Extreme Wide-Angle, Extremely Close-Up

I’ve long been a fan of ultra wide-angle lenses – the wider the better – and I especially enjoy shooting close-up with wider angle lenses. When used at their closest focusing distances, the forced perspectives of ultra-wide lenses lend a heightened sense of drama to anything you aim the lens at, and if you approach your subjects from angles other than the standard eye-level point-of-view, the results can be outstanding, if not unworldly.

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One of my current favorite ultra-wide lenses is Voigtlander’s Super Wide-Heliar Aspherical 15mm f/4.5, which I use on a Sony A7s via a Voigtlander VM-E Close-focusing Lens Adapter for Sony E-mount cameras.

The native close focusing distance for this lens is 19.7”, but when used with the VM-E Close-focusing adapter, which features a built-in 4mm focusing helicoid, the 15mm Super Wide-Heliar lens can focus down to 4.25”, or about 75% closer to the subject.

For an extra dollop of impact, I also screw a 52mm Nikon #2 Close-up Lens (+3.0 diopter) to the front of the lens, which halves that focusing distance, affording me wider-angle close-focusing abilities similar to the super-close imaging abilities of smaller format point-and-shoot cameras with close focusing modes.

When used at wide aperture, the depth-of-field is quite narrow. Stop down to f/11 or f/16, and the focus depth increases appreciably (you can see dust on the front of the #2 Close-up lens), but is still somewhat narrow compared to the extensive depth-of-field one typically expects from an ultra-wide lens used at smaller apertures.

The following images were captured using the abovementioned imaging toys…

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Equipment Used: Sony Alpha A7s, Voigtlander Super Wide-Heliar Aspherical 15mm f/4.5, Voigtlander VM-E Close-focusing Lens Adapter for Sony E-mount, 52mm Nikon #2 Close-up Lens

Equipment Used:
Sony Alpha A7s, Voigtlander Super Wide-Heliar Aspherical 15mm f/4.5, Voigtlander VM-E Close-focusing Lens Adapter for Sony E-mount, 52mm Nikon #2 Close-up Lens

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The Truthiness of Normal Lenses

When describing items that are available in different shapes, sizes, flavors, and/or intended uses, you need to establish frames of reference, or qualifying attributes, in order to be able to differentiate between them. These attributes may include descriptives such as ’round’, ‘square’, ‘soft’, ‘hard’, ‘long’, ‘short’, ‘fruity’, ‘nutty’, etc.

In the case of camera lenses, the defining points of reference include the focal length of the lens, typically measured in millimeters, and the physical size of the imaging sensor, which determines how much of the total lens coverage is actually being recorded by the camera, i.e., the camera’s crop factor.

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Defining the term ‘normal lens’ is not as simple as it may seem, especially if your frame of reference is the human eye, which in concert with the brain pretty much smokes any camera/lens combination you’re likely to use in this lifetime. Camera lenses see what our eyes see, but the information is collected and processed within a far more complex set of dynamics.

 

By definition, a normal lens renders a scene the way our eyes perceive the scene, i.e., the vanishing points, overall perspective, and perceived distances between people and/or objects closer and further to and from the lens are neither exaggerated, as they are with wider-angle lenses, nor compressed as they are with telephoto lenses. In a word, pictures taken with normal lenses appear… well… ‘normal’.

The similarities and differences between the way a camera lens captures a scene and the way we perceive the same scene with our eyes part ways as soon as you take into account most of us do not view the world through a singular lens. Rather, we view the world through a pair of eyes, which are positioned about 2-1/4” to 2-1/2” apart.

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This dual eye arrangement enables us to accurately judge depth perception as well as the spatial relationships between objects and/or people around us as we make our way through the day. If you want a lens that will record your subject that perceptually speaking will render the scene you are photographing that is perceptually similar to what you are seeing in your mind’s eye, you want a normal lens. And this is where the fun begins.

Even though camera manufacturers have long been labeling 50, 55, & 58mm lenses as being ‘normal’, according to the math, the angles-of-view of 50, 55, and 58mm lenses are off the mark by about 16 to 30%.

The focal length of a normal lens for any camera system is equivalent to the diagonal dimension of the camera’s sensor (or film frame), which in the case of 24x36mm imaging sensors is 43.3mm. Similarly, the angle-of-view of a true normal lens – regardless of format size, is about 53°s, not the 46-or-so° angle-of-view we’ve been living by all these years.

Though manufacturers march out the occasional 40mm and 45mm lens, in terms of mathematically accurate normal lenses, Pentax, a company that ironically hasn’t manufactured a 135-format camera since they ceased production of film cameras, produces the Pentax SMC-FA 43mm f/1.9 Limited, which is designed to cover a 24x36mm sensor.

Rumor has it Pentax might some day introduce a 135-format camera, but for now if you want to use this lens on a 135-format camera you’ll have to invest in a lens adapter for a Sony A7-series or Leica M-series camera, the only full-frame (135-format) cameras that enable you to take advantage of what this lens has to offer.

Another thing to keep in mind when comparing eyes and lenses is that we don’t see the world through a lens – we view it through a pair of eyes, and because our eyes dart about and record image data at about ten images-per-second, our eyes see a much wider image field compared to the singular perspective of a camera lens.

