When I launched this blog a bit over a year ago it was with the idea, in part at least, of rekindling my love of writing which had waned a bit over the years as a result of my nearly always having to write to other people’s specifications and expectations. Along the way though I rediscovered my old and long buried love of photography, something I had put away and nearly forgotten about years ago for reasons that now aren’t clear to me at all.
It has been like an awakening. I have really enjoyed getting back behind the lens, creating images, using light, getting back in touch with my artistic side and meeting (or trying to meet) the challenges of being both subject and photographer as I record aspects of my daily rides. As I began to find my old skills, visual imagination and ability to see, I have felt myself constantly wanting to expand, improve, do more and better.
I have been investing. A few months ago I picked up a Canon G1X – a rather pricy pro-quality compact with which I have been using and enjoying greatly, revelling in its improved high ISO capabilities, bigger sensor, near DSLR quality images yet still in a convenient, nearly pocket-sized package. Satisfied though I was with my G1X (review to come eventually) the momentum continued to gather.
This week I made the big splash and acquired a full-frame DSLR, a big capable Canon 5D Mark III – in part to generate some (hopefully) nicer images for my blog (and how frustrating it is to be laid up right now!) but also to let me pursue some new and interesting professional leads that have opened up as a result of my re-launched photographic career.
I love the new camera. I still have a couple of excellent L-series lenses left over from before, but to cover a focal length gap in my collection I also bought a Zeiss 35mm f2 prime – a lovely piece of glass. It is manual focus, of course; all Zeiss lenses are. I don’t mind the seemingly retrograde step. I am old enough to have learned on manual focus lenses (as I learned to ride bicycles with toe-clips). Furthermore in tinkering around in my living room – my battered shoulder doesn’t allow for my doing much more – I have been pleasantly surprised at how well the auto focus assist works with manual focus lenses, beeping softly and a green dot lighting up to tell me when focus has been nailed.
One of the things that intrigued me most about buying this beautiful manual focus lens, and indeed in buying the new camera body as well – one whose technical capabilities far, far exceeds that of my old DSLR – has been reading the reviews of other buyers, and long threads on photography forums where aficionados debate the relative merits of various types of lenses and bodies. In reading all these critiques, test reports, reviews and comparative analyses I found myself thinking that somewhere along the line, while I have been away, art has been subsumed by technology.
In shopping for a lens I found myself reading – surprisingly often – that manual focus is simply impractical, or even impossible, if one is going to be serious about photography in anything other than a tripod-in-the-studio set-up; certainly that for of action, sport or street photography manual focus is out of the question. It makes me wonder how pictures ever got taken in the old days.
And on the optics and sensor front I found myself reading – and this despairingly often – about the urgent, desperate necessity for Canon or Nikon (fill in the blank) to address their woeful shortcomings on noise, dynamic range, resolution and the sharpness of their lenses in the corner of the frame. Pixel peeping is the term for this particular form of nit-picking and if one was to take seriously some of the jeremiads I’ve seen in photography forums, you would be left with the impression that even my spiffy new Canon 5DIII, or the unaffordable 14 frame-per-second 1DX (a sports or wildlife shooter’s camera) or Nikon’s near medium-format-quality D800 were little more advanced than the cameras Matthew Brady was using during the U.S. Civil War.
There seems to be this insatiable demand out there for more and better, and as quickly as possible, together with swift scorn for yesterday’s breakthrough. Twenty-two megapixels, pin-sharp, at ISO6400? That’s so five minutes ago. Forget the matter of how they used to take pictures in the bad old days of manual focus, one is left with wondering why they even bothered. And, my God, what sized prints do these reviewers and forum posters imagine they are going to be making with their ultra-high resolution 70 megapixel cameras with 24-stops of dynamic range they dream about and expect to have in ten years time?
The one positive thing about all this was that it prompted me to take a couple of hours off the other day and do a reality check: look over some of the work of some of the great photographers of the 20th century – Henri Cartier-Bresson, Dorothea Lange, Robert Capa, Frank Hurley etc. – and also to look over the old pictures in a book I contributed to for National Geographic some years ago about the history of photography in the magazine (The Photographs: Then and Now).
My goodness. All those people muddling through with their manual focus lenses (and in Henri Cartier-Bresson’s case pretty much the same old boring 50mm focal length) and their grainy old film. Funnily enough, despite the passage of years and yes, often the graininess of their prints, none of their photos have lost their power to fascinate and involve.
Don’t get me wrong. I love the technology that we have today. I am not longing for the days of film. When was the last time you shot nice sharp usable stuff at ISO6400 on film?) It is just that when you are shopping around for lenses and bodies it becomes so easy to be swept away by technology and clinical test results that you lose perspective and forget it is the person behind the camera, and the composition that makes the biggest difference of all.