The Curious Incident of the Zoom Lens that acts like a bag full of primes.

It seems like I never stop learning about how to push back on the perceived limitations of the photographic process. I've been locked in a battle that resembles a sine wave. I want to do things in a different way than before but I come to doubt my motivations or my resolve or even the premise of my undertaking and then rush back in the old direction to re-embrace a comfortable but unexciting methodology. I swing from risk to comfort like most people. I guess our hope is that each swing into newer territory has us walking forward by five feet and retreating by "only" fifty-eight inches once we lose our nerve...

I'm back in the m4:3 sensor camp for now. It will take a bit to nudge me away this time because the format caught up with where I always wanted it to be. 

I have a confidence in the format now that I never used to and a belief in the best lenses for the system that dwarfs what I felt I got from large format system lenses.  In a sense so much of why systems excel or fail has to do with the synergy between body and lens. 

I was at ZACH Theatre last night photographing a new production called, "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time." The play is from a popular novel the protagonist of which is an autistic teenaged boy in England grappling with a shifting and ultimately unsettling family landscape. The play depends on projections and dramatic light changes to push the audience into the mindset of the main character. 

It is harder to photograph plays that are about ideas or about concepts than to photograph more "narrative" plays and plays with multiple scene changes and costume changes. Those productions have visual texture on which to hang technique. This play is more cerebral and spare. But, of course, I gave it my best shot. Or multiple hundreds...

Given my selection of the first five images in this blog you can see the scene I liked best; in visual terms. It's meant to be a small group of people standing next to a subway track, waiting for the next train. Our hero, in the red jacket, is observing so he can learn how to use the "tube." 

Last night was my first attempt to use just one camera and just one lens to photograph the complete dress rehearsal of a play at ZACH Theatre. We had a live audience and I was constrained, once again, to be mid-house; half way up from the stage and pretty much dead center. It should come as no surprise that I was using the GH5 camera body nor that my choice of lens was the Olympus Pro 40-150mm f2.8. With this system if I could see something clearly on the stage the camera was able to lock focus instantly and capture the image without much fuss. 

This series (the first five) of photographs documents a scene set near the rear of the stage. I needed the full reach of the lens for the tighter crop and still a tight focal length to get everyone at the "stop" from head to toe. 

Since the lens is as sharp as the sting of a wasp, even when used wide open, I had no reason to stop it down. At f2.8 I was able to stay in the 1/250th to 1/400th shutter speed range, and I kept  the ISO at 1600 for the entire evening. If one part of the exposure triangle needed to be changed to compensate for changing light levels it was always the shutter speed I chose. 

I watched part of the tech rehearsal on Sunday evening and I quickly surmised that the color temperature of the light on our people changed frequently and, massively. With a warm light cue the dominant light on stage was around 3200K, + or - 200K. In the cooler cues the lights sat at around 5700K with a healthy dose of magenta in the mix. On this play I set up three different white balances in the custom WB settings. As I was shooting I'd watch for different light cues and assess their white balance. With the camera to my eye I could hit the WB button on the top panel of the camera without having to look. The submenu opened to the current balance and the flick of a control wheel took me to the next white balance. One hits the "set" button to make the change. 

Setting up the camera in this way, and having an easy "touch to identify" physical button meant that I could soon make the changes almost subconsciously. This turned out to be a time saver in post; I was in the ball park in nearly every situation and could concentrate on just tweaking exposures and shadows for my conversions to Jpeg and subsequent delivery. 

Following along on my "one lens, one camera" experiment last night I can also report that the entire evening's shoot was accomplished with just one battery.

It's odd to try to watch a play and to photograph it at the same time. There two completely different brain uses involved. One is passive observation while the other is active editing with continuous, mini, calls to action. Look, frame, commit and then push button. Repeat. If I knew a "non-photogenic" few minutes came along in which I could put the camera down and just watch and listen but there was an inertia that slowed me down from switching back over the active mode. It seemed like a case of always wanting to be doing the opposite thing. 

So, I was working at ISO 1600 and, in post, boosting shadows in Lightroom by plus 25 or plus 50. I was also tweaking exposure, adding anywhere from plus a quarter stop all the way up to adding a stop and a half of exposure. These are all things that should lead to noisy files. Especially in shadow areas. But when I look at the images I've included here I find them to be no more noisy than the images I used to get from my Sony A7ii or A7rii. In any event files from either system were easy to "sweeten" with a judicious lean on the noise reduction functions in Lightroom or PhotoShop. 

Where does this leave me? I'm currently thinking that all cameras are good but that all cameras take time to understand and time to practice with. There needs to be a shoot-look-shoot-look break-in period. A time in which you learn where the breaking point is for files from each system and each model. You learn where these negative inflection points are and then you learn to compensate for them. And if you are doing your job right you come to find that, with a few tweaks, the camera you enjoy shooting can pretty much match its competitors for image quality. Now you can safely choose the cameras you want to use by how they feel in your grip and what kinds of features you think are most beneficial to the way you work. 

I must say that my regard for the GH5 cameras grows with every use. The bodies are extremely solid and convey a sense of indestructibility. The files seem to say to me that if I do everything in "best practices" mode I'll be rewarded by beautiful technical file attributes. 

Nail exposure = get no noise. Hold the camera still = get sharp photos. Nail the color balance = get malleable and pleasing color right out of the camera. 

These practices are not limited to a brand or a format but are things we should be consciously practicing every time we do work with our cameras. 

After reviewing the 600+ files I presented to the client today I have to say that my purchase of the Olympus Pro series 40-140mm f2.8 lens is one of the smartest purchases I've made for photography in the last year or two. It makes my work look better than it should. Actually better than a bag of primes...


  1. I'm using the Panny LX100 as a camera for documentary/gallery work and also used it for 90% of an article shoot last week. I only used the FZ1000 for long tele stuff.

    I've got the LX100 set up with the step zoom in operation; so it is exactly like using a set of primes; and reasonably fast primes at that. I also have it set up for the zoom memory function so that when I turn it on it always goes back to the last focal length. For my work; the LX100 is brilliant. And to be honest; can't really find any fault with it.

    I never thought I'd say this; but after 25 years of using Nikon gear I can't see myself going away from Panasonic. They are very well thought out cameras for actual use!

  2. Kirk Tuck said: It seems like I never stop learning about how to push back on the perceived limitations of the photographic process. I've been locked in a battle that resembles a sine wave. I want to do things in a different way than before ...

    Why? Would different provide a better R.O.I?

  3. The Olympus 40-150 PRO is probably my favorite lens I've ever shot with - I intended to sell it after acquiring the PanaLeica 100-400 for wildlife shooting, but could never bring myself to do it. It also works well with the 1.4x teleconverter if you ever need a bit more reach.

  4. To Anonymous (one comment up from Rick's) How very, very sad. You think I do this (photography, writing, living...) just for the money? That's just such a tragic thought: "Why? Would different provide a better R.O.I.?" I almost shuddered when I read this. I hope it was tongue in cheek...

  5. What an absolutely beautiful series of photographs. Does your theater know how lucky they are?

  6. I wonder if any other system has an equivalent lens? It's a lens that would stop me changing systems, unless I could replace it.

    1. Leica SL 90-280/2.8-4 is close, but is a bit heavier and a bit more expensive. Astonishing performance, though.


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