Our eyes also take in wider fields-of-view than normal lenses. Though we perceive spatial relationships as they appear through a lens of about 43.3mm (approx 53° AoV), our eyes actually take in the approximate field-of-view of a 24mm lens on a full-frame camera, which is approximately 84°.

Now factor in the slightly overlapping 84°AoV of the second eye, which is located across the nose from the first eye, and you now have a combined semi-overlapping angle-of-view of about 135°, which is roughly equivalent to the AoV of a 12mm rectilinear (non-fisheye) ultra wide-angle lens on a full-frame camera.

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A full-frame camera with a 40mm ‘normal’ lens will record the scene with perspective and spatial relationships between the various visual elements within the frame similar to the way our mind’s eye processes the scene.

Even though our eyes view perspective from the view point of a 43.3mm lens, each of our eyes takes in the approximate field-of-view of a 24mm or 25mm lens, which is about 84-degrees, albeit without the spatial distortions inherent to wide-angle lenses.

Even though our eyes view perspective from the view point of a 43.3mm lens, each of our eyes takes in the approximate field-of-view of a 24mm or 25mm lens, which is about 84-degrees, albeit without the spatial distortions inherent to wide-angle lenses.

Though each of our eyes take in the field of view of a 24mm or 25mm lens on a full-frame camera, because we have two eyes set about   2.25" to 2.5" apart from one another, our eyes take in a field-of-view closer to a 15mm to 12mm lens (114-degrees and 121-degree AoV respectively).

Though each of our eyes take in the field of view of a 24mm or 25mm lens on a full-frame camera, because we have two eyes set about 2.25″ to 2.5″ apart from one another, our eyes take in a field-of-view closer to a 15mm to 12mm lens (114-degrees and 121-degree AoV respectively). Because the angle-of-view is wider, the image’s inherent spatial distortions are proportionately more exaggerated.

Unlike 12mm ultra wide-angle lenses, which greatly exaggerate perspective and spatial relationships, our eyes render perspective from the point-of-view of a wider-field normal lens. So how do you visualize the field-of-view of human vision photographically.

Perhaps the most accurate way to capture the field-of-view we see through our eyes would be a photograph captured using a camera set to ‘Panorama’ mode using a lens that captures an AoV of about 53° (or thereabouts) based on the size of the camera’s imaging sensor. In the case of a full-frame camera, you’d want to capture panoramas with a lens as close to 43.3mm as you can find. For APS-C cameras you want a lens of about 27mm to 29mm, and for Micro Four Thirds you want a lens with a focal length of about 21mm to 22mm.

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Perhaps the most accurate emulation you can capture that will portray a scene the way we see it with our eyes is to capture a sweep panorama image with as close to a 43.3mm lens you can find on a full-frame camera. This picture, taken with a 40mm lens captures an image that on the horizontal plane, is fairly close to the way our brain interprets the same scene through our eyes.

Two discontinued, but widely available used  film-based cameras that came close to capturing photographs similar to the way our eyes see our immediate surroundings are the Hasseleblad X-Pan (with 45mm or 30mm lenses) and Mamiya 7 (with a 43mm lens).

The X-Pan was a novel 35mm camera designed by Fujifilm that captured pictures in a choice of standard 24x36mm or a panoramic 24x65mm. When used with the camera’s wider-angle 30mm lens, the diagonal field-of-view was about 94-degrees, which is comparable to a 17mm lens on a full-frame camera albeit without the exaggerated, wide-angle perspective of a 17mm lens.

The Mamiya 7 (or7II) with an optional 35mm panorama film insert(also 24x65mm) and a 43mm wide-angle lens will capture images comparable to Hasselblad’s X-Pan with a 45mm lens.

Both of these unique camera systems and their respective lenses are still widely available on the used market

Note – To save you the math I’ve precompiled a list of mathematically-correct normal lens sizes for the more popular camera sensor format sizes. Note these focal lengths are approximate and as such may or may not be available in these exact focal lengths from some or all of the camera and lens manufacturers.

• APS-C (1.5x) 29mm
• APS-C (Canon 1.6x) 27mm
• Micro Four Thirds 21mm
• 1/2.3” 7.66mm
• 1/2″ 8mm
• 2/3” 11mm
• 1” Sony 15.86mm

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Biking through the Bokeh

Back before the leaves turned colors and fell away from the trees, I was out on my old Schwinn when I had an “Ah-hah!” moment. It had to do with a conversation I had a few days earlier with a good friend and knowledgeable photographer who never heard of the term ‘bokeh’, which in case you too never heard the term, is a transliteration of a Japanese term describing the image qualities of the parts of a photograph that are not in focus. And without your realizing it, the subtle aspects of bokeh can cause you to like or not like a photograph. And you probably don’t even realize why.

My epiphany occurred while glancing down at the pavement passing beneath me. I realized that the shadows cast by the bright, overhead sunlight were projected as soft, rounded outlines of the trees and branches dancing back and forth above me. And like the outline of out-of-focus highlights in photographs that display “good bokeh,” the leaves and branches were rendered in the same soft, rounded, “natural-looking” manner.

