Five years ago, one of my best friends, Jamie, received an unusual gift, a Pentax Auto 110 SLR (Single Lens Reflex) film camera, and brought it to me to size it up.
To say that this camera is “rare” is a double-edged sword: from my perspective, this camera is rare enough that Jamie’s is the only one I have ever seen. However, with Buy It Now prices on eBay hovering between $40 and $150, it’s obvious that quite a few were manufactured. My guess about this combination is that many cameras were sold and few were actually used to make pictures.
Photographers who remember the 1970s recall that the 110 film cartridge was one of Kodak’s efforts to reinvent film. Supposedly responding to a perception that roll film was difficult to load and manage, Kodak brought out the 110 cartridge in 1972.
Almost all of the cameras made for 110 were slim point-and-shoot cameras with fixed focus and exposure, relying on negative film’s latitude for exposure control. Many of them used flash cubes, which would fill a room with blinding light.
110 film frames are officially half the size of 35mm frames, so with the state of film in the 1970s, it was difficult to get decently detailed images with such a small film area, which is why 110 remained an amateur format.
The Pentax was an effort to cash in on the ubiquity of the 110 format, but came along just as the format was dying. The Pentax was nicely made and nicely accessorized. I got this list of lenses for the Auto 110 from Camera-wiki.org…
Pentax Auto 110 lenses
Pentax-110 18mm F2.8 Wide-angle lens, 6 elements in 6 groups, filter Ø30.5mm
Pentax-110 24mm F2.8 Standard lens of 6 elements in 5 groups, filter Ø25.5mm
Pentax-110 50mm F2.8 Telephoto lens of 5 elements in 5 groups, filter Ø37.5mm
Pentax-110 70mm F2.8 Telephoto lens of 6 elements in5 groups, filter Ø49mm
Pentax-110 20mm—40 mm F2.8 Zoom lens of 8 separate elements, filter Ø49mm
The camera is so miniature that it feels like a toy in my longish hands. The viewfinder is large and clear, with a split-image focus aid in the center. The lens mounts in the same direction as most SLRs (lefty loosey righty tighty), and focuses in the same direction as my Nikon lenses. Focus is smooth, but the focus throw is a little long. Exposure is set entirely by the camera (Program mode), with ISO being set by the film cassette. That’s a shame, since the driving force of a great camera is allowing the photographer to run the show. The Auto 110 has no manual exposure mode, and doesn’t even have exposure compensation.
I know we owe a lot to Pentax, particularly for the K1000 and its role in teaching a generation of broke college students how to run an all-manual film camera, but the Auto 110, despite its innovation, came at the wrong time in history and with the wrong feature set. Still, it’s neat for Jamie to have it in her collection.
For many years of the later film era, Japanese camera maker Olympus specialized in building very compact 35mm film cameras. Hardware like the original OM-1, for example, was thought to be the smallest you could practically manufacture an SLR camera.
Also from this company were the point-and-shoot class of cameras, which, without the need of a pentaprism for the viewfinder, could be made smaller still. One such camera I coveted was the excellent Olympus XA.
I had one for years, and in spite of my fanciful imaginations about the kinds of pictures I would make with it, I actually shot very few images with the XA.
The XA uses a two-window rangefinder focus system, creating the faint yellow image in the center of the finder: double-image is out of focus, and making the images come together is in focus.
Exposure is controlled using aperture priority, meaning you pick the aperture, and the camera selects the shutter speed based on how much light it sensed and the film’s ISO rating.
In hand, the XA is not particularly easy to use. The focus lever, just below the lens, is tiny and hard to reach with the camera to the eye. The aperture selector is out of sight unless you point the camera toward you. The ISO dial requires a fingernail to operate.
The clamshell design is a good form factor. When it is closed, the camera is smooth and well-protected from pocket stuff like keys.
All this is put together to achieve true pocketability . The XA is so small, in fact, it had a wrist lanyard instead of a strap. It’s likely the XA is the smallest you can make a camera that will hold a roll of 35mm film.
I like to imagine that if I had a digital conversion kit, I would use this camera, but the truth is that I have an Olympus point and shoot that I almost never use. So the XA remains an amusing but unutilized item in my collection.
Photography is a much more complex visual puzzle than its pervasiveness implies. Sure, everyone is a photographer, but not everyone is an artist. I might give the ratio of artists to everyone else as about 99:1. For every 100 people taking pictures, 99 of them are making pictures of their grandkids or the sunset or the deer in the pasture or the soccer match, while one of them has a real eye for the subtleties of imaging: composition, exposure, lighting, emotion, intimacy, storytelling, etc.
