Thursday, 26 September 2013

[photography] My perspective

Robert Boyer has written a couple of really interesting blog posts on (primarily) the differences between a 35mm and 50mm field of view, from the perspective of someone who is very much a ‘50mm guy’, i.e. someone with a lot more experience with, and a strong preference for, the field of view provided by a 50mm lens.

Given that the comparison was between the Fuji X100S, with its APS-C–sized sensor and 23mm actual lens, and a Nikon D600 with a 50mm actual lens, there’s also some discussion on the differences in how much control you have over depth of field when comparing the two sensor formats.

The bulk of the text, though, is about how shooting with a different lens than you’re used to is a pretty uncomfortable and disorienting experience at first, but one that can also open your eyes to new possibilities.

These posts resonated with me, as in the 10 or so years I’ve been doing photography, I think I’ve mostly settled into being a ‘35mm guy’, although I didn’t really know it until I got an X100 whereupon it became clear that this field of view matches well the kinds of pictures I like to shoot – ‘contextual’ stuff, pictures of things in their surroundings. The view feels comfortable: just wide enough to avoid feeling claustrophobic, but not so wide as to swing the other way into attempted agoraphobia.

Look around you

I say ‘attempted’ agoraphobia because I’ve found it impossible to really reproduce the feeling you get when standing outside and looking up to the sky, really looking and feeling how enormous the world is, and how tiny and insignificant you are in comparison. It just doesn’t come across in reasonably-sized photos. All you achieve by attempting this using a super-wide lens is making things in the middle tiny, and things at the edges weirdly stretched.

So given that I’m never likely to make any multiple-metre–wide prints, and I have little interest in exploring how super-wide affects near–far relationships, that kind of lens holds no appeal.

Over there, in detail

I felt, and still do feel, that most of the time the field of view of the X100’s lens was just right, but there were times when I yearned for something longer, something I could use to close in on the detail of a thing. I think this was partly influenced by Kirk Tuck and his various posts of cityscapes and portraits taken at or around a 75mm field of view. That is to say, his posts helped me recognise something that was already within me, kindled that small flame a little, enough that I could no longer ignore it.

And so it was that I began to look for a way to satisfy this need. The Olympus 45mm lens seriously tempted me, but the only compatible camera that I felt had the necessary features (built-in viewfinder, small size) was the Olympus EM5, and alas it just felt horrible in my hand: cramped, squishy buttons, and uncomfortable bits digging into my palms. NEX? Not with those lenses. So that left Fuji, and either the XE1 or the XPro1.

I can see clearly

After an initial couple of months with the X100, trying both viewfinders, I eventually settled into using the electronic one almost exclusively, despite previously using DSLRs for years and being thoroughly used to optical finders.

Used to, but never entirely comfortable with, it seems: I find EVFs to be less of a mental strain, in that I can see before I shoot what the photo will (more or less) look like. I can see when the camera’s meter is getting confused, and dial in some exposure compensation accordingly (gotta love that EV dial).

Thus, the XPro1’s biggest differentiator from the XE1, its viewfinder, wasn’t an advantage to me. That combined with its larger size, and the fact that the XE1 came in a (money-saving) kit with the well-regarded 18–55mm zoom, made up my mind.

And then a funny thing happened

So then everything was fine, right? After all, the 18–55 has as much telephoto as I’d realistically want, and of course goes pretty wide too, covering the same 23mm the X100 does, making that camera basically obsolete. Right?

Not really. First of all, the XE1 + 18–55 is still pretty big, significantly more so than the (coat)pocketable X100. It’s also heavier, right on the threshold of being uncomfortable to carry in my hand for an extended period of wandering around, and not particularly fast in terms of aperture compared to the f/2 of the X100 (it’s certainly a good bit faster than most 18–55mm lenses, though).

At first I didn’t really notice any of this, since I was still in the ‘newlywed’ phase. Eventually I felt it, though, and wondered about getting a prime to put on the camera for ‘days out’ and other casual uses. Of course, apart from the 18mm, there’s only really one other suitable prime lens: the 35mm f/1.4 (the 60mm is too big, and the 27mm wasn’t available at the time, and besides, doesn’t have an aperture ring).

I thought I’d mostly use the 18–55 still, and keep the 35 for low-light stuff or for when I really wanted to travel light, but as it turns out, I kinda really want to travel light all the time. So why not just use the X100? Well, I’ve become spoiled by the XE1’s faster AF, much nicer AF point selection, and generally nicer buttons.

And the XF 35mm f/1.4 lens is really nice. Really nice. I considered the Zeiss Touit 32mm as an alternative at first, but the Fuji lens just seems to do everything better: nicer bokeh, smaller and lighter, less expensive, and apparently a little sharper too, not that sharpness is particularly important to me – most lenses these days are plenty good enough there.


This is where talking about this gets a bit confusing, because I tend to switch pretty freely between using actual focal lengths and equivalent focal lengths, so for the sake of clarity I’ll stick to equivalent, since it’s a more common reference point. The Fuji 35mm lens has an equivalent field of view to a 50mm lens, while the X100’s 23mm lens has a 35mm equivalent view.

Anyway. After using focal lengths mostly on the wider end of things, 50mm feels tight. It’s right on the boundary between wide and tele, so I guess for someone who started out with it, the field of view feels just right, and can be used as either a short tele or a moderate wide depending on the needs of the photo.

Working with a 50mm field of view is not something that comes naturally to me, though, especially not after a year and a bit of using nothing but a 35. For now, my mind is still in ‘35’ mode when I’m shooting with a 50: I try subconsciously stand at the right distance for a 35 view, and I see compositions that work for that kind of perspective, then get frustrated when they don’t fit. I mentioned this in a comment on Robert’s blog – about how I try to compensate for a lack of vertical viewing angle by holding the camera vertically, for some reason not minding that I’m cutting off the sides. That said, a brief look at my Flickr stream shows that of the photos taken with the XF35/1.4 lens, most are in horizontal orientation, so perhaps I don’t do this as often as I think, and/or when I do, the results aren’t very good so I don’t bother uploading them to Flickr.

Wrapping up

When I started writing this, I’d intended to condense some vague, cloudy feelings into something more solid; I felt like 50mm was uncomfortably tight and that I often compensated for the lack of vertical angle of view by framing vertically. Actually looking at my photos, though, shows scant evidence of this, and in fact demonstrates that I can frame horizontal photos with a 50mm just fine, as least enough to satisfy myself for now.

Still, the feeling persists, and I don’t really know what else to do about it other than keep shooting with the XE1/35 until it’s no longer uncomfortable. And hey, now that I think on it, that’s probably another factor driving me to prefer that lens over the 18–55. Maybe once I’m comfortable with the 50mm view, I’ll be happier using the zoom? Let’s see wait a year and find out.

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