While I have wittered about cameras being Turing machines that can do anything photographically, there are edge cases that are difficult to adapt to. At these times we turn to the weird and wonderful. I admit to owning a few of these and being curious about the rest.
Very wide angles and panoramas are something I do have. I’ve posted before about the Horizon swing-lens camera, but I’ve also got a Lomo Spinner. Where the Horizon scans the lens across a length of film, the Spinner pulls the film past a slot behind the lens. Much the same effect, except the Spinner can do more than a full circle of view. It’s tricky to not include yourself in the picture and equally hard to keep it (nearly) level. But when you want a 360 view without stitching, the Spinner is your friend.
For less extreme frame widths I’ve used wide angle lenses. I’ve got one of those negative diopter adapters that fits on the front and gives a wider view. On a 28mm lens you get the full circular fisheye effect with loads of internal reflections and fuzzy edges. Cheaper than a real fisheye for occasional use though.
The extreme of this might be something like the Nikon 8mm lens, that looked like a goldfish bowl. I’ve got a Pentax 15mm lens that I love dearly and had a 30mm fisheye for my Kiev which has roughly the same angle of view, although with much more curvature.
At the cheap end of the scale I also have a Lomo Fisheye. Given its limitations it works pretty well. The circular image is a bit cropped, but it has a very strong fisheye effect.
At the opposite end are the long, long lenses. I suppose bird-watchers use these, and I use them for sports. Does anyone remember that creepy gadget that used to be on sale, that put a sideways-looking mirror in a fake lens hood for taking covert pictures of people? Jessops used to sell it as a candid angle lens attachment Eew. Although there must have been a market – my great aunt Maud insisted on borrowing my camera with a long zoom when (years ago) we went past the nudist beach at Brighton. Which is interesting, as I would not have done the same for a great uncle. (OK class, discuss).
I’m lucky that I have some longish medium format lenses with an adaptor that lets me strap them to an APS-C digital camera. The focal length multiplier, and the fact that the sensor is using the sharper centre of the image, means a very long lens at a fairly short price. One of them is a Jupiter 36b 250mm though, which is so heavy it must be a solid cylinder of glass. On the plus side it has so much inertia there is no chance of it bouncing with your pulse.
But as the man said, ”call that a lens?”. At the long end there seems to be no limit. How about a 1700mm f4 made to cover medium format, allegedly made for a member of the Qatar royalty? It weighs 256kg, so your camera bag had better have wheels. Zeiss made that one, and then Canon stepped in with a 1200mm f5.6. Supposedly one of the most expensive lenses ever made (except for the Zeiss, which was never on general sale). There were only a few made and got used for special events where the Press needed to get really close. That lens is a few years old now, but Canon will still sell you an 800mm f5.6. Granted it’s nearly £14,000, but if you need one, you need one. Stick a 1.4x teleconverter on it and bump the ISO up on your modern camera and you have the same reach.
The problem of course is using something with such a narrow angle of view. You almost need a spotting lens to help you point the main lens in the right direction. Then it’s a huge tripod, high ISO and pray nobody bumps you.
So a long zoom might be easier, as you can find your subject at the wide end and then zoom in. It also gives you some adjustment if the subject is moving towards or away from you. I’ve shot at a cricket match with a 300mm, which was barely adequate from the boundary, but worked fairly well as the action was side to side. Somewhere like the public area by the hairpin at Silverstone is harder, as the vehicles come towards you, turn and go away. You need either a long zoom or to pick one spot. A narrow angle of view means that you need Jedi reflexes to trip the shutter, or you follow the vehicle and press the shutter at your pre-focussed spot. When I was there I saw a third solution. This guy had a very long fixed lens. He set the camera up on a tripod pointing up the track and obviously made a note of what was in his frame. He sat next to the tripod with a remote release. As the (bikes in this case) entered his area he tripped the shutter. Much less stressful than me trying to follow-focus with a manual lens on a monopod. I would love to have had something like the Sigma 200-500mm f2.8. It comes with a teleconverter so at the top end you have a 1000mm f5.6. It weighs about 16kg though, so you’ll not be hand-holding it.
I suppose the other extreme is aperture. With computing power getting cheaper and manufacturing getting more clever, we can now make lenses as standard that used to be unique and hand-made. Zeiss made a very wide aperture 50mm lens for NASA. They made only ten copies. Yet now you can buy a mass-produced 50mm f0.95 lens. Instead of special order, you can even get it on Amazon. There seems to be a wide-aperture lens announced every week, and the prices are reasonable for something so clever. Like I said, I expect it’s a combination of computing power to design them and very clever automated manufacturing to make them. With that goes the ability to make aspherical lens elements more easily and cheaply, making the lens design easier and the lens performance better. I just hope it all goes to better use than the hunt for bokeh though.
I’ve got a close cousin to the wide standard lenses, in a 55mm f1.2. The wide aperture does make it easier to see the point of focus but the lens is quite heavy. Unless I really needed it, I am more inclined to take a short zoom when I go out, as it’s more practical for general shooting. But, and this was the whole point of the article, it’s a tool in the box. It sits with the very wide angle stuff and the very long lenses as solutions for specific problems. Anyway, that’s how I used to rationalise owning too many lenses. And I can’t even play guitar.