Category Archives: Lenses

Growing Collection of early lenses

Here are three recent additions to my optical glass arsenal. First is the perhaps most interesting of them – an R. Beard Daguerrian lens made by T. Slater, London, Ca. 1855. It’s the oldest lens I have, and probably the rarest, most exotic one. The back story is that when Daguerre announced his invention to the world in 1839, he got the French government to buy the license and pay him a lifetime pension. A similar offer was made to the English government but they refused, so Daguerre entered into negotiations with a private citizen in the UK to license the Daguerreotype. The first licensee sat on his rear about it, and in short order, a more enterprising individual, Mr. Beard, bought out his interests. Due to a quirk in English patent law, Beard was entitled to represent himself (as you can see in the inscription on the lens) as the sole patentee of the Daguerreotype (when in reality he held an exclusive license, and the right to sub-license to others). Beard insisted that anyone buying a license to the Daguerreotype process from him had to mark EVERYTHING with “R. Beard, Sole Patentee”, including things like frames and cases for images, and as we can see here on the lens, lenses and cameras too! This one is made by T. Slater, Optician. Mr. Slater was an optician in London, today better known for his telescopes than for his camera optics. This lens is probably a Petzval design, and from what I can tell, it just about illuminates a 5×7 inch plate. Useable coverage is probably quite a bit less than that. 
R. Beard Daguerreotype lens, by T. Slater, Optician, London

This next piece is my Voigtlander Petzval. If you pay any attention to such things, you’ll probably have heard people geeking out about Petzval lenses, especially in wet plate collodion circles. Petzval lenses are named after their inventor, and are famous for providing a relatively fast lens (very important when working with wet plate where the approximate ISO hovers around 1). They’re also coveted today for their notable defect, a pronounced curvature of the plane of focus. This gives the “swirlies” that you see in many wet plate images today.

Voigtlander was an Austrian/German lens manufacturer and an early pioneer in photographic optics. This lens is from approximately 1864, and is an 11 inch f3.4. To give you an idea of the size of this thing, the front element is 80mm in diameter, the barrel is 6.5″ long, 8″ if you include the lens hood. It weighs in around 2kg (4.5 lbs). The funny looking tab sticking out the side is a Waterhouse stop – an early mechanism for aperture control that relied on flat slips of brass with varying diameter holes cut in the center.

Last but certainly not least, is my Taylor, Taylor & Hobson Cooke Series II 10.5″ f4.5 lens. This one is not nearly so old as the other two, dating from approximately 1914-15. This one came to me in rather rough form, but it will live again to make more pictures after the thorough cleaning I gave it.

Lurking in the background behind the Cooke is my Hermagis Eidoscope #3 – it’s an 11 inch f5 lens, and most specifically a soft-focus lens. You control the soft focus effect by changing the aperture. The larger the aperture, the softer the effect, the smaller, the sharper. It’s actually a Rapid Rectilinear design, not a Petzval, which some people think that it is because they think that all brass lenses are Petzvals. The Cooke is neither a Petzval nor a Rapid Rectilinear, but rather an Anastigmat, but it too has a reputation as a soft-focus lens, the soft focus being controlled by the aperture, and also by adjusting the spacing on the front element. On the small Cooke lenses like mine, there is no official soft-focus mechanism, but on the bigger, longer portrait lenses, they had a ring that you could turn to adjust the soft-focus effect. Some enterprising individual took it upon themselves to engrave some marks around the front of the barrel to indicate where to turn the front element for soft focus effect. Once I have this lens mounted, I’ll give their markings a try and see what it does.

Garuda Boy – Now and Then

GarudaMural2018BWFisheye
Black Boy, Garuda, 2018

I’ve walked past this mural for years, and they re-do it every so often. The primary change from visit to visit is the color palette, but over time, major compositional elements change as well. I’m showing the previous version (circa 2013) and now both in black and white just to keep the comparison visually fair.

Black Boy, Garuda, B/W
Black Boy, Garuda, B/W

The bird’s head on the right is a mosaic, originally including mirror fragments, now painted. I think the fisheye treatment in the first image works well because the mural already has a bit of a fisheye perspective to begin with.

Happy Accident – double-exposure

DoubleExposureHappyAccidentFisheyeRZ

Double-exposures, especially accidental ones, can be so much fun! You never know what you’re going to get, and how it will work out. Here I have two very different images layered one atop the other, both with my Mamiya RZ Fisheye lens. Had they been done with different lenses I don’t think this would have worked out so well.

