A Photographic Journey

Beginner’s Articles

Think inside the frame

Having been making photos continuously for the better part of a decade or more, if you had to ask me what one single photographic skill that I ‘ve learnt that is most important in making a photo? I would say ” to think inside the frame.”  What I mean has two parts:  the first is the easy part and that is to be able to envisage the photo in your mind’s eye before you press the trigger.  To be able to put up an imaginary frame in the vista in front of you and pick the correct lens for the job, or more often is the case that I already have armed myself with a fixed focal lens, say a 35mm lens and I literally scan the scene for possible 35mm images.  Most of the time I also have a second camera on me with a telephoto so I have even more options available readily.  I am not a big fan of zoom lenses, but a zoom lens would certainly further increase your composition options, but will decrease your creative play with depth of field.

I said that this is the easy first part, because strangely enough to learn this skill didn’t require me to learn actively, it was a fairly rapid passive process.  It started with my first first fixed 35mm fixed focal lens (it could’ve easily being a 50mm lens), it was a rather weak and inexpensive Kodak point and shoot, I loved the camera so much that I stucked with it for many months.  And during this time my mind became accustomed to seeing in 35mm field of view and was able to accurately predict the results.  I would recommend anyone that asks, to try it themselves, I think it is the first step to good composition and training for the mind.

That was the first step, the second step is much harder and require lots of reading, practicing, research and examining other people’s photos.  In other words it requires thinking!  This is the thinking part of “think inside the frame.” Once you have acquire the innate ability to form the frame in your mind, it then becomes important for your mind to assess if that is a good photo opportunity or not.  To know you must know the basics of composition, how to break these rules, which lens, filter, flash or some other tool is required for the job, what are the effects you can use in post-processing to enchance the scene, have you seen examples of such or such photo in the past, will a shift in camera position improve the scene and what are the contrasts in the scene, is the scene beyond your camera’s dynamic and tonal range, what depth of field & shutter speed do you need?  All these factors must go through your mind continuously as you search the scene inside the frame in your mind’s eye.

There is no quick way to acquire this second skill quickly but it is made a little easier after learning the first skill (at least you have minimized a variable).  How I learnt was from reading from different sources a lot, learning the workflow for processing photos and critically examine other people’s photos objectively and not just to say this is nice, learn to read the photos you see and be able to understand why a photo looks good or bad.  It will only come with lots of hard work.

This process of learning reminds me of reading x-rays.  I am a veterinarian during my non-photography and non-sleeping moments and in the beginning of my veterinary career, with much less experience under my belt as I do now, when I took x-rays, I often zoom into the problem at hand, will it be a fracture or a cancer, and this can lead to missing the bigger picture.  After over a decade of practice, when I pick up a x-ray, I see the bigger picture, is the film exposed well, if not what will be limitations on contrast of the radiograph, was there any problems with the processing fluids, is the animal straight, did the settings for the exposure adequate, is there other factors that will effect the contrast of the x-ray, was the required part of the animal in the frame, aside from the obvious main problem at hand is there anything else wrong, I’ll make a mental note of even normal anatomy.  Do you see the parallels with photography?


Film formats, my take!

I mean to talk about the dimension differences when it comes to compositional framing and printing, on a most basic level film comes in either square or rectangular formats, rectangular formats are divided into many different proportions.  On another basic level is the physical size of the film and in the modern era, the size of the sensor.  Everyone has a preference and I am no different, my favorite is the square format, in the past there have been smaller square formats like those taken with the Robot cameras but nowadays, square format is ubiquitously considered to be the 6×6 format, this is a medium format size and with good lenses and fine grain film will result in a very high quality and enlargeable print.  This is my film format of choice because I think it has the most flexible framing and cropping opportunities.  When framing your photos with 6×6 you don’t have to stick to the tried and true compositional rules of thirds, you can still apply this rule but you’ll find that many of your photos can be centered.  In rectangular formats having the subject dead center is often a taboo because it leads to a static photo, that tends to be uncomfortable for viewing with the elements in the wider edge wasted.  But if you apply this to a square format, its different, even though it still lends itself to be more static having the subject in the center, there is now a symmetry with the natural square frame the keeps the photo comfortable for viewing.  This means that you have more compositional flexibility overall.  With square format you can crop the edges for portrait or landscape arrangements as necessary and still retain a large enough negative for printing, with minimal loss in quality.  It is also logical that with square format a single photo can take advantage of the whole image circle projected by the lens and this just seems right to me.  The only bad thing I can think of, is the lack of square format option for digital cameras, there are some lower resolution medium format digital backs that are square but these are expensive and nowadays a little out dated.

