Thursday, June 23, 2011

The world as we know it

        Let me state firsthand that I needed the lens. 

It wasn’t a frivolous spur-of-the-moment decision triggered by a press release announcing the latest and greatest iteration of a particular piece of camera equipment, though honestly there was a hefty dose of complicity in its timing. (A new one had just been released.) I’m not one to willfully part with my hard-earned dollars, paltry as they are. In fact, their very scarcity precludes any thoughts of wanton disbursement. If I buy something there’s a damn good reason for it, and in this instance I needed something wider and faster, and it arrived on my doorstep late last week.

The shipping box was small and the lens smaller still, almost toylike, with a hard plastic shell and a deeply recessed front element. The mount was metal, at least. It was both larger and heavier than the last version, itself a quality product though not without its faults, some of which were insurmountable. 

I placed it on the table and gazed at it with satisfaction tinged on dubiety. It wouldn’t be something I’d use very often, more a specialized piece of gear to be hauled out when needed and then forgotten about. Thankfully—and uncharacteristically, I might add—it was inexpensive, ridiculously so. Initial reviews rated it higher than its costlier upgrade, which was also a plus.

Lori, used to seeing me bring home big expensive lenses, took one look at the dinky little thing and asked what I intended to do with it. 

Low light stuff, I said, like at the wedding reception. I could have used it then.

But there was more to it than that, maybe even more than I was willing to admit. Certainly I was piqued as much by its wide aperture as the limitations imposed by its focal length, but something deeper was unfolding, something intensely personal. I’d been feeling a little stale and out of sorts, and the idea of challenging myself to do something never before done had been growing, incrementally but relentlessly. Maybe this new lens was the answer. Maybe, I thought, it was time for a new project and a return to my roots.


  A long time ago, way before the digital era, cameras were sold with a choice of a 50mm lens or a 50mm lens. In other words, it was the standard kit lens of the film era. Nifty fifties, as they were called, were inexpensive to produce but wickedly sharp and fast, unlike the kit lenses of today, most of which are inexpensive, cheaply-made zooms. Its inclusion made perfect sense because every photographer relied on a 50mm as an everyday lens, one that remained mounted to the camera more often than not. 

In practical terms, 50mm on 35mm film cameras was considered “normal,” replicating the angle of view captured by our eyes. Composing was a matter of footwork, something today’s zooms all but negate. Learning on a prime, or a fixed focal length lens, taught me that proper framing was an interactive exercise. I’d move in or move out, zooming with my feet, and never once felt hindered by having to do so.

Zooms were light-sucking monstrosities and poorly crafted, at least the ones I could afford, so I stuck to primes. At one time I owned and used a 28mm, 50mm, 85mm and 100mm, the 50mm being the fastest with an f1.4 aperture. I had ordered it special and paid dearly for it, but its quality was superb. The others were good lenses, too, all manually focusing with aperture rings, something modern lenses no longer have or require. 
     I tried selling them and a Canon A1 body a few years ago, only to discover that their resale value was next to nothing. One company offered me $80 for everything, an odious sum. When that didn’t pan out I tried giving it away. A guy in town put out word that he was looking for a cheap 35mm camera so I offered him mine plus a handful of lenses. He couldn’t be bothered suddenly. Maybe that was hardest thing of it, the realization that all your hopes and dreams, your aspirations of becoming the next Ansel Adams, the money spent that you didn’t have, the penny pinching and arguing, the meticulous research that forever pitted quality against cost, none of it mattered in the long run, it was utterly worthless. You couldn’t even give it away. 

Which misses the point entirely. It was never about permanence, it could never be about permanence. If our lives are transient, how much more so the material things we accumulate, even, or possibly especially, those that inspire us, that make our lives not just bearable but full of value and meaning. We own these things because we must. What matters isn’t permanence but temporal usefulness. The money amounts to nothing in the greater scope of things.

About the time I was ready to add the gear to the local landfill, a neighbor took it off my hands. But I kept my old manual Canon FTb body and the 50mm f1.4. At the time I remember being mired in indecision whether to substitute the 28mm for the 50mm. The 28mm was my primary landscape lens, the way I viewed the world, large and expansive, wider than reality, but the nifty fifty was my go-to lens for almost everything else. In the end I couldn’t part with it.

