#422. Giants of steel and glass. But it depends how you shoot them! (1)

By philberphoto | Travel Photography

Nov 02

The area West of Paris called La Défense was once the largest non-metropolitan business district in the world. Hatched in the 60s, it was a cluster of skyscrapers built across the Seine river in a couple of suburban towns, outside the city, in order that the historic skyscape remain untainted. Unlikely though the concept was, and despite some rough patches, it has proven very successful, and has grown continually until now, when it is considered a pillar of regional , even national economic strength.

Photographically speaking, what can be uglier than those blind aging giants of steel and glass? Shooting them is about as thankless as working or -God forbid- living in them. Still, it is as though Mother Nature has a way of foiling the best laid human plans. Including token efforts at “humanizing” and/or “beautifying” La Défense with works of art and a few trees, there are signs of -yes- beauty everywhere, if one cares to look. When I started shooting La Défense, some years ago, I had just received my Zeiss Distagon 21mm, and I basked in the long immaculate lines of skycrapers against a clear sky. Impressive? yes. But very quickly boring, boring, boring. Such as this:


Today, my favorite lens for such shooting is a 135mm. Call it counter-intuitive. Use it as testimony that I want to transmogrify the very soul of an area I so intensely dislike. See it as a teen-age prank from someone who uses photography to vent the fact that he has never fully accepted growing up and becoming reasonable.

Of course, it is possible to begin with cityscape pictures, showing the lay of the land. Yes, even with a 135mm focused at f:2.8.


Then, add a bit of drama with some sundown shots, without a tripod thanks to fast glass and a stabiliser.


Once you are bored with those, and even in such a huge place there are only so many of those that you can do, one of two things. Try to add some variety with composition and/or selective depth-of-field.

DSC01834 DSC02504

Then, either shoot for “less-than-full-size”, or crop.



You can shoot parts of these giants that are so small that the whole is no longer recognizable and the pictures, instead, become abstracts

DSC02315 DSC01795

If you push further towards abstracts, you can even get totally unrecognizable pictures, such as this, plucked from the roof top of a giant modernistic building from the 60s:

DSC01744_2 DSC01744_1 DSC01614

There are other ways in which one can find beauty in la Défense. One of my favorites is in the countless reflections from the vast acreage of glass


They can be large, or partial, or even small


And sometimes, less than a few acres is enough…




As you can see, even an area as sharply defined as la Défense can yield some unorthodox results. And, so far, I have only shown pictures of the skyscrapers. In the next instalment, we shall see some -un-skyscrapers…


Email: subscribed: 4
  • Paul Ferzoco says:

    Wonderful post, thanks much.

  • Olivier says:

    Great images and very inspiring! This makes me want to go out shooting architecture with nothing but a 135mm lens. Looking forward to the next instalment!

  • philberphoto says:

    Thanks for the kind words, Olivier and Paul, they are much appreciated! Now, to be honest, I said that my “favorite” lens was a 135mm, not my only lens. There are some images (a minority) with a 55mm lens as well. I go out with 3 lenses and, being a lazy guy, tend to change only very rarely dyring my walkabout. So I have indeed done whole sessions with only my 135mm. It is, in a way, easier, because when the field of view is small, there are fewer “things” that can be “wrong” than with a wide angle. Call me a wimp… And then, if, even with a 135mm lens, there is “something wrong”, or a small detail that is really “right” in the image, I can always crop…:-)

  • Yim Chee Peng says:

    I really do not know how to express myself upon seeing your photos
    taken with a 135mm lens, The use of such a lens is so counter intuitive; the
    normal resort is a wide angle lens. Your photos really hit me with a whammy.
    They are so glorious, with beautiful and striking lines. Congrats

    • philberphoto says:

      Thank you, Yim Chee, your kind words are much appreciated!
      Let me try to explain my use of the 135mm. First of all, if your lens is longer, the field of view will include “less stuff”. It therefore becomes possible to include only one element, or a few, rather than many. That is often easier, because “fewer things can go wrong”, and one element can sometimes tell a different story than the whole. The second difference with using a long lens is that it compresses the depth, giving a flatter image, which minimizes the vastness of the place, letting the viewer focus on other dimensions, like colour, contrast, etc… This, however, is very dependent on what lens you use, because, with a 135mm, you won’t get the whole picure in focus. Thus, you will rely of your lens’ out-of-focus rendering. The Zeiss 135 f:2.0 APO has a strong sense of colour and structure even in the out-of-focus areas, which helps the viewer “understand” what is happening there. Other lenses will give a “creamier” boken, where the out-of-focus area will be blurred to a much greater degree, which would give the picture a really different look. This doesn’t mean it will be worse, just quite different, and one would need to keep that in mind when shooting.

    • Scott Edwards says:

      Feeling the same way! Great advice built on great execution. Stayed there once as hotel rooms closer to the city were impossible to come by. Was actually smitten with the area, able to walk around one evening, and then spend a morning there before a flight. Love the approach taken, philberphoto!

