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Roger Hicks -- Author of The Rangefinder Book

Roger Hicks is a well known photographic writer, author of The Rangefinder Book, over three dozen other photographic books, and a frequent contributor to Shutterbug and Amateur Photographer. Unusually in today's photographic world, most of his camera reviews are film cameras, especially rangefinders. See www.rogerandfrances.com for further background (Frances is his wife Frances Schultz, acknowledged darkroom addict and fellow Shutterbug contributor) .


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The camera, the lens and the photographer
Old 02-08-2013   #1
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The camera, the lens and the photographer

Some photographers are better than others. Some cameras and lenses are better than others. Why are some people apparently unable to separate these two simple, non-contradictory statements?

Point out that any given lens is (for example) not very sharp, lacks contrast or suffers from field curvature, and immediately, someone pops up and says, "Yeah, but you can still take great pictures with it."

OF COURSE YOU CAN. Only a fool would deny it. You may even be able to turn these defects to advantage, despite the fact that from the point of view of lens design, they are unquestionably defects. But equally, there will be other pictures, other subjects, other ways of seeing, which will work better with a lens that is sharper or contrastier or otherwise technically better. Again, only a fool would deny it.

Any lens is a compromise on speed, optical quality, size, ergonomics and price. My 50mm C-Sonnar, for example, sacrifices quite a lot to size and contrast; my pre-aspheric 35mm Summilux sacrifices a good deal to speed and size. They're both fine lenses. The compromises they make suit me. But I don't pretend that they are in all ways comparable with the latest Leica aspherics in the same focal lengths. They're smaller and cheaper for a start.

Still less can anyone pretend that a lens from 60 years ago is likely to compare with the best of today's lenses when it comes to technical quality. A few do compare well: 21mm Biogons spring to mind. But most don't. You may love them; you may take great pictures with them, or admire the great pictures that others have taken with them. But you can't realistically deny that technically, most high-end modern lenses are superior to most high-end old ones -- especially when it comes to fast lenses or wide angles.

Whether or not the photographer needs, or can take advantage of, better cameras or lenses, is a separate issue. That's down to the photographer, not the camera or lens. But to deny that some cameras and lenses are better than others is as feeble-minded as denying that some photographers are better than others.

Cheers,

R.
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Old 02-08-2013   #2
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Very true!

How about all of these soft and underexposed photos

http://www.magnumphotos.com/C.aspx?V...RID=24KL53ZTH6
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Old 02-08-2013   #3
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Totally agree. But somehow you forgot to define "better". This is also THE error from most people when they ask or discuss what is "better". Even "technically quality" its possible to define parameters so that one can twist "better" to accommodate one personal preferences. Example: I want a lens with soft rendering / low contrast. Which then is "better"?

Sorry if Om nitpicking :-)
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Old 02-08-2013   #4
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What makes a lens a superior lens?
the missing of CA - the contrast - the sharpness or what?
Just to say that new leses are better as old lenses is something that is senceless!

Do you just look at the labor charts?

And even then - a good or perfekt lens wouldn´t be perfect for any situation so what?

I'm not a good and famous photographer - just somebody who loves to play with his gear - but even I see that some of my old lenses have a touch that give a photo a life!
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Old 02-08-2013   #5
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Oh look! A dead horse.

Let's beat it!!
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Old 02-08-2013   #6
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Roger said at all.

I think the definition of "better" when it comes to equipment is the right tools needed for the job really. In that sense I think it's all about the photographer's vision.

I personally love the softer look, low contrast lenses that represents well the mood of the photography I am doing. There's my Leica M2s and the old DR Cron and soon the 50mm Summarit that Dave Lackey was so generous to lend me! That said, I don't think it can't be done with modern sharp and contrasty lenses, sure it can, but not by me.

I shoot a lot of windows/doors/courtyards too, but for that I feel I need maximum sharpness and contrast and detail (for what I call grafics) and there comes the Hasselblad.

