Remembering a time before perfection in photography.


I wasted a lot of time today. I think that's the nature of the current era for me. More time to fritter away and less stuff one has to do. I spent some time looking at lenses on the B&H Website and on Amazon. Sure, I looked at a couple Leica-centric sites as well. Somehow I got in my mind that it might be nice to own one smaller, M mount 40mm lens for my SL and SL2 cameras. But I also was thinking that I might want one that's pretty fast. Pretty soon I narrowed down the selection to two different Voitlander Nokton 40mm lenses. Both are made for the Leica M mount. One is a 40mm f1.2 for about $800 and the other is a 40mm f1.4 for about $400. I'd have to spring for an M to L mount adapter so there's another $80 to $400 dollars, depending on how Leica-ish I want to be. 

I was speculating that this lens would be the perfect accompaniment for my big camera on our upcoming road trip. Small and light and a nice counterpoint to the ferociously big and heavy, 24-90mm. I started to dive in and read reviews, letting my self get swept up in everyones' rosy ownership rationales. Yep! I'd go forth with the smaller of the two lenses, adapted to my big Leica, and magically transform into the next Robert Frank. I put stuff in and out of shopping carts and also started looking for ancillary stuff like lens hoods and filters. I'm sure many of you have wasted time doing much the same sort of shopping/daydreaming.

At some point in the process I came to my senses and stopped. I reached over the top of my messy desk and grabbed a Sigma 45mm f2.8 lens and stuck it onto the front of my most shop worn SL and fired the combination up. All at once I remembered several incredible shots I'd done with that lens and the Sigma fp camera, just at the beginning of last year; before the floor fell out from under relaxed life. And I felt silly and wasteful. I already had the lens I wanted. 

But what was the lure? Well, the newness, of course. But also the promise that one of the two lenses under consideration would be sharper when used wide open. And I started thinking about that parameter for a while. Why did I care if one lens might be incrementally sharper than the other? How often do I even find myself shooting wide open? What did I expect might be different in the final files that I couldn't figure out how to do just as well today? 

The Sigma 45mm is plenty sharp for all but the most demanding and detailed technical work. Stop it down an aperture or two and it's as wicked sharp as any other modern lens and it's already small and light and beautiful to hold. As an added bonus it auto focuses on all my L mount cameras. Clearly, gear obsession was driving me a bit crazy. I closed all my open windows (on the computer) and said "goodbye" to all my shopping carts. And I went looking in the archives for an image that I really, really like but which is demonstrably unsharp. 

The one above is the result of slow film in a handheld SLR camera coupled with low light and the reckless lack of attention to detail of inexperienced youth. I tried to imagine how the photograph would be different if planes of it were rendered with the brilliant detail provided by a top tier lens, coupled with an image stabilized camera, backed by all the technical knowledge I've accrued over the past forty-five plus years since this image was taken (and haphazardly printed by someone...me... just starting their photographic darkroom journey). Would it be more evocative and profound?

Of course not. The photo was never shot for an audience of more than one and my brain can use its own computational imaging power to construct a higher sharpness by way of my imagination and memory. 

The photo was always meant to be a gentle reminder of a time, a place and a person. It was never meant to be a precise topographic study or rote documentation of a person. The ancient Canon 85mm FD f1.8 knew that was the case when I pointed and focused it. The lens was always capable of more but the hands and level of technique weren't up to the task. And that's fine. I love the photograph more every time I see it. But not because it makes me appreciate a lens, or the Agfa-Portriga Rapid paper it's printed on. No, I look back and remember days unencumbered by worry or want or regrets. I see only the amazing person I was sitting with and talking to at the time. 

It's odd to confront your own early work so many years after its creation. We worked so differently then. I found the old sheet of negatives. There was only one shot taken in that set of moments. Film was dear and I'm sure I was saving the last few frames on the roll for the next "scene change" or new location. Carefully portioning out the roll's limited potential in a time when money was tight and hundreds of like frames were never cheap. And that in itself makes the photograph more dear to me. It's because it came from a time when each click of the shutter was part of a rare and more valuable creation. We were careful then with our vision. Even more careful in our curation. Because the cost of making even imperfect art was far greater than it is now; today. And when we perceive things to have value we tend to imbue them with a certain power. Just that the image happened at all seemed to create our own sense of respect for the image. 

I had one more epiphany this afternoon before I stepped away from my work computer. Maybe I have been overly successful with my acquisition of equipment. Maybe it's possible for lenses to be too sharp; too good, and for cameras to render too much x-ray-like detail. Too much objective detail might actually obscure what it is we really wanted to see and remember. Too many leaves on trees and not nearly as much fog shrouded forest as we would really like...

Maybe that's something to think about before I get all hot and excited about the next "perfect" Art Series Lens, or S-Pro variant. Seems like lately it's the lowest common denominator of stuff in the drawer that makes the photographs I most want to look at. A painful realization for someone who just dove into one of the more expensive systems. Can't quite bring myself to put a Lensbaby on the front of my SL2 but....give me time. We'll get there. 


Frank Grygier said...

Mist filter! That's the ticket and all the rage it seems.

Ronman said...

Hi, Kirk.