This isn’t a criticism of you and your pictures. The devil is in the details, and most people who want to take pictures are at the start of the journey toward art. If anything, this is a call to action. Look at images. Look at art. Look at the work of the masters. We all started in the same place. Maybe it’s time to put your camera down for a minute and look at the light, look at the human faces, feel the emotion of the moment. Time to grow?
One of the more specious ideas about art, and thus photography, is that you can use tricks and rules to push your photography into an artistic state. One of the most common examples of this is the Rule of Thirds.
The conventional wisdom about the Rule of Thirds is that images are stronger if you divide your image area nine even squares, then try to place significant compositional elements within those squares. To me, the Rule of Thirds isn’t just bad advice, it is a restriction on creativity and self-expression that tells us to make images according to someone else’s vision of who we are. It isn’t a good route to the end goal of photography: storytelling.
Consider a technique that I regard as far more valid than the Rule of Thirds: leading lines.
I use leading lines all the time, since I need to tell a story to an impatient readership, and want to keep them “engaged,” as we say in marketing. I love the way we employ wide angle lenses for this, creating compositions that direct the viewer to the middle of the frame.
None of this matters if you cling to the idea that a piece of equipment will do this for you.
Instead of debating 18mm vs 35mm or large format vs APS-C, consider getting into better shape, being healthier, and once you are there, consider giving up your fear and prejudice and make a point to go the places you want to photograph.
I have been adding more photographers to my social media list lately, hopefully to inspire my work, but also in an effort to distance myself from the young white girl latte scene. One of those photographers posted a link on Petapixel about long-time photojournalist David Burnett’s recent switch from Digital Single Lens Reflex (DLSR) to mirrorless.
First of all, despite its apparent surge in popularity, when most people hear this news, they ask, “What’s mirrorless?” In simplest terms, mirrorless cameras are interchangeable lens digital cameras that use their sensors as viewfinders, reading data instantly and showing it to us on the back of the camera or in an electronic viewfinder, eliminating the need for a mirror to redirect light into an optical viewfinder. No mirror = mirrorless.
Name that Product!
I find this choice of name to describe an entire class of photographic tool to be flawed: it’s named after what is isn’t. It’s like saying my car is dieseless, which it is, but that doesn’t describe anything about the car. I can rattle off a couple of better names (for example Direct-to-Sensor (DTS), but my impression is the name, like it or not, is here to stay.
In some important ways, these cameras are a fusion of the DLSR with the bridge/crossover/point-and-shot cameras we’ve had for years, which use the electronic viewfinder, but with a fixed lens. Smartphones use the same viewfinding scheme.
The reason we have so many DSLRs instead of mirrorless is that electronic viewfinder technology has, until the last few years, lacked instantaneous feedback. There was a lag between the scene and the viewfinder; even a small lag can result in a completely missed photo. With a consumer point-and-shoot, lag wasn’t an issue because those kinds of cameras weren’t tasked with shooting action of any kind, so a little lag matched the photography.
Electronic viewfinder technology has caught up, and these viewfinders are virtually instantaneous.
A lot of web authors assert that mirrorless is taking over, but so far, I don’t see it in the field or in the classroom. Of the dozens or hundreds of photographers I know, only a few like Tina Davis and Doug Hoke seem to be shooting mirrorless every day. I had good talks with both of them about their mirrorless experience and both seem to love everything about them.
A surprise bonus of mirrorless is that because the distance from the lens to the sensor is much shorter, it allows many more lenses to be used with an adaptor. Beautiful optical glass that went idle at the end of the film era can have new life breathed into it on these cameras.
When I first wrote about mirrorless in 2011, those cameras of that era typically had micro 4/3 sensors, which were roughly half the size of a 35mm film frame, and in that infancy had some growing pains. Today, however, we are seeing surprisingly fast, capable mirrorless cameras with 36x24mm sensors, or in the case of Fuji and Hasselblad, 44x33mm sensors. Coupled with better viewfinder technology and faster hardware in the cameras, I am ready to retract at least some of what I said seven years ago about mirrorless, and proclaim that its era is, or is about to be, at hand.
Fellow photographer Robert and I were musing on the phone yesterday about the demise of “digital film,” a product that tried to gain traction in the late 1990s when the future of photography was still hazy. The idea of digital film was to manufacture a cassette that could be inserted into existing film camera so they could make digital photos.
For my birthday one year, my wife Abby bought nearly a dozen antique cameras and hid them around the house for me to find like Easter eggs.
It turned out that one company, Silicon Film, got as far as a prototype before camera makers managed to get the price of purpose-built digital cameras into the affordable range.