Again, a better photographer than myself will probably make better pictures with different and not necessarily more expensive equipment, but there's his different approach, angle, ability to see and work the light and experience.

To resume, I am perfectly happy with what I have tho' and yet not ultimately happy with the results I am getting but there's not to blame on the equipment.
Shooting regularly and a lot is my formula to get a satisfactory picture. And luck. And the ability to say something more in your pictures than "I was there".

Regards,

Boris
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Old 02-08-2013   #7
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Today I just sold a Canon 50mm f/1.4 LTM (Excellent condition) for a good price. This lens was tested yesterday by another gentleman and he walked away after testing it on his NEX-5. His reason was it was not as sharp as his expectation, which is something as sharp as Zeiss 50mm f/2 Planar ZM.

I kept quiet and let it go.

I believe there are many outstanding lens out there, old and new, with different characteristic which can be utilize for specific type of pictures.

It's the same as in my kitchen, I have a sauce pan, pancake pan, sautee pan. Basically they're all very good pan but I need different pan for different job. I hope this pan analogy does make sense to you.
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Old 02-08-2013   #8
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So was Henry Cartier-Bresson a " better" photographer than let's say Robert Capa ? Was it the other way around ?

What is "better" in terms describing photographer ?
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Old 02-08-2013   #9
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Those two are both better.

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Old 02-08-2013   #10
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Obviously everything Roger has said is true, I think it's just that many people have trouble seeing grey areas, particularly in internet discussions. Add to that, the desire that people often have to defend, at all costs, items that they own.

Most people will accept what Roger has said if directly asked, but often the instinct is to defend their possessions.
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Old 02-08-2013   #11
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Quote:
Originally Posted by flyalf View Post
Totally agree. But somehow you forgot to define "better". This is also THE error from most people when they ask or discuss what is "better". Even "technically quality" its possible to define parameters so that one can twist "better" to accommodate one personal preferences. Example: I want a lens with soft rendering / low contrast. Which then is "better"?

Sorry if Om nitpicking :-)
Not nitpicking at all. You are absolutely right. One lens suits one style of photography; another, another. but some people seem unable to see that the soft, low-contrast lens is not 'better' for everything. Or that in purely optical, technical terms, more sharpness, more contrast and a flatter field represent advances. It's a lot easier to make soft lenses (with still softer edges) and low contrast.

Cheers,

R.
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Old 02-08-2013   #12
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Originally Posted by Guillermo View Post
Oh look! A dead horse.

Let's beat it!!
Amen, amen.
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Old 02-08-2013   #13
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Heru Anggono View Post
Today I just sold a Canon 50mm f/1.4 LTM (Excellent condition) for a good price. This lens was tested yesterday by another gentleman and he walked away after testing it on his NEX-5. His reason was it was not as sharp as his expectation, which is something as sharp as Zeiss 50mm f/2 Planar ZM.

I kept quiet and let it go.

I believe there are many outstanding lens out there, old and new, with different characteristic which can be utilize for specific type of pictures.

It's the same as in my kitchen, I have a sauce pan, pancake pan, sautee pan. Basically they're all very good pan but I need different pan for different job. I hope this pan analogy does make sense to you.
Perfect sense! By the same token, I have a coarse garlic press and a fine garlic press.

Cheers,

R.
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Old 02-08-2013   #14
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Originally Posted by maddoc View Post
So was Henry Cartier-Bresson a " better" photographer than let's say Robert Capa ? Was it the other way around ?

What is "better" in terms describing photographer ?
Look in any photo magazine, on any web-site, in any book. Some pictures are truly rotten shots, dull and tedious records of a dull and tedious scene, poorly composed, technically incompetent. Another picture might be equally blurry and soft, but still communicate immediately.

Which is the better photograph?

And, by extension, someone who produces a higher percentage of better photographs is, in my book, a better photographer.

Cheers,

R.
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Old 02-08-2013   #15
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Originally Posted by Guillermo View Post
Oh look! A dead horse.

Let's beat it!!
You might think so, but there's been an extraordinary efflorescence of "you can still take good pictures" comments lately. Clearly some people need reminding.

