Making pictures with an old lens

Passenger jet

A passenger jet flies over Seattle on its approach to Seatac Airport on Oct. 25, 2016. Lens: Zeiss 85mm, Daylight color balance, ISO:1600, Shuttler Speed: 1/1000th of a second, F/11.

I recently found an old-school lens. It doesn’t have any automated features. The only thing the lens did well at first was fit on my old Nikon camera body. I tested it a few days ago, mostly making a lot of badly exposed, out-of-focus images. I put it down believing I’d move on.

However, that lens stayed in the back of my mind; calling me back to fundamentals, back to working deliberately with basic tools. So, I put the lens back on my old Nikon and began testing it (and myself). The reason I’m spending so much time with this lens is because it has a few things going for it that many modern, economical lenses don’t. It’s difficult to get it precisely focused, but when it’s in focus it’s sharper than any lens I’ve ever used. The next thing I’m excited about is how it interprets color. It’s truly amazing when it’s used correctly. Third, it’s very fast; f/1.4. You can use it in low light situations.

Sometimes I find photography to be a bit overwhelming when I’m trying to be aware of and be in control of all the technical variables while also being aware of and predicting events I’m shooting. A lot of things have to happen correctly for a picture to be made be at the right place at the right time. That’s why cameras like my Canon 5D Mark III are so popular. I can put that camera in automatic mode and simply respond to things I see. The camera/lens is lighting fast. I don’t really have to think about the technical stuff. It’s totally changed the way I work in many situations. I’d never want to give up modern cameras and lenses. They are simply great to work with when you have to produce publishable pictures every day. However, I must admit sometimes feels a little empty. It’s a lot about learning how to point automation in the right direction and trusting it to do the right things.

Part of me aches for how we used to have to work. I enjoyed and took advantage of an understanding of how light and chemistry worked on film. I miss that we used to have to predict where pictures where going to come together because I simply couldn’t react fast enough when everything was manual. Photographic successes where fewer in those days, but they were much sweeter. I have a desire to slow down and be more deliberate with my personal photography, and that is turning me toward this old manual lens. Manual photography can be very unforgiving. It amplifies mistakes. It requires you to predict. It makes you wait. But I choose to view all this as a positive. It’s allows the luxury of slowing down and really looking and being deliberate.

I walk to and from work every day. I’ll be using my commute to experiment with this lens. I’ll photograph things I usually walk right by. Subjects will vary. It might be a simple leaf, a shiny new building or a Boeing jet flying through a cloudy Seattle sky. Hopefully I’ll get home each day to the simple beauty of making pictures instead of taking them.


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5 Responses to Making pictures with an old lens

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