Lens Lust: The Phases

One thing about owning a camera whose nature changes when you change lenses — you start looking at a lot of lenses and imagining what you could do with them. Lens lust is perfectly human and even healthy. A few years ago I really started to appreciate what you might call extreme lenses, the lenses that push the boundaries of what is possible.

I even bought one kinda-extreme lens, and I still covet that lens’s even more extreme little brother, a lens made by Canon that cannot be matched on other SLRs because of physics. (The hole on the front of modern Canon cameras is larger, and the size of the hole is one of the things that limits what a lens attached to it can do.) I will own that lens one day.

But after a while, you’ve seen all the great lenses. You’ve appreciated the Noctilux and the latest Zeiss offerings, and you’ve seen that less-than-ten-made gigantic-yet-fast telephoto selling for the price of a modest home. (The perfect portrait lens, if you can get half a mile from your subject.)

Window shopping is about surprise, about finding something new and delightful, and people simply aren’t designing new crazy-extreme lenses fast enough. So now when I go hunting for over-the-top, cost-no-object glass, my response is “oh yeah, that one.” That doesn’t mean I might not linger over the specs, but it’s like I’m re-reading a favorite novel.

Then there is the magical day when you discover a whole new category of lenses to lust after. And this time around, a lot of them are pretty cheap. Welcome to the world of vintage glass. If you don’t mind undertaking the chore of focussing the camera yourself, a whole new world unfolds.

Although I assume technology has changed the way lens makers go about their craft, Zeiss lenses have been very good for a very long time. Others have been trying to knock Zeiss off their pedestal for a long time as well. Pentax made a serious run at Zeiss and produced some optically excellent lenses with superb build quality, and these days you can find those lenses cheap. And while shopping you can appreciate that the radioactive 8-element 50mm (it has thorium in one lens element) is not as good as the 7-element design that followed, with its expensive-to-manufacture curved interface between two glued elements, but that the Super-Multi-Coated Takumar is maybe a little better than the SMC Tacumar that followed. I expect that I’ll have a Pentax in the barn before too much longer.

And then there’s Zeiss itself. It was in the wrong half of Germany and at the end of World War Two and the whole damn factory, engineers and all, was carted off to Mother Russia. Some say quality degraded over time, but you can find some very cheap Russian lenses that are actually improvements on the Zeiss designs — improvements made by the Zeiss people themselves.

Which is all to say when you open yourself to vintage glass, not only do you find some pretty spectacular deals, you find some pretty cool stories as well. Learning the histories of some of the seminal lenses in photography is a special lens-lust bonus.

But while they’re not making enough crazy-extreme new lenses, they are by definition not making any more historically-iconic or secret old-school super-bargain lenses. Lately, when I’ve popped over to eBay to type in sexy lens phrases, I see the same list I always do. My fantasy wish list is becoming more stable; there are no new surprises as some oddball piece of glass hits me from out of the blue. I think there are still some discoveries in the vintage realm; some of the “vintage” lenses I drool over have performance comparable to modern lenses, but farther back in time (and cheaper yet) there are lenses that give a different feel to the photos. I picked up one Russian 50mm for pretty much free that falls into that category, and I will be doing a series of self-portraits with it in the near future.

But finding those lenses doesn’t provide the same visceral rush. You’re not really looking for the gems, the designs that were ahead of their time, you’re just choosing out of a bucket because what you want is the “bucket” look.

s-l500Are there new horizons? New categories of lenses I haven’t discovered yet, that I can drool over and study to learn their nuances? I hope so. There is the category “new lenses that act like old lenses”, discussed under the banner “lomography”, and while some of them are funky, I haven’t found any compelling reason not to just use an old lens instead. In fact, most of lomography is about using crappy old Holgas, pinholes, and plastic lenses, but if you really insist on spending money you can find a funky brass-bodied lens with apertures you slip in through a slot on the side. So… actually, it looks like I’ve already worked that vein dry.

I suppose it’s a sign of maturity, when you’ve taken a passion to where there are no more surprises, but it’s also an indication of why maturity sucks. I guess now I should spend more of my time looking at photographs, rather than lenses. After all, that’s how you become a better photographer. But I’m also an engineer, and I’m unapologetic for my fascination with this interface between art and engineering.

And I’m thinking that lens designers need to get off their lazy asses and make more wacky stuff.

2

A Day That Will Live in Infamy

Lady Byng, taken with my Mir-24

Lady Byng, taken with my Mir-24

I have always enjoyed playing with my Russian-made Mir-24 lens. It’s manual focus, so it can be difficult to catch fast-moving things like small dogs (I find myself setting the focus then moving the camera to get the subject in focus), but there’s a low-saturation retro feel to the shots.

It all started when I wanted a reasonably fast 35mm lens cheap, and I was willing to live without all the automatic stuff to save money. The key is to look for “preset aperture” — some lenses keep the aperture wide open to help focussing, then when you take the picture a mechanical linkage in the camera closes the aperture to the desired size. “Preset” means it lacks that linkage. Many lenses come with an M42 mount, which (with a cheap adapter) work great on my camera.

My copy of the Mir-24 lens isn’t really that great, but it works, and at f/2 it’s faster than the Zeiss lens it ripped off. The construction is solid. No regrets on that purchase whatsoever.

