5.29.2015

The winning lens at yesterday's shoot? A dinosaur optic that continues to be just right.

The ultimate portrait lens? 

Shooting portraits has been the mainstay of my business for many, many years. I'm not picky though; if you want me to shoot some landscapes or buildings for an annual report I'm happy to oblige. If you've got some sort of process that needs documenting you can count me in for that as well, but the bulk of what I get hired for is portraits. 

And like most photographers who have come to this business from other professions I suffer with issues of self-confidence. After all, there's no formal licensing, no tests to pass and no real rules that regulate how we go about doing our work. It's highly subjective. You eat by making images that get approved by clients. You get the clients by doing your marketing right. 

But most of us consciously or sub-consciously think that having the "best" gear gives us an advantage over our competition (even though we all have access to, and end up buying pretty much the same basic inventory). I know from talking to lots and lots of guys who either do photography for a living or love photography as a hobby that most of us are looking for magic camera bodies and lenses that will give us a leg up on everyone else. Super-charge our vision. Leave the less well inventoried in the dust. How else do we explain the ability to rationalize the $4000+ Zeiss Otus lenses which offer a bit better quality, wide open than lenses that cost half or even a tenth the purchase price? Especially when experience shows us (time after time) that we're stopping down out of the need to get enough depth of focus, most of the time. And we're pretty sure that the wide open advantage of the most precious optical systems generally evaporates compared to more pedestrian lenses as we hit the well used range of f4.0 to f8.0.

Being an anxious person who is largely self-taught in photography I have all of the problems with self-confidence that most other people struggle with. Maybe more so than beginners because I am only now coming to grips with just how much I don't know...

So I rush to buy the cool optics. And the cool cameras. Sometimes it actually pays off. The Nikon D610s and D810s actually make beautiful files that have everything a working pro could want: lots of good detail, low noise and crazy good dynamic range. But most of the time it's a crap shoot. 

I've recently bought a Sigma 50mm Art lens and I must tell you that the images generated at it's widest apertures just smoke everything else I own. I keep trying to use it on jobs but I keep finding out that the wide open performance is, for the most part, a chimera that goes unused in day-to-day work. I tried to use it at the theater on Tues. but it was just not a long enough focal length. When I did use it I could easily see that the limited depth of field at the money apertures was nowhere near enough to keep two actors, separated by just a few feet, in sharp focus. We need f5.6 to do that.....

I tried to use the lens in a shoot yesterday that consisted of environmental portraits but again, it was too short. Even my very well regarded Nikon 85mm was a bit short to corral the background in just the right way. All the fast f-stops in the world are more or less meaningless if the focal length isn't right for the shot. I guess you could crop your frame but....

The lens I keep reaching for is probably the cheapest lens I've paid for in years. It's the Nikon manual focus, 105mm f2.5 ais. Yesterday I fought and fought to use the 50mm and the 85mm but the 105mm kept floating back and solving my need to create shallow depth of field while keeping cluttered backgrounds at bay. The perspective is just right for portraits. I mean just right. 

I've always been a bit nervous about using manual focus lenses on DSLRs because the cameras aren't really set up to manually focus well. I worry that the green confirmation spot is too generous, too willing to say "yes" when the real sharpness is saying "no." I got burned by the focus shift of the "vaunted" Zeiss 85mm f1.4 (MF) on the Canons when I shot with them. The image would always look good in the finder but when I looked on the computer screen it was obvious that a small bit of stopping down shifted the focus back too far. It was a nightmare.

Since I read too much on the web and I hear so often how much better current lens design must be I am always inclined to believe I am leaving some quality on the table when using older lenses. Especially older, manual focus lenses. Without the latest miracle glass and massive computational design assistance how can they stand a chance???