Since going digital I’d never once considered a normal prime lens. High-end zooms were as good or better optically though not as fast. A wedding and a few indoor receptions in dungeon-like lighting conditions were enough to disabuse me of the idea that primes were dinosaurs, throwbacks to another era. 

So I decided to take a chance on a prime. And then a funny thing happened: I fell in love all over again. I liked how it looked, I liked its lightness and I liked even more the perspective through the viewfinder. Here were no optical tricks, only the world as I know it. As I once knew it, for like technology everything has changed, leaving me washed up on the tallgrass prairie rather than my beloved Southwest.

The thought was a gauntlet thrown. So be it, I thought: a new challenge is required, a refined vision, a return to roots. Without time limits or deadlines, I’ll seek fifty new images that define this rural place. Fifty images taken at fifty millimeters. I’ll call it 50@50.

Sure, I could just as easily use my 24-70mm zoom and get the same effect, but that’s not the point. And maybe I’m not even sure what the point is other than that limitations are nothing more than stepping stones. We need challenges to grow, and this was mine. The only limitation I could see was myself.


Wes said...

Tom, your story sounds like what happened with my Nikon Pronea 6i camera. It was released in the heyday of the APS film. It was easy to use and took excellent pictures. Then, digital came out and APS film faded away. I tried selling it, but no one wanted it. I even put it out when we had a neighborhood garage sale, but no one wanted it and the lenses for $50. Finally gave it to a friend with all the lenses so she could take pictures of her grandbaby. It was a great camera for it's time, but time passed it by.

Now I have the hots for the new Nikon 28-300mm lens. Looks like the perfect all around travel lens for me. Now I have to figure out what to do with the 70-300mm lens!

Tom Parker said...

I'd get id of the 70-300. I never liked that lens. It only worked in bright sunlight and fell apart in low light. I've heard good things about the 28-300, and it would make a perfect travel lens (paired with a 14-24).

Unknown said...

Yeah! Way to go Tom!!! I came from the same era. At one time I owned the following primes; 20/2.8, 24/2, 28/3.5, 35/2, 50/1.4, 85/1.8, 100/2, 135/2.5, 200/2.8, 300/4, 400/4.5 and 500/5. I bought three different zoom lenses and within a year had practically given them away. The lenses I owned were excellent. I still own three primes, 20/2.8; 100/2.8 macro and the 300/2.8 that I love so much. At one time I owned three 50/1.8's as well. I have several zooms but these new versions are excellent compared to the old stuff that passed thru the stable years ago.

Suzanne said...

I slogged along with the kit lens that came with my Nikon digital for awhile but then I bought the 50mm. Why? Because I felt that I was becoming a very lazy photographer. Like you said the 50 requires you to walk around to frame the image and it requires you to give a little more thought to what you're really trying to capture. With the zoom I'd just zoom in, zoom out until I got close than vow to fine tune crop in post processing.

I love what digital can do but when it comes to black and white I'm still madly in love with film or dry plate plate negatives. Have you checked out the archives at Shorpy?

Keep up the good work. said...

Without time limits or deadlines, I’ll seek fifty new images that define this rural place...


Prairie GAl said...

Enjoyed this piece, Tom. I've been using a digital zoom camera with a built-in lens. I like the portability and keep it near me always to help in in viewing the world with the eye of an artist. I have trouble using it in low light, though. Any tips in a choice portable digital camera with a serious zoom that DOES work in low light?

Prairie GAl said...

Enjoyed this piece, Tom. I've been using a digital zoom camera with a built-in lens. I like the portability and keep it near me always to help in in viewing the world with the eye of an artist. I have trouble using it in low light, though. Any tips in a choice portable digital camera with a serious zoom that DOES work in low light?

Tom Parker said...

Prairie gal -- Wow, you're asking the wrong guy about superzooms. I have a point and shoot but it only goes to about 70mm (in 35mm terms). I tend to think wider rather than longer. I'd check around and see what various manufacturers have and then compare reviews on sites such as DP Review. Sorry I can't be of more assistance.

Brad said...

I think you made a wise and very useful purchase. As old habits become well, old habits the infusion of new challenges once again ignite the spark that can lead us to, do I dare say, promise land. Enjoy and have fun.

Tom Parker said...

Brad--It's through challenges that we grow: taking our first steps, riding our bike without our father supporting us, moving out of the house. In every facet of our lives, we grow by going beyond what we know. I agree wholeheartedly. I'll do my best to have fun.