Pretty Ugly

I always like to think of my relationship to my cameras and lenses as being businesslike, down to earth. For me, a camera is a roofer’s ladder, a gravedigger’s spade. A crude tool, sadly required because of my inability to commit my vision to electronic sensor and thus posterity solely by blinking.

If I could do that I would at a leap be free of the metal and glass handicap to my creativity that is the appareil numerique, as the French have it.

Mind you, that little 6 quid eBay lenshood looks pretty damn cool on the Olympus 17mm on my GH3, doesn’t it? No, of course, that’s not why it’s on there. Coolness is alien to my minimalist stance. The hood is there for the very reason that lens hoods were invented, to keep direct sunlight out of the lens and thus prevent flare.

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It’s a shame the makers saw fit to cut slots which let the sun in and so turned it into a lens hood which does not prevent flare. In concept, It’s a bit like that Zen ladder which has no rungs, so you can’t climb it. Actually, with those slots in it, it looks a bit like a muzzle brake that those really cool sniper dudes fit on those US army M24 SWS 7.62mm calibre 27in barrel bolt action 10 round magazine long range rifles that Remington Arms make in Ilion, New York.

Not that that I know much about that, of course, so that definitely didn’t influence me at all. No, actually, if it doesn’t work as a lens hood, I think I probably fitted it to minimize the recoil of the shutter.

OK, I didn’t, I fitted it because it looks great. In principle I don’t care what a lens or camera looks like. The basics of camera design have always been function over form. But some bits of gear do look great and it can’t harm their sales.

That Olympus 17mm f1.8 is a looker by any standards, solid and purposeful it graces the front of any camera it is fitted to. Unlike its stablemate 12-50mm zoom which, while a fine and unfairly maligned lens, is just plain ugly. Even closing your eyes to the jumble of type faces all over it and the black and silver banded decoration seemingly randomly deployed, it is a long thin extrusion. It looks like a section of waste piping cobbled together by a plumber from the left-overs in his van because its 5pm on a wet Friday night and he wants to get home early.
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I don’t know how much effort is devoted by camera and lens designers to cosmetics. Obviously function must come first in any gear that is to be marketed to experienced photographers. One of the most admired designs of all time seems to be the Leica rangefinder. It’s both classic and modern at the same time, a bit like the Fender Stratocaster guitar which for me stands at the pinnacle of 20th century design, an object on which every single thing was predicated on the needs of a hard working musician, even down to a scalloped section on the back to accommodate a beer belly – and yet finished up as a thing of rare beauty. Like the Leica, it was right first time and attempts to ‘improve’ it are futile.

Although I’ve never used a digital Leica, from what I read they perform very well. Unlike cars, where form regularly trumps function, a camera that looked like a Leica but performed like a £100 point ‘n’ shoot would be howled out of existence before it got past the reviewers. Photographers are in the happy position of having very, very well designed equipment in both form and function. The Panasonic GX7 looks like a rangefinder camera, the E-M1 Olympus and the Panasonic GH3 like DSLRs, the Panasonic GM1 and (to a lesser extent) the Olympus E-PL5 like compacts. But in none of those cameras has their form compromised their basic functionality. Can you think of an ugly M43 camera? I can’t. I can’t think of one that disappoints in performance either. But lenses? That’s different. The Panasonics are a handsome bunch, from the gorgeous new 12-32mm mini-zoom to the 100-300mm zoom. I can’t think of an ugly one off-hand though I may have missed something.

Olympus’s new 12-40mm f2/8 is a handsome beast and I’ve already mentioned the 17mm f1.8. But the 12mm f2? The 60mm f2.8? The 45mm f1.8? I have experience of them all and they are a fine set of lenses, second to none. And anyone who follows my reviews will know that one of them, the 45mm is the one M43 lens I think everyone should have. I just wish they didn’t look like three dog’s d**ks.

I bet there are people out there who think they are the prettiest lenses in the MFT line-up. Beauty is, as they say, in the eye of the beholder. But it makes a change for me to find something to gripe about. Abuse is so much more fun to write than praise. And they are pretty ugly, aren’t they?

Not that it matters to horny handed son of toil like me, of course.

8 thoughts on “Pretty Ugly

  1. David Johnson

    Hi David,

    I was wondering if you could make a blog post with your thoughts on the GH4, and especially the metabones speed adapter. I’ve looked over your channel and couldn’t find anything on the two. 🙂

    All best,

    David

    Reply
    1. dt@dthorpe.net Post author

      I’m hoping to buy a GH4 at some point so I’ll review it then. All the stuff I review is my own since I get no replies from emails to Panasonic and Olympus. I’ll take a look at the metabones if I can.

      Reply
  2. Lawrence of A

    since you started it. i’ll make the first confession. vanity drives me too. not that i favour form over function. i want form to follow function. i really do. but in secret i’d wish – like in any relationship – that things were mutual. like teenagers in love. form and function strolling together, holding hands and kissing in public. not being ashamed because they mean it AND look good! that’s at least what they think. but what else matters? let them dream, i say…

    Reply
    1. dt@dthorpe.net Post author

      It’s all coming out now! I wonder if there are things that by virtue of what they do, have to be ugly? I was going to say an oil rig but actually, they can be seen as beautiful structures quite easily. Since beauty is in the mind of the beholder, I suppose there would never be agreement.
      The best example I have, though is, as I mention, the Stratocaster. Everything that Leo Fender did was for function, even the horns are there to move the centre of balance back so that it sits around the players neck without tipping neck-long towards the ground. The scroll type head with the strings all on one side was in order to keep the string pull as straight as possible to minimize tuning instability. The electrics were set in a hollowed out body with an over-sized plastic pickguard into which the pickups were mounted, thus providing access to the whole interior with a few screws. It would have been genius if it just looked functional….but it is actually classically beautiful in the same way as a violin and has defined ‘electric guitar’ ever since it was first sold.

      Reply
  3. Mark Rychel

    I bought the 12-50 because of your comparison to Gérard Depardieu. I thought that was a worthy comparison and appealed to my sense of theatrical non-beauty and vesatility.

    Reply
    1. dt@dthorpe.net Post author

      I don’t know why that occurred to me but I’m glad it did and even more pleased that it appealed to you for the reasons you say. Great comment, thank you.

      Reply

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