Why would anyone have gone this route instead of just buying a Nikon D1? Well, we all had tons of great 35mm film equipment sitting around, for which we paid a lot, and which was still working fine. What if, instead of shelving all those Nikon F100s and F5s and Canon ESO-1s, and shelling out $5000 for a D1 or 1D, we could insert a cassette with a digital sensor in place of a film cassette?
It turned out the idea was mostly vaporware, and while most people believe this was due to technical hurdles, I believe it was at least as much the fault of marketing and profitability obstacles: why sell accessories at small margins when we could be selling new cameras at huge markups?
Today we see more attempts at the concept like PSEUDO, I’m Back and Frankencamera (though RE-35 was a branding experiment and April Fool’s joke) and I wish them luck.
A Call to Action?
One concern that remains difficult to solve even after all this time is how to trigger the sensor so it knows when to record. My idea, which I haven’t seen iterated on the web, is a tiny infrared beam striking the shutter blade that switches on the sensor when the shutter begins to move.
Finally, with excellent, affordable digital cameras in abundance all around us, why would even be of interest in 2018? Answer: for the same reason lomography has it’s niche, to allow us to expand artistically. There are millions of idle film cameras sitting on shelves from our own home here in Oklahoma to the towering apartments of Hong Kong that could be put to use in some worthwhile endeavor.
As an artist, I find this idea very compelling. As Robert and I talked, one question he asked was, “So are we talking about shooting with old glass?” Yes, I think so. Old lenses, though often not as sharp (since they were designed and built by hand in a bygone era) can create images with a unique and engaging character. Oklahoman photographer Doug Hoke does this all the time when he shoots 40-year-old lenses on his mirrorless cameras. Filters in smartphone applications like Instagram mimic the look of film and old lenses.
I love this idea, and not just for 35mm. My wife and I have more than a dozen old cameras sitting around of various formats, including a beautiful, working 100-year-old Kodak No. 2A Folding Cartridge Premo 116 format conventional film camera making a 4.5 x 2.5 inch image, and a couple of Polaroids that make 4 x 5 inch images. If there were a way to make digital pictures with any or all of these machines, I would happily do so, and in doing, hopefully open up another artistic avenue for my work.
For Christmas when I was 13, I wanted a camera. My parents, with the caution of those who don’t know where their children’s lives will go, bought me an affordable Yashica Electro 35 GSN rangefinder camera. With it in my hands I started to learn and yearn about photography. It featured a fixed 45mm f/1.7 lens that was well-made and very sharp. Of course, I wanted one thing this excellent camera couldn’t give me: interchangeable lenses.
So, with some cash sent to me from my grandmother for my 15th birthday, I dug into the seedy underside of the back pages of Modern Photography Magazine to Cambridge Camera Exchange, a discount camera seller run in a rathole in New York City. In July 1978, I owned my first single lens reflex camera, a Fujica ST605N. I paid $127.
In 1981, I sold the Fujica to a janitor named Junior, and switched to Nikon.
Flash forward to 2018, and enter the nostalgia of Ebay, where a savvy shopper can get almost anything for almost nothing. I poked around and found a really nice ST605N, and paid for it with my PayPal balance.
In the package was the original green box with the original multi-lingual instruction manual, the camera, the lens, a lens cap, a rubber eye cup, the original leatherette carrying/storage case, and the original black shoulder strap with one of those funny leatherette film canister holders.
When it arrived yesterday and my wife Abby and I unboxed it, she said, “It looks like it’s never been used.”
When review sites and trade magazines talk about “entry level,” this is the camera at the bottom of that rung.
Some of its specifications include…
A horizontally traveling cloth focal plane shutter with speeds of a very peculiar 1/700 of a second to 1/2 second, plus bulb.
Stop-down match-needle metering, meaning that to take a meter reading, you push the stop-down lever, darkening the viewfinder to the selected aperture while you adjusted aperture and shutter speed to make the needle on the right side of the viewfinder move up and down until it was centered.
A selectable ASA (the precursor to ISO, at least in America) with settings from 25 to 3200.
A hot shoe that would fire an electronic flash, and a PC port that would do the same.
The viewfinder includes a green shutter speed pointer and scale on the left side, the match-needle +/- on the right side, and combination split image rangefinder surrounded by a microprism collar, surrounded by a lighter ground glass area, surrounded by the regular ground glass. Focus is smooth and bright in the viewfinder.
The standard lens for this camera is the Fujinon 55mm f/2.2. It has a plastic barrel, clicks at full aperture values, and stops down to f/16. It focuses smoothly, like the day I bought the new one in 1978. It focuses and stops down in the same direction as my Nikon lenses.
Whatever It Takes...
Here’s a fun trick from the film era: if your camera didn’t have a multiple exposure lever, you could push and hold the rewind release on the bottom of the camera and crank the advance lever, which would cock the shutter without (hopefully) moving the film.
