Monday, May 30, 2011

Lens Stories

As I look forward to the many trips that await me over the next two months, I find myself spoilt for choice over which lenses to bring (or add to my collection!).

Lately, I am eyeing the Nikon 85mm f/1.8 AF-D, touted to be among the best lenses for portrait work. I love my 105mm f/2.5 AI-s lens, but it can be difficult to use in the field owing to its being a manual-focus lens. While people usually hold still for portraits, short telephotos are also good for action photography, for which autofocus is a huge advantage. Plus, the large 1.8 aperture would suit film perfectly.

And the other day, I saw that the 24mm f/2.8 AF-D had surfaced again. Everytime one comes out of hiding, I contemplate buying it and take so long that someone or other invariably buys it before I can. I have an excellent 18-35mm lens, but the 24 offers wide-angle performance at half the size of the 18-35, along with the excellent 52mm filter diameter.

Both these lenses cost upwards of RM1000. There is no doubt that they are worth the money, but I'm wondering if I should just work with what I have first, and shelve the experiment for a few months, to a year, later.

* * *

70-210mm f/4-5.6 AF, resurrected

One of my favourite lenses, it came apart on the day of the Chinese Premier's visit. Fortunately, Tim brought his 55-200mm DX lens along, which surprisingly worked perfectly well (with VR!) on my N80.

It cost me RM150 to repair it at YL.

It is the lens I used for most of the BF trip to Kuala Selangor. And it is one of the lenses I brought to the States, which, in retrospect, I don't think I could have done without. The f/2.8 zoom, in contrast, would have been too heavy to lug around.

Halema'uma'u Crater at sunrise.

Even with the slow f/4-5.6 aperture, and the 100 ISO of Fuji's Astia film, I got away with some really nice pictures of the volcanic crater.

Nasha at Halema'uma'u.

It doesn't have a killer f/2.8 aperture (often considered a must for portraits), but I don't see this portrait any the weaker for that.

In Washington, D.C., on one of those mornings after a stressful previous day, I took a walk and carried nothing but the 70-210mm, looking for photo opportunities around Dupont Circle.


Comedian Alex Powers and Parker, the Shetland Sheepdog.


The escalator down to the Metro station. I love that Whitman quote; so melancholic yet so true of what that week was like.

Ironically, sometime in late 2009 (or early 2010), I'd wanted to sell it to help finance an f/2.8 zoom. When Daniel Khong said it was good (he tried it over supper one night at Sahur), I didn't think much of his comment.

I guess as time goes by, and I use it more and more, I find it harder and harder to give up. I remember how nervous I was, wondering then in early 2009 if I should purchase it. It wasn't a particularly huge purchase, but I was so undecided then. But she said to go ahead. And in no small way, because of her, I did it. Today, it ranks among one of the best photographic decisions I'd ever made.

* * *

So, on the one hand, I have this lust for new fast-and-light primes, the 24mm and 85mm. On the other, I have excellent wide and tele zooms, the 18-35mm and 70-210mm, that have hitherto served me well in spite of their small apertures.

The trouble with having all these lenses, is that no matter what their limitations, I have always seemed to work around them to produce decent, memorable and, once in a while, downright impressive, photographs.

Speaking of limitations, this brings me to the third path I am now considering. My film work really took off when I started using the FM10 (thanks, Teachers' Christian Fellowship!) in early 2009. That manual camera doesn't tolerate camera shake nearly as much as the N80, and after an accident in Honolulu, has metering issues.

As system, the N80 works somewhat better with slow lenses, than the FM10 does with fast ones, mainly because the N80 is such a steady camera even at slow shutter speeds, and somewhat more solidly built, too. But the FM10 has a few small, yet significant, advantages over the N80: it is smaller and lighter, does not require batteries, and is an absolute joy to use with my manual-focus lenses owing to its large split-screen focusing viewfinder.

Without a meter, however, I'm left in a bit of a lurch. Tim says my 'inbuilt meter' is quite good (judging from my pictures of The Dusun), but that is partly because I used relatively forgiving negative film. There are two ways around this: use slide film and learn to meter without a meter, the hard way; or, use negative film and take advantage of the 2-stop-each-way buffer.

I lean more towards the second option, as I can't risk slide film at this point, and I don't think I can afford, financially, those mistakes either!

