I've been shooting a lot of film lately). I'll have to get my hands on one of the nice Nikon primes, though the Oly 50mm 1.4 on my EP-2 is awfully nice.

  8. Other than Saul Leiter and Jay Maisel, I can't think of a single photographer whose work I admire that consistently shot with longish lenses.

    The rest -- Eggleston, Levitt, Nachtwey, Frank, Winogrand, Friedlander, Erwitt, HCB, Dasgupta, Moriyama, Koudelka, Kertesz -- all shot or shoot between 50 and 28. Hardly in "uncommitted" company.

    Portraits are one thing, but for the rest maybe they were onto something.


  9. I just realized that one of my old favorites, the Carl Zeiss 85mm f/2.8 for Contax, is available for modest prices used, and will adapt nicely to my NEX-6, for an equivalent 128mm lens. Too bad the Sony Alpha mount "flange to film" distance is as long as it is. No easy adapter to my Sony full frame camera. If you know of a modification that works, let us know!

  10. I like the story telling possibility/challenge of wide.
    When you have to find/make a lot of physical space visually appealing its a fun challenge.

  11. You take great portraits, and thanks for sharing them with us! Some of your portraits are better than others, and you are a better judge than I of which ones. My suggestion is that more than the lens, the secret sauce is in your relationship with the subject. Getting the subject to "give" himself or herself, not to the camera, nor to you, but to the world. A friend who was dying of cancer asked me to take his photo. I was horrified, but I dutifully aimed the camera at him, and, lo, he looked through the camera, through me, and to the world he was leaving. Amazing and humbling. Oh, Canon 5D with 85L 1.2, if it matters.


  12. Kirk why don't you try one of the older Minolta 85mm f1.4 AF or the 100mm f2.0 AF lens?
    I have both and they are pretty dreamy!

  13. Anyone who worked with a 90mmf2.8 on a Leica M3, or a Nikon-F with 105mm f2,5 knows the Holy Trail.
    The first 90mmSummicron was my "dream " lens till one day many aeons ago, i was offered one! OH! hardly any viewfinder left The monster blotting out the view, maybe the sky. The slower, more portable were much nicer. The newer models are reasonably smaller.
    The image look so satisfying. A sharp but sort of soft! My 105mm is the "Sonnar" type made for portraits. Like Hasselblad's Sonnar 150mm is also not razor sharp at max aperture.
    The Zeiss Softars not like any other diffusion filter. Skin soft, textiles sharp.
    Be fun to see you acquire one of those Leica speed demons. The price may change your lust..


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