Cheers,

R.
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Old 02-08-2013   #16
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Roger Hicks View Post
You might think so, but there's been an extraordinary efflorescence of "you can still take good pictures" comments lately. Clearly some people need reminding.

Cheers,

R.
I suppose it is a better attitude to have than "you can only take bad pictures".
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Old 02-08-2013   #17
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Some photographers are better than others. Some cameras and lenses are better than others. Why are some people apparently unable to separate these two simple, non-contradictory statements?
This seems a rant against some specific answer to some specific post and I don't know which post you have in mind so my answer is very unspecific. I think that people who argue when questions like these come out are not trying to not separate the two concepts but only discussing the relevance of these. For example, in this analysis light never appears but then someone (I am among those who do) can ask whether with all the rest being equal (in particular with a given photographer behind the camera) is the quality of the picture changed more radically by using a slightly better lens (let's be honest, probably not even 1% of us use really bad lenses) or by studying and using a better lighting. In the end, of course, we are just discussing and having fun and when we go out to take pictures, from family snaps to once in a lifetime assignments we are alone and we decide what to do as we please. Money and time are both finite, someone decide to use what they have to buy yet another 50mm lens and use time to test it against brick walls to enjoy the lower distortion, other use the money for a pair of Einstein Monoblocks and try a different light schemes...

GLF
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Old 02-08-2013   #18
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Quote:
Originally Posted by giellaleafapmu View Post
This seems a rant against some specific answer to some specific post and I don't know which post you have in mind so my answer is very unspecific. I think that people who argue when questions like these come out are not trying to not separate the two concepts but only discussing the relevance of these. For example, in this analysis light never appears but then someone (I am among those who do) can ask whether with all the rest being equal (in particular with a given photographer behind the camera) is the quality of the picture changed more radically by using a slightly better lens (let's be honest, probably not even 1% of us use really bad lenses) or by studying and using a better lighting. In the end, of course, we are just discussing and having fun and when we go out to take pictures, from family snaps to once in a lifetime assignments we are alone and we decide what to do as we please. Money and time are both finite, someone decide to use what they have to buy yet another 50mm lens and use time to test it against brick walls to enjoy the lower distortion, other use the money for a pair of Einstein Monoblocks and try a different light schemes...

GLF
No. It's several posts, by more than one person. Otherwise I'd not have bothered.

Cheers,

R.
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Old 02-08-2013   #19
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I got some really great lenses that I very seldom use. Simply because they compromise with things that's important to me. That is size and weight. Whenever I pull them out they amaze me but in the end that doesn't matter.

The sad part is. That even if the perfect lens existed... it still wouldn't make me a better photographer. But then again, neither would any lens.
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Old 02-08-2013   #20
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But what else am I going to spend my money on!!!!
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Old 02-08-2013   #21
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I am SO going to enjoy snapping a roll of exposures this weekend with the new-to-me 1939 Robot Star II with Zeiss Jena Biotar 4cm f/2 ...

Sharp, schmarp. I want to see what it does and whether it makes me happy. The camera as a curiosity does already. ;-)

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Old 02-08-2013   #22
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Hell hath no fury like a Leica owner (in particular) who's been scorned, spurned, slighted or slagged off, and whose reproducing equipment (his lenses, that is ..) has been criticised for being overly soft, limp and lacking in appeal and potency....
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Old 02-08-2013   #23
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Quote:
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I am SO going to enjoy snapping a roll of exposures this weekend with the new-to-me 1939 Robot Star II with Zeiss Jena Biotar 4cm f/2 ...

Sharp, schmarp. I want to see what it does and whether it makes me happy. The camera as a curiosity does already. ;-)

G
Dear Godfrey,

NERD ALERT! Now read on...

The '40mm' seems to be a 42.5mm according to some sources -- effectively, in pure theory, just about the perfect theoretical length for a full frame 35mm negative (about 1mm short). Except that -- oh, dear -- you'll be shooting 24x24... EDIT -- I apologize to those who misunderstood: I was calling myself a nerd, for bringing up such otherwise pointless minutiae, as an example of how little theory normally matters.

