Photographic Extremism

I was reading a post on the dpReview micro four thirds forum about ‘the fastest lens in the world’. It’s the Handevision Ibelux 40mm f/0.85. Whether it is the fastest lens in the world, I don’t know but I do know there is always a fascination with these extreme optics, fast, short or long. I also know that such extreme glass tends to be rather disappointing when you actually get to use it in the real world of photography. It’s fascination lies in its specs, not what it can do photographically.

In 1975 I was a press photographer in London and covering the Balcombe Street siege. Four IRA men had been chased by Met Police officers and had holed up in a flat taking the two occupants hostage. The siege lasted six days and a ‘siege city’ sprung up at a distance from the flat, comprising press from all over the world awaiting the denouement. The pic everyone wanted was either the SAS going in and the bodies coming out – or the IRA men coming out, hands up.

Trouble was, siege city was a safe distance from the scene of the action and plainly we were not going to get closer, the police having evacuated all the surrounding dwellings. The office 600mm Novoflex didn’t cut the mustard. Something bigger was called for. Enter an item of hired photo extremism, a Nikon 2000mm mirror lens. It reached out nicely but its widest (and only) aperture was f11 and this was in London in December. So we hired some big, big flashguns too.

Having set all this (17 Kg) tackle up, we did some tests and the despatch rider took the films back to the office for development and evaluation. Like so much technology, it is great until you really, really need it to work. At which point, it doesn’t. The films showed not the balcony, door and windows of 22b, Balcombe Street but rather every speck of dust and soot and whatever other filth floats about in the atmosphere of London. The negative was a grey haze of nothing in particular, like taking a photograph out of the window of a plane flying through dense cloud cover. The 2000mm lens was duly returned.

That was not my first experience of photo extremism. Some years before I had tried a Canon f0.95 rangefinder lens. Being a press man, you work in whatever conditions nature deals out and sometimes with people who don’t want to be photographed, so an ultra high speed lens means you can avoid using flash. Except that in practise, the lens is enormous and draws attention to you and at the f0.95 aperture for which you bought it, depth of field is so limited as to make focusing impractical on any moving object. These two together made the lens supremely unsuited to my intended purpose.

The fact is that extreme lenses tend to be useful in certain conditions and for certain purposes only. Amateurs dream of owning them but the reality is that they would use them a few times and then consign them to a cupboard, so it’s just as well the prices of these things make them more suitable for hiring than buying.

In a similar vein, people asked why, when it was announced, Panasonic’s 12-35 f2.8 zoom couldn’t have been an f2. The answer is very simple (in my opinion – I know little about lens design other than as a user). Panasonic could make an f2 but it would be much, much bigger, much, much heavier, much, much more expensive – and most likely not match the image quality of the f2.8 at f2.8. All for one stop extra in speed. In the price/ size/ weight/ IQ terms of micro four thirds design, such a lens would qualify as extreme.

The Micro Four Third System’s philosophy is essentially one of intelligent compromise. Not the very highest image quality but as high as most photographers need. Not the heaviest or the lightest. Not the cheapest or the most expensive. Not the biggest but not the smallest. Within that philosophy there is plenty of room for manoeuvre and difference. From Panasonic’s 12-42 compact standard zoom to Olympus’s large 12-40mm f2.8. From Panasonic’s GM1 to Olympus’s E-M1. All are extremely different from one another but none extreme.

One thing I’ve missed out so far, of course is that while we are unlikely to see extreme optics made for M4/3 cameras, gm1jpgif you happen to have a Nikon 2000mm f11 in your cupboard, a cheap adaptor will mount it on your GM1 body. The lens weighs 101 times the camera and is an 80x telephoto on M4/3. Oh yes, and it costs around 50 times as much. Here’s how it might look mounted on the GM1.

Now that is extreme.

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