Playing with a Fisheye

I decided to treat myself to a lens toy – I got a Mamiya RZ Fisheye lens for my RZ67. It arrived this weekend and I took it on a walkabout in my neighborhood to put it through its paces. I especially wanted to try and do some shots that did not scream “shot with a fisheye” to see if it could be versatile enough to keep in my camera kit, or was it really a one-trick pony.

SolarLightsFisheye

In this shot, it shows that you CAN use it for street documentary if you want. It’s still a challenge, though, with the distortion it brings to background subjects. And it forces you to get right up on top of your subjects – They were maybe five feet away from me.

SquirtgunFightFisheye

Applied sensibly to architecture, it works. You do have to be extra careful that your horizons are level and square, or you will get wild distortion.

CoHiMetroEscalatorFisheye

This is perhaps my favorite image of the shoot. Leading lines abound and the backlit subject with the sun in the frame create drama.

CyclistRentalFisheye

Selfie with the fisheye – with the sun behind me, it’s impossible to keep yourself out of the photo (or at least your shadow).

SonyasMarketFisheye

Victor – Portraits

Part of the reason for my trip to Mexico City was to see Victor. It’s a developing thing – we haven’t placed a label on it but whatever it is, it’s good. And he’s a willing subject for the camera, which is a nice change of pace from my ex.

VictorAtUNAM1

It was also an opportunity to test out the portrait lens on my Mamiya RZ67 (the camera is new to me, but the lens’ quality is known far and wide – I just needed to see for myself what it would do and if I liked it. I do).

We spent an afternoon wandering around the UNAM (National Autonomous University of Mexico) campus when I shot these.

VictorUNAM2

VictorUNAM3

This last one was taken with the 110mm f2.8 lens. It’s an equally good lens for portraits when you need something that gives a bit more background and/or a closer working distance, like this shot.

VictorZonaRosa

All images made on Kodak Tri-X 400. I really like Tri-X for the tonality it has, and the just-a-little-bit of tooth.

VictorUNAMDerechos

This very last image was made with the 50mm lens as an example of environmental portraiture. The film was Kodak Ektar 100, which I love for the color saturation and sharpness.

Cyborg at the bus stop

Well, not really, of course. But that’s what it looks like with the lady in the leg brace.

BusStopCyborg

I wish I’d had a second film back for the RZ that I could have had loaded with Ektar 100, as her hair was pink. This was a test shot for me with the Mamiya RZ 67 and the 180mm f4.5 wide open. It gives a lovely compressed depth-of-field look, and the bokeh of the lens is very smooth and pleasing.

The Belair and its Russian Lens

For those curious what the heck I’ve been talking about when I mention my Lomo Belair X/6-12, and the Russian glass lens for it, here you go. The Belair is an odd little beast – collapsible folding strut camera, takes 6×6, 6×9 or 6×12 centimeter negatives depending on which insert you use, is manual focus, scale focusing (you guess the distance and set it on the lens, and compose through an un-coupled viewfinder), has only two aperture options – f/8 or f/16, has manual film advance via red window, yet has an automatic shutter over which the only control you have is changing the ISO dial. Bulb exposures are an option.

The camera out of the box comes with some plastic fantastic lenses (a 90mm and a 58mm). The 90 has perceptible but not egregious distortion, reasonable contrast, and acceptable sharpness. The 58 is, well, not so good. The viewfinder for the 58 has less distortion than the lens does! After the Belair had been out for maybe 6 months or a year, they introduced a limited run of Russian-made all-glass optics for it – a 90mm and a 114mm. I got into the Belair game too late to be able to buy the glass lenses from Lomography, as they were sold out. The lenses were also quite expensive from Lomography, the Belair vendor. I believe they were something on the order of $300 apiece.

The Belair with the 114mm lens
The Belair with the 114mm lens

After having used the Belair with the plastic lens for a while, I got the itch to try and find the glass lenses. That’s when I discovered that they had all been sold, and nobody had any old stock sitting around. They didn’t show up with any frequency on Ebay either. I had particularly wanted to find the 90mm, but no dice. Then along came someone selling their 114mm. The price was good, so I jumped on it rather than take a chance on missing out.

Front view, the Belair with the 114mm lens
Front view, the Belair with the 114mm lens

In addition to the primary reason for getting the glass lens – the glass in the lens with its exceptional sharpness and flare resistance – the ability to precisely control focus is another benefit. The plastic lenses have four distances marked on the barrel – infinity, 3 meters, 1.5 meters and 1 meter (infinity, 9 feet, 4.5 feet and 3 feet for the metrically challenged). If you wanted to focus in between, you had to guess at the distance and hope the depth of field would carry the day. The Zenit-made 114mm and 90mm lenses have many intermediate distances marked on the focusing ring, which is silky smooth without being loose. The ability to much more precisely place your focus means that you can intentionally place objects in or out of focus. This is a major artistic control and a very welcome addition.

