I'm the kid in the class that can't sit still. I want to move all the time. It's exciting for me. Annoying for some of my family. Incomprehensible to some of my friends. Especially when it comes to fun stuff like camera gear. Many see the purchase of camera gear as some sort of final race. An all out effort to find the very best stuff in the world, buy it, and check that box before moving on to the next task. Not me. I like the process of trying new stuff. And old stuff. And old stuff on new stuff.
You might remember that I bought a couple of super cheap, really cheap, remarkably cheap Canon FD 50mm lenses last year, along with an inexpensive Canon FD to L mount adapter. And you've probably read recently that I have a newfound desire to photograph a bunch of stuff with those lenses.
Part of it is the nostalgia of working with lenses that were current when I first became interested in photography in the mid-1970s, and part of my renewed fascination is the realization that images taken with those older lenses have a different look and ... it's one I quite like. In fact, there's a lot to like about both of the 50mm f1.8 FD lenses I have because they are both sharp by f2.8 (at least across most of the frame) and the colors from the lenses, when used with a Leica SL or SL2, are unique and simply beautiful. I know that's subjective so I'll readily admit that your mileage most likely will vary.
When I bought my first interchangeable SLR camera in 1978 it was a hard, hard stretch to come up with the cash for Canon's very cheapest SLR and their cheapest lens. A Canon TX in a kit with the 50mm f1.8 FD. It took me a couple of semesters flipping hamburgers and scraping trays at the Jester dormitory food hall to save up enough. Not glamorous work but you've got to start somewhere...
In the early days with the new camera nothing ever went through it but Tri-X black and white film. I rolled my own with a Watson bulk loader, developed it in a co-op darkroom in D-76 diluted 1:1, and printed it on double-weight Ilford Ilfobrom graded paper in the same co-op darkroom. It was all magical back then and my passion for photography kept me working part time jobs through most of my undergraduate career just to be able to pay for film, processing chemicals and print paper. I lived and breathed the stuff. And the idea that I would "upgrade" my lens never, ever crossed my mind ---- at least for the first two or three years.
As I started to get work as a budding photographer/writer I upgraded the camera to a Canon FTb, in black enamel finish and along with the FTb the lens upgrade in the kit was a 50mm f1.4 FD lens. It was the hot standard lens of the day. Unless you were shooting with Nikon. Everything I shot with that kit looked great. Pretty soon the 50mm was joined by Canon's 24mm f2.8 and then a 135mm. And that was it for a while longer.
Of course those were the golden years of commercial photography and as soon as I started making real "buy a car" "buy a house" money the relentless upgrades ensued. Unlike other famous bloggers I have never been much encumbered by crushing domestic responsibility so I was free to spend money like water. I just figured that since Canon and Nikon and Minolta kept introducing "better" and better cameras and lenses that it was only logical to keep pace with everyone else in the business. Keeping up with the Joneses, et al. So the FTb and the 50mm f1.4 FD went by the wayside. A trade-in no doubt for the F1 and the EF from Canon and then, later, into the autofocus EF system. But in looking back at the hundreds and hundreds of black and white prints on double weight paper I find that so many of my absolute favorites were the ones from both the TX and the FTb cameras and their attendant 50mm lenses.
Part of that can be chalked down to youth and access. Most of my friends were handsome and beautiful. Everyone was happy to pose or just be documented, and I was unencumbered by excess knowledge about complex (and mostly unnecessary) lighting and technical voodoo. So only part of the magic I see when I look at the prints can reasonably be credited to the gear of the time. And another large part of credit was due, certainly, to the use of Tri-X film --- which is magic and amazing. Still.
All of those lenses seemed to become irrelevant in the first decade and a half of digital photography because they either wouldn't fit the new cameras or were a tremendous hassle to use on DSLRs; if possible at all. In that period of incompatibility the prices of the older FD lenses dropped into the basement of gear pricing. You could pick up the coolest of the cool FD lenses for well under a hundred bucks a pop.
The widespread acceptance of mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras has changed the market once again and people have discovered that many of those older lenses which they thought to be decidedly inferior to more modern, AF, made-for-digital, lenses were anything but. In fact, the old lenses in many cases seem to have laid bare just how clinical, neutral and boring modern designs have become. Or how little aesthetic progress has been made. But the real contention for me about modern lenses is mostly how unfriendly they are for people who really want to manually focus them. It's like manual focusing is an afterthought. An add-on. Something camera makers have to add but really don't want to support. Non-mechanical focusing (focus by wire) generally means no hard stops at infinity, no hard stops at the MFD and no good depth of field scales engraved on the lens barrel. All tragic losses for people who value the control and (yes) quickness of manual focusing for street work and decisive moment photography. (Set the lens to a hyperfocal distance and then ignore the idea of relentlessly refocusing and just get on with the photography).
Even the Sigma i-Series lenses which I have praised over and over again for their optical performance are mostly geared toward being AF dominant at the expense of fun manual focusing. They are NOT charming to focus with your fingers or to try to leave at a fixed focal point. But where AF tech has failed us weird, retro MF lenses from Chinese lens makers have come to the rescue with lots of fully manual choices. And I've plunged in and bought a number of them but even though I've been surprised at how good they can be the feel and process of focusing them is not as good as the focusing on the best of the Japanese MF lenses from the 1970s and early 1980s.
