Going to extremes

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.

This is also a fine example of Swiss health and safety: a sign on the approach that says ‘be careful’.

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.

Not bad weather for Yorkshire – you can nearly see the horizon

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.

One to one or one to many?

One camera with several lenses? A particular lens used on several cameras? Or one lens per camera? If I think about the cameras I have that can swap lenses, I have more lenses than cameras. On the other hand, I still have a lot of cameras.

There is a definite argument for one lens per camera when you are shooting action or the conditions are bad. For some sports or action you don’t have the time to be swapping lenses, plus there is the risk of damage or dirt to the lens you are not using. And in wet or dusty conditions I don’t want to be swapping lenses anyway. I remember taking pictures on a very windswept beach where the air was basically opaque from ground to knee level. Not a place to put your camera bag down.

There is a risk that you end up looking like the Dennis Hopper/ Tim Page character from Apocalypse Now, dangling with cameras like a sale at Jessops. But if I was doing something where it was necessary, I’d probably do the same. Probably not as many drugs though.

But at the end of it all, a camera is just the thing that drives the lens. Except I suppose when the camera has a special quality of its own, like a certain type or size of film or sensor, and doing something clever like panoramic framing.

It’s an idea I started playing with previously, when I started wondering about the functional value of all my kit. So I really ought to think about the lenses too. Do I really need two 135mm lenses for example, or a boxfull of fifties? Maybe yes to the fifties, as they each have a distinctive character. Most of my lenses work on most of my cameras, so perhaps I need to make another grid to work out what I really need and what could be swapped for something more useful?

So, the meaning of the grid: N means the lens is native to that camera. A tick means it also fits this camera. The number in brackets is how many of that lens I own. (I know, I’m ashamed myself). I have given the lens’s actual focal length and ignored the angle of view.

You will see from the grid that I acquired lenses like they were cheap and about to go up in price. Guess what… I didn’t know about increasing in price but I do like a bargain. In general I bought the fixed focal length lenses because I wanted what they could do, the long lenses to cover sports and the zooms because they turned up at the right price. Maybe that’s not fair – there are three zooms that really matter. The 16-45 is brilliant on the APS-C digital camera. The 24-50 is equally great on the full frame camera. And one of the 70-210 is a Vivitar Series 1. This is the lens that a pal of mine at university used to fell a problematic person who was blocking his view. Any lens that can be set to stun and then keep rolling is a bit of a legend to me. I’ll admit – I also have lenses that turned up as a body cap on a camera I wanted, were too cheap to pass up or were part of a bizarre experiment.

I think I have definitely strayed into the many-to-one area in my lens to camera relationship. So what’s a poor boy to do?

I definitely have too many lenses. A few years ago I went to photograph some motorsports and, as I hadn’t done it for a while, took all my long lenses. That was one heavy bag. I can also feel a cull of zooms coming on. Some of them, like the 80-205, are worth peanuts but they are taking up space and someone else might get some use out of them. Same with one of the 70-210s and maybe a few more. So I suppose at the moment I am definitely in the region of (very) many-t0-one and I feel I need to get to the smallest set that fits the cameras I need them to.

Watch out eBay – here I come!