Contemporary Studio Portrait with Michelle. Fun with cameras and people.


I have photographed Michelle many times over the last 30 years. We've cast her in fun, advertising "soccer mom" roles and in more serious roles as a "young, professional career person." She's always been fun to work with and fun to hang out with so when she called and asked me to do a new headshot for her I snapped to attention and got the studio ready. 

Michelle and I think we've discovered the secret to a good rapport at a portrait sitting; it's mostly just hanging out and catching up with each other for about an hour, maybe a little more, and then finally getting down to the photography. If we try to push forward without the gab session it never works well for either of us...

The Leica SL2 had not been getting enough love lately so I decided to use that camera and the Leica 24-90mm lens. It's a nice match for a square portrait. All lighting done with LEDs. 

I'm pretty happy with the results.  I guess I could work on the retouching a bit... but I think we have the rapport thing figured out...

Standard Zooms versus Primes. Which is, overall, the better choice?

Back in the days of fixed camera to subject distances, slow film and 
the leisure time to make every prime lens work.

In the earlier days of my career as a photographer I was a totally committed prime lens (single focal length per unit) photographer and I didn't "waste" my time with zoom lenses. Everything I shot, for at least the first twenty years of my romance with photography was done with a single focal length lens. A big part of the reason for that is I mostly shot with a four by five view camera and medium format systems. There were no zooms that I am aware of for 4x5 view cameras and the few zooms made for the Hasselblad and Rollei MF systems were big, slow and of very limited focal length ranges. You really, really needed to need an MF zoom to consider getting one...

Even up till the late 1990s I was highly resistant to zoom lenses. I presumed that the prime lenses I was using on Leica R cameras and Leica M cameras would always be superior choices when compared to zooms. And that was probably true until about a decade into this century. The way I saw it, up till around 2006 or 2007 was that there were advantages to both zooms and primes but for my particular line of photographic work the primes were a better choice. 

A lot of my prejudice was based on the presumption (based on actual and anecdotal evidence) that early zooms weren't quite as sharp as primes and all of them were heavier and slower than my collection of primes. But shooting weekly at the theater for the last 20 years made me shift...a lot. 

Here's where I see the argument between the two kinds of lenses now: The performance of the lenses at the same apertures is such that for most work the best zooms are equal in image quality compared to most primes. There are situations (live theater, performances, sports) where the flexibility to immediately change focal lengths without stopping the whole process is critical. Zooms win; hands down. I don't really care if my 85mm f1.4 is X% sharper than my 70-200mm zoom if 85mms isn't the right focal length for what I need to shoot. Right now. In the moment. 

Old days? With rigid lighting set-ups, slow films and Polaroid testing one had ample time to reach into a bag full of lenses and find exactly the right one for the job. Things are not the same now. Being able to change framing and subject size in an instant can be priceless. Certainly worth giving up that small percentage of nano acuity we seem to have been mindlessly chasing... We are not anchored in space like we used to be...

There used to be a trade-off in size and weight between the more compact primes and faster zooms. The zooms were always bigger and always weighed multiples more. Now, lens makers and lens buyers happily accept enormously large and ponderously heavy single focal length lenses such as the Sigma Art 85mm f1.4 (first gen.). It's at least as big as my 24-70mm f2.8 zoom and much heavier. The contrast between modern, high speed primes and the Panasonic 24-105mm f4.0 is even clearer. Now a bag of top quality primes easily outweighs the same range of focal lengths that would provided by two or three zoom lenses. 

In the days of yore (pre-AF, pre-digital) we needed faster lenses for two reasons (and "bokeh" was not one of them). We needed bright viewfinder images so we could accurately focus and we needed fast apertures so we could get usable, handheld exposures with the popular film emulsions of the day; which were mostly in the ISO 100 region. Think: Fujichrome 100 and Ektachrome 64. Even though digital cameras are breathtakingly better at ISOs like 12,500 lens makers endless buyers continue to gravitate toward making ever faster and ever bigger prime lenses. And the truth is that we don't need them anymore. At least not for focusing or exposure reasons. 

One small and efficient prime lens. 

Now I am mostly torn between primes and zooms only when shooting my personal work. The work I do for fun. The work I wish was art. When I am photographing something like a play rehearsal it's too hard to always be moving and trying to find myself the right distance from the stage while the action is unfolding. Long ago I tried shooting theatrical work with three M series Leicas hanging around my neck and over my shoulders. My hit rate was low-to-non existent. I realized at some point that no matter what a good zoom cost me in image quality and aperture speed the ability to constantly change composition and focal range was too much of an advantage to give up. As zooms got better and better, optically, there came a point at which I stopped using primes in the theater for anything other than for specialty shots where I would have the time to set up scenarios and play with my toys. 