The Zenit Belairgon 114mm, and its controls
The Zenit Belairgon 114mm, and its controls

I’m including this scan of a negative made by the 114 so you can see the sharpness and particularly the flare resistance – I’ve had more flare on my Rolleiflex with the lens hood attached with the sun NOT in the picture. While Russian camera bodies may have been shall we say quality-control challenged (particularly in the Soviet era), their optics are truly outstanding. This should be proof enough to put doubt to rest that Russian lenses are up to par with their German and Japanese peers.

Hampton House, Towson, Maryland
Hampton House, Towson, Maryland

The image was shot on ten year out of date Ilford FP4+, and developed in Pyrocat HD.

Key Bridge, Evening, in Palladium

Key Bridge
Key Bridge

Another print I made this weekend – Key Bridge, in palladium. This is a 5×12 negative from my Canham. For the technically minded, I used a circa 1949 Kodak Commercial Ektar 12″ lens for the shot. It’s a very sharp lens with pleasant rendering, and a good match for the subject matter. I also want to talk for a second about the printing – this is a pure palladium print, with a touch of NA2 added for contrast. Sodium Platinum (NA2 for short) is a contrast agent you can add to a palladium print to boost the contrast if required. NA2 is very powerful stuff – a tiny bit goes a long way. In this case, I needed just one drop of 2.5% NA2 added to the 12 drops of Palladium and 12 drops of Ferric Oxalate sensitizer. NA2 comes from the manufacturer in a 5% strength solution, so you can see how little was needed to give the print some snap.

If you are using blended platinum and palladium, or trying to do a pure platinum print, and are in need of a contrast boost, you cannot use NA2 as a contrast agent – the platinum in it binds with platinum in your paper and what ends up happening is you reduce your highlights, blowing out detail, without actually increasing contrast. If you are using a blend, or pure platinum, you have several options – you can boost the contrast with a different additive, such as gold chloride, you can pre-coat your paper with fumed silica, or you can use a dichromate infused developer. I prefer adding a contrast agent into the emulsion rather than in the developer, because to do the infused developer route, you’ll need to have six or eight bottles of developers with different concentrations of contrast agent, and then you’ll have to play with chemistry to mix up replenisher for each developer concentration as it gets used. That realistically means keeping twelve to sixteen bottles of developer around. The downside to additives to the emulsion is that most of them will alter the color of the print. Gold Chloride will do anything from slightly cooler gray tones to eggplant/aubergine tones, depending on how much of it you use. Sodium Tungstate will actually reduce contrast in the print, and give you reddish brown tones. You can use dichromate in the emulsion as an alternative to the developer, but you must be careful in handling the undeveloped print as dichromate is toxic.

New Camera: Fuji XT-1

As most of you know, I’m a die-hard film shooter. And I’m not about to stop- I seriously love my Rolleiflexes. But there is a real-world place for a good digital camera in my toolkit. 

I was using a Canon 5D mk.1 for a long time- perhaps ten years now. It still does a very good job of doing what it does, but it is BIG, it is HEAVY, and the image quality and technical features of newer cameras have really outstripped what it can do. 

I’ve been investigating alternate options to replace it. One thought was a Canon 6D, which would give me another full-frame chip with higher resolution, better color rendering and low-light performance, and I could keep all my existing lenses. But that would still have been really outside my budget. Even more so a 5D mk.3. Neither one would have solved my issue with weight, which quickly becomes an obstacle to regular use.

I looked at what I use my camera for- mostly events (as in documentary shooting, not commercial event photography), portraits and travel. I wanted something that would give me improved low-light performance, be much smaller and lighter, and give me the quality of glass I was used to with my Canon L lenses. 
I turned to mirrorless cameras, did some looking around, and after getting feedback from some trusted friends, arrived here: 

 

Fuji X-T1
 
The Fuji X-T1. It has a 16 megapixel APS-C sensor, a line of outstanding lenses in the focal length range I use the most, and as you can see in the photo above, is quite a bit smaller than the 5D. Not to mention quite a bit more affordable. 

Right now I only have the “kit” zoom lens. Calling this a kit lens is a bit like calling the 24-105 L lens with my 5D a kit lens. It’s an 18-55, or the equivalent of a 27-84 in 35mm/full-frame terms. A maximum aperture of f2.8-f4 means for a compact zoom, it’s quite fast. It also has optical image stabilization, a nice plus when shooting hand-held in low light. 