Having started with my favorite format, I will move on to your other options, but first I’ll like to talk about size of the film and in the case of a digital sensor, both the size and pixel density.  The size of the film you should use is mostly dependent of your end output of the image you capture, the larger the print the larger the film the better.  There are other factors like larger film/sensors allow for more cropping options, but it is obviously best to do the framing properly in the first place so you don’t have to crop.  Other factors include, the size, cost, weight of the cameras that produce the respective size images, larger formats will be less flexible and slow to use and quiet bulky and usually very slow to setup, so even if you want the best quality photo possible you may still be limited by these other factors depend on your subject matter.  For ultimate quality there is still nothing better than large format with film sizes 4×5 and up, these large setups will result in the best quality photos you can make, medium format is a compromise but will result in better portability and then there is the 135 format where its relatively cheap and in this age of better and better sensors you can get medium format like quality from a relatively light professional DSLR.  135 format is also the most flexible to use and carry around but the quality of 135 equipment is wide ranging from plastic lenses to professional lenses, it can be a minefield of poor quality lenses and cameras out there.  Size isn’t always better with 135 format there are compact point and shoots that make amazing photos especially on film.  Going back to my initial point, there is no point carry a large format camera or a professional 22MP DSLR if you never print the photos out large, for most people in this age of social apps, the most common output is online on the computer monitor and in this situation you don’t need anything better than 6 megapixels, with most cameras nowadays at 10 megapixels, even the rich amateurs amongst us should think twice about upgrading.

The most common format is 35mm and we are all used to using it, but do note that with cameras with cropped sensors there is flexibility within this format and cameras like the micro four third system are  more square compared to regular full frame 35mm with a 4×3 proportion (so using these cameras will result in slightly different compositions that can be refreshing).  But we should be talking about proportions as I have already talked about size, so lets convert 135mm film to its more simple proportions and that is 24x36mm or 6×9, this is a relatively wide format and is particularly flexible and hence it has become the standard format.  This is also the reason why 35mm (slightly wide standard lenses) lends itself to this format.  6×9 allows for landscapes to portraits and hence arise these common labels for shoot 135 film vertically and horizontally.  For most people, it is the only format choice.  In medium format half frame, 645 and 6×9 are very similar in style.  6×9 & 6×8 formats are also very close to the dimensions to the printed page with its obvious advantages of no wastage in published texts.

Then there is the panoramic formats like 6×10, 5×10, 6×12 or Hasselblad/Fujifilm X-pan format or even the dopey APS panorama format, these are specialized formats and very inflexible.  they lend themselves to horizontal landscapes, but this is only true because our visions are naturally horizontally wide.  These can be used vertically for surprising shots that need the viewer to explore by moving his or her head up and down.  Some say that if these formats are overused these formats can be a little boring, highlight the strength of the 6×9 format.  I suspect that it isn’t the fault of these formats but the fault of the photographer not using these longer formats creatively.  Most photographers shoot very stereo typical panorama shots of the horizon, no wonder this format appears more boring than it really is.  But there is always a little magic and surprising to see panoramas and it is an important trump card in an photographer’s arsenal, used creatively it reflects our natural vision the most.  135 digital photos can easily be adapted to take panoramas as well making this format even more flexible if not more clumsy to using compared with a panoramic camera.  In a pinch Tilt-shift 35mm lenses can be made to take short panoramas as well.

There are even more extreme formats with some Lomo cameras, their lenses’s quality leave a lot to be desired but some of the format options are intriguing.  So next time you consider upgrading your camera, think about getting a camera in another format, it will broaden your photography horizons!


More mega-pixels isn’t everything!

