2.06.2018

Lenses: Sexy versus useful. I'm leaning toward useful.


It's a near constant in photography; we all love the idea of the fast glass with the rare earth elements and the big expanse of glass across the front. It comes from a constant source of self-delusion, we think that lenses with big apertures and the ability to suck in billions more photons per nano second will make our photographs mystically marvelous. I've fallen for the trap over and over again. I got caught again in the snare just a week or two ago and a few weeks before that as well. 

I think the lens sickness is even worse for people who shoot smaller format camera systems. We're subconsciously (or with both eyes wide open) trying to compensate for the more limited ability to put stuff out of background in our photographs by constantly looking for lenses at every focal length that might be a stop or two sharper than the standard/serviceable lenses at the same angle of view, always hoping that the newest lens computations, coupled with premium glass, will give us high sharpness and the ability to do what our full frame cameras seem to do in a more effortless way; drop things out of focus.  

Here's some advice from the field: Don't bother spending the big bucks to go from f2.0 to f1.2. You won't get what you are looking for and you'll spend dearly for the privilege of trying. 

I packed up my fast glass this last week and went off to shoot an advertising/marketing job. I had dreams of shooting heroic faces framed against gelatinous nothingness, important machines separated from their stark backgrounds by the laws of optics and physics but in nearly every case the regular and routine photos that I take for work (and for play) seem to call for more detail, more context, more  parts in focus. 

There were a few shots where I needed to isolate a small, handheld object; in almost every situation I found that "longer" was just as good or better than "faster." If I wanted to isolate an object then stepping back a few feet and zooming in with a longer lens nearly always was more interesting and effective than staying close and trying desperately to accurately maintain focus through the process. 

The new, sharp, Rokinon 50mm f1.2 UMC was out of my camera bag and on my camera for a little while during the shoot but it quickly became obvious to me that in the modern age a lens like the 12-100mm f4.0 Olympus Pro zoom could run circles around the more traditional lens. Even though it's (gulp!) three stops slower.  It was just so much easier to get exact composition along with a perfect balance of sharp and unsharp with the zoom. 

The Online Photographer recently ran a series of posts about picking lenses. One of the articles proposed a "nested" approach to lens buying. The idea is to buy an all purpose zoom like the 12/100mm. Ostensibly you'd buy one which had a focal length range that is centered around your preferred angle of view, and the lens would also have a high enough performance to be sufficient for the bulk of your work. The lens would probably be bulky so the other part of the advice was to also choose a second lens that would be a single focal length lens also having high performance and, perhaps, a fast aperture. One would use the all purpose lens for .... all purposes and use the nested, "prime" lens for those times when you wanted to divest yourself of the burden of hefty machines and get more in touch with your photographic spirit animals. 

I'm on the fence. I think it's great to be able to change your perspective on lens choice day by day but at other times I pine for the discipline to understand and accept that a lot of lens buying is just emotional compensation for not being as good at this art/craft as I should be after years and years of practice. 

Lenses, especially zoom lenses, have gotten really good lately. Cameras have more or less pounded down the need for high speed apertures to prevent noisy files. That means the only real reason to own "fast glass" now is depth of field control. I guess it makes a certain about of sense to have some fast, middle focal length options. Maybe a 50mm equivalent and an 85-90mm equivalent as well. For those times when the background is just trashed; or needs to be trashed. 

But if I were putting together a system and wanted to stay within a limited budget I'd be looking at all purpose zoom lenses first and foremost. If I still shot Nikon my first lens would be the 24-120mm f4.0. If I were still in the Canon camp it would be the granddaddy of wide-ranging normal zooms, the 24-105mm f4.0. If I were still banging away with some full frame Sony bodies I'd be all over the new 24-105mm G f4.0 lens. In the m4:3rds realm it's always a toss up between range and speed. I made my choice with the Olympus 12-100mm f4.0 but I have a feeling I'd be just as happy with the Olympus 12-40mm f2.8 or even the Panasonic/Leica 12-60mm f-something to f-something.

I've found that these are the lenses that most people; pros and amateurs, use 90% of the time. The next up would be longer and faster zooms like the venerable 70-200mm f2.8s and equivalents. In last place are the wide zooms and after that, and only then, do people pull the primes out and frustrate themselves with tightly constrained choices. 

These are transient thoughts. A hangover from my daylong shoot last Saturday. Ask me again tomorrow and I'm sure I'll be extolling the virtues of my collection of prime lenses once again. But stick around and watch me pack that camera bag for the next job. It's zoom rich. It's prime poor. 

I chalk it up to the mythic boundary that supposedly exists between our professional work and our avocation.  

2018 Lens of the year. Yes, I know. It came out a while ago...

Random hat shot. Concentric circles and oddly sensual curves.


Out into the un-Austin parts of Texas to photograph for a radiology practice. Kinda fun.

Once again, the photograph here has nothing to do with the written content of the blog. It was done for fun with a G85 and a 25mm Panasonic lens. 

One of the interesting challenges for photographers who shoot a lot for medical practices is that presented by M.R.I. machines. These diagnostic machines create incredibly powerful magnetic fields that can strip the information off your credit card mag strip in microseconds. They can be dangerous. Any object that is ferrous can become a deadly projectile if it's inside the room with an active MRI scanner. Especially with the new, more powerful 3T generation of scanners. From a strictly photographic perspective the real issue is that you CAN'T take a camera into the scanner room and you certainly can't take lights and stands into the area with you. Anything you do to better photograph the newest MRIs will have to be done from beyond the doorway, or when the machine is off.