The basic tenet of bokeh is that the human eye sees the world through a circular opening (the pupil), which in turn projects the image it sees to the rear of our eyeballs, which are also round. As a result, the portions of the scene we are not focusing on take on a softly rounded quality, which becomes increasingly softer and rounder farther from the central point of focus. What I was looking at was for lack of better words, pure bokeh.

When designing camera lenses, you can ‘build’ bokeh into the lens by using enough diaphragm blades to round out the shape of the diaphragm opening, or f-stop. Round diaphragms produce round out-of-focus highlights, and geometric openings, caused by too few blades, produce less-pleasing geometrically shaped highlights, a.k.a. not-so-pleasing bokeh.

Back in the day, good bokeh was primarily found in lenses from Leica, Zeiss and a handful of other manufacturers (usually from Germany) who took the time, effort and expense of incorporating up to twice as many aperture blades in the diaphragm design of their lenses, compared to the fast rising, consumer-centric manufacturers from the Far East. While f/8 is f/8 regardless of how pure their diaphragms’ circle is, the resulting imagery of  “comparable” lenses—exposure index aside—can often be noticeably less than comparable.

Note: The terms “bokeh” and ‘”selective focus” are often used interchangeably, which is incorrect. Selective focus is a term that describes the range of focus within a photograph, i.e., narrow depth-of-field or greater depth-of-field. Bokeh, on the other hand, describes the quality of the areas of the image that aren’t in focus, which is determined by the design characteristics of the aperture blades as well as the quality of the glass. Therefore, while you can control selective focus by choosing a wider or smaller aperture, the bokeh qualities of any given lens are determined by a combination of its optical quality and the design and/or number of aperture blades that form the lens’s f-stops.

The real differences between “good bokeh” and “bad bokeh” optics are most obvious when one examines the out-of-focus specular highlights of a photograph. In photographs taken with lenses containing fewer diaphragm blades, specular highlights are often rendered as octagons or hexagons. The image is directly affected by the optical limitations inherent in trying to create a perfect circle with only six or eight straight-edged blades in the diaphragm.

To circumvent this issue, and avoid the increased expense and precision required to add additional diaphragm blades, many manufacturers have adopted the stratagem of using not more, but curved diaphragm blades, which at the end of the day, seems to work well in practice.

So, the next time you read a press release for a new lens that touts, among other things, “curved” diaphragm blades for “natural-looking imagery,” you’ll know what they’re referring to is what enlightened shooters have long referred to as bokeh. And good bokeh, at that.

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The Sweetest Light of the Year

One of the better metaphors I’ve come up with to describe the difference between mid-day light during the summer months and winter months is to compare them to an overhead lamp at full Wattage (summer light) compared to a desk lamp on a dimmer switch dialed down by about 30% of the lamps total output (winter light). And while you can reasonably argue that unless it’s cloudy, the same thing happens twice a day at sunrise and sunset, during the winter months the light glows warmly from a close distance to the horizon most all day long.

Like the summer sun, the ceiling-mounted lamp casts a bright even light that baths everything in it’s reach from a (relatively) uniform point-of-view. Desk lamps are different in that they light whatever’s around them from a lower angle that along with casting longer shadows, enables the light to reach inside the various creases, indents, and recesses of whatever is in range of the lamps glow, which thanks to the dimmer, has a soft gold quality to it compared to the full-Wattage of the overhead lights.

The reason winter light is so appealing to the eye has to do with warmth, shadows,and texture. At sunrise, sunset, and most of December and January, there’s a comforting look and feel to the light. Shadows become more pronounced, and more often than not, become integral parts of the dynamics of your image composition.

Unlike summertime shadows, which art midday are minimal at best, during the winter months the smallest pebbles cast long shadows,  textures in walls, sidewalks, and the bark of trees become prominent, and at times, exaggerated beyond the scale and form of whatever is casting the shadow in the first place.

Color-wise, even on the chilliest of winter days, if the sun is out, it never has a cold touch to it, and  even on the most monotone, overcast days, there’s often a warm edge to the otherwise seasonal gloom.

Something to keep in mind when trying to capture the warmth of winter is to make sure your camera’s white balance (WB) is set to daylight, and not ‘Auto’. The ‘Auto’ mode of your camera’s WB system is designed to keep the color range of your photographs neutral, and the last thing you want to do is neutralize the very warm tonality that made you stop and take the picture in the first place.

To maintain the warm ambience of winter and/or the light quality of a sunrise or sunset, it’s best to keep the WB set to ‘Daylight’ or  5500K, which sets the WB to record the scene as if it were a sunny afternoon in May, June, or July regardless of how golden the light becomes, which is exactly where you want it to be.

Text & Photographs Copyright Allan Weitz 2011

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Same Place, A Time Apart

One of the benefits of shooting on location is having the opportunity to travel to places both near and far and finding interesting subjects to photograph along the way.  On many occasions I’ve returned to, or at the very least, passed through many of these same places and sometimes the things that caught my eye are still there, though not necessarily in the same condition or color scheme, and sometimes they’re simply gone. Times change.

