7.12.2021

Settling in with my "Goldilocks" 50mm lens. It's really good.

This lens (above) is the ancient grandfather to modern 50mm lenses. 
It's a great one but the new Panasonic 50mm is even better.

I was finally able to spend enough time with the Panasonic 50mm f1.8 Lumix lens to feel comfortable writing a brief review. I'd been looking for a lens that "fit" the L mount system without making the combination of camera and lens too unwieldy, too heavy and too big. The 50mm f1.4 S-Pro lens for the Panasonic system has to be considered a specialty lens which you bring with you for pre-planned uses and not for casual street shooting or general work. While it's a great lens it's far too ponderous to be a joyful everyday tool for a photographer with a predilection for the "normal" focal length category. 

Panasonic's saner 50mm offering was announced months ago and I think just about everyone who shoots with L mount cameras, and enjoys a normal field of view lens, has been waiting as impatiently as I have for its long overdue arrival. In the end it appears that we got pretty much exactly what we wanted. The 50mm f1.8 is smaller (though not as small as film era 50mm lenses in the same speed category) and lighter than lenses like the aforementioned Panasonic f1.4, or the big Sigma 50mm f1.4 Art lens: so it's about half the size (volume) of those bigger and much pricier options. The lens could have been smaller but it's pretty obvious that there will be a complete "family" of these Lumix S lenses of moderate aperture and the design criteria seems to favor making the family much more video-friendly by making all the filter sizes and body sizes the same. 

This requires Panasonic to design the lens that requires the biggest filter size first and to then use that lens's constraints as the template across the range. As it stands the new 50mm f1.8 isn't any larger than one of the film era 50mm's of the same speed when used with sn adapter for the L mount's shorter flange distance. While the lens isn't as compact as Sigma's 45mm f2.8 lens the use of polycarbonates in the place of metal at least makes the lens comfortable as an all day carry. It's fairly light and, important in the Summer, the material doesn't absorb and maintain heat like a metal lens does. It also doesn't conduct heat or cold to one's hands as efficiently either. That makes all-season handling a comfortable proposition for avid, outside users. 

The new lens is one of  the fastest focusing lenses I currently have among L mount lenses. It's equally fast on a Leica SL, running firmware 3.7, a Leica SL2 running firmware 2.0, and all of the S1 series cameras, each with the latest version of firmware installed. When making a legit assessment of focusing speed it's very important to make sure all of the firmware across the system is the latest. It's one of the junctures at which camera makers work hardest to improve AF speeds. So, the lens focuses almost instantly when used in S-AF and it is an improvement over any number of lenses introduced before it when it comes to C-AF. I tested my lens on a Panasonic S1H and used C-AF with face detection in video and it seemed effective enough for everyday use in most situations, like interviews or following walking subjects. I tend to use mostly S-AF so much of the hysterics around continuous tracking auto focus shortcomings are lost on me... It's nice to know though that Panasonic is still working hard to bring up the performance of C-AF for those that want to depend upon it. 

I've shot many frames with the new lens to evaluate two parameters that are important to my work. One is to gauge the overall sharpness of the lens; not just at f5.6 but at its widest aperture of f1.8. In the current era of lens design my thought is that if we're paying a premium for performance we ought to see it at every aperture. And I think some of the lens design DNA from Leica, whose intention is that every lens be fully usable and class-leading at it's maximum aperture, has rubbed off on their L mount partners. The 50mm f1.8 is very sharp wide open, and not just at the center of the image circle but all the way out to the edges. This enhanced performance leverages another aesthetic parameter and that is the look of the out of focus areas in front of and behind the plane of focus. 

Some reviewers prattle on about "Bokeh" but use that word mostly to mean "stuff goes out of focus." They seem never to understand that the concept is not about "how much" is out of focus but "what is the quality of the out of focus rendering.) I prefer just to stay in one language and say that various lenses when used at or near their widest apertures can have widely varying looks when one examines the "look" of areas that are out of focus. Generally it's good to have those areas of non-focused subject matter be smooth, with very gradual transitions between shapes. A lens that is less comfortable to use when you'd like to throw backgrounds or foregrounds out of focus might have harsh or contrasty renderings of those out of focus areas. Smooth versus harsh. Contrasty versus flatter renditions. Any increased visual activity in the out of focus areas just contributes to stealing the viewer's subliminal attention and portioning a part of that attention to the wrong areas; at the expense of the main (intended) subject at the proper plane of focus.

When I was at the art gallery on Sunday I brought along the new 50mm f1.8, mounted on a Leica SL, and I photographed a woman's arm that had some tattoos. I'm posting the image below so you can see what the out of focus rendering looks like when this lens is used at or nearly at its widest aperture. I think it will be obvious to most that the defocused subjects in the background are calmly and smoothly rendered in a way that leads me to believe the lens is partly designed specifically with this optical feature in mind...

