Wide Angle World

The world has gotten wider, at least photographically speaking. If we look back at the photography of the past, going all the way back to its origins up to the mid-Twentieth Century, the view is shaped predominantly by what photographers would call standard lenses. We see scenes of a world in which the proportions, the scale, and the relationships between elements are more or less natural. Things seem normal.

As lens technology advanced and wide angle lenses became more common and more affordable, first for rangefinders in the 1950s and then SLRs in the 1960s and beyond, our view of the world began to distort. Photographers started using wides to get closer to their subjects, creating a more intimate feeling, pushing distractions further into the background. While often effective in the hands of photographers who knew what they were doing, the cheap consumer wides that proliferated in the 1970s and 80s started a trend that continues to this day: a world of unnatural distance and unintended distortion.

To be clear, when talking about wide angle lenses, I’m referring to lenses with focal lengths around 28mm and wider. 35mm is marginal but close enough to normal (~43mm) that I’m ruling it out of this discussion.

At its most basic, the problem is the common misconception that wides are intended to “get everything in.” Sure, you can use them that way, but in most cases this leads to boring photos with tiny, if any, visible details. “What’s that little dot? Oh, that’s the Statue of Liberty.” This is not good photography.

Some street photographers used wides to achieve a distinctive look to their photos. Garry Winogrand is seen as one of the pioneers, and Bruce Gilden has pushed the boundaries between photographer and subject about as close as they can go. Few people possess the vision of Gilden or Winogrand, far fewer than own wide angle lenses. Unfortunately, this lack of vision has done nothing to suppress the overuse of these lenses. I’ve even read numerous pieces dismissing street photographers who use normal lenses for lacking the courage to “get in close.” Nonsense. Getting close to a subject with a wide lens is not a prerequisite for good street photography; if it were, no one would know the names Cartier-Bresson, Brassai, or Kertesz.

Which brings me to the great modern democratizer of photography, the cell phone camera. Much ink has been spilled over the years extolling the virtues of democracy, so rather than make a poor attempt of my own to describe the impact of this device on photography, I will simply quote Winston Churchill: “The best argument against democracy is a five minute conversation with the average voter.” The cell phone camera, in short, is a device that has made countless multitudes think that they are possessed of photographic vision, and its wide angle lens is in no small part responsible.

Mimicking the human field of vision, cell phone cameras seem to fall around the 24-28mm mark at their wide end. This, along with the wild abandon that comes with the cost-free medium of digital, encourages users to blast away quite freely, pointing their phones in the general direction of their subjects, which all too frequently includes themselves. Extensive depth of field (wide angle lens plus tiny sensor) plus autofocus is a hell of a drug.

But while the field of view of these lenses might be similar in breadth to normal human vision, the view they present is quite different, because cameras are not eyes. Humans see the world in little focused chunks, scanning around to build up a detailed picture in the mind. Cameras just take it all in at once, and in doing so introduce all sorts of weirdness as lenses bend light to bring the far edges into the frame. Even the best wide angle lenses used carefully will create some distortion in the vast majority of situations, and when’s the last time you saw someone using a cell phone camera carefully?

The net result of the profusion of cell phone photos is that the world (as portrayed photographically) now looks distorted and distant. Prominent foreground elements (especially in the hateful, narcissistic “selfie”) are overwhelming, seemingly intruding into your personal space, while at the same time excluding contextual elements, or at least pushing them out to the margins. Where a family snapshot taken with a Brownie Hawkeye presented a natural (if often a bit distant due to the tightly-framed viewfinder) perspective, that same shot taken with a cell phone jammed in close (because you have to get yourself in every picture, for whatever reason) makes Aunt Claire and Uncle Bob loom ominously over the foreground, while their new Buick Electra (and their golden retriever Rusty, who is relieving himself on said Buick Electra) are tiny and far away, like toys left strewn about the yard.

I will resist the temptation to play pop psychiatrist here, but it certainly seems to me that the wide angle view of the world is emblematic of the complaints we hear so often about an increasingly disconnected society, with each individual absorbed in their own little world, willfully ignorant of everything happening around them. If people continue to see the world through their screens, even when the real thing is right in front of them, their view will be shaped by the cameras used to present it to them. Theirs will be a wide angle world, full of distortion and artificial distance. Personally, I prefer a little more reality in my representations of reality.


When Interchangeable Lenses don’t…

Everyone knows the benefits of interchangeable lenses. Anyone who has been in the photography game for a while has probably used at least one or two interchangeable lens cameras, and some (Your Humble Filmosaur included) have vast colonies of lenses that seem to multiply all on their own, migrating and attaching themselves, lamprey-like, to any camera body they can find.

The voraciousness of lenses for camera bodies is strictly limited, however, by the fact that each can accommodate one, and only one, lens (unless you’re doing it very creatively wrong). Once a lens has attached itself, the camera is safe from further predation. Perhaps it is as a result of this natural limitation that some cameras and lenses seem to form a symbiotic relationship, rarely if ever separating from each other. This unnecessary pair-bonding is little-understood by the scientific community, but we can at least offer a theory.

Some cameras and lenses just seem to go together. They achieve a kind of mutually-beneficial balance that makes each seem to perform beyond its own individual potential. This phenomenon is sometimes seen among the fixed-lens subspecies, as might be expected, but it remains surprising when it manifests itself in the more complex realm of interchangeable lens cameras. When it does, something magical happens…(cue slow motion close-up)

OK, enough channeling David Attenborough. The point of all this is to say that some cameras and lenses just work together. In my collection there are three combinations that seem to remain more or less permanently attached because they just work.