Date: 1/11/2009 10:21 Camera: Epson R-D1s + Leica 90/4 Macro-Elmar Exposure: 1/190sec at F/5.6 handheld Focal length: 90mm

Following up on my post of Mount Shishma Pangma, the tallest mountain solely in China, this photo taken with a 90mm lens was taken near the other photo in my previous post, but this photo was taken with a lowly six mega-pixel camera that shares the same sensor as the venerable Nikon D100, which is almost a decade old! I have blown this photo up to A3 and it looks even better in print. The details evident in this photo is simply phenomenal and it is a testament to the engineering of this old sensor and this ultra-sharp lens. It would’ve been impossible to take a photo like this in most places around the world, the mountain was actually very distant to where I was standing and usually haze would have given me an aerial perspective which leads to drab colors and low contrast, but the crystal clean air at 26,286ft in the Himalayas made it all possible.

Lesson learnt here is don’t just chase after more and more pixels, for most amateur folks its totally unnecessary and a waste of money. When you buy your next camera, ask yourself two questions: What is the most common output of the photos taken with the camera? If like most people nowadays, you share your photos solely online on a computer monitor, there is no need for a camera to have more than six mega-pixels. Its laughable since many mobiles have greater than six mega-pixel cameras! If you print small 3R type prints you can get a contact print from a six mega-pixel camera and you can get good enlargements up to A4 or even A3! Second question is does the new camera change the way you take photographs? Does it have a unique function that your other cameras don’t have, that will expand your creativity? Answer these questions and you may think twice about laying down your hard earn cash next time!


Should I take the fast or slow lens?

When you already have a selection of fast and slow lenses or just considering either buying a more expensive fast or a relatively more economical slower lens of a given focal length, what factors do you have to consider?  Its more complicated than you think, but I will walk you through all the factors involved in your decision, both as to which lens to buy and which lens to take out and use.

First and foremost is the cost factor, fast lenses are invariably more expensive than their slower lens counterparts.  For example a Canon EF 24/2.8 is more than 4x cheaper than the corresponding Canon EF 24/1.4 L lens.  So if you can’t afford it, well no amount of reading is going to help you, you had better buy more lottery tickets or go and work harder.  I do have some practical advice though, for wide-angle lenses wider than 24mm it is generally not worth the expense of the faster lens, for one thing you are not going to benefit much from the better out of focus bokeh of a larger aperture, let it put it to you even more succinctly, “what are you going to do?  put the camera 12 inches in front of someone’s face so you can get better bokeh?”  The depth of field of wide-angle lenses are much deeper and I find myself stopping down my Canon EF 24/1.4 II lens to get as much depth of field as possible, as well as sharpness.  Lenses are usually sharper stopped down 2-3 stops and if you want as much resolution as possible you’ll have to step hard on the brakes of your fast lens anyway.  As usual, the slower lens will generally have better performance at smaller apertures, faster lenses have bigger and more complicated lens elements and lens element arrangement and it is more difficult to control things like distortion, vignetting, chromatic aberration and uniform sharpness across the field; a prime example is the infamous Zeiss ZM 21/4.5 lens for Leica M-mount, stopped down to f/8 or f/11 and it is probably the best performing 21mm lens for 135 format cameras ever made, it is compact, light and cost 10x less than the Leica 21/1.4 asph lens.  This Leica lens’ performance improves all the way to f/8 or f/11 but at these smaller apertures the Zeiss 21/4.5 will still out perform it.  Sure the Leica is three and a half stop faster, but how often are you going to handhold a wide-angle photo in low light situations or put the lens up a foot in front of someone’s face to take advantage of a better bokeh?  Certainly not with a wide-angle lens, unless you want an unflattering clown size nose on your subject!  So unless you really need a fast wide-angle lens for a specific purpose, I’ll say you can probably save quite a lot of money, by buying slower F/4 or greater wide-angle lenses and using a tripod in low light situations.

The existence of these fast wide angles are a relatively recent invention and it is arguably to accommodate the existence of crop sensor bodies.  So take pricey Leica 24/1.4 asph example, on the 1.3x crop body of the Leica M8 it works out to be 31.5mm, so you’ll have a handy 31.5/1.4 lens for the short-lived Leica M8.  You’ll be better serve to buy a full frame Leica M9 and the Leica 35/1.4 asph lens.  Not only does this lens have better performance, it is more compact as well.

I have already elucidated other factors in picking a fast or slow lens in the above paragraph.  Faster lenses tend to be bulkier & heavier than their slower brethren.  Slower lenses tend to perform better (or in rare cases the same) as their faster brethren at slower apertures.  The faster lens does have a trump card up its sleeves and that is you can throw subjects in the foreground or background further out of focus with the result of a more abstract and creamy blur.  This ability to isolate your subject is crucial in many sorts of photos and increases your creative options.

