1.09.2011

Staying alive is critical to good photography.

Seen on the side of a food trailer in downtown Austin,  Texas.

 Ahh.  The thrill of being an American.  When your lunch weighs more that your camera and lens something is definitely out of whack. 

One of Canon's overlooked lenses. Who cares if it makes a sound when autofocusing???

I wonder if all the people who bought 30mm 1.4 Sigmas and even 35mm 1.4 Canons ever took a good look at their shooting preferences and then the 35mm f2.0 Canon lens for their cropped frame cameras....

I'll readily confess that I've always been partial to the look of a 50mm lens on a full frame camera so when I started buying cropped frame cameras, like the 60D and the 7D I started looking for the right "50mm equivalent" lens for those cameras.  I'd already owned the Nikon version of the 30mm Sigma so I borrowed the Canon 35mm 1.4 to see what the difference might be.  It never really occurred to me to look at the 35mm f2.0 until I revisited some of the work I did in the 1990's with a 35mm fourth generation Leica Summicron while comparing it to a 35mm Summilux that Leica asked me to test last Summer.

Both the Leica optics are wonderful but their just isn't that much difference between the Summicron and the Summilux when you hit f2.8, and, to be honest, the area that most photographers end up working in is usually between f2.8 and a f8.

When you grease up your credit card and take the big $5,000 burn to acquire the 1.4 version of the Leica you obviously have visions of shooting everything wide open in enchanting, low light.

At some point reality sinks in and you realize that you spend a lot of time shooting at f5.6 just to make sure you get both people in focus or you have enough depth of focus to get everything you need to be razor sharp, razor sharp.  At a certain point, usually a few days before the next mortgage payment is due, you realize that your spent about $4500 more than you needed to for your real use profile.

If you paid cash for your house and scrapped together enough for your Lotus from the loose change in your sofa cushions you just crawl in bed and forget it.  But if you're still saving for retirement and saving to put a kid thru school you probably start hitting the overdrive button on your rationalization machine or figure out a way to return the miracle lens while saving face with the sales person on the other side of the counter.


I'll leave the logistics to you but I will tell you that when it comes to 95% of my uses for a 35mm lens the best confluence of price, optical performance and usability come from the 35mm f2.

When I finished my examination of Leica files I went to my local camera store and borrowed the 35mm 1.4 L and the 35mm f2.0.
The "L" is a great lens.  At its widest aperture it's just a tiny bit less potent and intimidating than the new Leica 35mm 1.4 Aspheric.  You can see a difference between the two but I'll chalk up part of it to the sensor on the M9 and its lack of an AA filter.  But the Canon is incredibly good, wide open and nearly one quarter the price.  Case closed?

Not so fast.  I shot the 35mm f2.0 alongside the 1.4L in an afternoon test and my results told me that on a cropped camera or on a full frame camera the 1.4L was much better than the 2.0 only at 1.4 and 2.0.  When both lenses were shot at f2.8 and f4.0 the differences were negligible.  At 5.6 they were indistinguishable.

So, how often do I shoot at f1.4 with a 35mm lens.  Quick answer?  Not often enough to justify the radical difference in cost.  I find that when I hit the lower reaches of exposure that require those kinds of f-stops I'm reaching for a flash or other light sources because by that point it's subject movement that's become problematic.  If I'm shooting at medium apertures or reaching for a flash do I really need to carry around a bigger, heavier and more costly optic to do the job?  I don't think so.
 The 35mm f2.0 is a pretty cool lens.  It's small and light with a 52mm front filter ring.  It adds almost no weight to the front of my camera and it rides easily in a bag.  It's much smaller and less obtrusive than zooms or the faster optic and the cost for one, brand spanking new, is less than $300.

I took the other lens back and wrote a check for the f2.0.  And then I got busy doing something else.  But a few weeks ago a friend in Istanbul wrote and asked me what to get.  My first reaction was to just send back an e-mail and tell him to go for the same lens I bought.  But I paused for second because I really hadn't put the lens thru it's paces over time and they are much more expensive in Turkey.  I decided to take it out with a 7d and really shoot with diligence.  Then I'd send him an definite recommendation.
 It was a clear, bright day on December 26th in Austin and I took to the streets to see what the 7d and the 35mm would see.




It was everything I would want in a mildly wide lens.   Even wide open the center part of the frame, from the 25 yard line to the 25 yard line, is sharp in a good way.  Most of the time outdoors I shot the camera and lens combo in aperture priority, using the +/- override when necessary.  I kept the lens at f5.6 and I was thrilled iwth the results.  Between f4 and f8 (the $$$$ zone) I can't say a single equivocal word about its quality.  On either the 7D or the 5D it's a stellar performer.