Hunt’s Casino, an old Art Deco movie theater in Wildwood, New Jersey is one of the places that’s still there. I first came upon Hunt’s Casino years ago while working on a series of old amusement park structures. At the time, I shot everything using a 4×5 camera onto Tri-X, and when feeling adventurous, an occasional sheet of Ektachrome. The final B&W prints were sepia toned and hand-colored using Marshall’s Transparent Photo Oils and Q-Tips, which seemed a proper way to present the images.

My second encounter with Hunt’s Casino occurred about 4 years later. It was shortly after dusk and the combination of the neon signage of what was new called the ‘Hollywood Casino, against the last hints of blue sky was enough to make me slam on the brakes with the same sense of urgency I had the first time I set my eyes on the building years earlier.

The signage wasn’t the only thing that had changed since my last rendezvous with the old building – my gear changed too. Gone was the 4×5 and all that went along with it and sitting atop my Gitzo was a Nikon F3 and a 28mm/f3.5 PC lens, a far lighter and flexible alternative for shooting architectural photography, and a lot more forgiving on my back and shoulders. Gone too was the black & white sheet film, replaced by Kodachrome 64, an amazing film that too has become an iconic piece of the past.

Sometimes you realize you have photographed the same subject on more than one occasion long after the fact, as happened with an old fishing shack that used to sit alongside the main road heading east into Orient Point, Long Island. The first time I hit the brakes to photograph the shack was at dawn as the sun burned through the morning mist. Muted colors and theatrical lighting aside, I particularly liked the ‘home, sweet home’ feeling of the flower boxes, and the way they played off the ramshackle appearance of the rest of the structure. The camera was a full-frame 35 with a 24mm lens, a favored focal length for landscapes and environmental portraits, which is precisely what this style of photograph is.

My next encounter with this fishing shack was 2 years later, but it wasn’t until recently that I recognized the connection between the 2 photographs, which dynamically are quite different from each other. Unlike the earlier photograph, which was taken at dawn with a wide angle lens, the second photograph of the shack was taken late in the day, from a distance, and with a 300mm lens.

The dynamics of the two images couldn’t be more different. In the earlier wide angle view, the shack appears to be sitting on an open island of reeds, whereas in the second image, which was taken with a far longer, image-compressing telephoto lens, the shack seems shoehorned into a tight, cluttered spot along the water line. In the second, more recent shot, the flower boxes are gone, and though the shack is not much worse for wear after all those seasons since I last took note of the scene, without the flower boxes, the place finally looked abandoned.

Text & Photographs Copyright Allan Weitz 2011

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One Last Dance with Film

I last peered through the ocular of my Schneider 4x Lupe in August 2001. Little did I know I was editing my last rolls of slide film as I hunched over my light box, eyeballing a dozen or so boxes of FujiChrome slides of  – fittingly – a pair of classic wooden runabouts for a Wooden Boat calendar. Two weeks later I purchased my first DSLR and a couple of 512MB CompactFlash cards. The rest is history, and for the most part, I never looked back.

Fast forward six months shy of a decade, and I find myself once again peering at slides on a light box though that very same Schneider Lupe, only this time in retrospect as I rummage through drawers filled with countless slide sheets, each containing 20 transparencies, as I cherry-pick the best of them for digital conversion, a project I have managed to put off until recently, when I obtained use of a film scanner with which I’ve been getting to know very well during these long winter nights. Funny thing is, the experience, which I anticipated as being dreadfully tedious, has been illuminating on a number of levels.

For starters, the experience of leafing through images I’ve taken over the course of oh-so-many years has taken me back to many distant times and places, many of which only exist on celluloid within the cardboard frames I hold in my hands. Each group of slides is a time capsule of a time and place I have visited and recorded. Many of the best of these images originally appeared in print, and some circulated as stock images, but most, including some of what I always felt were my strongest images, never made it further than the boxes I got back from the lab. And these are the images I’m now getting to discover once again as I take them for one final twirl across the dance floor.

Perhaps the most amazing part of this experience has been having the ability to apply many of the image enhancing attributes afforded by digital technology  to images that at the time of capture, were mostly limited to setting the exposure, composing the image, adding filters (if any), and firing the shutter. Apart from selecting a film with the right ‘look and feel’ for the job in the first place, there was little more than one could do to enhance or improve the image. It was off to the lab along with a few prayer to the film processing Gods.

The cool part of scanning  old chromes is opening up freshly-minted RAW files,  and digging into the shadows while maintaining detail in the highlight, and tweaking the  contrast, hue, saturation, and tonal dynamics in ways unimaginable  all those years ago.

During the scanning process I’ve been able to revisit what I’d originally considered to be ‘compromised’ exposures, and finally set the record straight so to speak. As such, many of the scanned images I’ve produced are, at least in my mind, better than the originals.

So while I miss many aspects of film – a medium I grew up with and still cherish, the advantages and possibilities made possible by the ever-improving abilities of digital capture make me far less misty-eyed these days when glancing into the rear-view mirror.