So to answer the question which lens, the fast or the slow one, that I take out to use today:  it depends on what sort of photos I intend to take.  For examples:  If it’s a bright sunny day out side I may select my slower but lighter to carry and better performing lens.  If  its dark and I am using film and limited with my ISO, I would bring my trusty fast lens and live with the burden.  Here is a more complicated example:  If it’s a bright sunny day and I absolute must have an abstract bokeh for a certain shot to isolate the subject, I would bring my fast lens and bring a ND filter to decrease the light reaching my sensor/film to maintain a reasonable shutter speed.  If I am not so fit, and I am going on a hike, I may choose to bring my Canon EF 24-105/4 instead of my heavier Canon 24-70/2.8 lens.

You get my drift?  I pick the right tool for the job.  It’s not arbitrary, it’s an intelligent decision based on what I intend to photograph.

To answer the question of which lens to buy, fast or slow, it depends on your budget, buy both if you can afford to.  Now that you understand that there is a niche for both lens types in different sorts of photographic conditions, you can be justified owning both.  In the last example of choosing between a Canon 24-105/4 lens or the faster and better Canon 24-70/2.8 lens, I would pick the latter lens if I can afford either and can only pick only one.  The logic here is with the latter lens you’ll have the option of stopping down the lens if you need to, the performance whilst stopped down may not be as good as the slower lens, but it would be a better compromise then losing the creativity of owning a faster lens (There are other considerations in picking between these two lenses but that is for another article, for another day.)  If you can’t afford the fast lens, needless to say, you have no choice anyhow.


Try to be different with your photos

Date: 19/3/2010 18:25 Camera: Canon 5DMk2 + Sigma 150/2.8 Macro Exposure: 1/80sec at f/2.8 on tripod Focal length: 150mm

There is an annual flower show here in Hong Kong every year during spring time, I am sure its nothing compared to those in Holland but its all we’ve and its very popular with photographers, both professional and amateur.  Tens of thousands of people with cameras in toll flock to the event every year.  I myself have been to five shows over the years and it can get pretty monotonous after a while.  The pavilions on displayed is offered by various floral organizations, embassies and government departments and as you can imagine, apart from a few exceptions, the displays tend to be similar from year to year.  It was particularly hot this year and even though I was there on day-one, many of the flowers have seen much better days after being baked under the noon sun.  In the past two years, I have made an extra effort to take photos no one would’ve thought of to take at the flower show, which is difficult when you consider how many budding photographers go through the turnstiles.  I have learnt that by challenging yourself with difficult themes, limiting your photographic potential to uniqueness, is an excellent way to sharpening your photographic eye.  The above photo is another example of looking for a natural frame, the foliage around the pond with a curious and lonesome goldfish was just perfect and not a single flower in sight!  The hour was getting late and as with many of my photos, it was taken on a tripod.  It may be a bother to carry around, I find a tripod slows me down a little and makes me think about composition, framing, lighting and contrasts of the subject more, which tend to lead to less photos but better photos.


Street photography my way.

Date: 22/10/2009 10:52 Camera: Leica M9 + Leica Summicron 35/2 (ver.4) Exposure: 1/710sec at f/8 handheld Focal Length: 35mm