First up is perhaps the most classic of all, a Leica IIIc with a 50/3.5 collapsible Elmar and a SBOOI viewfinder. It’s small, handy, and extremely capable. I shot my whole trip to Germany last year with this camera alone. It fits in a coat pocket. It’s discrete. With zone focusing and reasonably consistent light, it’s as fast to use in the street as any point-and-shoot. If I had to live with one camera and lens, there’s a very strong likelihood that this would be it.

Closely related is a relatively new combination, a Leica IIIa (which originally came to me with a Summar attached, as described here) with a Nikkor 28/3.5 and matching viewfinder. Everything that I said about the IIIc/Elmar combo applies here as well. I’m less acclimated to the 28mm focal length, but I’m finding it is a nice compliment to 50mm in a two camera travel kit.

Finally, my venerable Canon P, after much experimentation, seems to have settled down with a Canon 35/1.8. It may seem a bit odd, given my 50mm inclinations, but I shot more in 35mm last year than I had before – mostly due to my dalliance with my Hexar AF – and I’m more at ease with it as a result. The P’s viewfinder is 1:1, rare for the 35mm focal length, which makes it easier to use in the street. The package balances well.

These three might as well be fixed lens cameras at this point. Some rigs just work, and if something works, why mess with it?

Meet the Lens: Canon 35mm f/1.8

Oh the speed! The blazing speed!

OK, that’s a stretch. But this is the fastest wide lens I’ve got by a pretty good margin, the previous leaders in this category holding the line at f/2.8. Jumping from that to f/1.8 is fairly significant, but “Oh the fairly significant speed increase!” just didn’t sound as good.

Much as with the swap of my Canon 28/3.5 for a 28/2.8 that I recently reported here, this was neither a planned acquisition nor a particularly necessary one. Rather, it was the result of an opportunity and the realization that I could make it happen with little additional cash outlay if I sold something I already had. In this instance, the decision was easier, in that the Serenar (Canon) 35/2.8 I had, nice lens that it is, was simply not getting much use.

Unlike the 28mm focal length, where I had (and still have) one and only one LTM lens, the 35mm field was a bit more crowded. In addition to the 2.8 Canon, I also had my lovely W.Acall 35/3.5 and my hacked Nikon L35AF 35/2.8 glass in an LTM mount; the Jupiter-12 35/2.8 that was my first foray into this focal length had already been sold for lack of use. The thing about these lenses is that each has it’s own signature, and the differences are on par with what one expects in the more common 50mm lens offerings. The Canon and the W.Acall are both double-Gauss Planar-type lenses, but the former tends toward a slightly harder look, while the latter is gloriously creamy. The Nikon follows the Sonnar formula, but with a somewhat more modern feel than is typical due to design and coatings. The Jupiter is a Zeiss Biogon copy, a non-retrofocal design, and looks quite different as a result (but apparently not different enough for me to keep it around, though that’s more the fault of the ergonomics, which are not terribly user-friendly).

When the 1.8 appeared for sale, deciding what to sell was not terribly difficult. The W.Acall, the most recently acquired of the crop, was not going anywhere – the rendering of that lens reminds me of my Summitar, perhaps my favorite 50mm lens. The Nikon hack is, well, a hack – I did have a couple people express interest in buying it back when I first showed it, but it’s not a showpiece so getting a meaningful amount for it (I have a lot of hours in putting it together, even if it looks a little more like an arts and crafts project than a proper lens) would be unlikely. Plus I like the compactness of it. That left the Canon. It’s a fine lens in lovely shape, complete with the original caps, case, and matching viewfinder, but I just wasn’t using it. So the usual dance was initiated: try to sell one lens in order to fund another. It didn’t take too long, and soon the 1.8 was on its way to me.

Once it arrived, in spite of it being quite serviceable as-is, I went through it and gave it a detailed cleaning and refreshed the lubricants. The construction of the 1.8 is lighter than the older all-brass 2.8, with the focusing barrel made from aluminum. The shape of the new lens is more cylindrical as well, and a substantial void between the optical block and the outer shell adds to the feeling of lightness relative to exterior dimensions. There’s nothing wrong with the construction, but it clearly reminds anyone who has used the older lenses that they have encountered something from a newer generation.

All well and good, you say, but how does it perform? Well, let me tell you. It’s nice and sharp in the center even wide open, getting predictably soft in the corners. Both the corners and the out-of-focus areas, which are often going to be quite prominent when shooting wide open, exhibit some interesting characteristics. Both exhibit a bit of “movement,” looking a little swirly at times and somewhat busy, and out-of-focus areas in the center lose a notable amount of contrast, though this contrast loss is less pronounced out toward the perimeter of the frame. It’s an odd effect, though one that could be useful. Stopped down it’s predictably sharp, with moderate contrast and fairly high resolution. I haven’t tested it with color yet, but with B&W it falls closer to vintage rendering than modern.

While I’m sure I could be happy with the Canon 35/1.8 as my only 35mm lens, it doesn’t quite reach the very high rendering benchmark set by the W.Acall. For low light shooting, or perhaps as an all-purpose travel lens, the Canon might be the better choice however – two stops is enough to make a meaningful difference in real-world use. As a bonus, this also works as a fast 50mm-equivalent on my Fuji X-E1, which adds to the flexibility of that camera as well.