In fact, after further testing it's become one of the basics in my Minimalist street shooter kit.  That consist of the 35mm, a 50mm and the 100mm f2.  Any one of these blows the doors off the 24-70m zoom or the new 70-200mm zooms that are the basis of most people's kits.  Add to that the fact that they are tiny by comparison and you have a very shootable system.  That's how they did it "old school" and I see why.  You don't have flexibility of a zoom but you have the expertise of a single specialist.  You can always zoom a bit with your feet.  My next shooting iteration?  One camera for each lens.  No waiting.

Buy one right now before they decide to discontinue it!  And if I still shot Nikon I bet my results would track pretty much the same way.

Any downside?  Look at the highlight on the coffee cup on the bottom right of the photo above.  The highlight has only five highly defined sides.  For a thousand dollars more you can get a more rounded highlight............

I don't know Bokeh from Boca Raton but I like the way the CZ works on the 5D2

My dad on the evening of his 60th wedding anniversary.  We all celebrated at their favorite restaurant down in San Antonio.  I brought along a camera.  He's still pretty spry in his mid-80's. His doctor advises no more cage fights or extreme combat sports.......

The long suffering spouse, Belinda, stands still for a quick dissection of the ZE's out of focus character, nearly wide open.

This is a short post.  That's because there's very little philosophy to impart/discuss, no in-depth tests with DXO software and old Air Force optical charts.  I don't know how to measure chromatic aberrations and I could care less about corner sharpness in a high speed 50mm lens (that's why we have three or four macro lenses sitting around.....) but I wanted to report how I feel about the 50mm Carl Zeiss ZE f1.4 lens that I've been shooting since late last Summer.  In as few words as possible:  I like it.

Here's how I like it:  On the front of a Canon 5Dmk2,  shot between f2.5 and f4,  in low daylight.  It's not a "show off" lens.  It doesn't scream, "Look how brutally sharp I can be!!!!"  It doesn't throw oversaturated color in your face.  It's well behaved and it hits a beautiful balance between the impression of sharpness and high detail.  It's a graceful lens for shooting faces.

I think I've read just about every mainstream review of high speed 50mm lenses currently on the market. The testers test everything the same way.  They want the same sharpness in the extreme corners that they get in the center.  They want MTF curves that kiss the top of the graph at every aperture and (if zoomy) at every focal length.  They don't seem to understand that all lens design is fraught with compromise.

I want to know what a lens is supposed to do and whether or not it does that thing well.  If you read the works of Erwin Puts, an expert on Leica lenses and lens design, you will learn many things and one of them is that optical designers work to optimize the inner 2/3rds of the lens coverage based on the idea that the photojournalist who originally needed fast lenses was most likely trying to capture a subject or subjects in the middle of the frame and that the edges didn't matter.  You'll also find that it's possible to optimize a lens for high contrast and apparent acuity or high resolution but not both, simultaneously.  Good designers strive for a balance between the two.  Color rendering is at least as important as sharpness and contrast and, finally, all of these factors are inter-related, like the sides of a triangle.

I have no way of knowing what was in the minds of the designers at Carl Zeiss when they came up with the final design of the 50mm ZE but I know that their final product gives me a look that is more realistic than photographic.  Perhaps they've made the conscious design to tame hard edged acuity in favor of detail and wider tonal range.  At least that's how it seems to me.

The nice thing for photographers is that we have so many choices available to us.  I've compared files with the Sigma 50mm 1.4 and it'a clear that it is optimized to have high acuity and high contrast.  That could be very appealing to a "Jpeg Only" shooter who doesn't want to spend a lot of time messing around in PhotoShop.  The cool thing is that if you have a 50mm that's optimized for higher resolution and slightly lower contrast you can control additive contrast in raw post production and augment the good qualities of your lens without the attendant compromises.

Think of it this way,  a lens that is optimized for high contrast and high impression of edge acuity will look fabulous in the same way that highly saturated, highly sharpened images first look on the screen.  But you'll notice that they produce less real resolution and detail and the higher rendering contrast comes at the expense of wider tonal range.  You can buy a lens with a different combination of attributes and then add saturation and edge sharpness in post to emulate the best aspects of the "flashy" lens and the "tamer" lens.

It's all academic to me.  I judge a lens after I've shot with it for a while and pulled out some images that I really like.  So far the 50 CZ ZE is a mixed bag for me.  I like the focal length on the cropped Canon format but I think I like the performance of the lens on the full frame camera better.  What I especially like is the opposite of what most reviewers say.  I like the way it renders out of focus backgrounds better than my 50mm Canon 1.8 or the 1.4.  The lens whose characteristic is closest to the performance of the Zeiss lens is a much overlooked optic from Canon, the 50mm 2.5 macro.  At 2.5 to f4 it looks nearly the same.  When I grab a lens now it's generally a toss up between the Zeiss and the Canon macro.  People trash talk it's loud autofocus motor but it can be manually focused just like the Zeiss with the same silent profile.

Would I buy the Zeiss lens again with all the knowledge I've accrued concerning the four different 50mm's I've played with?  Probably so since I like the way it renders color.  If I were on a budget I'd just settle for the 50mm 2.5 macro and I'd be pretty happy.

