A post from 2009. Thought of it today as I reached for my 50mm 1.4 and my NIkon F...


Ben Tuck.  Post Swim.  Nikon 50mm 1.2 ais.

My first camera was a Canon QL17 which sported a reasonably good 40mm lens.  It was soon replaced by a Canon TX SLR camera with a Canon 50mm 1.8 lens that seemed to remain locked on the front of my camera for most of its usable life.

When I look through my current equipment I find that I have hoarded a large number of normal lenses including:  Nikon's manual focus 50mm 1.4 and 1.8 lenses, two manual focus Micro lenses (both 55mm),  Nikon's auto focus 50mm 1.4 and 1.8 lenses, a Leica 50mm Summicron and 50mm Summilux for the M cameras and assorted "normal" focal lengths for the Olympus E-1 and the ancient line of Olympus Pen "half frame" film cameras.  I won't even start to recount the number of normal lenses I have for medium format cameras.

All this begs the question, "why?"  Well, first of all, every one of the normal focal length lenses is a superior performer.  One stop down from wide open every single one of them starts to really shine when it comes to sharpness, contrast and intangibles.  Two stops down and they beat every zoom lens on the market.  (We can argue forever about the new top zooms from Nikon).  They sit beautifully on the cameras instead of sticking out like some Freudian flagpole. This enhances the cameras shooting profile and makes the whole ensemble less intimidating.

But all of this would be moot if the angle of view wasn't so compelling.  I love the angle of view that a normal lens gives you.  Shot correctly it can seem wide or narrow.  Shot close at near wide open apertures the 50mm can give you incredibly shallow depth of field as in my shot of Ben.  But the real bottom line is that this is a focal length that matches my residual vision. Meaning that if I distilled everything else out of a shot this is what would be left.  

Those of you who are amateur mental health care professionals will probably wonder what motivates me to own so many different iterations of the 50mm.  Clinically, you might just go with exaggerated fear of loss but in reality I think it's the idea of being like a painter and having multiple brushes, each of which provides a different and distinguishable nuance to the canvas. The 50 1.2 Nikon does shallow depth of field with a sharp "core" better than anything out there.

The 50mm MF 1.8 Nikon does great sharpness across the entire geometry of a full frame better than any of its brethren (except for a few macros), while the Summilux does exquisitely sharp center with soft, happy, mellow edges better than anything else.  Couple that with a little rangefinder focusing and you've got and incredible package.  I bought the normal autofocus lenses around the time when the only cameras you could get from Nikon and Fuji were cropped frames with smaller viewfinders which impeded the focusing of fast manual lenses and I hold on to them because I find the Nikon D300 and the FujiFilm S5 Pro to be really spectacular cameras for different uses.

And, of course the obvious advantage of the fast 50's is their light gathering capability.  A sharp fast lens wide open can be two stop faster than the best zooms.  That equals two full shutter speeds of hand-holdability and action stopping!  Just like having VR in every lens.

The sweetest thing of all for a Nikon shooter like myself (edit: now a Canon shooter!!!)  is that the current generation of Nikon digital cameras, like the D3, D3x, D700 and D300 actually make corrections for the short coming of the lenses attached to them.  I have found the 50mm 1.2 to be much improved in its performance with these four cameras.  The other lenses seem sharper and contrastier as well. One of my favorite new combinations is the old Nikon F4s (film camera) with the new Nikon 60mm Micro AFS.  The lens is impressive on digital cameras and even more impressive on the old film camera.  The combination drives me to shoot more film just so I can marvel at how well it all works together.

Even though I have lots and lot of 50's and related focal lengths I would say that my total financial investment is less than $2,000 or about the price of one 14-24mm Nikon Zoom lens. If great wide angle work is your interest you really only have one compelling choice.  I don't see that way and I'm thrilled to be able to match my optic to my vision of the moment.  I'm just about to buy the new Nikon 50 1.4  AFS just for its center core sharpness.  Stay tuned and I'll get a nice review of its performance together.

Finally, a friend really liked a quote I threw out on his discussion site the other day.  I want to share it with you:

"There is no real magic in photography, just the sloppy intersection of physics and art."
Kirk Tuck,  March 2009

Please help me spread the word about this blog.  I'd really like to open the dialogue to as many people as we can.

Best, Kirk

A Dancer and her feet. 35mm film. Oldest School.

I don't ever remember worrying about grain or noise when I shot film.  It was what it was.  I'd load the camera with Tri-X and try to do right by it.  Sometimes I underexposed and it looked one way and sometimes I'd overexpose and it would look another way.  But we mostly took what we got and reveled in the way the images looked.

I tried to spend as much time as I could over one summer here in Austin with a group of dancers.  They were fun, beautiful and glamorous.  We'd spend afternoons in a second story dance studio over what is now an endless row of music clubs on Sixth St. and the dancers would dance and I'd make images of them.  Most of the negatives are lost to the shifting sands of time and bad conservation.  Every now and then I'll come across another set and print them.  Not once have I thought that it would have been any better if I'd been able to reach into the future and grab a noise free,  digital camera to work with.  A guilty confession?  I like grain.

Michelle in the black dress.

I remember our session like it was yesterday.  Michelle walked into my studio in this fantastic dress and I was enchanted.  She always had a regal presence and the austere black dress against her pale skin made a wonderful contrast in tones.