It's easy to see, in this example, that the fabric in the main subject's dress is sharply rendered, as is her skin tone and the tattoos. At the same time the woman on the far right of the frame is smoothly rendered which seems very natural and visually comfortable. 

While most traditional 50mm lenses meant for the 35mm frame were designed with six or seven elements in five groups, and most, designed pre-digital, used only standard optical elements, the new generation of lenses, like this one and the extremely well regarded Nikon Z 50mm f1.8, are designed with aspheric and ED elements galore. The Panasonic lens has a total of nine elements in eight groups, features three aspherical lens elements, a UHR (ultra high refraction) element and one ED element, along with a rounded, nine-bladed aperture (which is probably party responsible for the smooth out of focus areas). The lens uses a linear autofocus motor which also allows for constant speed manual focusing to give better control over manual focusing performance while also minimizing focus breathing. 

Added to the above features is gasketed water and dust resistance construction which mates well with the rugged anti-intrusion designs of nearly all the L mount camera bodies. All in all it's a great lens at a very reasonable price and it's a welcome addition to both the Leica SL and Panasonic S1 systems. You now have the option of paying a small fortune for what are arguably the best 50mm lenses available but you also have the option of a very high performing 50mm lens that's just one third stop slower and up to one tenth the price of the other 50mm lenses in the system. It's the obvious first choice for the standard "normal" lens that you'd be happy to carry with you everywhere. Without wheeled trolleys or porters.

I have been impressed and delighted with its performance and consider the new 50mm a hot bargain at less than $500. It's cheaper than the less well specced Sigma 45mm lens while being a full (usable) stop faster. Whether you shoot Leica or Panasonic full frame mirrorless cameras this is a lens you should consider. Not just because of its low price but also because it really fills a need for a better compromise between high performance/portabiliity/and discreet appearance. Oh, and budget. All boxes checked. Now, if you are able to find one....

Curious to know what everyone thinks of 50mm lenses. I've made it pretty clear that when photography was invented this was the focal length/angle of view that the photo gods had in mind. Everything else is window dressing and fluff. But I know not everyone thinks as I do about these things. Do you really prefer a 28mm or a 35mm? How do you rationalize that choice? Just curious. 

That's it for me today. Off to write more on the second novel. Yes....it's coming along.


 

I'm being more proactive about getting people to drop by the studio. I forgot how much fun portrait sessions can be. The more informal the better.

 

Z.

I was at an art gallery event on Sunday afternoon. The gallery was packed with people. The event required reservations which most people dutifully downloaded to their phones and brought along. I'm so old school I just printed them out on my office printer. That way I don't have to walk around with a heavy phone in one pocket, putting me that much more out of balance. B. and I entered the gallery, grabbed a glass of white wine each and started browsing. One of the people from the check-in desk, a twenty-something woman, rushed over to us and politely addressed me. She asked, "Are you Kirk Tuck?" I said that I was and she told me she'd seen my name on the paper I'd handed them. "My father knows you and is a big fan. He thinks you are a great fine art photographer. You photographed him back in the 1980's and he still has that portrait up on his wall." 

I blushed and asked about her father. A friend I went to the University with. During the course of our conversations I suggested that she come over to the studio and let me make a portrait of her to send to her dad. She agreed and we'll get a date set for this week. But the short exposure with faux-fame gave me a renewed confidence to be more proactive about reaching out to people I find interesting and offering to make portraits of them. There was one absolutely stunning young woman who was also at the gallery and I walked over, introduced myself and told her that I would love to make a portrait of her, as well. She was interested, took my card and promised to get in touch. I think it's helpful, when approaching people of the opposite gender who are half your age, to have your wife along with you...it's less fraught.

This afternoon I had a session with the daughter of a close friend. She needed some headshots for a foray into the talent industry. As she's already secured an agent I think her chances are quite good. The image above is an outtake from our hour long session. Not sure why I like the look of this one but it's less formal and standardized than most of the other photos from our session. It's a bit quirky, and I like that... After the session she hesitantly asked me if I would consider also photographing one of her good friends who is also very interested in modeling. She insisted that her friend is "gorgeous." 

The last few days have felt like a reprieve from all the isolation, and the giant pause I experienced in my pursuit of portrait subjects over the last year or so. Nice to see momentum growing in the other direction. 

I was happy to see this afternoon that I have not yet forgotten how to use the cameras and how to set up my lights. I was overly enthusiastic about the pace of the session and eventually popped a circuit breaker on the power strip that fuels the studio air conditioner. But that was a tiny glitch and certainly didn't pierce my bubble of happiness at being back in the portrait photography world.

I used one monolight flash in a 60 inch octagonal soft box for my main light and a passive reflector for fill light. I used a second light in a smaller octabox as a hair/back light. The camera was a Leica SL (I like the raw file size compared to the S1R and the SL2 and I like the way the SL camera records skin tones and colors..) used with a Panasonic 70-200mm f4.0 S-Pro lens. I processed the files in Lightroom and popped up a gallery for my subject. I'm pretty sure she'll find a file or two that she really likes.