Theory rarely matters much. I just get pissed off with people who deny that there have been any (theoretical) advances in lens design. Whether you get great pics with your Biotar or not, you'll enjoy using it. But when someone says, "I want a good lens for a __________" and someone recommends a frankly lousy vintge lens, or says "You can still take great pics with a [select old mushy lens here]" I wonder how much they're doing to help the OP with his (rarely if ever her) question.

Cheers,

R.
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Old 02-08-2013   #24
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Heru Anggono View Post

It's the same as in my kitchen, I have a sauce pan, pancake pan, sautee pan. Basically they're all very good pan but I need different pan for different job. I hope this pan analogy does make sense to you.
You're right, different pan for a different job. I have a large pan and a small pan. When I don't have a lot to cook I take the small one so that I don't waste energy. So you see we think differently about the definition of job here.
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Old 02-08-2013   #25
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This feels like the regular roundabout discussion born of needing something to talk about. The world would have been just that little bit quieter and content without it. But while the topic has been raised it is universally true that a good photographer armed only with a pinhole camera will make more successfully engaging photographs that a halfwit armed with the latest Canon or Fuji. And yes I agree with you Roger, image standards on the web are woeful and often amount to little more than demonstrating that the photographers equipment is real and not imaginary, when all we yearn for is for the 'photographer' to 'get real'.
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Old 02-08-2013   #26
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I similarly get pissed off with people who think they know everything there is to know about all aspects of photography and who treat other photographers opinions with contempt. I don't see why you should call other forum members "NERDS" just because they don't agree with you on every opinion you put forward. Forum members should be entitled to air their views and opinions,which is what a forum is for, without being belittled because they have opinions you don't agree with.Everybody is entitled to their own opinion without the great "I AM" blowing his top.
No, I was calling myself a nerd. Only a nerd would know that a '40mm' Biotar is probably a 42.5mm. You've missed the point again.

Yes, I do know a bit more about photography than some people -- and, it must be said, less than some others. You are the same. You know more than some people, and less than others.

Knowledge and opinion are not the same thing.

Cheers,

R.
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Old 02-08-2013   #27
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The point of course is that absolute quality of lens does not matter beyond a certain point for most applications. Although its true to say also that its a matter of "horses for courses" in that a lens which is great for one purpose is mediocre or poor for another or simply cannot do it. (Micro lenses compared with normal range lenses spring to mind). But in general there is a range of lenses with differing qualities which as Roger says can all make great images.

I have never been a pixel peeper and never have worried about absolute lens quality very much. I am much more impressed by the feel an image has than its absolute technical qualities. It follows that the absolute high technical qualities in the lens may not be required.

But when one looks at what has been achieved in lenses over the past couple of decades or more it has been startling. Let's catalog them (although I am sure I will leave some out).
New and better coatings which allow much more complex lens designs with more elements.
Computer aided design which ditto allows more complex lens designs and also allows much flexible lenses - who would have contemplated two decades ago the huge proliferation of lenses in the 16mm or shorter range -And often in zooms! And for full frame lenses!
New materials technology such as low dispersion glass and even non glass elements making sure these "wonderlenses" are available to the masses.
And of course lets not forget new manufacturing techniques that combined with new materials lenses now to be made almost exclusively from poly carbonates and have in them aspherical elements that only a few decades ago needed hugely expensive manual grinding.
And finally I should not forget in SLR lenses AF is now "old hat" but there is the new tendency for them to have computer chip controlled vibration reduction.

All in all a pretty impressive list that in some cases does not bring the lens to absolute new technical heights in image quality but does make them more flexible - such as zooms that have huge ranges or can be shot hand held at ridiculously low light. (In the latter regard I am thinking of my Nikkor 16-35mm f4 which I have shot hand held in nearly dark conditions at about 1/8th second and produced pin sharp images)
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Regarding Lenses . . . .
Old 02-08-2013   #28
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Regarding Lenses . . . .

