Art and craft.  Both go into the making of a good photograph. This page is about that part of craft which is equipment. Yes, you can make great photographs with low-spec equipment. For example, here’s a photo made with a 1/4 Megapixel camera. Go ahead and click on it. Note the tone and shadow depth.

However, this is a bit of a cheat.  It was actually taken with a 3-CCD camera (i.e., separate sensors for each color channel), so it’s sort of 24 bits per pixel, and that gives the wonderful tone and shadows even if the resolution is low. Even the best digital backs as of early 2011 can’t rival that kind of pixel depth.  I also admit to pulling some software tricks to reduce the pixel grain.  I quite like the result, although I can probably still do better by this image.

Most equipment has its strong points, and if used with those strengths in mind, you can achieve great results.  However, most art works the other way around.  You have a vision, and you need the equipment that will allow you to actualize that vision.  Painters get very particular about their canvas, their paints, and their brushes.  I’m afraid it’s the same with photographers, and I’m no exception.  My favorite lenses include Leica and Nikon primes.  Here’s a shot made with a classic manual focus Nikon 24mm/f2.8 lens:

I love this lens because of the way it sets a subject within its context.  Notice how the background has a creamy out of focus quality.  Yet the background colors are still rich, and you have a sense of the background space and perspective without it being distracting.  The background supports the subject.  This fits with my informal, natural style.  I see my subjects in context and in an appropriate balance.

While on the subject of wide angles, my go-to lens for action is a Leica Elmarit-R 19mm/2.8 lens.  It replaced a Nikon 17-55mm/2.8 AF-DX lens which was already a nice lens.  The Leica 19 has several disadvantages:

  1. It is not autofocus.
  2. The aperture doesn’t couple to a modern digital back, so if you want to stop down, the viewfinder gets darker.
  3. The focus ring turns opposite to the Nikon convention.
  4. Autoexposure is primitive.

All of this makes for a challenging user experience.  Practice helps, and to a certain extent, the constraints require the user to have a more direct connection with the process.  It’s arguable whether this makes for better art.  Now for the big “on the other hand”.  This is the most optically perfect lens I’ve ever used.

  1. The resolving power still boggles my mind.  Because of this lens, I learned that what constrains resolution is not the digital sensor but the lens!  With this lens, I crop instead of zoom.  This is wonderful for multiple reasons.  First, I deliberately include extra in the shot so that I can play with the cropping later.  This means no fussing with the damn zoom ring and more concentrating on the context of the image.  Second, it’s smaller and lighter than the zoom that it replaced.
  2. There is no barrel distortion.  Despite the ultra wide angle, straight lines are straight.
  3. Like the better Leica lenses, the 19mm yields rich colors and high contrast.  The higher contrast gives a film like feel.

All this talk, and no picture? Here’s an image shot at my studio with the Leica 19mm. Almost all digital backs detect color, so the B/W is an artistic interpretation, but it reinforces the early 60s photojournalistic style. B/W also emphasizes the tonal qualities.  First and foremost, this lens captures the sense of space.  Notice how straight the lines are and how undistorted everything is. Also, everything is in focus, so everything becomes important. This was probably taken about f/5.6 @ 1/60 sec and a higher ISO. It’s an action shot, so there’s some blur, but it works for me.


Future topics:  Nikon D800 & Leica 100mm f/2.8 APO Macro Elmarit-R

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