Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Joys of a Fixed Focal Length Lens

A few months ago, I bought a new Four-Thirds format lens: a Panasonic/Leica 25mm f/1.4.  As it has the Leica name, it goes for a premium, but since it also has the Panasonic name, it's a discounted premium.  It's roughly US$1000, which is probably double what Nikon and Canon charge for their normal f/1.4 lenses and about half what Leica charge.  Of course, for Four-Thirds, you have two choices for fixed, normal lenses: the abysmal 25mm f/2.8 Zuiko Digital pancake or the superlative Panasonic/Leica 25mm f/1.4.  The latter has been in short supply for many years and I'm glad I finally got one.

When I was young, you didn't have much of a choice, you generally used a fixed focal length lens and you learned to walk to get the photo you wanted.  Zoom lenses were bulky, expensive, and quirky.  They generally had small apertures and weren't much good in low light situations.

The other day, I took the 25mm out for a ride and I started shooting.  I would start to shoot something and would go to turn the zoom ring and it wasn't there.  I needed to foot zoom.  As I was thinking about what I was shooting, I turned the exposure setting to manual for the first time since using the Olympus E-5 body.  (It's not very convenient because there is no PASM dial.  However, it's not a choice you're going to make frequently.)

I started to think more about everything in the area, including reflections and shadows and my perceptions.  I was almost drawn to thinking about using Ilford HP5 black and white film again.  Amazing stuff, that.  (No, I didn't say "stuff that".)

When I first worked with 135 format, I had a Fujica ST605.  Then, a Minolta SRT Super.  The ST605 was a very basic, economy body with only 1/750 top shutter speed but it was small and light like the Olympus OM-1N of the time.  The SRT Super was a clunker.  It was the opposite of super, actually, and really wasn't as good as the ST605, except that the top shutter speed was 1/1000.  Minolta was always the choice for people who didn't know anything about cameras but since it was a gift from my friend's father in Japan, I couldn't say much.

For years, I used the ST605 with just the 55mm f/2.2 and a Vivitar 135 f/2.8 that had much better image quality than the kit lens.  I was intent to buy the Fuji Super EBC 50mm f/1.4, but it was 3 times or thereabouts the price of the ST605 at US$500.  If I'd been using the ST801 or ST901, it might have made sense, but an enlarger and a better body seemed more important than the 50mm f/1.4 lens.

For several months, I'd been selling cameras at a department store and tried everything Nikon, Olympus, Canon, Fuji, Pentax, and Minolta had to offer.  We didn't have much Nikon equipment because it took up so much room.  Olympus fixed that with the OM-system being so tiny.  Canon had the craptacular, gimmicky AE-1, while Pentax had the ME/ME Super.

Years later, I got an Olympus OM-1N and was reunited with what felt like manual camera heaven.  The controls and the viewfinder seemed just right and the images were quite good.  I look back on the image quality of the 1970s and wonder how the lenses were actually good when chromatic aberration, etc. were fairly common, even with Olympus and Nikon.  It's just a good thing that film was so flexible and resilient.

In any case, I stepped back into those days, thinking about the scene, the distance, the surroundings, and the settings.  The heft of the camera body and lens did nothing for the photography and remembering the Nikon F2, I would be hard-pressed to have found it enjoyable when being creative.  It belonged on a tripod in a studio.  The fact that I was using something not entirely tiny came to linger in my mind.  If it didn't weigh so much, I wouldn't need to have image stabilisation, would I?  If I needed a slow shutter speed, I could stand against a tree or a wall to steady myself.

Al of this took me back to Olympus' new OM-D series that's begun with the E-M5 body.  It's slightly smaller than the OM-system bodies.  It's also very light.  (Why they can't fit a 135 format-sized sensor in it is beyond me.  They should find a way.  Of course, it would double the price.)

I'm sure I'm in the minority, but I'd like to have a simple performance camera body.  I don't want to make movies and I don't care if I have Live View.  I could do without the image stabilisation, also.  Give me great ergonomics, an above average sensor that doesn't have to be huge, and some fine optics.  That's where I was in 2004 with the Olympus E-1, but it's 2012 and nothing has all 3.  If I had Olympus working for me, they'd take the E-1 body, put the 16.x MP sensor from the E-M5 into the body with the latest TruePIC VI processor and be done with it.  I could slap the Panasonic/Leica 25mm f/1.4 on it and go.  Of course, for my sports shooting, I'd still need my 50-200mm but too many gadgets have spoiled photography.  Let us be free and enjoy being creative again.

Oh, I was amused to see the TIPA awards for 2012.  They included the micro Four-Thirds 12mm f/2.0 lens as "Best CSC Fixed Focus Lens".  Please, laugh with me.  The judges are supposed to understand photographic terms.  The lens is a fixed focal length lens, but has variable focus.  I certainly wouldn't pay US$799 for a fixed focus lens, even if NASA built it.

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