IMO, "Better" is in the eye of the holder.

(the camera holder ).
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Old 02-08-2013   #29
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IMO, "Better" is in the eye of the holder.

(the camera holder ).
Only 'sort of'. Sharpness, vignetting, coma, astigmatism, contrast, distortion... It's not hard to agree about what is technically better. What is artistically better is a very different question.

If someone asks for advice on 'a good lens' it's quite difficult to give advice other than on a technical basis. If someone asks for advice on a good 9cm lens, I can point out that a Thambar at f/6.3 to f/9, for certain kinds of portraits and still lifes and landscapes, in my experience, is stunning. I can also point out that it's heavy, slow focusing, far too soft at full aperture for most people's tastes (including mine), and ridiculously expensive.

As peterm1 points out, technically, many modern lenses are pretty incredible --- and very versatile and flexible. Given the choice of (for example) of various 9cm lenses, an Elmar, a Thambar, a first-generation pre-aspheric Summicron and second-generation pre-aspheric Summicron, the last is incomparably the most versatile lens that will suit the biggest number of photographers. This does not negate the undeniable truth that some people will prefer one of the others -- or indeed a Canon, Zeiss, Apo-Lanthar or whatever. But if someone is asking, "What's a good lens", do they REALLY want to hear (as if it were a conclusive argument) that so-and-so was the best available in the 1940s and that nobody complained 65 years ago?

Cheers,

R.
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Old 02-08-2013   #30
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Only 'sort of'. Sharpness, vignetting, coma, astigmatism, contrast, distortion... It's not hard to agree about what is technically better. What is artistically better is a very different question. . . . .
Absolutely. That was (my little punning aside) my point. It's the photographer who will decide what lens is "better" for the photo. Maybe on graph paper its technical specs are horrid, but at the moment that may be of no concern.
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Old 02-08-2013   #31
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If you define "better" in the meaning of "commute immediately" than I would agree that a photographer whose photos in general have a higher impact onto a larger percentage of viewer is a better photographer.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Roger Hicks View Post
Look in any photo magazine, on any web-site, in any book. Some pictures are truly rotten shots, dull and tedious records of a dull and tedious scene, poorly composed, technically incompetent. Another picture might be equally blurry and soft, but still communicate immediately.

Which is the better photograph?

And, by extension, someone who produces a higher percentage of better photographs is, in my book, a better photographer.

Cheers,

R.
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Old 02-08-2013   #32
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Originally Posted by Guillermo View Post
Oh look! A dead horse.
Let's beat it!!
Poor creature but since it dead already ...

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Originally Posted by FrankS View Post
Those two are both better.
Unconditional +1.

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Originally Posted by Heru Anggono View Post
...

It's the same as in my kitchen, I have a sauce pan, pancake pan, sautee pan. Basically they're all very good pan but I need different pan for different job. I hope this pan analogy does make sense to you.
Let pan be pan and use PanF.

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... other use the money for a pair of Einstein Monoblocks and try a different light schemes...
GLF
Mmmh, would like to listen to a pair of those

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In other news, water is wet.
Or it might just be a slow day somewhere .
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Old 02-08-2013   #33
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I think what Roger might be saying is "Pick the right tool for the right job (or outcome)..."
I have many sharp lenses but sometimes that's not what I want for the final outcome...
Knowing a lenses' character is very important in choosing it...
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Old 02-08-2013   #34
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Dear Godfrey,

NERD ALERT! Now read on...

The '40mm' seems to be a 42.5mm according to some sources -- effectively, in pure theory, just about the perfect theoretical length for a full frame 35mm negative (about 1mm short). Except that -- oh, dear -- you'll be shooting 24x24...
LOL ... Yes, you're being nerdy to the max. Most lenses' actual focal lengths are slightly different from the nominal markings.