Well..... I shot so many images with the 105mm yesterday just because it was the right angle of view for the vision I was following. I got home and started zooming in to 100% to make sure I had nailed focus and I marveled at how sharp the lens was at f2.8, f4.0 and f5.6. It gives away nothing to the Nikon 85mm f1.8G lens at any aperture and if there is a sharpness difference between the 105 and the Sigma art lens at f4.0 I sure can't see it. Get the focus right and this $125 used investment really brings home the visual bacon. 

I seem to be having a recurring epiphany. It goes something like this:  Older lenses were perhaps more carefully made and more painstakingly hand calibrated, and even with older designs they can perform as well as the newest optics, especially when both are used two stops down from wide open. 

The real reason I like the 105mm is that this is the angle of view at which I feel that I have control (total control) of what is in my frame and how it's all arranged. Some lenses just speak to you. This one says "hello" while for my money something like a 28mm never says much more than "Doh!"

Final observation? The 105mm plays well with the green focus confirmation dot in both of my D610s. Nice.

Scary to be on the other side of the camera. I was a model for an interesting assignment.

Kirk Tuck by ©2015 Frank Grygier.

My friend, Frank, is taking an online course from photographer/teacher, Don Giannatti. As part of the workshop the students are trying to figure out how to light and shoot in the styles of a number of great photographers. The most recent assignment for Frank was to work in the style of portrait legend, Albert Watson. Watson is most popularly known for his iconic portrait of Steve Jobs but I have admired his portrait lighting; especially in his black and white work, for many years. When Frank mentioned his assignment I shamelessly volunteered to sit for the portrait. 

I have become comfortable meeting strangers and asking them to pose for me but when the shoe is on the other foot it's a bit scary. I know that photographs will point out all the things about me I want to avoid; that I am getting older. That a little hair sticks up from my left eyebrow and makes me look unbalanced. That my skin has become rugged and flawed by time and the elements. That the backs of my hand are hairy. That my barber missed a little bit of hair on the back of my neck that becomes a white flag against a black background. That my nose has gotten bigger. All these things make up a collage of my own frailties. But what the hell ---- it's interesting to see myself through the eyes of another. 

We decided to shoot the portrait in my little studio. I had the space to work in and extra gear if Frank needed something beyond the kit he was bringing. I set up a dark background for Frank and then settled into some post processing while the clock ticked closer to my engagement with portrait destiny. 

Frank did his lighting homework well. He used a small softbox from high up and left of frame. He used it in close to take advantage of fall off. While not apparent in this image he also used a second light on the backdrop which is more evident in other versions of the portraits.

While we waste a lot of virtual ink talking up the advantages and disadvantages of various formats for portraits most of it is silly and meaningless as the pluses and minuses of the formats can be trumped by the skill of the photographer. Frank managed to get a (technically) wonderful portrait with a smaller format --- he was shooting with the (exquisite) 35-100mm f2.8 Panasonic lens on a GH4. But the camera is almost meaningless compared with his clear intention and his well-crafted and well thought out lighting. 

Frank and I work in different ways. He is much more assured in his methodology and shoots sparingly. When he has what he wants he wraps up and moves on. I am less confident or less able to commit so I shoot and shoot in an almost promiscuous fashion. He is a "ten perfect frame" portrait shooter while I am a "one hundred frame--I'll know it when (if) I see it shooter. Sometimes fate conspires to make me lucky. Sometimes not. 

Frank shot with battery powered, electronic flashes and didn't have the advantage of modeling lights. It didn't matter, he knew how his lighting should be designed and followed his plans and instincts. I knew the image would be well done otherwise I would have never volunteered. I just didn't realize that I might like a portrait of me as much as I do like this one, warts and all.

I don't know about Don G. but I'll give Frank a solid "A." It's a real learning experience to be on the other side of the camera. I'm glad I wore the navy blue, linen shirt. And I'm glad I grabbed an old pair of glasses ---- I forgot how much I liked those frames. 

My advice to everyone who wants to shoot better portraits? Go out and start shooting them. The practice on both sides of the camera is invaluable.