One of the best things about this camera, that I didn’t fully appreciate at the time I owned it, is how small it is compared to its contemporaries. Nikons, Canons and Minoltas of the era were much larger. This camera is almost as small as the legendarily small Olympus OM series.
In my review of the Fujifilm S200EXR, I said that an unused camera is a fetish object. I didn’t buy the ST605N to take pictures with it, but for the memories, so I guess it is a fetish object. On the other hand, I made quite a few pictures with it when I owned it the first time, some of which I have included in this entry.
Despite buying a cheap 28mm and getting a 75-200mm one Christmas, I kept coming back to the 55mm. The class of lens has been in my idiom ever since.
The Fujica ST605N was a beginner’s camera for when I was a beginner, and I learned a lot of important lessons about my craft from this small marvel of film technology from a very different era.
In 2009, I was hungry to get my hands on a bridge/crossover camera that would change my game when I was hiking, camping and exploring, mostly in the desert southwest. It was intended to replace my aging Minolta DiMage 7i. I knew from experience that portraiture and sports action photography weren’t in my list of top features sets, nor was the weight and complexity that comes with such endeavors.
In October 2009, I bought a Fujifilm S200EXR digital camera.
I wanted a one-camera solution for times where I wanted to get away, far enough that I felt lost and alone. Part of this strategy was that I needed to carry less; less gear, less weight, less photography equipment. A single compact camera with a versatile lens could do that, since trying to carry many lenses and the accessories can clutter such a strategy. For every lens or flash or pouch or tripod I could leave behind meant more water and food and shelter I could actually carry, thus travel farther and photograph more.
I started photography in the film era, when a decent film camera, a Nikon or Canon or Hasselblad, could be expected to last almost indefinitely. In fact, all my film cameras were working fine from when I bought them in college or early in my career until I sold them in the early 2000s as I migrated to digital. It’s frustrating that we regard a perfectly working digital camera as “outdated” after four years in the case of the S200EXR, or seven years for the DiMage 7i. Ken Rockwell dubbed this concept “futuretrash“.
As with all Fujifilm USA products, the S200EXR is built to excellent, precise standards, and is a great-looking camera.
In fact, in recent years, Fuji has positioned itself as an innovator and leader, particularly in mirrorless. Last year they introduced the GFX 50S, a medium format mirrorless camera that I would absolutely love to use.
Some of the S200EXR’s positives are…
Great handling, especially that it has a standard PASM exposure mode dial, a real zoom ring (as opposed to motorized or “zoom-by-wire”), and an electronic viewfinder augmenting the back-of-camera monitor.
Controls like exposure compensation, ISO, and white balance are on buttons on the body instead of buried in menus. Although you have to re-memorize where they are when switching from Nikon or Canon, once you do, your can get right to them.
The Fuji Velvia slide film simulation mode creates absolutely gorgeous color.
Solid grip and body; this camera feels good in my hands. It’s a good-looking camera.
The lens is sharp at most focal lengths and focuses reasonably fast.
Some of this cameras negative aspects are…
30.5mm (equivalent) is the widest lens setting, and although there are workarounds, like stitching two images together, it’s often just not wide enough.
The RAW files are huge (26MB) and missing markers, so they require a lot of editing to create what you see in the camera. The S200EXR is one of the few cameras with which I shoot JPEGs.
Despite its best intentions in giving us a selectable dynamic range option, the camera actually doesn’t do very well in that regard.
The lens has a six-bladed aperture, and makes ugly, fanned-out sunstars.
I semi-retired the S200EXR in January 2013, when my wife Abby and I found matching Fujifilm HS30EXR cameras on sale. The new bridge camera did almost everything better than the 200, especially being lighter, smaller, and having a more versatile lens.
For web presentation, I often prefer the 4:5 aspect ratio of cameras like this Fuji over the 2:3 ratio of DSLRs. They seem to command a better portion of the computer screen.
I still pick up the S200EXR once in a while, but last year I discovered the left button on the four-way selector was dead, meaning I could no longer access the setup menu or macro mode. Fortunately, I had saved two user presents in C1 and C2 on the exposure mode dial, so it wasn’t completely dead. I decided to throw it in my car as a “grab cam,” and it serves me well on occasions when I want to roll down my window and shoot something by the side of the road, like deer, sunsets, or funny bumper stickers.
Finally, a camera is just a fetish object if you don’t use it, so I am happy to include many of my favorite images made with this camera.
Despite the fact that is regarded as outdated and that one of the controls on it is broken, it’s still a camera I was glad to have experienced.