All Photographs & Text Copyright Allan Weitz 2011

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A 1995 Zeiss 16mm Hologon T* Goes Digital

Text & Photographs by Allan Weitz

Before the mid-1960s if you wanted to shoot ultra wide-angle images with a 35m camera your lens choices were quite limited. With the exception of Nikon’s large and bulbous 15mm/f3.5 AIS or perhaps their special order Nikkor 13mm/f5.6 AI-S, 18 to 21mm lenses were as good as it got from lens manufacturers.

Zeiss-Ikon-Voigtl-nder-Bedienungsanleitung-Hologon-Ultrawide-Anleitung-p1439787.jpg.thumbIn 1965 Carl Zeiss introduced the Zeiss Hologon 15mm f/8, a fixed-aperture lens so wide (110-degrees AoV) and a rear element-to-film plane distance so short they had to design a camera to go along with it.

The three-element Carl Zeiss 15mm/f8 Hologon wasn’t much thicker than the lens cap that came with it. The Hologon featured a single fixed aperture – f/8, and because the blade-less aperture was  perfectly round, it produced the most natural out-of-focus specular highlights, i.e. ‘great bokeh’ you’re ever likely to find.

Hand-crafted in Germany, the Zeiss Hologon camera was instantly recognizable by the large, cyclops-like optical viewfinder that was positioned directly over the permanently-mounted lens. To better ensure the user’s fingers didn’t photobomb the corners of the frame, a pistol grip was included along with a 2-stop, center-weighted graduated filter to compensate for vignetting.

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Because the ND filter further reduced the lens aperture to an equivalent f/16, depending on the circumstances many shooters would forego the filter and deal with the fall-off post capture, if at all.

In addition to Zeiss’s dedicated Hologon camera, about 200 Hologon lenses were manufactured with Leica M-mounts and sold in Leica packaging. You can find them used but be prepared to pay a 5-figure price for one.

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In 1995, Zeiss reengineered the Hologon, this time as a 5-element, 16mm/f8 T* lens. Designed for use with the Contax G1 (and later G-2) camera system, the new Hologon 16mm T*came with a center-weighted grad filter and a dedicated optical viewfinder complete with a bubble-level that slipped onto the camera’s accessory shoe. Priced at about $2500, the new Hologon turned Contax’s G-series cameras into the sexiest wide-angle street and landscape camera ever designed.

The Carl Zeiss Hologon 16mm f/8 T* for Contax G-series cameras, circa 1995

The Carl Zeiss Hologon 16mm f/8 T* for Contax G-series cameras, circa 1995

Zeiss 16mm/8 Hologon T*, modified to Leica M-mount with matching finder on Leica MD-2 film camera.

Zeiss 16mm/8 Hologon T*, modified to Leica M-mount with matching finder on Leica MD-2 film camera.

Though challenging to use, partly due to the limits of a fixed f/8 aperture, the results were unique unto themselves. Though wonderfully detailed in the areas that are in focus, the softer areas are where the Hologon truly shines.

Because the lens’s aperture is perfectly circular, the bokeh of the specular highlights of images captured by Hologons are as true-to-life as it gets.

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The focus range of the lens is 12″ to infinity, which can be defined as anything past 4-5′ from the lens. Rather than a traditional focus ring, you focus the Hologon using the small silver lever with your left hand. When set to it’s hyper-focal distance (a smidgen beyond 3-feet), everything from about 20″ to infinity is in focus, which is deep enough for most any street scene or landscape you’re likely to photograph.

Sony A7s with Voigtlander VM-E (Leica M-Sony E-mount) Adapter

Sony A7s with Voigtlander VM-E (Leica M-Sony E-mount) Adapter

Long out of production, Contax G Hologon lenses can be found used and there’s no shortage of used, reasonably-priced Contax G-series cameras to go along with them. Some of these lenses have been modified with Leica mounts, making them compatible with every Leica M-series camera as well as any mirror-less camera that accepts M lens adapters.

Note – Though digital cameras were becoming available in the mid-90s, Zeiss Hologons were designed for film cameras and when used with digital cameras often exhibit soft, or smudgy corner detail, and vignetting infused with varying degrees of purple fringing. If you shoot (or convert post-capture to) monochrome, fringing becomes a non-issue though corners will still appear soft. Shoot to film and all of these issues become null and void.

a_DSC0362 EDITED WEBThe accompanying photographs were taken with Contax-G Hologon 8/16mm T*  that was converted to a Leica M-mount. The cameras used included a Leica MD-2 film camera and a Sony A7S with a Voigtlander VM-E Close Focus Lens Adapter.

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What makes the Voigtlander VM-E so unique is a built-in 4mm helicoid that enables extended close focusing distances with any lens you attach to it. The Hologon was originally designed to focus down to 12″, but when used with a fully-extended VM-E lens adapter focuses down to about 2.5″ from the front lens element. At this distance the visual dynamics of small objects up close combined with the 16mm/8 Hologon’s 107-degree angle-of-view can be astounding.

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As an added benefit when shooting at maximum helicoid extension, background bokeh becomes far more visually dynamic compared to the look of out-of-focus backgrounds when the lens is focused to its native 12-inch minimum focus distance.