My TTartisan 50mm f1.4 for full frame is nice and sharp wide open. It's really a relative bargain for a modern MF lens. But it's not nearly as nice to focus as my ancient Canon 50mm f1.8 FD lens. The focusing ring on the Canon is a perfect balance (even forty years later) between easy to turn but with just enough smooth resistance to allow for a feeling of great control. No glitches. No rough spots. Just a delightful fingertip responsiveness that was epidemic in the age where all lenses were meant to be manually focused.
I wasn't as good a photographer, technically, when I was shooting film back in the old days. I didn't always hit focus. I was impatient. We depended on the leniency/latitude of film to compensate for our sloppy exposure discipline (or lack thereof) and so I never really knew the true potential of those old lenses and presumed that other writers were accurate when they categorized them as inferior to modern glass or just less sharp. Or less contrasty. But you should always test for yourself...
But then came the epiphany. I put an old Canon 50mm f1.8 FD lens (the one with the metal breech lock) on the front of a Leica SL via an adapter and shot with it for an afternoon. Later, in post production, I was taken aback by how much I liked the look and the sharpness of the files I'd shot out in the street. Some credit has to go to the camera which is likely much more accurate of an exposure machine than film cameras of the old days. And the AA filter-less sensor is certainly capable of greater sharpness and resolution than the older, black and white film, but the lens held up quite well and resolved, to my eyes, as much detail as I would get using current, state of the art lenses in the same focal lengths.
Recently I decided to see what happens when one pushes the limits a bit. I put the Canon 50mm on the higher resolution SL2 body and shot for a while with that combo. It was gorgeous. It was a blend of technical adequacies with old lens character, and the slightly reduced contrast in the highlights seem to add to the sense of wider dynamic range.
This led me down the rabbit hole of FD lens lore. The literature I've read leads me to believe that the "silver nose" 50mm f1.4 FD SSC lens was designed and produced as the "reference" lens for the FD system lens family. It's the lens by which the color and contrast of all the other FD lenses was compared. It was their optical "statement" of the time. It's coatings were sophisticated for the era and the incorporation of glass additive materials like lead and (radioactive) thorium, which have long since been banned from manufacture, led to an enhanced optical capability that was perhaps hidden by the limitations of film, film flatness and considerations of the foibles of wet processes.
I started a search for a very good condition of the first generation of that particular lens. I'd narrowed down a few choices on Ebay but I'm always reticent to deal with sellers on Ebay because of the endless torrent of stories about negative buyer experiences there. A few days ago I was browsing through the website of a West Coast photography dealer when I came across an item that jumped out at me. The vendor had listed a Canon FTb, in black, with a very good condition early gen. 50mm f1.4 FD for the whopping price of a little under $150. For both. For the kit. Instead of ordering online I called the store and asked them some in-depth questions about the lens. I liked the answers and so I ordered the kit.
I've dealt with that store a number of times before and feel confident that they'll deliver exactly what they described.
I might buy a roll of Tri-X and run it through the camera just for old time's sake but my real reason for the purchase is just the lens. A lens that will go right on the front of an SL2 body just in time for our vacation to the coast.
I have high hopes for the lens. If it's a tiny bit better than my existing f1.8 version I'll be well satisfied. If it's not great I won't be overwhelmed with disappointment. If it's not great I'll stick the kit on a shelf as a piece of memorabilia from my film days. But if it does what I want it to I'll rush to shoot some square, black and white portraits with it and the big Leica body in a kind of mixed-era renaissance for my photography.
I've now got my eyes out for a really nice 85mm lens from the same era. After years of spending way too much money chasing perfection in cameras and lenses it feels great to be able to happily embrace a few of the bargains that are out in the wild and also know that their "look" corresponds well to the way I want things to look when photographed
That's about it for today. Anticipation of delivery is palpable. Vacation looms.
Pool Notes: Swimming this week has been really, really nice. We've got the water temperature at a comfortable and sustainable level and we can all feel the benefit in our ability to go harder and faster. My swims at the other, colder pool have also been really nice. It's fun after a week of competitive swim practice to have a lane to myself on an early morning and just to work on the mechanics of my stroke without worrying about times, goals or the enthusiasm of other swimmers. I'm working hard on getting my butterfly stroke back into racing form. That's a challenge. I'm burdened with the memory of how much easier it was to swim that stroke fast back around the same time I was buying my first interchangeable lens. There's something about being 19, training with college competitors, etc. that's not able to be duplicated by a 66 year old who has let his butterfly stroke languish.
Boy Notes: The boy's recovery is coming right along. He jettisoned (narco) painkillers a couple days after the bones were surgically set and he's already partially back to work. I keep dropping by (calling first!) to drop off groceries and do "dad" things like changing his A/C filter. He gets the stitches out this week and starts P.T. after that it's a smooth glide path back to full function.
People bitch about USA healthcare but at every step he's gotten incredibly compassionate and expert care. I'm thankful for that. He's been seen right away and each specialist from the orthopedic practice has taken a lot of time to explain every step to the kiddo. I have to mention that the practice was a client in the past and is the practice that provides orthopedic consulting and care to the UT athletes. In fact, two of the doctors are former UT All American Swimmers. Go with what you know. And who you know.