But what does it matter that this lens on 24x24 is more a "long normal" than the "perfect theoretical focal length" ...? I tend to shoot with a 40mm lens quite often, and I crop to square on 24x36mm format about 60-70% of the time anyway. So a Robot Star II with a 40mm lens is pretty much a 'perfect focal length' on the format for me.

I like square format photos a lot. I *am* really looking forward to shooting a roll with the Robot tomorrow. It's such a cool camera.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Roger Hicks View Post
Theory rarely matters much. I just get pissed off with people who deny that there have been any (theoretical) advances in lens design. Whether you get great pics with your Biotar or not, you'll enjoy using it. But when someone says, "I want a good lens for a __________" and someone recommends a frankly lousy vintge lens, or says "You can still take great pics with a [select old mushy lens here]" I wonder how much they're doing to help the OP with his (rarely if ever her) question.
I don't know that many people answering that question deny that there have been advances in lens design, not seriously anyway. Most are simply speaking from their experience of what they hope will be a pleasing lens for the person asking the question. The great joy of interchangeable lens cameras is the ability to pick and choose from the variety of lenses that are available for whatever characteristics you like. For instance, I happen to like the modern Voigtländer Color Skopar lenses quite a lot ... not because I think they're technically superior to most of the Leica and Zeiss lenses, but because they way they render has the look of some of the Leica lenses I recall fondly from years past. In my experience, some work well on the M9, others work well on the GXR ... and I weight what I suggest for use based on my experience using the bits I recommend.

So I'll recommend a crubby old lens that I find produces a nice result - like my sweet and cheap old 1960 Hektor 135/4.5 - when someone asks that question even though I am quite sure that the latest 135mm lens will outperform it technically by a long mile.

And who's to say that the person getting that information is taking me literally or understands that I'm just recommending what I think they will enjoy? :-)


Leica M9 + Hektor 135mm f/4.5
ISO 1000 @ f/6.7 @ 1/500

I mean, what's not to like?

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Old 02-08-2013   #35
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In other news, water is wet.
This is so brill' ... :-)

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Old 02-08-2013   #36
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Re: Cartier-Bresson vs Capa. Capa used better lenses. C-B was a better photographer.

The more interesting question for me has long been, who's better, Henri Cartier-Bresson or Eugene Smith? they were so radically different within a narrow context of mid century b/w 35mm photo-journalism that the question has long intrigued me. I love both of them. Smith was considerably more insane, a mental condition that helped his work.
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Old 02-08-2013   #37
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I similarly get pissed off with people who think they know everything there is to know about all aspects of photography and who treat other photographers opinions with contempt. I don't see why you should call other forum members "NERDS" just because they don't agree with you on every opinion you put forward. Forum members should be entitled to air their views and opinions,which is what a forum is for, without being belittled because they have opinions you don't agree with.Everybody is entitled to their own opinion without the great "I AM" blowing his top.
I think, if you follow this forum much, it will become apparent which members think quite highly of themselves. Not worth the effort to worry too much about it. Just skip their self-serving posts and get onto the good stuff.
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Old 02-08-2013   #38
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I think this forum should institute a rule that each time a member makes an “authoritative” post, he must submit a good photo that he has taken. Many “gurus” would be considerably quieter.
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Old 02-08-2013   #39
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Quote:
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I think this forum should institute a rule that each time a member makes an “authoritative” post, he must submit a good photo that he has taken. Many “gurus” would be considerably quieter.
I often post examples to back up what I say. Roger has an extremely long history as an expert on photographic technique and equipment, and has published a number of books and thousands of magazine articles illustrated with his photos. I grew up reading his articles, and think its totally awesome that he's here, even when I disagree with what he says, as I occasionally do.
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Old 02-08-2013   #40
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Before going much further, could some kind person provide objective definitions for the terms "good lens", "good photograph", "bad lens", "bad photograph"?

"because I/some critic/this book says so", is not classified as objective in this context...

...what opens the door to discussions about life, the universe and everything.

is it necessary to think of "good" or "bad" in the field of photography? why do so many people have this competitive attitude?
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