Living in Hong Kong street photography is a way of life for most photographers, we have an abundance of streets if nothing else.  The the local forums here in Hong Kong are packed to the rim with budding street photographers, many are exceptionally good.  Everyone has their own theories and its the sort of thing that certainly doesn’t have any rules, I have found that spontaneity and rapid focusing the key to capturing good photos.  Discretion, speed and stealth are all very important factors here in Hong Kong as much of the population here are very photophobic, but these skills learnt here in Hong Kong is even more effective applied anywhere else.  The photo above is a piece of street life in Lhasa, Tibet.  It was unfortunate how defensive the people there were to having their photos taken, but not surprising given how many cameras were hanging around the many tourists’ necks.  I have tried many different types of camera gear in my street wanderings and many things work, but there is nothing quicker in the world of photography than a rangefinder with a wide-angle lens used with zone focusing at a smallish aperture like f/8 or f/11.  With a digital rangefinder, like the Leica M9, M8 or Epson R-D1, I can even keep the shutter speeds up with a little touch of high ISO.  With practice you can get subjects in frame without putting the camera up to the eye.  The reasonably high pixel count allows you to crop a little to make a better composition.  That is how the above photo was taken (but without cropping).  In the past when I used mainly a digital SLR, my favorite combo for street photography was very similar, a wide-angle lens set on hyperfocal distance, zone focusing is rather difficult on DSLR lenses, their DOF scale is usually too short to be accurate enough to use.  The other way that worked nicely is a little naughty, I would set a camera gear across a busy street or scene, sometimes even on a tripod with a gimbal tripod head to allow me swing the camera around quickly.  Mounted on the camera is a long lens, usually 400mm and longer.  After a patient wait of 15 minutes or so you become part of the landscape and people no longer notice you, its like magic, they think you are a surveyor on some official business.  No one in the their right mind would be using heavy gear like that just to take photos of me, most people will think.  I have taken many wonderful shots this way.  It’s a little cheeky but it gets those birding lenses out, the sun is good for fungal prevention.


My tips for buying used lenses

Looking at my lens cabinets, I’ll say that about 70% of the lenses were brought used.  Like anyone sane, I much rather buy things new as it minimizes the risk associated to getting used gear, especially when it comes to lenses.  Lenses are complicated and delicate pieces of glass with mechanical parts, that have to be stored correctly, it doesn’t take much to damage a lens, so my first tip is to buy new when you can afford to.  The are a couple of valid reasons to buying used lenses; there is often a substantial discount in used gear and in many cases the lens has been discontinued, often for decades, so you’ll have no option but to buy lenses used.  Apart from risking buying damaged goods, you are also opening yourself to fraud if you buy online.  I always prefer the local option where you can check the lens out physically when possible, but there have been many occasions when the lens I am looking for is simply too rare to be found locally and I have to look abroad.  It is essential to buy only from reputable sellers overseas, in fact I usually try to restrict myself to buying things from well recognized business only and try to avoid eBay as much as possible.  Come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve ever brought any lenses directly from eBay, lenses aren’t that hard to find from safer sources.

Always check the market for the going price of lenses before buying, don’t just go by how much the lens cost when it was new.  Don’t just check your local forum, always check prices from as many sources as you can before setting a base price that you are willing to pay.  Local forums or even eBay, especially active forums can easily be manipulated by clever sellers to make items seem more expensive than they are really worth and sometimes hype up items for a little while to make them more attractive than they really are.  Asked someone with experience for their more objective advice.

So I have organized a deal locally and have agreed on a basic price and I am meeting the seller face to face.  What do I look out for in a used lens?  First thing is to do the examination somewhere with good lighting, hard to see dings and scratches in the dark.  I start with checking if there is anything missing, in the perfect world, there should still be the box, all the original packaging, instructions, warranty card, original receipt.  I have known savvy lens owners actually sell the original advertising leaflets with the lens, this prudent move could pay off in the long run.  Obviously, none of these things are necessary to the user, but will help maintain the value of the lens in the long run.  Five years down the line and you want to sell the lens, having all these little details will make a lot of difference between an easy and quick sale at premium prices or having to wait for months for the right buyer.

Apart from the packaging the front and rear lens cap should be present and also the hood.  If you need to replace these with originals they can be hard to find or expensive to buy.  Hoods tend to wear out quicker than the lens and its condition can be telling on how rough the lens have been used.  Hoods from discontinue lenses are also difficult to replace so make sure there is a hood.

Now that everything has been accounted for, I look a the lens itself.  Start with the glass, dust off the surfaces with the blower that you brought with you and use a pen torch and look inside, first thing to look for is lens fungus, if there are any fungus on any of the elements, it should result in a massive decrease (I’ll say 75%-85% drop) in the price or just walk away.  This is probably the biggest death nail in a lens’ coffin as its just going to get worst.  If the lens was advertised with fungus and can be brought for next to nothing, then it could be okay, just two things to bear in mind:  If the infection is severe and much of the lens elements is cloudy and etched, these lenses will be useless anyway so don’t buy, but if there is just a little on an edge and it doesn’t look etched into the glass, that maybe acceptable with a discount.  The fungus can be cleaned by a technician but it often leaves a scar and the fungus will likely grow back sometime, but you may have a few years before that happens.  The other thing to bear in mind, is fungus sporulates and I will keep known lenses with fungus in a separate box away from your lenses.