What about the 50mm 1.1.2 Canon L series lens?  It's way too big.  It's way too expensive.  And I'll probably figure out some way to rationalize its purchase and then regret my purchase and sell it at a loss in the not too distant future.  Oh the horror of being a mindless consumer and still having the self knowledge of my foibles.........

A Sad Reminder That Everything Changes....

Future Driver Ben stands in front of the Silver Element and helps me evaluate the Bokeh of the 50mm Carl Zeiss ZE lens.  Excruciatingly low light.

I know you’re not supposed to fall in love with inanimate objects and it’s not that I really “love” my car in the sense that I’d marry it, but, it is the best car I’ve ever had when it comes to facilitating my photography.  I’m talking about the Honda Element and I’m writing this as a eulogy of sorts since I’ve just learned that 2011 will be its last year in production.
I wasn’t always an lover of practical cars with anemic performance.  The car I owned before getting my 2003 was a 1996 BMW 525i Olympic Edition.  It was fast and graceful and for the first few years I owned it the performance a reliability were peerless.  In the early days, while it was undented and the paint was new, the valets at the Four Seasons would park it out front.  Assignments to Dallas were fun to get to and it was never tough to get assistants who were ready to drive.  But whatever it had going for it I was always aware of the shortage of cargo space.

Over time my kid’s muddy shoes graced the leather seats in the back.  The tail lights started failing pretty regularly because I’d leave my sopping wet swim bag in the trunk overnight.  Then, around 60K miles the dark nature of nice cars reared it’s ugly head.  Expensive repairs.  $1300 for the electronic ignition switch which, as part of the theft prevention systems, had to be ordered from Germany and only after I appeared in person with my birth certificate to prove ownership.  The radiator failed twice.  The suspension had issues.  Etc.
I’d “graduated” to the BMW from a Volvo 940 Turbo Wagon which could have been the ultimate photographer’s station wagon if not for the expensive habit of burning up turbochargers every 25,000 miles.  (Yes, I knew enough to let the car idle two minutes after driving before shutting off the motor.)  It was bad enough bringing the car in under warranty, trailing white smoke, but after the first non-warranted turbocharger repair the car had to go away.  Pity as it was nice to be able to load up the back with all the stuff I wanted and needed for a shoot and drive well over 100 mph thru west Texas for the occasional shoot in west Texas......

But then, with the bitter taste of German reliability betrayal still on the tongue of my car consciousness I, on a lark, test drove a Honda Element.  Not fast.  Not quiet.  Never parked in the front driveway of a five star hotel.  But able to fit nearly the entire inventory of my studio in the back with room for an assistant and a beautiful model on board.
The sexy allure of $125 tune ups.  The amazing head room.  The stadium seating in the back.  And, amazingly, the ability to remove one (or both) of the back seats, lay out a sleeping bag and have a portable hotel room with inches to spare for my feet and my head.  It’s a car that takes photographers back to their roots as happy go lucky kids ready to go anywhere and willing to sleep in their cars to get the shots at sunrise.  And when the repairs do need to occur they are priced only in the one hundreds, not in the thousands.......and my local dealer makes good coffee and offer fresh kolaches and wi-fi.

I always thought, that when I had enough miles on this 2003 Element that I’d trade it in or sell it and get myself a brand new one.  Maybe even trade up to an SC model with the lower profile.  In fact, I could see myself buying an Element every ten years until the police took my license away. 

But now all my hope are dashed.  Smashed on the rocks of bad marketing.  Seems that the marketing people were the drivers behind the design and the demographic targeting of the Element.  They had their hearts set on creating a “cool” set of “wheels” for young surfers and groovy guys, just out of college.  In the hopeful minds of the marketers flocks of upscale millenials would rush to the dealers with their BMX bikes and their bongos, load up their girlfriends and haul off to the beaches and the mountains to sit around campfires, smiling, with their wide open Elements beckoning in the background.

Alas, it was not to be.  The primary market self selected.  They were predominantly over 40.  A surprising number were single women over 40.  With dogs.  And couples over 50 who could understand what a great value the car was.  And photographers.  I know so many photographers who have Elements that it’s become a stereotype.  In the distant future, when they make 3D sitcoms about photographers from the first decade in our new century, they’ll seat them firmly in Honda Elements.

Now I’m getting nervous.  My silver Element only has 75,000 miles on the odometer but I live in fear that it will dissolve under me and I won’t be able to replace it with a shiny new one.  And that’s made me a bit edgy.  Now I’m looking around to see what the next “photo nerd” vehicle will be.  I’m kinda leaning toward a Ford Flex because it’s nearly as goofy looking as the E.  I’m trying to keep it running because Ben gets his license next October and I’d like for him to get some use out a such a wonderful car.
  
If you have an opinion from the point of view of a photographer I’d love to hear it.  I’m nearly always fascinated by why people drive what they drive.  Anyways.  Honda Element, I loved you while you were here......