By now we all know the Kodak narrative: an innovative company has incredible success in the film era, then gets bloated with old management ideas and an arrogant “people will always need film” paradigm, then goes belly-up when they can’t compete. It’s a good lesson in the idea that no entity is immune to the fortunes of economics.
I thought about this when I recently came across a web post about a camera system that crossed my path some years ago, the Kodak DCS. The article delves all the way back into the 1990s with the intro of the first-generation of digital cameras, the NC-2000 based on the Nikon N90, and talks about how much photographers hated them compared to film. Fortunately, I didn’t come to the digital party until 2001, when these primitive beasts had been retired.
Readers might recall that on occasions I get out my ancient Nikon/Kodak DCS-720x and play with it. On at least one of these occasions I speculated my DCS 720x might be a candidate for infrared explorations, and though I was able to create a few interesting experimental images, I seldom dig it out of the box to do that, and later had better luck with a Sony F828.
Readers will also recall that my Kodak DCS 760 died years ago, and in August 2016, I took it apart, which was very fun and revealed a lot about how they were made. It’s worth reading if you have a minute (link.)
I originally got the 720x in 2003 when Kodak discontinued it and dumped the remaining supply of them on Ebay, for a tenth the original list price. In 2006 I saw a 760 on Ebay for just a couple of hundred dollars and thought it would be worth at least experiencing.
Even Kodak’s slick literature can’t make up its mind what these cameras are called. The one I have remaining, for example, is variously called the Nikon/Kodak DCS720x, Nikon/Kodak DCS-720x, the Kodak DCS720x, the Kodak DCS-720x, and the Kodak DCS 720x.
Kodak’s vision of digital photography by 2001 was to produce two very different cameras in the same Nikon F5 body: a slow, low-ISO, low-frame-rate, higher resolution (6MP) 760, and a faster, very-high-ISO, low resolution (2MP) 720x. The Canon versions of these cameras were the 560 and the 520.
One fundamental issue with Kodak digital cameras, particularly with their digital SLRs, is reliability. Although my 720x is still operable, both 760s I’ve knows, mine and Robert’s, died years ago with zero possibility of repair because of Kodak’s vacancy. Ken Rockwell also notes this in his review of the Kodak DCS 14n.
Despite this, it’s still fun to dig out the behemothic DCS 720x, charge its clunky battery, and squeeze off a few frames.
Of note on the bad side for both the 760 and the 720x:
The buttons on the back are fundamental to the operation of the camera, yet are small and hard to push; I sometimes hurt my thumbnail using them.
Due to a long-expired capacitor or button battery, the camera can never remember the date, and interrupts every startup with a message that says, “Date/Time is incorrect,” which requires a reply of “OK.” It thereafter thinks it is March 2023.
In the 2017 world of huge viewfinders and three-inch back-of-camera monitors, the tightly cropped viewfinder of the Kodaks and their dim, two-inch monitor are hard to abide.
The front-to-back depth of the camera is huge, and though I have long fingers, I can barely reach all the controls. Coupled with its weight, this contributed to some tendonitis in my right elbow when I was using this camera a lot.
Battery life with the huge, heavy nickel metal hydride batteries was terrible. I always had to carry an extra battery.
The camera is covered in awkward, large ports for AC power, Firewire, and a 15-pin shutter release.
The media cards are PCM/CIA-based; I never owned such a device, and have adaptors that allow me to use Compact Flash cards.
The 600 and 700 series cameras had two card slots, but once when I was using both cards, it got into some kind of feedback loop, and each card had a folder inside called FOLDER01, each of which had a folder in it called FOLDER01, and each of those had a folder in it called FOLDER01, presumably forever until I turned off the camera or removed the cards. I never found the images, and had to reshoot the event.
Although you can program it to convert its RAW files into JPEGs, the JPEGs are uselessly noisy and flat.
These RAW files are best edited with Kodak DCS Photo Desk, which was never supported by Mac OS X, meaning any computers in the last 15 years (I can’t speak for Windows). They will open in Adobe Camera RAW, but look pretty shabby.
Instead of the now-standard RGB Bayer pattern array, this high-ISO DCS cameras (the 620x and the 720x) had CMY arrays in an effort to increase sensor sensitivity by using less-absobative dyes, meaning that even the best editing favored some colors and ruined others. The 720x, for example, makes gorgeous purples, but not once was I able to get an orange tone to look right.
The infrared filter is mounted in front of the mirror so it can be easily removed or replaced with an anti-aliasing filter (which was not cheap), so the camera was prone to some unexpected reflections between the sensor and the filter that weren’t visible in the viewfinder, usually pink.