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The Hasselblad Superwide – A Most Amazing Camera (and Lens)

Over the years there have been cameras that fill a specific niche and they do it better than any other cameras out there. These are the sort of cameras that ‘make photography make sense’ in their design, the way they fit in your hand, and the way they function. When When these three attributes come together with the right lens (or lenses), these cameras have a way of making composing an image and going ‘click’ a creatively, technically, and for some, an emotionally satisfying experience. Hasselblad’s Superwide-series wide-angle technical field cameras is one of ‘those’ cameras.

I was blown away by the Hasselblad Superwide the first time I saw one. Unlike traditional Hasselblads, which are single lens reflex cameras, the Superwide is a viewfinder camera. The reason Hasselblad broke with tradition is because of the camera’s lens, the Zeiss Biogon 38mm/f4.5, which is really what the story is all about.

This camera is one of the last Superwide SWC T* cameras. It was made in 1979, most likely by Florence.

This camera is one of the 1482 all-black Superwide SWC T* cameras . It was hand-assembled in 1979, most likely by Florence.

The original medium-format Zeiss Biogon 38mm/f4.5 was first introduced at Photokina in 1954 in the form of Hasselblad’s Super Wide Supreme, a 6x6cm medium-format still camera with a fixed lens that offered unparalleled image quality and a 90-degree angle-of-view on the diagonal plane. From its inception, Hasselblad Superwides have stood out as unique in design, but more importantly, one of the sharpest and distortion-free wide-angle cameras ever made.

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Unlike the more complex inverted telephoto, or retro focus wide-angle lenses found on reflex cameras, Zeiss Biogon lenses are true wide-angle designs and their rear elements are positioned too close to the mirror to facilitate a reflex viewing system. There are some truly fine retro-focus lenses available, but as a whole, non-retro-focus wide-angle lenses are smaller and sharper.

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Even Hasselblad’s optically-superb 40mm Distagon, which has an 88-degree diagonal Aov and was designed for use with the concurrently manufactured Hasselblad 500 (or V)-series reflex cameras, is not quite as sharp along the edges nor distortion-free compared to the 38mm Biogon. The 40mm Distagon is also notably larger and heavier compared to the 38mm Biogon.

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To get around the problem, Victor Hasselblad simply had a new shallow-profile camera body designed that did away with a reflex viewing system and in its place relied on a shoe-mounted viewfinder that approximated the Biogon’s 90-degree AoV.

The new camera, which uses the same  A12, A16, & A24 film backs as Hasselblad 500-series cameras and is compatible with many of Hasselblad’s reflex camera accessories, retained the same basic size and form factor over the course of five upgrades in as many decades.

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Taken as a whole, the Superwide is the quintessential camera. It requires no batteries because it contains zero electronics. The lens’s Scale Focusing requires measuring, or as most Superwide owners quickly learn to do and do well, guesstimating the subject to film-plane distance. As for a viewing system, your primary means of composing the image is through the camera’s shoe-mounted viewfinder, which has a field-of-view comparable to the camera’s lens, calbeit with far more noticable optical distortion.

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For precision through-the-lens focusing, Superwide owners also have the option of mounting the camera on a tripod and attaching the optional Focusing Screen Adapter with a Hasselblad Focus Chimney, a waist-level finder, or any of Hasseleblad’s reflex prisms attached to the camera in place of a film magazine.

Like all Hasselblad 500-series cameras, the camera’s Synchro-Compur shutter is built into the lens, and has a top shutter speed of 1/500th-sec for both ambient and flash exposures. The lens’s separate shutter speed and aperture rings interlock, and once engaged, allow you to quickly switch between equivalent EV aperture/shutter speed combinations without having to break concentration in a single move.

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With a film magazine attached, the Superwide is well balanced, relatively compact, and despite it’s boxy shape, feels more at home in the palm of one’s hand compared to many professional DSLR systems. The camera itself weighs about 2lb and the body without the lens is a mere 1″ deep, or about a fifth of the length of the Biogon lens. Total size of the camera and lens is 5-3/4″ x 4-1/2″ x 5-7/8″ (145 x 112 x 150mm) Though most accurate when used on a tripod, the design of the Superwide makes the camera equally adept for hand-held shooting in the studio or out on location.

Aside from the exposure controls on the lens, the only other controls are the single-stroke film advance (or starting with the SWC/M in 1980, a multi or rachet-stroke film advance) located on the right side of the body, and a shutter release located directly above it on the top of the camera.

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The beauty of the Superwide is its ability to capture wide-angle pictures that for lack of better words simply don’t look ‘wide-angle’. They are ‘wide-angle’, but unlike 35mm wide-angle lenses with equivalent angles-of-view, i.e., 20 to 21mm, Zeiss’s Biogon renders the spatial relationships between people and objects to and from each other as well as the camera with perceptively less distortion than a comparably wide lens on a full-frame 35mm camera.

Though initially conceived as a technical camera for capturing detailed distortion-free images of tighter spaces, it soon proved popular among journalists, commercial, as a well as portrait shooters due to its unique imaging qualities. With few exceptions the 38mm Biogon, Zeiss’s 38mm Biogon remains the gold-standard of wide-angle lenses for going on 80 years.