I played around with the idea of buying one of the Voigtlanders you mentioned for my S5's, and in the end picked up the 40mm f/2 Ultron. It's a Nikon F mount, so I picked up an F to L mount adapter and couldn't be happier. I wanted the 1.2, but realized for my purposes the additional $400 over the Ultron wasn't justified. I liked the size of the 1.4, but it's noticeably softer than the Ultron at or near wide open aperture. But the M mount adapter is much smaller/shorter than the F mount, so if size is a priority then the 1.4 is the way to go. But then it's not so easy to justify after all, as you discussed already.
It's been interesting reading this past year, and particularly these past few weeks. I'm only a half-decade behind you in years, but find myself going through similar thoughts and processes as I figure out what seems to be a new and unfamiliar milestone in life. I've been retired for just over a year, and though I'm forever appreciative of putting behind me the daily stress and grind of what was once an engaging and challenging career, I unexpectedly find myself unoccupied with regard to a second engagement. Fortunately my wife operates a not for profit and we have properties which keep me relatively busy, but these only keep me occupied while I soul search for something to reignite a passion for purpose or creativity. Apparently I just assumed such things would reveal themselves to me as I approached retirement, but the unforeseen and hence unplanned for was the measure of cumulative mental fatigue residing just below the surface, most likely masked by the need to remain diligent in my professional endeavors. Basically I'd engaged my survival/coping skills and tried to ignore the symptoms telling me it was time to disengage. But you can only defer the truth, never ignore it. And perhaps it was this deference, stalling for more time, where the largest amount of fatigue made its presence known. Or perhaps it's just that it finally became more difficult to ignore.
I like the camp fire idea, and perhaps it's something we can all participate in when we've had some more time to ponder 'the meaning of life after youthful vigor, energy and ignorance have faded'. I'm physically in very good shape and have the energy to pursue anything which strikes my fancy. Finances are there as well to fuel the pursuit. I just need the passion and purpose and it's all systems go.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts and journey, Kirk. I'm thinking you're helping more of us than you realize.

tnargs said...

I, too, may well succumb to the temptation to casually refer to "my most shop worn SL"... ;)

Dogman said...

I recently purchased the Voigtlander Nokton Classic SC 40/1.4 and an adapter to use it on my Fuji X-Pro2 bodies. I've had a blast with it, trying to relearn manual focus and enjoying the vintage look of the lens. Being a 60mm equivalent on the Fujis, it's a long normal and I kinda really like that.

crsantin said...

One of my favourite lenses is a Nikon 28mm 2.8 series E lens. It's universally slammed online as one of the worst Nikon lenses ever. I don't know why. I like it. Whether on film or digital I've always liked what it's given me. I think a lens can be too sharp but my opinion is probably not the best one to rely on. I'm not a very discerning photographer when it comes to gear.

Dan Gerth said...

I’ve been retired for a few years now, and have slowly gravitated back to shooting B&W film, scanning the negatives and inkjet printing for a hybrid workflow. The interesting thing is that when I shoot with my digital outfit I frequently find myself pulling the clarity slider in Lightroom a little to the left - adding a little softness. Not everything needs to be super sharp.

That is a beautiful shot.

JC said...

I have a shot comparable to yours -- my toddler son (now 52 years old!) -- shot with Tri-X and a Pentax Spotmatic 50mm. I have it framed and hung on a wall just to the left of the computer I write on. It's really soft and absolutely perfect. As a pro photographer, I was wondering -- do you print family photos and hang them around the house or your work space?

I have two Voightlander f0.95 lenses for my Panasonic GX8s. I don't use them much, but I've been pleased with them when I do. Fairly soft wide open, but...pleasing. I think I've taken the 25mm (50 equiv) out twice, and the 42.5mm (85 equiv) out quite a bit more often. As I said, I like them, but they are heavy as bricks and a little awkward on the light GX8s. I don't have a scale to weigh them, but I believe the 42.5 alone is as heavy as a GX8 with the 12-60 attached. Both lenses feel like they're cut out of blocks of steel.

Anonymous said...

Have you heard of this:


A new 40mm equiv karge sensor camera!

Kirk Tuck, Photographer/Writer said...

Hi JC,

I read your comment while sitting down in front of my office computer. On the wall, just over the top of the monitor is a recent 13 by 19 inch print of Belinda that I just adore. To the left is a photo of Ben from a long ago lazy afternoon at a favorite burger shop. Scattered all over the same wall are more large images of Ben and Belinda and also my friend Anne, who was my assistant for most of the 1990's and several big images of some of my best friends. Including one of my closets friends, Mike, who is now gone but will always continue to be a creative role model for me. I have a printer next to the desk and when I come a across a great (to me) image of B or B or our now deceased dog, T. I fire up the printer and make a print for the wall. Some of the prints have been hanging up on the wall for the full 23.5 years I've inhabited this workspace. They provide a wonderful feeling of continuity. Thanks for asking because you made me appreciate them all over again. KT

Steve B said...

I have a picture I took of Connie many years ago in Switzerland on a boat on Lake Brienz by Interlaken. It's a color closeup of just her face as she's looking off the boat, and the wind is gently moving her hair. I don't even remember what camera or lens it was taken with (but it was pre-digital) but it's my favorite picture of Connie. She'll always be the most beautiful woman in the world to me. Next year will be our 50th anniversary. I'm blessed.

JC said...


I have that exact wall. When I look up from the monitor, that's what I see

Paul Glover said...

Sharpness and technique and gear be damned; that photo tells a story, is a reminder for you of what really matters in life. By that measure it's a perfect photograph and could not have been improved on in any meaningful way.

Bill Faulkner said...

I have occasionally thought that you were caught up in the technical/professional/posed/money aspect of photography--that you had strayed from the "soul" aspect of photography--but now I am changing my mind. Good on you.

Ravi B said...

Your loss Kirk.

The 40/1.2 is one of my favourite lenses on the SL.

Try it for yourself. I see wider than 50 but not as wise as 35 but this lens is easy to snap into focus on the SL.