On the other hand, I made some great images with these cameras, so here are the good things about them…
High-ISO images from the 720x were always very clean, thank to the Photo Desk software. I often shot sports at ISO 4000 or 5000 when the occasion called for it. The camera’s contemporaries like the Nikon D1H didn’t do as well in the ISO stratosphere.
Since there was no anti-aliasing filter in either of these cameras, pixel-for-pixel sharpness was unchallenged by anything else in the era.
Focus was super-fast and on-the-money thanks to these cameras being based on the excellent Nikon F5 film camera. I thought building on the best film body of the era was a smart move, but Kodak’s next, and last, digital SLR, the SLRn/Pro 14n, was based on the cheap, consumer F80.
The overbuilt quality of these cameras made them feel very rugged.
Despite their shortcomings, I was able to make memorable, high-quality images for my newspaper that still look great today, using both the 760 and the 720x.
One characteristic of a really great camera is to do its job in the background and get out of the photographer’s way so we can do our jobs, and some aspects of the Kodak’s failed to do that.
I will continue to pull out the old Kodak once in a while and play around with it. But I will probably never do photojournalism with it again.
My friend Jamie and I recently reminisced about my first trip to Utah 15 years ago this month, so I took a look at the trip report, which I rewrote and expanded a few years ago. One thing I noted was how great my travel camera at the time, the Minolta DiMage 7i, did, particularly with its beautiful color rendition and spectacular 14-point sunstars.
Add to that the arrival of the holidays, and it’s a perfect time to revisit sunstars, an excellent tool in our photographic toolbox.
I talked about sunstars a time or two before. They are created by lenses as rays extending outward from bright points of light, and help us express a feeling of brightness and brilliance in a scene. Most lenses produce some kind of sunstars, but some lenses produce better ones than others.
The formula for sunstars is pretty basic: if your lens has even-numbered aperture blades, it will produce that number of sunstar rays (six-bladed apertures make six-pointed sunstars.) If you lens has an odd number of aperture blades, your lens should produce twice that number of sunstar rays (seven-bladed apertures make 14-point sunstars.)
That’s the formula, anyway. In practice, it doesn’t always work our quite that way, and in testing today, I had a couple of surprises.
I grabbed some of my lenses I thought would be good sunstar producers and took them out to our Shumard oak tree. With clear skies and brilliant autumn sunshine, I know I would coax most of them into nice-looking sunstars. Most of these lenses are older AF Nikkor lenses with straight seven-blades apertures.
It wasn’t so much a controlled test or a lens shootout, as much as it was me getting a better feel for which lenses I currently own can produce sunstars and to what degree.
All these test images were shot at f/16, a very small aperture, since larger apertures don’t really produce sunstars.
The lack of real aperture blades is also why smartphones produce sunblobs instead of sunstars.
It was fun to run in and out of the house with a different lens each time. Hopefully I have conveyed the power of the this effect, one of my favorites.
I recently had a “web only” photo opportunity, since we published early in advance of the Veteran’s Day weekend. I decided that since I didn’t need print quality from my images, it would be a chance to take the camera in my iPhone 7 Plus, which my newspaper provides, to it’s limits to find out how well it’s camera performs in low light.
The event I chose was a nighttime, outdoor pep rally in downtown Ada, which was illuminated by street lights and traffic signals. The internet seemed confident that the iPhone would do the job, and recommended an app called NightCamera, which I downloaded and used.
The verdict? I wasn’t as impressed as the internet was, and although I was able to make some passable images that did the job, the overall image quality was disappointing. The f/1.8 lens combined with a maximum ISO 1600 to produce shutter speed in the 1/30th to 1/8th range. The images are surprisingly noisy, far moreso than a digital SLR set at much higher ISOs. The shadow detail dropped off harshly, leaving faces too dark even with in-camera brightening.
The main reason I’m telling you this is to set the web straight: despite all the fawning over the iPhone 7 and similar camera phones, DSLRs and large-aperture lenses remain well in the lead for low-light and almost-no-light situations.
I recently used a combination of online coupons and rewards points to “buy” a lens for no dollars, an Opteka 500mm f/6.3DG catadioptric, or “mirror,” lens. If you know anything about my cameras and lenses, you know that I have several lenses in this focal length range, all of which are better mechanically and optically better than this odd piece of hardware.
Catadioptric lenses use the same optical setup of concentric mirrors as very large space telescopes (like the Hubble) to fold the light path, making them much smaller than their refracting counterparts.
Why did I want one?
I wanted to be able to teach first-hand about this class of lenses and how they work.
I missed the first 500mm mirror lens I owned (a Nikon).
I wanted to play around with it.
Play around with it? Is that a real thing? Yes; to me there is no better learning tool than experimentation with the new and the unknown.
I wanted to photograph it.
