I was working on some press stuff for the business when I came across this image from a while back at SXSW. Or nearby.

 Water (check). Food (check). Perfect sized bed (check, but conditionally). 

Sony Nex 7 with 18-55mm OSS zoom. 

Random seeing. On 2nd street.


I just posted a blog in which I tangentially trashed the Panasonic 50mm f1.4 S-Pro lens. But it's a wildly good lens!!!


this is the full frame, taken in late evening light with a handheld camera.

this is a crop of the above frame. 

The 50mm f1.4 Panasonic lens has two problems. The first is that it's huge. The second is that it weighs as much as a well fed house cat. It's ponderous. It's not the first choice of anyone who practices "street photography" or documentary photography where the photographer must carry his or her own gear all day long. At least I haven't found anyone who works with the lens that way....

But, after trashing this lens for all the handling issues, I felt I needed to amplify the reasons why I keep this lens in my collection instead of moving it out the door and replacing it with something else. 

This is what they have been calling a "reference" lens. Panasonic, in collaboration with Leica, pulled out all the stops and went for broke in the one area they felt they needed to conquer in order to create a "halo" product for a new lens line. They created what may be one of the two or three best performing lenses (optically) in the world. The lens is beyond excellent at any of the pre-diffraction limited f-stops. It excels at f1.4 and some of the images I've made at f2.8 and f4.0 have a breathtaking amount of detail and information. 

I've always wondered if the performance was just delivered at middle distances, in a zone between around 5 feet out to infinity. I wanted to see how the lens performs when used close up. So I photographed in a small field of day lillys in our back yard. 

This is hardly a good, scientific test. To do it right I should have photographed on a windless day, in brighter light and used a camera on a robust and unshakeable tripod. Instead, I stumbled around at twilight and shot with a camera (and lens) which was bereft of image stabilization. The only thing that saved the image from my bungling was the minimum shutter speed (1/125th) set on my auto-ISO. 

I'll keep the lens in my collection because the "sunk costs" are too much of a burden for me to change gears. But I'll also keep it for all those times when I'm working in situations that require the best performance and in which I'm not dragging a filled gear bag or roller case around endlessly for hours and hours at a time. 

It's a wonderful optical system trapped in an anvil. But it's too good to let go of. 

Optimizing with technical choices instead of one's wallet.

I've gone both ways with lenses. I've pursued lenses with stellar reputations and bleeding edge capabilities and then, like turning 180° I've picked up forgotten lenses or "trash" lenses that no one is supposed to like and found them to be just fine. Everything is a trade off.

The fashion for the last ten or so years has been to pursue lenses that have very wide maximum apertures. At first it was just the lure of "fast f-stops" and tiny depth of field but then we endured a rush by lens makers to not only supply fast glass but to also improve the performance when used wide open so that the skinny plane of sharpness would be.....sharp. 

I'm sure the evolution of lens choices was equally driven by lens makers' needs to differentiate their products. Why else would they jump through hoops to push the boundaries? The current height of silliness in regards to the "ever faster" revolution is, I think, embodied in the Sigma 40mm f1.4 Art lens. It's an extremely fast lens, reputed to be extremely sharp,  at a focal length that few were clamoring for and its speed brings along with it off-putting bulk and tremendous weight. 

It's a move toward designing lenses like this that removes the idea of easy portability from photography and instead proceeds under the assumption that all shoots are planned in detail like battlefield maneuvers and such shoots have to be supported by crews of people enlisted just to carry heavy glass from location to location. The Sigma 40mm Art lens might make sense for filmmakers who really can use these kinds of lenses at their widest apertures and whose crews are used to working with and transporting behemoth lenses. For an old duffer with a camera bag over one shoulder, walking around looking for random beauty? Highly impractical. Almost dangerous.

I've done the "big lens" thing. The performance at wide open apertures is real. The question is; Is this necessary for even a tiny sliver of the work you like to do?

If your style depends on prime lenses used right at their bleeding edges in order to isolate a subject from all adjacent reality then, yes. If your real passion is not the making of photographs but the expression of optical "bokeh" then, yes. But for we mere mortals lenses like these indicate that we, collectively, may have lost the thread when it comes to just happily making photographs.

Personally, after flirting with all manner of f1.4 lenses from various makers, I'm rediscovering the real joys of my new pals; f 5.6 and f 8.0. I've even been warming up to f11 and, dare I say it...... f 16. I've found that it's more than just okay to let things be --- in focus. Sharp. Tangible. Solid. 

I once bought the Sigma 20mm f1.4 Art series lens for the L mount system. While it was fast, and may have been sharp, I was never able to use it the way in the manner it must have been designed for. When shooting architecture interiors the use of f1.4 was always countermanded by the client's need to have lots of the interior in sharp focus. To show off the designs they created. That's what these clients generally pay for. When shooting the lens outside, in daylight, all the high speed aperture bought me was a plethora of vignetting and a wide scene with not very much in focus. Toss in a bit of focus curvature and you basically have a useless "feature." Speed for the sake of speed.

I'm sure there are people who use this lens for interesting shots taken with a product in the close foreground and a background that quickly and obviously falls out of focus quickly.  Kind of a single-style look. Done a few times in a row and the look is played out. 