We started our session as we had several times before, shooting some film and then stopping to talk.  Taking a Polaroid and then sharing it to see where we wanted to go next, what we could change about the pose or the expression to make the photographs a little more interesting.  And then we'd start again.

It was generally quiet in the studio.  We always shot alone.  No make up people, no assistant.  And we were unhurried in a way that seems almost impossible today.  We might start at three in the afternoon and not stop until after six in the evening.

The pauses between rolls of film were always longer than the actual photographing.  We'd talk about life and gossip about people we knew in common and we'd talk about things like 'what makes something beautiful?'  We'd talk about silly stuff and we'd take more photographs.

I work quietly and I try to give my subjects lots of feedback.  Nearly everyone needs to ratchet down their expectations.  We're not trying to sway to music or change poses every time the flash goes off.  We collaborate and build up slowly to an expression and a pose that I like.  That I'm sure she will like too.

Shoots done well  have a natural rhythm.  When I took this portrait we were working with film.  This camera got 15 images on a roll of film.  The camera took film inserts instead of film backs.  I would load four or five inserts and we'd work our way through them and then take a break, change scenes, or  Michelle would change clothes while I unloaded the spent film and reloaded new film and we'd start again.

In every session there's stuff that almost works but you know you're not quite there.  If you are in sync with a subject you'll both know when you've built up the energy to something special and you try to ride that wave but it's inevitable that there's one real crescendo in a session and everything after that is just due diligence.  You wind down and at some point, though you know you'll regret breaking the spell, you have to say, "I think we got it."

Then you hug and promise to get together soon to share the contact sheets or the files and you walk your beautiful subject to her car and say, "goodbye."  And then, if you're like me,  you can't sleep until you've souped the film and looked at every frame, holding your breath a little bit and searching for that one frame that encapsulated all the work you'd both done on a rainy, wintery afternoon in a big studio in another time.

Later, when it's freezing outside and you've got the time in an evening you go into the darkroom and bask in the solitude.  Tanning to the red safelights.  Listening to an old CD from a long time ago and praying that the print you just stuck into the developer tray will come out half as well as you hope it will.  And then you try again, and again and again.  You drive home at 2 in the morning knowing you have something good on the drying screens.  And then you show it on the web and write about it many years later.  That's how you know you really like an image.

Visible Means of Support.

Sometimes the cameras and lenses don't matter nearly as much as getting them into the right place to make photographs and keeping them steady.  In that regard perhaps the micro four thirds cameras have an advantage since they are lighter and smaller than their bigger acquaintances and therefore easier to secure in weird places.

I recently had a need to position a camera about ten or eleven feet in the air.  I needed to shoot a building while including something in the foreground and if I shot at conventional eye level the foreground feature would have been too prominent.  Sadly, I'll have to admit that in my collection of tripods I don't have anything that will go nearly that high.  I could buy some monster tripod from Gitzo but it doesn't make much economic sense if you can find a way around the problem with tools you already have sitting around your studio.

I have a Werner extendable ladder that is eight feet tall when used in it's "A" configuration.  It's sturdy and solid but when collapsed it fits into my Honda Element and it's easy enough for one person (usually me) to carry around on a location.  All I need was a way to add two more feet of extension and also add a tripod head that would allow me easy movement for exacting composition.

I have a Pelican case under one of my shelving units that's filled with miscellaneous grip equipment that I've accumulated over the past two decades and that was my first stop when looking for stuff that would hold a camera to a ladder ten feet in the air.  One of my over riding goals was to have the camera mounted securely so it wouldn't come crashing down on the heads of the unsuspecting and, of course, I didn't want to see if the camera could survive such a rigorous drop test.

From the grip case I chose four components.  The most important was the Bogen (or Manfrotto) Magic Arm.  This is an articulated arm with a center knob.  Position the studs on the ends where you want them, position the arm exactly where you want it and clamp down with the knob.  Everything becomes as solid as a single bar of hard metal.  I've attached Magic Arms to so many supports I can even begin to remember them all.

At each end of the articulated arm is a 5/8's inch stud on a ball.  This allows for a lot of fine adjustment and, when the knob is tightened the studs and the ball are held solid.

The next step is to outfit either end.  I needed to attach one end to the top steps of the ladder so I chose a Bogen Super Clamp.  It fits on the stud and its jaws clamp on to whatever support you are using to make a super strong connection.  How strong?  I've used two Super Clamps to suspend a hammock in the studio which easily supported a 160 pound model.   Super clamps are a steal and a must for most studios.  I don't think I've ever paid more than $30 for one and they never wear out or go out of fashion.  The Super Clamp makes a secure connection for the Magic Arm at the top of the ladder.  Now I need to figure out the other end.

I attached a Manfrotto bracket to the other end of the Magic Arm and used that to mount a Leitz Ball Head to my contraption.  The ball head is sturdy enough to support a Sony a77 and a Sigma 10-20mm lens but you'll want to use an electronic cable release or the camera's self timer so you don't move the camera too much.  It takes a few seconds for my whole "ladder/tripod" system to settle when you touch the camera...

If I owned a ten foot tall tripod I would still have to bring along a ladder to stand on to look through the camera.  With my Magic Arm / Super Clamp rig I am getting double duty out of my ladder.

Here is an outtake of the final shot....