So why has it taken so long for me to search Mir M42 on eBay? Wait, what? A 65mm TILT lens? Oh, crap! Then I searched on Jupiter M42 (Jupiter is another Russian brand, related to Mir) and… aaarrrrgh! So… many… things…

To all my Eastern European friends: Go clean out your parents’ closets! I want me some Russian-made optics!

Sneak Peek…

This is a test shot I took this afternoon while setting up for a very fun (some might even say silly) holiday-themed shoot.

My co-conspirator and I have some post-production and copy writing to bang out before we can share the product of our labor, but I think you will enjoy the result.

ties

(As always, you can click to biggerize the photo.)

Serious Telephoto

This is about 1/3 of a camera I spent a summer serving. You might recognize it from the movies Contact and 2010: Oddesy Something-or-other, or maybe from the cover to that Night Ranger album you’d rather forget.

Not even sure how to calculate the focal length on this baby, but the aperture is measured in miles.

Not even sure how to calculate the focal length on this baby, but the aperture is measured in miles.

Note: You do not want to watch Contact when I’m in the room, unless you want to hear me complain at length about how that’s not really how a radio telescope works. I can’t help it!

I was just a lowly grunt at the VLA, but I worked the quiet night shift and when data came off the antennae and passed through my system (using a special memory array to accomplish fast Fourier transforms on the data to convert it from time-based to space-based), I would become the first human being ever to see Things Out There.

Yeah, chills.

I’m pretty sure that specialized, really expensive piece of hardware could still outperform my phone for that one specific task. Probably. But then again game engines use that same math, so maybe not. The PDP-11’s that fed the data into and took the data out of the array were what once was called minicomputers before microcomputers ate them for breakfast after Moore’s Comet hit.

I spent free time working on the Silicon Graphics workstation to make false-color images that looked cool — uh, I mean, enhanced the features the scientists wanted to study.

I have some OK gear of my own now, but I won’t be photographing quasars shooting out gas jets the size of galaxies.

If you’re ever on a road trip across the southwest, I recommend highway 60 for Salt River Canyon alone. On your way through New Mexico be sure to stop off at the VLA and walk around a bit. It’s a hell of a camera.

1

How’d They Do That?

One of the magic things about a tilt-shift lens is that if you can find a vantage over a cityscape and look down, you can make images that look inexplicably toy-like. Something about the altered perspective monkeys with the cues our brains use to establish scale.

Here’s a great example (© Jay Lee*):

There’s an Audi ad running right now that says, “this car is the best toy you will ever own.” It blends a child’s fantasy with footage of the actual car. Helicopters abound. But many of the “actual” shots have a distinctly toy-like look to them, much the way the tilt-shift-from-above shots do. Granted there’s a ridiculous amount of post-processing in the ads, but I have to think that the original videography is the foundation for that toy-like quality. Yet the perspective is not the down-from-above angle that I would expect.

I’d like to meet the director of photography for that ad and learn how he did it.

_____
* Jay Lee also weaves bacon.

1

The ‘Before’ Session

Before my appointment with Mindy this evening, I thought I’d better commemorate what I was about to lose. Of course, you can click the pictures to biggerize them.

Because hair, that's why.

Yep, the hair had only hours left as part of my head. I pulled out a couple of lights, a box fan, and my favorite portrait lens and took a few selfies.

It turns out ten seconds is not quite enough time to find your mark (has to be perfect for the focus), get your hair blowing in the wind, get into position, and finally switch off the photographer and activate the inner model to throw some personality back toward the camera.

Who knew the line between glam and metal was so narrow?

Glam

Glam

Metal

Metal

Guitarists: pay no attention to my left hand; getting that detail right was just one detail too many.

Don't hate me because I'm beautiful.

Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful.


I can see opportunities lost in all of these poses, but that’s the way it goes. I’m featuring ones here that show my hair in all its glory. Yes, an ‘after’ episode is coming soon. I’ll leave you with another guitar solo face.
Guitar solo face.

Guitar solo face.

2

Old Glass

Some nights, when sleep seems like a bad idea, I drift through ebay looking at old camera lenses, mostly for educational purposes. There was a time in the 1970’s, for instance, where computerized lens design and super-high-tech coatings for the glass became common. Many very good lenses were created, only to be quickly outmoded by the autofocus revolution.

When Canon embraced autofocus, they took the opportunity to redesign their mount, making the hole bigger and farther from the film/sensor. This provided tangible benefits for super-high-performance lenses, but it meant that none of the pre-autofocus lenses were compatible with the new cameras at all.

With a few exceptions that don’t apply to everyday photographers, you can’t shoot old Canon glass on a new Canon body.

Nikon, meanwhile, kept the geometry of its older cameras so that old lenses would still work. Funny thing, though. According to the sources I read late last night, they way Nikon does light metering when one of those old lenses is attached really isn’t very good.

The sweet spot: Old Nikon lenses on a modern Canon body. The adapter costs only a few bucks and you can get a great lens for a song (though it’s a costlier song now that people are catching on). Apparently Tim Burton shot a whole movie (one even I had heard of) that way, with a variety of older Nikon lenses on Canon 1Ds. That has to make the brand snobs squirm a bit.

That Nikkor 50mm f1.2 AiS.C is looking pretty nice right now. Someday…