USSR competition, 1991. Sometimes, you need all the speed
you can get. I used ISO 1000 film (Scotch/Ferrania, of
beloved memory) and the 90mm f/2 Summicron wide-open on
a Leica. If I'd had a 75mm f/1.4 (Leica) or 85mm
f/1.4 (Contax) I'd have used that.
Photos © 2003, Roger W. Hicks, All Rights Reserved
Ask most photographers what
lenses they would like to add to their outfits, and the first thing
they start talking about is focal length: one wants an ultra-wide, another,
a fast tele for sports photography, and so forth.
Fine. But there is a lot more to lens choice than this. There's
quality, of course: that one is so obvious that it is hardly worth discussing
here. But what about speed? Or compactness? Or close focusing? Or shift
capability? Or soft focus? Or even filter size? All of these have, at
one time or another, influenced my choice of lens. I suggest they should
influence yours, too.
1) The Speed Factor
Speed is less important than it used to be, because films today are
so much faster. When I first took up photography in the 1960s, Tri-X
(ISO 400) was regarded as fast, and Ektachrome-X (ISO 160) was a special-application,
expensive, high-speed color film. But those speeds are more than doubled
today, even before you start "push" processing for extra
speed: if you do, of course, you have ready access to 3200 and more
in black and white (Kodak's TMZ, Ilford's Delta 3200) and
1000 or more in color (Fuji's RSP).
Even so, there are good arguments for more speed. Faster lenses are
easier to focus, whether manually or automatically. They make differential
focus easier. They save you having to change films as light levels fall,
either wasting part of the film, or missing pictures because you don't
want to change the film, or (riskiest of all) rewinding the film and
leaving the tongue out, with a view to re-loading it later. And there
are always those times when you need every ounce of speed you can get,
even with the fastest film at your disposal, because there just isn't
This is one reason I don't use zooms: they are just too slow.
Other reasons include sheer weight and bulk, and of course the fact
that I use manual-focus rangefinder cameras, for which zooms aren't
available. And while modern zooms deliver vastly better quality than
those of yore, there's no denying that the very best prime lenses
are still (and will always be) superior in contrast, resolution, and
freedom from distortion.
Admittedly, you can have too much speed. Not only are ultra-fast lenses
bulkier and more expensive than slower ones, but depth of field can
be embarrassingly small at close focusing distances. This is why I am
perfectly happy to have a 50mm f/1.5 as my fastest 50mm lens today (Voigtländer
Nokton), instead of the 50mm f/1.2 that I used to have for my Nikons.
And I'd have to try the 35mm f/1.2 Voigtländer before I decided
I couldn't live without it.
Portugal. A further advantage of compact lenses, not mentioned
in the text, is that they don't look "professional":
you look like just another tourist wandering around. In
Mertola this doesn't matter, but in some countries
(especially France) people get all bent out of shape at
the idea of being photographed by a professional. This was
a 35mm f/2.5 Color-Skopar on a Voigtländer Bessa R2,
using Kodak's EBX.
2) Compact Size
This is of course my second argument: compactness. I actually have two
lenses in several focal lengths; one faster, heavier, and bulkier, and
the other much more compact. Rather than switching films when the light
levels fall, I switch lenses: 21mm f/2.8 for 21mm f/4; 35mm f/1.7 for
35mm f/2.5; 50mm f/1.5 for 50mm f/2.5; and 90mm f/2 for 90mm f/3.5. This
allows me to go on using my favorite color film, Kodak's EBX, for
consistent color rendition and saturation, instead of having to switch
to something faster.
These slower lenses are all cheaper than their faster counterparts and
often, slower lenses offer better contrast and color saturation than the
faster ones. They make the camera-lens package smaller and lighter, and
with a rangefinder (which I normally use) it is no harder to focus a slow
lens than a fast one. And there are always people who never shoot in low
light anyway, for whom the extra expense, weight, and bulk of a faster
lens can hardly be justified.