 

stairwell- hand-held @ 1/8th second
 
Things I like about the lens: image quality is excellent. The range of focal lengths covered is very useful. It does a great job with both near and distant subjects. The out-of-focus rendering is pleasant. 

 

dogwood bloom, night-time
 
Things I don’t like: switching from autofocus to manual requires a separate switch to be toggled. That switch is small and on the back of the barrel, close to the body, so toggling it requires taking the camera away from your eye. The aperture control ring is not mechanical with defined click-stops, but is instead electronic, making it hard to tell if you’re turning it the right way, and easy to turn it away from your preferred f-stop. 

 

magnolia blooms
 
This is not a problem with their prime lenses, two of which I will be acquiring soon. 

Also, as you can see, the image quality and color rendition of the image chip in the X-T1 leaves nothing to be desired even at relatively high ISO. The dogwood bloom at night was shot at ISO 6400. It has two extended range ISO settings above that, but I have yet to explore those. 

The camera has a whole host of other options including film emulsion emulation modes (all of these were shot in Astia simulation, which is a little lower in contrast with a slightly less saturated palette for more pleasing portraits). It also has black and white modes, including red filter and yellow filter simulations. 

Some environmental portraits:

 

Julian
  
Tan
  
Missy
 
A black-and-white shot with the red filter mode on:

Richard

DC Pride Parade 2015 – On the Sidelines

Here are some photos from yesterday’s Gay Pride Parade. These were faces in the crowd of people watching the parade.

This first picture is the reason why we need gay pride parades still – I was standing on the curb, waiting for the parade to arrive, and this woman carrying this sweet little girl came up to me and said, “She’s a Pride baby – she needs her picture taken! Take her picture, she’s a Pride baby!”. When I put the camera to my eye to compose the photo, the mother turned her head so her face would not appear in the photo, only the little girl’s.

Pride Baby
Pride Baby

These guys saw me standing with my camera and approached, asking to be photographed. They asked me where the photos were going to be used – “Will these be in the New York Times?” I told them I’m shooting for this blog, and they said “you can use our photos anywhere!”. I hope they find this photo and enjoy it!

Besties
Besties

I don’t know her name or if she is in fact a mother, but I’m calling her Pride Mama for all her ribbons and beads.

Pride Mama
Pride Mama

This is my friend, Sak Pollert, who owns Rice restaurant on 14th Street (where I parked myself to watch the parade, as the restaurant is on the shady side of the street in the afternoon when the parade is passing).

Sak P.
Sak P.

One of the waitresses at Rice – she put a rainbow flag in her hair like a chopstick.

Rainbow Waitress
Rainbow Waitress

I think this guy is one of the busboys/kitchen staff at Rice, out to watch the parade. I loved his Grumpy Cat T-shirt.

I Hate Mondays
I Hate Mondays

I don’t think this guy actually had anything to do with the goat in a trench coat sign behind him (I think it belongs to the guy in the black t-shirt to his left). When he saw me composing the image, he straightened up, made eye contact, and posed.

Boy, Goat Sign
Boy, Goat Sign

This young lady was standing next to me for a while, and I wanted to get a photo of the shirt with that caption.

Right Side of History
Right Side of History

This gentleman was all decked out in rainbow finery (if you call tons of sequins ‘finery’). He was certainly in the spirit of the day! Not visible except by interpolation were his six-inch platform heels.

Rainbow Top Hat
Rainbow Top Hat

I titled this one “Apres Parade” because I caught these two as we were all leaving the parade, heading home after a long, hot, fun day.

Apres Parade
Apres Parade

This was another experiment photographically. I shot the whole parade using my Helios 85mm f1.5 lens. This is the second time I’ve shot the parade with this lens – I did it for the first time the last time I photographed the Pride parade, and the lens was brand new to me then. It’s a bit of an oddity because it’s manual focus and it uses a pre-set aperture – unlike modern all-automatic lenses, this one you have to tell it to stop down the aperture on the lens by turning a separate ring. The lens has a particular signature to its look – when focused and configured properly, it produces a “swirly” background (most visible in the “Apres Parade” image in this post, and several others (Bright Wig, Bike and Miss Gay Virginia) in an upcoming post. The lens is big, heavy, a bit slow to use, especially because of the aperture mechanism, and exposures are sometimes a little off because there is no communication between the lens, camera, and flash. The “swirl” is something I’m still debating if I like. I might need to just shoot more with it to decide.