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Shooting with a Superwide takes a bit of getting used to. One must remember to focus, and you must also keep in mind the camera’s viewfinder is only an approximation of the final image, most notably when shooting at closer distances.

Note – If the wide-angle perspective distortion you see in the camera’s viewfinder is unnerving to you, rest assured the finder is nowhere as well corrected as the camera lens – you simply won’t see these viewfinder distortions in the final images.

Measuring depth-of-field is made easier by a pair of red FoV indicators that conveniently shift closer or further apart automatically when you change lens apertures.

As for focus, it’s important to keep in mind the extreme angle-of-view of the lens makes critical focusing, most notably when shooting outdoors under brighter lighting conditions fairly easy and quite accurate.

As an example, if you are shooting Tri-X on a sunny day your exposure will be in the neighborhood of 1/500 between f/11 and f/16. With the hyperfocal distance set to a bit past 5’, the focus range at f/22 goes from about 26″ to infinity, which pretty much includes everything within view of the lens.

Because the camera is designed for eye-level viewing while being palmed close to the body with two hands against the head and has an ultra wide angle-of-view complimented by a vibrationless shutter mechanism, the Superwide is outstanding at capturing low-light photographs at slower shutter speeds.

The original Superwide was called the Superwide Supreme, or Super Wide Angle (SWA), which was improved and updated as the Superwide, or SWC, which as manufactured until 1979. Zeiss T* coatings were introduced in the late 70’s and all lenses from this point on had ‘T*” engraved on the barrel. In 1979 the SWC/M was introduced, which along with a few other upgrades had a shortened tripod mount plate to facilitate Polaroid film holders.

In 1988 Hasselblad updated the camera with a newer ‘CF’-version of the 38mm Biogon T*, an improved viewfinder, and other upgrades including a new name – the 903SWC.

The last Superwide manufactured by Hasseleblad – the 905SWC, was introduced in 2001 and contained a Biogon lens that had to be redesigned to compenste for the ban on arsenic and mercury in glass production. The new lens contained eight rather than ten lens elements and is in some circles to be inferior to the original design while others find little if any noticeable difference.

Production of Hasselblad Superwide cameras ceased in 2006, but many of these hand-assembled cameras, many of which were assembled during the 1970’s and 80’s by a single employee named Forence, can still be found in clean if not mint condition used. It’s also worth noting that even though the camera remained relatively unchanged during its 50-plus year production as a professional film camera, most all of them can be coupled to a digital capture back and used for electronic image capture.

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Following the introduction of the original Hasselblad Superwide Supreme in 1954, there were seven follow-up generations of the Superwide along with three updates of the camera’s viewfinder. These cameras were as follows;

  1. Hasselblad SWC (Silver Lens, Silver Body, original ‘megaphone optical viewfinder) 1959-1968
  2. Hasselblad SWC (Black Lens, some with T* coatings and some without, updated optical viewfinder featuring rubber eyeglass protector on the viewing end) 1968-1973
  3. Hasselblad SWC (Black T* Lens/Silver or Black Body) 1973-1980
  4. Hasselblad SWCM (Black T* Lens/Silver or Black Body – Polaroid Back compatible) 1980-1982
  5. Hasselblad SWCM (with new CF-series T* Lens, built-in bubble-level, Black or Chrome bodies) 1982-1985
  6. Hasselblad SWCM (same as previous model, minus the built-in bubble level, with updated viewfinder) 1986-1988
  7. Hasselblad 903SWC  1989-2001
  8. Hasselblad 905SWC ( NewCFi lens –  arsenic and mercury-free lens elements) 2001-2006.

 

 

 

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Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II – 8-Shot Still Capture & In-Camera Keystone Control

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThere’s much being said about Olympus’s latest Micro Four Thirds interchangeable lens
camera, the OM-D E-M5 Mark II. It features a proven 16MP imaging sensor supported by Olympus’s latest-generation TruePic VII image processor. It also has up to 5 stops of vibration reduction, and a rugged, and a weather-resistant, magnesium-alloy body.

 

No doubt about it, it’s a fine camera, but there are two special features that set the OM-D E-M5 Mark II apart from other recently-announced cameras.

The first is the camera’s High Res Shot mode in which micro motors inside the camera shift the camera sensor in half-pixel increments on the vertical and horizontal planes while capturing eight exposures along the way, one color channel at a time.

Single-shot Capture

Single-shot Capture

8-Shot Capture

8-Shot Capture

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Single-shot capture at 100%

8-Shot @ 66.67%

8-Shot capture @ 66.67%

8-Shot @ 66.67%

8-Shot @ 66.67%

8-shot capture at 100%

8-shot capture at 100%

Though the High Res Shot mode can only be used for photographing non-moving subjects with the camera mounted on a sturdy tripod, the resulting image 40MB image files are notably sharper and open up larger (114.2MB vs.45.6MB) compared to single shot image files of the same subjects. Note – When shooting in High Res Shot mode lens apertures are limited to f/8 or wider (f/5.6, f/4, f/2.8, etc).