It may sound extravagant to switch lenses instead of films, and in a sense,
it is; but I offer two defenses. One is that because I use rangefinder
cameras, all the lenses I own are pretty small, so the extra weight in
the camera bag (if I carry two different speeds of the same focal length)
is similar to that of carrying extra film. The other is that if you shoot
a lot of film, the extra expense of faster films mounts surprisingly quickly.
A roll of Fuji's Provia F-400 is around $2.50 more than a roll of
Provia F-100, so the extra for 100 rolls is $250.
life. Frances Schultz shot this using an old
90-180mm Vivitar Series 1 Flat Field macro lens that focuses
to 1/2 life size. Continuous focusing from infinity to the
close-up range is infinitely more convenient than fiddling
around with close-up lenses and extension tubes. Film was
Fuji's Velvia: this was before we switched to Kodak's
E100VS and EBX. The camera was a Nikon F.
3) Filter Size
Slower lenses bring me to filter size. All my slow lenses take 39mm filters,
whereas for the fast ones I need three different sizes, all bigger, all
more expensive. But I don't normally want filters in poor light,
so during the day I can survive with the slower lenses and one set of
4) Close Focusing
What about close focusing? Until I can afford the latest 90mm f/4 Macro-Elmar-M,
which focuses to 1/3 life size (with an adapter), this is one of the pleasures
I have to forgo because of rangefinders. Even so, my 90mm lenses do focus
to a bit under 1/10 life size, which is good enough for me, most of the
time. If I need to focus closer, it is normally only in the studio, so
I switch to a reflex and a purpose-built macro lens. But in the days when
my wife Frances Schultz used mainly reflexes, her favorite lenses for
a long time were a 90mm f/2.5 Vivitar Series 1 macro (for Nikon) and a
glorious 100mm f/2.8 Zeiss Makro-Planar that we had for a few months with
a Contax outfit on loan from the importers.
It is worth adding that I often carry a 200mm f/3 Vivitar Series 1 (on
a Nikon F) to supplement my Voigtländers, because rangefinder cameras
aren't much good with lenses beyond about 90mm. This lens, long
out of production, focuses to around 1/4 life size, or 1/2 life size with
a tele-converter fitted. This is one reason why I use the 200mm f/3 more
than my old Nikon 200mm f/4.
de Triomphe, Paris. A fairly typical traffic jam around
this legendary landmark. Without a shift lens, the Arc de
Triomphe itself would not loom quite as impressively. I
borrowed Frances' 35mm f/2.8 PC-Nikkor to shoot this
on one of my last rolls of Fuji's RFP, possibly my
favorite film of all time, in a Nikon F. A gendarme politely
waited until we had finished before coming over and explaining
that we really should have a tripod permit.
5) Shift Capability
What about shift lenses? These are very expensive, it's true, but
they are also very, very habit-forming. Over 10 years ago Frances fell
in love with the 35mm f/2.8 PC-Nikkor, and indeed it replaced her 90mm
f/2.5 as the lens she used most of all. When she switched to Voigtländer
rangefinder cameras, we had an adapter made to allow use of the 35mm f/2.8
on those: it's surprisingly easy to judge the degree of rise in
the viewfinder. And her Alpa is the 12 S/WA with the shift movement, unlike
my non-shift 12 WA.
6) Soft Focus
Moving on to soft focus, this is not something I would normally bother
with in 35mm, but in larger formats (especially 5x7" and above)
it can be extremely effective and even in 35mm there's the wonderfully
over-the-top 90mm f/4 Dreamagon. The number of applications of the Dreamagon
is limited, but it really lives up to its "Dreamy" name and
the effect is far, far better than any soft-focus attachment, even the
legendary Zeiss Softar. And if you can find and afford one, there's
the justly legendary 90mm f/2.2 Thambar from Leica.
The Dreamagon has taken these flowers to the edge of unrecognizability--but
it's an effect you can't get any other way.
Use a high saturation film (here, Kodak's EBX) and
bracket on the side of underexposure, or flare will take
away all the color. Camera was a Nikon F.