Dust isn’t a problem usually, there is always going to be dust in lenses, even weather sealed ones, so no need to be too anal here.  Only if there is severe dust problems with dust clumping inside would I be concerned.  But it can usually still be cleaned easily by a technician for a moderate cost.

Large scratches or chips on the front and rear elements should be obvious and may decrease the contrast of the picture in the area affected, so the price of the lens should reflect that.  I think a 30%-50% discount to the price is appropriate to reflect the severity of the damage.  Small minute scratches, even numerous is rarely problem unless its very severe.

Shine a light on the surface of the lens at different angle to study the state of the lens coating, mild abrasions shouldn’t cause any problems but deep and large ulcers should be avoided as re-coating the lens is a very expensive procedure and will change the nature of the lens image.  There are some people that intentionally buy (often antique) lenses with severe coating wear and scratches at discount prices and get them re-coated with modern coatings.  This is one way to buy a bargain.

Another show stopper glass problem is lens separation, there are glass elements in side the lenses that should be stuck together with optical cement and if these are separating, I would walk away.  How to see it is easy:  put the lens up to an even light source, look through the lens barrel, it should be all clear, but if there is lens separation, it usually starts from the edge and move into the center and the area where there is separation will appear less transparent or grayish as it will have a different refractive index and angles.  I wouldn’t buy a lens showing separation.

Next I check the aperture blades for obvious damage.  Apertures can have a couple of problems, oil on the aperture blade is a common occurrence, it may not affect the lens’ performance immediately but it is inevitable that the oil will cause the aperture blades to stick to each other leading to a sticky aperture blade that don’t close properly.  On manual rangefinder lenses, this is easy to check as its all mechanical but on autofocus lenses it isn’t as obvious and to stop down the aperture blades you will need to bring a camera to check.  With autofocus lenses I will press the DOF preview button and look through both the front element and the viewfinder to check for uneven lighting throughout the field, if there is a problem the lens should be discounted by %15-20.  This problem is fixable but it can get expensive.  If there is oil on the shutter, make time and get it clean before it gets worst.

I then rattle the lens gently to see if there is anything loose, if it is rattling it will mean that it needs a look at by an expert and extra cost.  But if everthing else seems fine that it is rarely a show stopper and should be fixable.  I would take %10 off the price.

The next thing I check is how smooth is the focusing, with manual lenses, rotate the focus knob and feel for stiffness, stiffness is sometime cause by dirt getting into the gear and often just needs a quick clean and lubrication that is a cheap fix.  Looseness or unevenness can usually be adjusted by a technician at extra cost.  With autofocus lenses there is a lot more that can go wrong, I usually switch the lens to manual and put it through its whole zoom range, as with manual lenses stiffness is usually easy fix but looseness is more involved so I would ask for a discount if its loose.  If the zoom action is damage you may feel some resistance while manually operating the zoom and the zoom action may get stuck at either end of the zoom range, this is usually an expensive repair job.  Turn it back on to autofocus and focus at various distances including close and infinity to make sure it drives well and can focus at all the distances.

The last thing I do is check the body barrel condition, look at the filter ring first, it is usually the first thing that hits the ground or get scratched, if it is damage, see if you can still screw a filter onto it.  I then check the rest of the barrel for signs of wear which should be reflected in the price.  I usually check the screws on the body and base to see if they are worn, I will be very suspicious of a lens if it has worn screws which means that the lens have been opened up.  If whatever problem it had was fixed, why is he selling it to you?  For auto-focus lenses remember to check the pins that are used to communicate with the camera body, make sure they are not damaged and not rusty.

In the case of autofocus lenses, if the various buttons are functioning and is not too loose.  If a crucial button is very loose it may mean an expensive repair, so talk down the price to cover the cost.


Don’t forget the Lens Hood!

It is infuriating to see people on the street not use a lens hood or even worst, bring it out and put it on backwards.  The lens hood is an essential part of a lens, it shades the front element from stray light that don’t result in any details on the sensor or film.  This useless light just bounces around the inside of the lens and some make it onto the sensor to expose it.  Causing flare.  The whole picture looks lighter in color/shade and loses contrast.  This lost in contrast is no good as because you lose information as the stray light overrides light that is carrying information.