The other noteworthy feature found on Olympus’s OM-D E-M5 Mark II is the Keystone Compensation mode, which enables you to correct keystone distortions on both the horizontal and vertical plane in real-time. Functional with both the camera’s LCD and EVF, the cameras’ Keystone Compensation mode enables you to correct keystone distortion when shooting architecture and product photography without resorting to tilt-shift lenses or post-capture corrections in Photoshop.

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Without Keystone Compensation

 

With Keystone Compensation

With Keystone Compensation

 

And unlike fixed focal length tilt-shift lenses, the OM-D E-M5 Mark II’s Keystone Compensation mode is functional with any fixed focal length or zoom lens you can mount on the camera.

Olympus’s OM-D E-M5 Mark II is well worth considering if you are a product or architectural photographer already vested in a Micro Four Thirds camera system and would like to step up the image quality of your photographs.

 

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Olympus’ Super-Wide Stylus TOUGH TG-860

One of my all-time favorite rugged point-and-shoot – Olympus’s TOUGH TG-850, just got an upgrade in the form of the Olympus TOUGH TG-860. The new camera retains the key features that set it apart from the competition including its 16MP backlit CMOS sensor and a 5-power, 21mm to 105mm-equivalent  zoom lens with a truly super-wide AoV of 98-degrees at the wide end.

For underwater imaging, landscapes, and shooting in the tightest of spaces, Olympus’ TOUGH TG-860 is the widest in its class.

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Other upgrades include a  180-degree tiltable LCD, a new TruePic VII image processor, full functionality down to 50’ (increased from 33’ on the TG-850), a second ‘Selfie’ shutter button on the front of the camera, built-in WiFi with GPS and dual customizable function buttons.

Olympus’ TOUGH TG-860 is available in orange, silver, or black with black trim and is priced well below $300. If you’re a real estate broker who’d love to have a compact pocket camera that can make the tiniest of second bedrooms look roomier, or anybody looking for a rugged point-and-shoot that can stand up to a five year old, look no further.

 

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Wide-Angle Portraiture

There are a number of reasons you’d want to use a lens with an angle-of-view (AOV) of about 28 to 20-degrees, which depending on format you’re shooting to can be an 85-105mm (full-frame 35), 55- 70m (APS-C), etc. For starters, a lens with an AOV of 28 to 20-degrees allows you to frame a tight head-and-shoulders composition from a comfortable distance from your subject. You’re not in their face, yet there’s still a comfortable safety zone between you and the person you’re photographing. When the term ‘portrait lens’ comes up in conversation, this is what they’re talking about.

This AOV range, which is about half the AOV of a normal lens, adds just the right measure of compression to compliment the physiology of the human face. A protruding nose seemingly recedes to a more visually-pleasing appearance, and the spatial distances between the tip of the nose and far tips of the ears, and all of the facial elements in between, fall comfortably into place as a unit.

At this working distance the subject’s eyes also become an important part of the dynamics of the portrait, not to mention one that can be read into in any number of ways. Another advantage of shooting with a ‘portrait’ lens is that it enables you to isolate your subject from his or her environment, be it an office, a studio, on the street, or out in a warehouse. So why would you want to shoot portraits with a wider-angle lens?

A wide-angle lens allowed me to capture the Commodore of the Larchmont Yacht Club in the club’s trophy room. (I later found out his wife fell in love with him all over again after she saw this picture.).

What wide angle lenses introduce a sense of place to a portrait, i.e., the subject’s work space, their home, or perhaps a place they simply feel comfortable being in or around. Wide angle lenses tell the story of the person – who they are, what they do, where they’ve been, or perhaps, where they’re going. If the eyes are the window to the soul, wide angle lenses can often fill in the blanks, or maybe even raise a few additional questions about the person staring back at the lens.

Shooting portraits using wide angle lenses requires a bit of extra thought before pressing the shutter button. Wide angle lenses can easily distort the dynamics of whatever you’re photographing, people included, and more-so if you’re using a ‘less expensive’ lens.

A 20m lens on a full-frame 35mm camera was used to photograph the late Malcomb Forbes surrounded by many of the oddities he love to collect and exhibit in his New York office.

Perhaps the number one rule of wide angle portraiture is never, never, ever place your subjects head towards the corners of the frame unless your goal is to make your subject look as if he or she is the result of several generations of inbreeding.

When shooting portraits with wide angle lenses, it’s also important to keep a careful distance from your subject in order to avoid having his or her face go Bozo on you. The last thing you want is a stretched nose or bulbous cheeks. If you come in too close you can easily distort your subject’s features. Conversely, if you place your subject too far from the lens you can easily lose the dynamics of the portrait by having them fade into the surroundings. Just as a landscape must have a center of attention, so too a strong portrait.

The keys to successful wide-angle portraiture boil down to keeping your subject centered in the frame with the camera aimed directly at your subject – tilting the camera up or down is an invitation to distortion. Lastly, mind the distance between your subject and the camera to avoid ‘Bozo’ distortions, and always, always, always keep an eye on everything going on in the background to eliminate the need of having to spend post-production Photoshop time cleaning up avoidable distractions.

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