I wanted to challenge myself to make good images with substandard hardware.
So what is this lens like?
Mechanically, focus is super-stiff, but it may loosen up as I use it.
Optically, I have been surprised that it actually has a sharp zone, though it is shallow and elusive.
Though advertised as “f/6.3”, even the best mirror lenses are only that fast in the center of the image, and vignetting (falloff) is very noticeable, such that I estimate it is about f/11’s brightness at the corners.
It is more compact and better-looking than my Nikkor was, though its engraving, metals and rubber grip ring all seem cheap.
It uses a t-mount to connect to the camera (so you can change camera brands by getting a different t-mount), which screws into the lens, and can unscrew during focusing if it’s not tight on the lens.
It came with the world’s cheapest teleconverter, a 2x, presumably so it could be advertised as both a 500mm and a 1000mm, but it’s impossible to use with the teleconverter due to a dark viewfinder image, an amplification of any camera movement, and the fact that even the best teleconverter is a quality thief.
Mirror lens are noted for their unusual, doughnut-shaped bokeh, which this lens certainly exhibits. Most photographers regard this as “bad bokeh,” but I’ll be treating like a tool in the toolbox.
I’ve already gotten a couple of images shot with it in the daily, so in the strictest sense, it is a pro lens, though I imagine this a case of my ability to extract something decent from fairly weak raw files. Time will tell, I guess, if this nonvestment was worth it, but so far, I’ve had fun with it.
Finally, a couple of posts ago, I talked about my lovely little AF-S Nikkor 35mm f/1.8 and why a young photographer friend of mine, Mackenzee Crosby, should buy it instead of the far more expensive Sigma 35mm f1.4, especially since the Sigma was made for a larger imaging sensors than she owned.
She ended up buying the Sigma, which she received as she was walking out the door to attend Monday’s Open Mic Nyte. She and I were able to play with it a bit, and I photographed it. It is heavy and focused smoothly, but I couldn’t tell much else.
I expect she was temped by the elusive maximum aperture, f/1.4, which is tempting. It’s hard for me to flaw her for wanting great hardware – when I was her age, I paid a small fortune for a Nikkor 50mm f/1.2 that turned out to be optically disappointing. I hope the Sigma works out for her. My only advice about it would be: wear it out.
I teach the aperture formula to my students because it’s worth knowing why we use inverse, seemingly counterintuitive, numbers to express aperture values: big numbers = small apertures, and small numbers = large apertures. We get this by the formula: focal length divided by lens diameter (at the front opening) equals aperture value. Example: a 50mm lens with a 36mm diameter … 50 ÷ 36 ≈ 1.4. The 50 mm lens in this example has an f/1.4 maximum aperture.
I thought of this recently at Open Mic Nyte, where I have become a regular, and where I like to bring a different lens every time as my “featured lens.” Last Monday, I lugged along my heavy, beautifully-made Nikkor 200mm f/2.0 ED-IF, a lens which dates back to the late 1970s, and which I acquired in the late 1990s.
If you do the aperture math like in the first paragraph, you find that to get to f2, a 200mm lens needs a 100mm (almost four inches) diameter front element.
To say that this lens is rare is an understatement, since I not only do I seldom use mine, I have never seen another one in the field.
Made of steel and brass, with 11 very large optical glass elements, it weighs 5.3 pounds, and is even heavier than it looks in-hand. It is as smooth to operate as any device I have ever held. Its optics, however, lag behind today’s modern computer-drafted lenses, so it can be a bit quirky to shoot well.
As I researched this post, I discovered several vloggers who asserted that lenses like this, and it’s insanely expensive modern autofocus version, are “hubris” lenses, created by the company and purchased by the customer in the milieu of “the best money can buy,” and not very useful.
One vlogger went as far as to say this lens is for “bokeh sluts.”
Shooting at f/2.0 with this lens makes a very difficult challenge to get the focus where you want it. Since depth of field is a matter of millimeters, moving the focus ring a tiny amount can result of a uselessly out-of-focus image. Of course, you could stop down to f/2.8 or f/4.0, but that defeats the entire idea of carrying and shooting a 200mm f/2. In fact, I have no idea how this lens performs stopped down because I never shoot it stopped down.
I always feel good when I make a point to get this lens out and use it. It certainly creates a unique look with its razor-thin depth of field and deep, deep selective focus. But I think for me, it is a combination of having something no one else can wield and my love of how finely crafted old Nikkor lenses were before the autofocus era.
For much of my career in the film era, one of my favorite lenses was the Nikkor 35mm f/2. The focal length was great in the 35mm film era, and remains great in the digital era for several sensor sizes. Like its brother the 50mm, the 35mm prime (fixed focal length) can be manufactured inexpensively, can be made with a large maximum aperture, and remains small, lightweight, and inconspicuous.