* * *

What is really compelling about using the FM10, is the choice of lenses I have. I've always been reluctant to let go of my 28mm and 105mm AI (manual focus) lenses. They are, as Rockwell describes, works of mechanical perfection. In his own words on the 28mm, "You won't appreciate its image quality and mechanical precision until you use one for yourself."

I first put it through its paces in Taiping, here. The header picture on this blog was taken with it.

Taiping train station, Ilford FP4.

Old KL station; not long after, the intercity train would no longer stop at this station. This is one of those 'last of' pictures. Ilford FP4.

SUSI, one crazy Saturday morning, hiking up Diamond Head in Honolulu. Kodak Tri-X.

The following pictures were, so to speak, self-metered. The meter hasn't been too reliable lately. (Although I must say, it performed spectacularly on the Thailand trip. More on that later.)

Dusun pictures shot on Fuji Pro 400H, Singapore pictures on Kodak Ektar 100.

Mich, Nasha and Tim; Tembusu House at The Dusun.

Mich stretches her legs in a river in the Berembun forest reserve.

Christina and Dingyen, Marina Barrage café, Singapore.

On the rooftop park, Marine Barrage, Singapore.

* * *

The 105mm f/2.5 Ai-S lens, like the 28mm, has been a solid performer since I first used it. Its claim to fame would probably include surviving quite a fall in Taiping, when I did not realise it was on my lap upon exiting the Land Rover. And so it went crashing to the tar road from over a metre high.

One minor dent on the filter thread (which has made attaching filters a pain) but otherwise it is cranking out great photos like nobody's business.

Allied Veterans' cemetery, Taiping. Ilford FP4.

Table detail, Tembusu House, The Dusun.

Mich in the morning, Tembusu House, The Dusun.

Nasha and Zul, Marina Barrage rooftop park, with a view of the Marina Bay Sands in the background.

Hyma, Desa Parkcity. Kodak Portra 160NC.

George, Desa Parkcity.

What I like about the 105mm is that, at maximum aperture, the out of focus highlights are circular. The bokeh is much better than that of the perennial favourite budget 'portrait' lens, the 50mm f/1.8 (which on DX-crop DSLRs is equivalent to a 75mm).

Also, 105mm provides a tighter crop than the 75mm-equivalent 50mm, which is better for head-shots.

* * *

Just a bit of a postscript here, since it's just a few days over a year ago that I first set foot in the States.

I’d brought to Hawai’i only the FM10, with 4 lenses (28mm, 50mm, 105mm and 70-210mm), not expecting to:

1. Find the N80 (which worked miracles with the 70-210 and unleashed its true potential)
2. Rent the 16mm fisheye (which produced some really memorable, killer shots)
3. Get the 18-35mm (which opened a whole new world of practical wide-angle)
4. Rent the 14mm (which produced some interesting perspective shots in D.C.)

Of course, along the way, there were a couple of (relatively) ill-advised decisions, like renting the 70-200mm. A great wedding and indoor stage photography lens it may be, it is the embodiment of masochism for the travel photographer.

I was glad I’d researched photo stores in Hawai’i, and ordered film from B&H before flying over. That's how I found the miracle Hawai'i Camera shop on Waialae Avenue:

And then there was the eleventh-hour collecting of my B&H parcel from the UPS station, both of these happening the day before we headed to the Big Island. All these things falling into place, thanks in so many ways to Christina and Lance, who were patient enough to entertain a mad Malaysian photographer's requests!

Had they not done so, I wouldn't have made most of the Big Island pictures.

Hawai'i has lots of great photo resources (well, actually only two, but they're all anyone needs!). One is Hawai'i Camera, and the other is Rainbow Photo Video, across the road from Wal-Mart.

* * *

Everywhere I went in the States, I carried a lot more baggage than I should've. I'm glad I travel much lighter these days.

The trip to The Dusun happened the same day as Earth Hour this year, and I think simplicity is a big part of what environmental consciousness is all about, i.e., the eschewing of a commercially driven lifestyle and all these 'creature comforts' we could learn to live without.

Finally, though they may never read this, I'd like to thank Kelvin Chan and Jonathan Siao.

Kelvin, for giving me that whole batch of expired slide film, which worked perfectly!

Jon, for selling me your EOS 300. It's an excellent camera, and it was used to take a good portion of the E.T. photos, but above all, it got me going on a path I don't think I can ever really turn my back on!