Any strong light will cause this flare and it doesn’t have to be the sun, even incandescent lighting can cause problems.

Most lenses come with the corresponding lens hood and in cases where it doesn’t, it should be factored in to the cost of the lens, as it is essential part of the lens’ design.  Most Canon, Nikon, Sony, Pentax, Olympus, Panasonic or Leica lenses come with an appropriate hood, but there are some Zeiss-M mount lenses and Voigtlander M-mount lenses that comes with an inadequate hood or none at all.

Many medium format and all large format lenses don’t come with a hood and it can be a very expensive optional extra.  When using my large format lenses, I use a special dark cloth (it’s the option Ebony dark cloth) that extends over the lens and acts as a universal hood.

Shading the front element is very important and it becomes much more difficult if you are using 100mm filters from Lee, Cokin or Singh Ray.  The enlarged and uncoated surface area of these square or rectangular filters are very prone to flare.  Lee has some special bellow hoods with build in filter holders but I find using a large board (usually a A4 grey card) to block the sun manually quite effective.  The Lee bellow hoods limit the number of filters you can use.  You can get a tripod alligator clip that can hold the shade for you as well.   (This clip can hold your macro subject still as well)  Here is a link to the clip I use:  Plamp


Which lens should I buy first?

Here is an eternal question, one of the few that is inevitably asked by any perspective photographer.  At least those that invest in a camera with interchangeable lenses.

This is a topic that applies to all camera systems, rangefinder or single lens reflex.  I will be making comments on 35mm cameras only, as those of you that have medium format cameras would’ve already made this decision years ago.

The first question to ask if you just invested in a DSLR is should I buy a zoom lens or fixed focal length lens (or prime lens).  My recommendation nowadays is invariably a fixed focal lens.  Of course if you just brought your first rangefinder camera, then you have no choice but to get a fixed focal lens and you can skip the next couple of paragraphs.

Ironically, despite my current recommendation the first lens I brought for my Canon 5D Mark II was the Canon EF 24-70/2.8 L Zoom Lens, it wasn’t a poor choice, in fact it was a very reputable Zoom Lens with relatively good performance as Zoom Lenses go, it is a lens in the stable of many professional photographers for its performance & versatility.   What I didn’t know then that I know now, is that no zoom can match the quality of an equally priced fixed focal length lens.  I discovered this fact to my chagrin when I purchased my first fixed focal lens, the Canon EF 35/1.4 L, boy was I freaked out when I first saw the photos.  The sharpness and resolution of the fix focal lens just blew my zoom away and the creative option of a fast lens was something I would fall in love with.

The 24-70/2.8 Zoom Lens was an excellent first lens choice, as its performance peaked between 35mm & 50mm which means it covers the standard focal lengths well, with still the wide 24mm option and the tele 70mm option when needed.  (All zoom lenses have a certain focal length where its performance peaks and it is usually not the extreme ends, in this case 24mm and 70mm, but somewhere in between)

I still own my 24-70/2.8 L Zoom Lens, its flexibility is still useful on certain occasions where changing lenses and carrying two cameras isn’t practical.  But If I only have one camera and one lens, it would be my Canon 5D Mark II and that very EF 35/1.4 lens.

This leads me to the second thing to consider (the first if you are using a rangefinder), and that is which focal length to choose first.  My recommendation is 35mm for any full frame camera, this focal length is slightly wide and more flexible than 50mm as your first lens in its application.  There are many advocates for 50mm as your first lens, it is a personal choice and many of my favorite photos I’ve taken were with a 50mm lens.  You can’t really go wrong with either, but 35mm is no doubt more flexible and that is why it is the more common focal length lens on point and shoot cameras.

The reason to buy a lens between 35mm and 50mm is because these are considered standard focal lengths, as oppose to wide-angle or telephoto lenses.  Standard focal length lenses closely emulate our normal field of vision and are the most useful lens for general photography.  Most photographers will tell you that 80% or more of their photos were taken with either a 35mm or 50mm lens and there is good reason for this.

Also fortunate is that these standard prime lenses are the kit lens that comes with many cameras or if brought separately they are the cheapest and most often the sharpest lens in any system’s lens range.  Standard focal length lenses are easier to make, with simpler builds and hence cheaper.