A talented young friend of mine, Mackenzee Crosby, asked me recently about the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 Art lens. She shoots with a camera sporting a 24mm x 15mm sensor, so the Sigma isn’t really the right choice.
Ken Rockwell has a review of the Sigma, and spells it out pretty clearly about it: “Do not use this lens on Nikon DX cameras simply because the Nikon 35mm f/1.8 DX is as good optically, better mechanically and compatibility wise, and is smaller, lighter and less expensive.”
Not the lens for me...
I read that the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 requires recalibration every few months using a USB dock and Sigma software, which to me is a bright red flag. When I spend $600, $800, $1200 for a lens, I expect it to serve me long, well, and reliably, not requiring a “patch” every few months to keep it running.
I recommended a lens to her that I have learned to love over the years, the AF-S Nikkor 35mm f/1.8 DX. Not only is this lens three or four times less expensive than the Sigma, it is lighter, smaller, and can render backgrounds – the real kernel of this class of lenses – just as beautifully as the Sigma.
As far as rendering backgrounds far out of focus, called selective focus, is concerned, the most powerful tool in the toolbox is the telephoto, not the wider-ish f/1.4s and f/1.8s. I recently talked about my 85mm, but the big guns, longer telephotos like the 70-200mm f/2.8, the 300mm f/2.8, and longer are the real kings.
Also for what it’s worth, I am incredulous that some photographers I know own very expensive large-aperture lenses that they use stopped down two or three stops. The only difference between a 135mm f/1.8 art lens shot at f/4.5 and a 70-300mm kit lens shot at f/4.5 is $1500.
Also, Richard, (you might be asking), why are my friends getting such amazing images with the Sigma 35mm? It’s simply that by shooting on a larger sensor, the 35mm focal length gives a wider field of view, requiring the photographer to get closer in order to fill the frame. Closer + large aperture = shallow depth of field.
If you don’t have a large-maximum-aperture prime (single-focal-length, non-zoom) lens in your bag now, in the fall, before the Christmas season, it’s time to get one. Not only are the customary low-light seasons approaching, it is also time to photograph high school seniors, a growing, popular subset of photography. I had the opportunity to photograph a high school senior this weekend, my great niece (in-law) Teddy, who I have been photographing since she was five.
I can recommend many large-aperture lenses because I have them and use them – the AF-S Nikkor 35mm f/1.8, the AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.4 and the f/1.8, and the AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.8 – but every camera manufacturer makes great large-aperture lenses.
My 85mm has been my go-to lens for recent commercial work, low light venues like Open Mic Nyte, and for the session recently with Teddy. In addition to being in the classic frame-filling-at-comfortable-distances category, it also can deliver absolutely game-changing selective focus, smoothly and delicately washing backgrounds and foregrounds into smooth, complimentary picture elements.
Even Larger Apertures...
Fellow news photographer and Oklahoman photo chief Doug Hoke and I had lunch when I was in the Metro recently to cover playoffs. Among many other topics, we talked about a lens he’s been enjoying, a Mitakon Zhongyi Speedmaster 35mm f/0.95. He’s able to use this exotic glass thanks to the fact that his mirrorless cameras have the sensor right behind the lens mount, allowing him to use pretty much any lens in existence, albeit with limitations.
Sometimes my students ask me, “What lens should I get for…?” and the answer is often a non-zoom, or prime. That can be a hard sell sometimes, since zoom lenses are perceived as both more versatile and more fun. But I am here to say that I am often happiest and getting the best stuff when I have a prime in my hands.
Nothing is without a tradeoff, though. In addition to being more expensive than the kit lens that came with your camera, a large-aperture prime is more demanding on your skills and patience. For example, when you shoot a 50mm f/1.4 at f/1.4, the depth of field is only a few millimeters, so if your focus is off by a couple of inches, not only is it out of focus, it’s way out of focus.
Also, some of these lenses exhibit aberrations, optical flaws, like distortion, chromatic aberration, field curvature, and, especially in the case of my 50mm f/1.4 and my 85mm f/1.8, spherochromatism, in which objects in the near out-of-focus areas take on magenta fringing, and object beyond the focus take on green fringing.
We accept these aberrations and even learn to live with them, although shooting at a smaller aperture makes them go away (except for distortion), because we didn’t spend $1900 on f/1.2 to shoot at f/4. We could do that with our $300 lenses.
Finally is the notion that, “If you don’t have a script, you don’t have a movie,” and my session with Teddy had a strong narrative, both from our planning what to do when and where, but also from the fact that my wife and I have been photographing her since she was five.