  • Tillmann says:

    Can you stop posting these awesome shots taken with the 135 apo? My bank account is starting to hate you. These are really quite awesome and very similar to what I do myself. Just not with the 135 apo… not yet…

    • philberphoto says:

      At DearSusan, we really like to give our readers something to think about, but in a relaxed, serene, comforting, productive way..:-) Which does not seem to be your state of mind right now, Tilmann. So we looked for something to help you relax when you see more 135 goodness in the next tranche of my La Défense series. And Pascal has found it! Read his report on the Otus 28, and the lust for the 135 will stop hurting. Neither the cost, nor the weight. ’cause in both those areas, the 28 rules. And the images, oh the images… so be at peace, Tilmann, your coveting the 135 has just been downgraded to middle-market…:-)

      • Tillmann says:

        I don’t really care for the 28mm field of view and I can assure you I’m more lusting after the 85 or 135. I feel myself drawn to longer focal lengths these days. In fact I sold my old Canon FD 28mm f2 recently and haven’t used my 15mm Voigtländer for more than 10 shots in total last year. And none of them were particularly good. Well maybe 1 or 2. The shots I’ve taken with a longer lens though. I like all of them. The 28 FOV was always too much of a compromise for me. Too normal to be good for the classic landscapes, too wide to be good for portraits. On my NEX7 I loved the 28mm, maybe because I essentially got something like 42mm. However I can comfort you, that the lens I want to own the most right now, is also around 3000€. The 75lux. So the 135 apo really is middle ground for me. And I’m trying to reasonably save towards a 75.

        I’ll be looking at the 28mm now and if I want to buy it afterwards, I’ll let you know that you’re responsible for my bad credit score 😉

        • philberphoto says:

          Tillmann, my comment was not devised to make you feel “cheap” in any way,it was strictly tongue-in-cheek. If it did, I apologise. DearSusan readers come from all walks of life, and many a fine photographer has wowed the world with pictures made with inexpensive equipment. Conversely, no Leica SL-cum-zoom can gaurantee that your pics have a high WOW! factor.
          Similarly, if you are into mild teles, I don’t need to try to steer you away from those and into mild wides. There is no truth in that, only preferences. On the 28 focal length, I think Ming Thein put it rather well when he writes that it is the widest FL where things still look pretty much normal. For that reason, when I get my Otus 28,I will let my ZM 35 f:1.4 go…
          I will be interested to hear of your experience with the ‘Lux 75, because I had a ‘Lux 80 (the same lens in R mount), and found it exceedingly hard to use. I eventually let it go cheaply because of that, pretty sure that I was missing out on something great. By comparison, the 135APO is an absolute breeze, so you can imagine.

          • Tillmann says:

            Don’t worry. I did not feel cheap. I’m a student so I can’t really afford the very expensive lenses anyway. And I started off with very cheap lenses (CCTV 35mm 1.7 lenses). As time progressed I exchanged my NEX 7 for an A7. And I got the 35mm 2.8 with it because it is quite simply a no brainer (incredible sharpness and contrast for such a small and comparatively cheap lens). I had previously used a Canon FD 28mm f2 on the NEX. I no longer saw any use for it on the A7. For whatever reason the FOV was unsatisfactory. So I got a 40mm summicron because the 28 on crop is basically 40mm. Then I got the 35mm f1.2 Nokton and realised that I now have 3 lenses of which I can only justify 1. So I sold all except for the Nokton (and made profits – thanks to my studies(hah not really).

            For finishing my Bachelor I treated myself (with a lot of help) to a 90mm Summicron pre-asph. So for finishing my Master I had planned on treating myself to the 75lux. Now since I don’t have particular problems with the 90cron I had figured the 75 would be workable too. Especially since my fondness of character lenses has carried over from the days where I had to buy cheap lenses that inevitably had character. I now also have a 1959 so-called japanese summilux, that I thoroughly enjoy and a jupiter 8 which occasionally comes out for portraits of friends.

            Now on letting go of the 35mm ZM, you might regret it later when your back hurts (haha). I know that at times I’ve missed the 40 cron just because the 35 nokton is a brick.

            • philberphoto says:

              I know that letting the 35 ZM go is a mistake, but, frankly, I just can’t face up to going out every day, every time, with a bag that contains Otus 28, Otus 55 and 135 APO, and keeping the ZM there as well. First, it wouldn’t fit, and, second, the weight would probably be too much for the bag…and me. I am toying with the idea of having 2 systems, one lighter one (A7II, Loxia 21, Loxia 50), and the heavy one. Or buying a RX1-R II as a backup and light system.

  • Yeahhh says:

    How’s that saying? “If you can’t make your motif fit, get closer.” (or something similar)

    Changing perspective should be one of the photographers main tool sets to approach a scene. Though a lot of us struggle and run into a overwhelming scene wide-angled.

    Thank you for reminding us to slow down and think about our methods.

  • >