Remember to take into account the crop factor of your camera if it has one, so for EF-S cameras like the Canon 450, you need to multiply the lens’ focal length by 1.6x to get effective 35mm focal dimensions, in other words you’ll need to purchase a 21mm lens (x1.6 = 35mm).  Here you’ll strike some problems with DSLR with crop sensors, you will find that 21mm fast prime lenses are inordinately expensive and not as good as standard 35mm fast prime lenses.  You will probably have to compromise and buy a EF-S or AF-S zoom lens that cover 35mm and 50mm, for example Canon EF-S 17-55/2.8 or the Nikon AF-S 17-35/2.8.  The problem with these lenses are as mentioned lesser performance compared to primes and their relatively slower apertures.  I would consider F/2, F/1.4 as fast but F/2.8 is a little pedestrian.

For full frame Canon, Nikon or other DSLR, your default choices are your brand lenses as these retain autofocus and are good enough quality. There are Zeiss made versions in Canon or Nikon Mounts, the ZE or ZF 35/2 biogon which is a fine lens, but you will lose autofocus which I think is too costly a loss for a standard focal length that you use all the time.

For a full frame m-mount rangefinder camera, like the Leica M6, Bessa R2A or the Leica M9, there are many many options too numerous to list, these cameras can fit virtually hundreds upon hundreds of lenses build since the 1950s. Lenses that I can safely recommend with almost zero risk of regret are the various Summicron 35/2, the six lens element version is probably the most cost effective and the Voigtlander 35/1.4, 35/2.5 or the discountinued 35/1.7 ultron and the Zeiss ZM T* 35/2 Biogon are all very fine choice.

For micro 4/3 cameras like the Olympus EP-1 the Olympus 17mm prime lens or the Panasonic 20mm prime lens are both a good start (I like the Panasonic better as it has better optics in this specific case).  The Panasonic m4/3 lenses works fine on the Olympus m4/3 body.

For the Leica M8 with a 1.3x crop factor I recommend getting the Voigtlander 28/2 or a Summicron 35/2 (whichever version that suits your budget, the 6 element version is good value, but the 7 element is my favorite, but the newer lenses with aspherical elements are good for digital as well but pricey. ) as fine first lenses.  There exists Leica 28/2, 24/1.4 & 21/1.4 lenses, but I can’t recommend these due to their relative cost and size on the camera.  Size may not be an issue with everyone, so I recommend trying these out in a store on the camera before laying down funds.  For me any lens that blocks the viewfinder is a big minus.  If you can afford a M8 and 21/1.4  lens, you are much better off with a M9 and 35/1.4 asph lens.  Another disadvantage of using a 21mm or 24mm on the M8 is the need for an external viewfinder which can decrease the spontaneity of your shots.

For the Epson R-D1 with a 1.5x crop factor sensor, I will stray from my recommendations a little bit, I have brought a Zeiss 25/2.8, Various 21mm lenses for my R-D1s but none have given me the fast prime lens feel I am looking for.  My recommendation is a Voigtlander 28/2 lens or any fast 35mm lens, the latter becomes a little too tele for my tastes but makes a great portrait lens.  Once again using any lenses aside from a 28/35/50mm will require an external viewfinder which is cumbersome.  Those lucky not to wear glasses, have the option to use a 25mm lens instead using the whole viewfinder as an estimate of the view, with the caveat that 25mm lenses are F/2.8 or slower usually.

There are some who will advocate a wide angle lens or even a telefocal lens, but they are in the vast minority.

Another question to consider is the speed of the lens, or the widest aperture the lens can be used.  Speed comes with an associated cost and in most situations size and weight as well.  Also fast lenses tend to perform not as good as the slower lenses at slower apertures.  In the world of digital ISO, where using an ISO 800 or more doesn’t degrade your photo too drastically, the need for ultra fast lenses has lessened, the lost in quality using a fast lens wide open doesn’t quite equate to the increase noise at using high digital ISO.  So extremely fast lenses like F/1.0 or F/0.95 which cost a monumental amounts of money is relegate for specialty functions, like shooting in the dark with unique bokehs (background blur).  I contest that a F/2 lens is often sufficient with a good quality F/1.4 lens as slightly better.  I have found f/2.8 or f/4 standard (35mm or 50mm) prime lenses as too pedestrian and lack creativity of faster lenses that allow you to throw the background further out of focus.