Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The world through a new lens

I don’t get out much these days. Landscape photography, with its solitude and long explorations of craggy peaks and wild back-country, is on hold. There are more important cares at hand.

But there is no antidote to the compulsion to photograph. So my interests have turned, instead, to things closer to home. The roses and sunflowers in the garden have gotten a workout. And I’ve started going back to my photo-journalistic roots, shooting events—gatherings, and fund-raisers, mostly. Consider them a human landscape.

Back in March, I ordered a new lens for portraits—Nikon’s new flagship 85mm f1.4G.

This lens had a reputation for exceptional bokeh—the capacity to blend or obscure background into a soft blur, while keeping the subject in sharp focus—especially when shot wide open. The earthquake in Japan closed and then slowed production at Nikon’s Sendai plant where this lens is made, and so it wasn’t until last Friday that this new vision of the world arrived.

Cameras and lenses are funny things. They shut out the distracting world around you, and truly allow you to focus on the subject at hand. And your view -- that part of the world that you engage with as a photographer -- is determined by your choice of lens. This is really an analogue for how we interact with the world without a camera. We can view life thru a wide-angle lens, of a whole society or an entire event. Add a sort of polarizing filter that cuts down on diffracted, disorganized light, eliminates the fuzz of multiple and conflicting beliefs, leaving one, organized direction of light to clarify our worldview. Or we can put on the portrait lens, open it wide to eliminate the background of other people, and focus on just one person or idea. And there’s always the option to stop down, change to a smaller aperture, and see the single person subject in the context of their background and society. (But don’t make that aperture too small, because beyond f11, if you try to clarify and sharpen that background too much, make everything in sharp focus, understand the entire world in one shot, the whole image will get fuzzy due to diffraction….and just too much to think about.)

I’m happy to report that the Nikon 85mm f1.4G lens worked like a charm at Saturday's gathering/photo-shoot. This is a fully professional piece of glass—it is solid, serious, and weighty, well-balanced on a D3x, and cradles naturally as into an extension of the left hand. This is important if you are going to spend several hours roaming an acre or two of lawn and party, stalking young children, quiet couples, and older adults. It is not as heavy, or seemingly as fragile, as my old favorite for portraiture, Canon’s 85mm f1.2. It is more inviting to hold than its predecessor, the older Nikon 85 1.4D. The only flaw in the Nikon’s design seems that the tiny switch that turns off the autofocus function is easy to trigger inadvertently, which caused a momentary panic when a perfect shot presented itself. But manual focus is quick and easy. Got the shot anyway. The autofocus on the lens seems slow in comparison with smaller aperture landscape lenses like the 16-35mm f4, or 24-70 f2.8. But the 85mm is moving much more glass, and it is quick enough and completely silent.

Importantly, it seems to know what needs to be sharp. Never once did it autofocus on a nose. It went straight for the eye. Bokeh? At 1.4 to 2.8, superb. Backgrounds melted into creamy, buttery, non-diostracting softness. Beyond that, not much different than other lenses. Sharpness? In the center, extreme. Edge-to-edge? That remains for an actual landscape, or perhaps the famous brick wall shot.

Someday I’ll try landscape portraiture with this lens and its creamy bokeh--a focus on a single stone, or a pattern, at a deliciously wide aperture, to the exclusion of everything else. This is contrary to the instinct of geologic photography, which generally tries to tell landscape stories by keeping everything in focus. But from time to time, it’s well to heed the lesson of a new lens—to open your mind and eyes wide, select just one thing, blur out the rest of the world, and revel in the person and moment at hand.

Images: All with Nikon 85mm 1.4G on D3x.

Girl: f2.0 @ 1/2000 ISO 250

Megan, Border Collie: 1.4 @ 1/1250, ISO 100

Children & puppy: 4.0 @ 1/750 ISO 250

Woman: 2.8 @1/500 ISO 160

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