I'm so happy to have projects with people again. Feels like a return to a happier time.


Disregarding relevance. When having fun with a camera is more important than succeeding.

An observation preserved by my process. 
Never intended to serve a rational purpose.

 It's hard to turn off the learned habits of a long career and opt instead for unalloyed fun instead of measurable achievement. We used to measure the success of the photo business by a combination of the bottom line (profits), customer tenure and the prestige of the projects we got handed. If the project was fun that was a bonus. And, if you get your thinking lined up correctly you'll find that most photographic projects contain parts that are truly fun. 

2020 upset the whole apple cart. I've been predicting and, I guess, hoping that 2021 would be a quick year of recovery and that we'd go right back to where we were before the onset of the pandemic. Clients would call, we'd do the work, get paid and keep the whole "shark" moving forward looking for the next opportunity. 

Life is full of moving targets and sometimes we can't even identify the targets we used to hit with reasonable accuracy. Another metaphor is that life is like a river and one can never enter the same water twice. It all continuously rushes past. The pure process of "photographic work" has changed in the last 16 months. What was in style then seems passé now. What clients thought they needed for marketing in December 2019 doesn't even show on the radar in Summer of 2021. And as one person businesses, mostly, photographers are having a tough time doing deep dives into marketing research to figure out what is currently relevant. And where their markets are headed.

There's a relentless march toward consumers getting all the information they need via their phones. The other end of the spectrum is the full embrace of home theaters for entertainment and gaming. Both of those venues tend to squeeze away the need for lots of traditional photographs and the advertising that drives them. Phones, because marketing on small screens works better in fat, graphic chunks with little detail needed, and the lure of moving images growing ever stronger; and big TVs because canned or streamed entertainment can be sourced with ads completely bypassed. Hence a declining need for traditional, visual content in the two spaces that are growing the quickest. 

Most of the clients I'm working with currently are in traditional fields, have deep pockets and have a need for a certain amount of continuity that keeps us replicating and evolving the basic kinds of work we did in the recent past. We're still making custom images for websites, headshots for public relations, product shots incorporated into lifestyle scenes, and portraits. But, in truth, most of the work is being done for an aging group of marketers who are trying desperately to integrate what they know with new stuff they aren't fully comfortable with yet. So, a series of ad images on Instagram but at the same time insertions into a printed copy of a community newspaper. In essence they are most comfortable chasing the baby boomer market but will soon have to make a hard sea change and focus more on how to deliver messaging to Gen X and Millennial market segments. The newer the industry the less likely they are to need the kinds of services most photograhers have delivered for most of our careers. 

For working photographers who need to keep producing profitable content, and who depend on the photography business to pay their bills the current period of cultural transitioning seems daunting; frightening. One need only look to the retail market for new cameras to understand the broader market. Camera sales now stand at almost one tenth of level achieved at their peak (2008-2010). The capitulation of everyday photography to phones is more of less complete for 95% of the user population. It stands to reason that there is a relationship between the popularity of traditional photography as a hobby (camera sales) and the appreciation of "professional" photography services. 

If you don't need to make a living taking traditional photographs you are freed to pursue photography in any which way you desire. You can continue to till the most traditional of photographic soils and make majestic black and white landscapes, a la Ansel Adams and John Sexton. You could choose to continue in the Joel Meyerwitz/Stephen Shore traditions of "Fine Art" street photography. If you have the desire you can spend your days becoming better and better at photographing birds in flight (BIF). You can work on becoming a "master printer" and make big prints to frame and hang on your walls. Alternately, you can travel the world (once it opens back up again, and if the hard right in the US allows for official vaccine passports, etc.) with an iPhone and make photographs to your heart's desire.

I used to keep score and also felt the need to always have some sort of ready rationalization for the kinds of photographs I like to shoot just for myself. I could couch a series of painted wall images as a "color test" for a new camera. A series of swimming pool shots could be "an evaluation of a new wide angle lens." A series of urban landscape shots and details of our downtown could be justified as "an exercise in getting used to a new camera, or a new post processing app."

But now I think my latest effort is to shoot anything that captures my attention and to stop labeling the intention behind the action of making photos. I like the process of walking, and it's a lovely combination with seeing, framing, and personalizing acts of conscious observation. The press of the shutter being the coda for each observation. The process is enjoyable whether we use or share any of the results. In fact, in some sense, sharing the images is merely "proof of concept." The walk and the observation occur even if the resulting images are erased at the end. 

I don't know about you but I enjoy the process of photography almost as much as I enjoy getting a really wonderful image for my collection. I guess we are like butterfly collectors in a way; we like being out in the field. We like the process of learning. We love the thrill of discovery and identification and, at the end, we wind up with something beautiful or rare tacked up on our walls. Nothing more.