By the end of 2019, whether I was headed to the theater or headed over to a technology company to make photographs, I rarely had more than three lenses in my bag. I'd carry a wide angle zoom; something like the  Panasonic 20-60mm, or the equivalent, a standard zoom such as a 24-70mm or, even better, a 24-105mm zoom, and a longer zoom, such as a 70-200mm. Fast or slow apertures were less and less a consideration as my cameras leapt up from being good at ISO 400-800 to being great at  ISO 6400-12,500. Usually I use just two zooms; each on its own camera body. That way there's no need to stop seeing what's in front of the camera in order to fumble around with a lens change. The standard zoom and the longer zoom were able to handle almost anything the client and I threw at them. 

There's also one more advantage I have to name for zoom lenses. When I'm out in a dusty factory in Mexico or in dusty vineyard on a windy day, in the heat of the Summer, there's so much pollen, dirt, dust and airborne particulates flying around that changing lenses in the field is just asking for a camera sensor covered with garbage. And sometimes that garbage gets on there surreptitiously and we shoot and shoot and only discover, after the fact, that we're going to have our work cut out for us removing unwanted garbage artifacts from our images with PhotoShop. Two range-matched zooms and no lens changes goes a long way to guaranteeing clean files. 

With all this in mind, and the knowledge that the optical performance of better zooms is now exemplary, why do photographers continue to buy and use primes? Why do I have so many hanging around my office?

Part of it is nostalgic memory but some part of it is also tied to the ergonomics of actually photographing. Some of the appeal of smaller primes is tied to lowering the "profile" of a camera package in order to make it more discreet. And some of it is our sticky ties to the past. To the way we used to do things. 

I can make a good argument that it hones one's vision to work exclusively with one focal length for a period to time. Michael Johnston often writes about OCOLOY (one camera, one lens, one year) as an exercise in honing one's vision. The idea of finding a focal length that resonates with you and using it exclusively. The final result being that you are intimately aware of exactly what that one focal length can do in all situations. In which case you start looking for subjects which you know can be enhanced by your focal length choice. 

I'm not necessarily a big believer in that for someone who has shot for nearly a life time but I do agree that it's a great exercise for people at the beginning of their careers and one I embraced earlier, more out of poverty and necessity rather than a desire for formalist structure....

My attraction to prime lenses in the present is their low profile, their ease of portage, all coupled with very good optical performance. I find myself trying to buck the trend toward bigger prime lenses with faster apertures and I'm very happy with what Sigma (and now copycat, Sony) is doing by making their i-Series of lenses smaller, slower (aperture-wise) and more manageable. I have several of the 45mm lenses and love them. I find the 65mm to be a classic optical gem and a nice vacation from bigger lenses, and I'm sure I'll pick up the smaller 24mm f3.5 from Sigma when the mood strikes me to do more wide street stuff. All are tiny compared to my zoom lenses. And all fall into the middle of that range I like so much; from 35 to 70mm. 

I rarely use the speed of the fast lenses that I have. Wide open apertures with an 85mm f1.4 don't give me enough of a portrait subject in focus to be usable. I generally end up with f4.0 or f5.6 just to make sure the tip of a nose and the fronts of ears are in focus. If I'm shooting an exterior scene it would be exceedingly rare to dive down to f1.4 just because so little would be in the plane of high sharpness. 

No, I end up using the lenses where they do the best job; across zooms and primes. About two stops down from wide open or f4.0-5.6, whichever comes first. 

As I pare down my collection of gear I am more and more coming to like the idea of having just one superb standard zoom; like the Leica 24-90mm f2.8-4.0 paired with a low profile street shooting lens like the Sigma 45mm or even a Leica 50mm M lens with an M to L adapter. Big and proficient. Small, sharp and discrete. Gone are the days when I felt like I needed to be equipped to handle anything that comes along. Here are the days when I dream about distilling down to two or three lenses; at the most. And only doing things that match my vision. 

Where do you fall on zooms versus primes? Why? And I guess to dig down a bit more....if you could only have one lens (zooms included) what would it be? 

Exercise: I decided to use the measuring capability of my Apple Watch to get a read on my oxygen uptake (VO-2 Max) just for fun. To see where I fall on the curve; so to speak. Apple's fitness app suggested I do a fast walk on a fairly flat surface. The watch would monitor my heart rate, pace and time elapsed and would give me a decently accurate reading. But it did warn that a precise measurement would require a much more controlled set up....

I skipped swim practice on Sunday and instead did a four mile walking course around Lady Bird Lake. According to the watch my pace was 14 minutes per mile, give or take a few seconds, which meant the four mile course took a total of 56 minutes. My average pulse rate for the hour was 120 bpm with a high of 130 bpm (going up an extended ramp). My calculated VO2 Max was 41 which put me in the top quartile of people 60-65 years of age. I was pretty happy with the numbers and it was a fun experiment. Later in the day I did a slower loop through downtown, with a camera. That was much more fun....

The benefit of a nice, wide zoom is the instant flexibility it can deliver. 
The advantage of a prime is...it's a prime.