Here's the problem with turning off an MRI scanner: turning it back on and getting it back up and running can cost nearly $100,000. Yikes! You don't want to be the guy who takes one of these medical diagnostic machines offline...  And if you did happen to find a current MRI scanner that was down and could be accessed for a photo shoot you wouldn't have the benefit of the wonderful "running" lights and illuminated information panels that add the polish to the pictures.

Our first series of shots on Saturday morning were, of course, the new 3T MRI scanner at a clinic in Kyle, Texas. Since this was not my first rodeo with radiology I knew not to go past the MRI door alarms with things like my cellphone in a pocket, my good watch on my wrist or my wallet full of super high (ha, ha!) credit limit credit cards on my person. I didn't wear those Red Wing boots with the steel toes and I double checked to make sure none of my dental fillings were cast iron.

I took these precautions because I knew the first thing I'd be doing on Saturday morning would be cleaning and straightening all the stuff that piles up around these giant machines so I would not have clutter in my finished photographs. There was an angle from the door way that allowed me to capture the whole machine in a frame and I used the 8-18mm lens on a camera about three feel back from the door way to make a "portrait" of the MRI scanner. It was during this first shot that I realized how much I depend on just a blush of light to make a photograph work. Since I couldn't put lights in the room and was relegated to just using the existing fluorescent "can" lights in the room I tried all the tricks one can find on modern cameras, including the built in HDR which went a long way towards taming the shadows.

The real issue was when the clients wanted to construct portraits of the technicians who operate the scanners, in the room with the scanner. Again, since I couldn't light the portraits in any style I fell back on trying to position the techs so the light from the cans didn't fall on them directly but was, in a  sense, a feathered penumbra of light. At our first stop we photographed our models having regular scans and also biopsy scans. We had a resident expert on protocol with us so we wouldn't make any of the gaffs that sometimes occur. My favorite (self-deprecatating) medical faux pas (a long time ago) was to photograph an operating room scene in which the anesthesiologist had on neither gloves nor a face mask..... He was a real anesthesiologist so I thought he would know his way around the O.R..... (never assume).

We moved on from there to sonograms, mammography and various other modalities of diagnostic breast imaging. We used, mostly, Godox flashes on lightweight stands which could be controlled from the camera position. Two bounced off the acoustic tile ceilings and, typically, one used as a main light coming from a side angle and modified with a 60 inch photographic umbrella.

There wasn't anything technical to slow us down but there is always a molasses effect when using amateur talent and that involves their self-consciousness at being directed and photographed and their inevitable attempts to use humor to compensate. The marketing mission is always to project confidence from the people in the photographs and, usually, a big grin is antithetical to the serious gravity that a medical practice, which is based on ferreting out cancers and other life threatening issues, wants to portray to the public.

All you can really do is let the giggles and group dynamic run its course. That, and take a lot of images in the hopes of wearing down the grinning facades and replacing them with an almost tired resignation. Best case scenario is the medical tech that arrives in newly pressed scrubs, has no visible tattoos and has a confident bearing. One on a tight time schedule is even better as there is less playful banter and less messing around.

I worked on this project, with master assistant, Amy Smith, all day Saturday. We did about 25 set ups and shoot promiscuously in order to get just the right expressions, no blinks and good synergy between our model "patients" and our volunteer techs. By the time we wrapped up I'd shot about 1,400 raw frames and was on my third battery. Batteries go quicker when the camera's live preview is always on, but having a good, live preview means the client can always see and approve images as we go along.

In the early hours I tried to press my new, fast lenses (Sigma 30mm f1.4 and Rokinon 50mm f1.2) into service but in nearly every case it was important to show context --- or at least the expensive machines which were the subtext for our project. This meant we wanted sharp focus on faces and acceptable focus on our machines. The back walls could take care of themselves.

The two lenses that made life easy for me were, of course, the Olympus 12-100mm f4.0, and the Panasonic 8-18mm. Each had an important place in the process. But towards the end of the day I started feeling as though I could have done everything with the 12-100mm and not bothered to bring along the backpack with the rest of the lenses. To be able to go from a wide shot of an exam room with a bed, a scanner and two people to a tight shot of a biopsy needle held by a gloved hand was great. Even better was that at either end of the focal length spectrum the lens delivered sharp results.

We packed up around 5:00pm and headed back to Austin through the gray of a cool and overcast winter day. It was nice to work with Amy again. She was instrumental starting about a decade ago in helping me organize the photography for all five of my photography books and sourcing talent for the illustrations required. She's been working with more video and film directors lately so I hope to incorporate her into future film projects.

I'm not used to being assisted that much these days but it's really great to have a second set of eyes on the set looking for visual trouble and squashing it quickly.

If there is anything I'll change in our next radiology encounter it will be to use our Atomos Ninja Flame monitor to do our previews on. The bigger screen, which is able to be calibrated, would come in handy for aiding clients in seeing what the finals will really look like.

We're back at work here. I was working on a video edit all day yesterday and I sent it to my client for review last night around 11:30. I got notes back at noon today and, as always, I'm trying to figure out how to get it to shrink from 4 minutes to 2 minutes. Some sort of magic trick involved? We'll get out that editing knife and see what can be cut....

The raw files from the GH5 are beautiful and the rendering of flesh tones is nearly perfect. I have a little card in my camera case to remind me of the best ways to fine tune files. Always white balance each scene first and then figure out exposure. Changing white balance after setting exposure can cause the effects of exposure to change. Focus on faces when in the scene, at all other times focus one third of the way into the scene and calculate depth of field to cover.

one other note: I played with a Panasonic G9 recently and love the new viewfinder. Am currently considering (but have not decided) to trade in my G85 and get one of the new cameras. Might just be a waste of time, money and energy but....