Recently I find that I've been rejecting the limited planes of sharpness provided by fast glass and have returned to shooting things with enough depth of field in order for the scenes in front of the camera to look...natural. Unforced. The added advantage of shooting this way is that images actually look sharper.

I'll still make photographs that have a tightly limited depth of field, at times, but for the way I see those scenes they work much better with 50mm and longer lenses, and are most effective when used for a reason.

Yesterday was the first fully sunny afternoon we've enjoyed in a long time here in Austin. I was going to go out and play with the 70mm lens that's sitting anxiously on the corner of my desk but with the promise of blue skies, puffy clouds and the like I switched gears and grabbed my widest angle option. That would be the recently introduced, Panasonic 20-60mm f3.5 to f5.6 zoom lens. 

Seemed like the right choice to capture some wide, urban landscapes and to do so without the mass and bulk of faster and less resourceful prime lenses. I think the 20-60mm is a good lens. Wide open I'm certain it can't keep up with the individual, single focal length lenses for overall sharpness and lack of various optical faults. 
For its size and price compromises had to be made. But the neat thing about lens compromises is that most are centered around how well each product does when used wide open. It's a torture test. It's like driving your car at 6,000 rpm all the time. 

But switch that aperture to something like f5.6, or even better, f7.1 and all of a sudden you have entered the same tier of performance that even the more expensive "fast" lenses deliver. And for a wide cityscape, or a building one hundred feet away you'd never need f1.4 anyway. 

I had an epiphany when I was photographing yesterday with the 20-60mm. I was working at f7.1 all through the focal length range. I ducked inside at one point to capture a few shots in a fancy hotel interior and I forgot to open up the aperture. I kept shooting at f7.1 because the auto-ISO of the camera allowed me to. And guess what? The middle f-stop, combined with ISO 1600 looked great. 

Kind of funny to live in an age when it is all the rage to get faster and faster lenses while at the same time demanding cleaner and cleaner high ISO performance. To what end? If a six year old camera can deliver super clean files in low light while enabling the use of optimum, medium apertures doesn't it make sense to maximize technique to take advantage of that aspect of camera evolution? And, while in the process, reducing the weight and size of your lens package?

How does all this make sense to me in my every day shooting experience? Well, I own a Panasonic 50mm f1.4 S-Pro lens that is widely considered to be one of the very best 50mm lenses ever produced. It's on par (optical performance wise) with much pricier lenses from Leica and Zeiss. But it weighs a ton. It's a monster, size-wise. And the truth of the matter is that it gets left at home nine times out of ten while the lens that is a favorite companion is the small, light, ancient 50mm f1.7 Zeiss lens that was made for the Contax Y/C (Yashica/Contax) line of cameras back in the 1980s. Why? because that lens is "good enough" at f1.7 (giving up just 2/3rds of a stop!) and looks pretty darn great at f2.8, f4.0 and f5.6. 

It's "award-winning" feature set is its amiable character. It's easy to carry and use; even without AF.

I like what Sigma, and now Sony, are doing with newer, non-frantic lens introductions. Sigma has a line of "Contemporary" lenses that are almost all f2.0 at their maximum apertures. This "compromise?" buys them the ability to reduce size and weight but to still deliver very good optical performance. The widest lens in this new family is the 24mm f3.5. They've again traded speed for equally good performance at all other apertures but in a much reduced size and weight package. And really.... who uses 24mm lenses all the way open at f1.4? Really? 

Sony has played shameless copycat with similar lenses at similar focal lengths. And it makes sense for about 95% of photographers working out here. Most of the "pros" are stuck on using fast zooms so even the one stop advantage of the newer, littler primes is a step forward, and since it's easier to design a very good single focal length lens than it is to make a highly corrected zoom that delivers well at its widest aperture the primes, if they fit your focal length needs, can be a much better compromise.

Focus accurately. Use the optimum aperture for best performance (still one or two stops from wide open). Don't believe that higher resolution photographs will look sharper. Hold your camera steady. Choose good shutter speeds. See fun stuff. 

I spent the day exploring the "middle way" of using my lenses. Nothing dramatic. Just letting the subject guide the usage. And you know what? Photographic life is easier and more comfortable this way. The photos? As pleasing to me as ever. 

I love the combination of reflections and lines here. It's a visual circus.

My journey into downtown really begins when I cross under the Mopac Expressway. 
That's the road that separates old Austin from the suburbs in the Hill Country.

Austin only has a thriving downtown during events like Formula One or SXSW.
Most of the time it's very tame. Not a lot of foot traffic. After all, it's the 
poster city for working from home and corporate urban flight. 
Everyone wants a view of the Capitol Building from their office, 
they just don't want to be in the vicinity....

Ah, the Norwood Tower. One of the very first "high rise" buildings in Austin.
A design from a distant past. I wonder how much longer it will linger now
that the developers are digging deeper underground car parks and topping 
them with enormous skyscrapers. It will be sad to see the Norwood Tower
replaced by yet another reflective glass box...

Not a "Stairway to heaven" just a ladder to a roof.