It’s not snobbery, it’s not reverse-snobbery. It’s all about how I like to define depth in images.
Loosing interest would imply fast lenses were once close to the epicenter of my photographic experience. But, when searching the thousands of photographs I’ve posted on DS over the years, it was surprisingly difficult to find many made in the traditional shallow depth of field manner that characterises those lenses. So I made a new one specially using the delightful 120 Macro.
And, of the list of lenses that have come under my scrutiny for this blog comes to mind, it’s obivous a lot of my favourites weren’t that fast at all (Loxia 25, Loxia 85, Hasseblad X1D lenses, Summicron 50). So maybe I was never actually a true member of the bokeh-heads club after all?
But it’s also hard to deny the impact the Zeiss Otus 28, Otus 85 and Distagon 1.4/35 ZM had on me. And, while f/1.4 is seemingly the new f/4, those were indeed fully-blown fast lenses at the time of their release.
So what’s changed?
What is it that used to draw me to those wide aperture monsters that now leaves me cold?
Video … that’s my excuse, as explained further down.
When f/1.4 lenses weren’t an option, technically or financially, Photoshop was my source of bokeh. Perfect bokeh, since I would slap gaussian blur over gradually receeding parts of the image to augment the sense of 3D in my photographs, as above and below.
The recipe still appeals to me, and now lenses are available to do the trick in camera (though rarely with blur as linear and gaussian as Photoshop can muster). Still, other influences have steered me away from those, in recent years. Mainly: cinematography, not that I do any.
In my experience, a shallow depth of field can serve two purposes : isolate a subject (as in portrait photography, or as immediately above) and suggest depth.
To my eyes, the first can quite easily become quite gimmicky, sometimes even lazy and boring. And there are more interesting ways of suggesting depth. Which is where video (or, rather cinema) comes into play as well.
Close up photography can combine both effects. The depth of field, shallow by virtue of the magnification, both isolates the subject from a potentially noisy background and gradually melts away depth. With the right lens (clean linear bokeh) and the right hands (Philippe’s, for instance), it can lead to wonderful results that stimulate the imagination and create imaginary worlds.
But I also enjoy the opposite approach, one that has been mine for a long time and uses sharp details from front to back to juxtapose and create layers, as above. This is the way of cinema (although some scenes can also use shallow DoF, don’t get me wrong), which I would love to explore more in photography.
Cinema plunges you into a story. The image, however manipulated and toned, needs to create a lot of 3D to be believable. Cinematographers have the luxury of set design and lighting to do so, but this still requires *a lot* of talent.
Cinematographers use frames, depth of field, lighting of edges and other techniques to suggest planes and, therefore, depth.
It is a craft I would dearly like to master, but I’m still pretty much a white belt at it 😉 Still, it brings me pleasure to try and recognise scenes and opportunity in natural lighting, and give natural 3D a try.
And fast lenses would hinder this learning process 90% of the time. So … bye bye 🙂
Of course, gear quality plays a major role in this as well. In spite of the multiple layers in the Tokyo photo above, this image feels quite flat. 3D is largely absent, compared to the b&w chapel interior image below it.
I’d love to tell you I know exactly what makes for realistic 3D, in gear, and what doesn’t. But that would be a lie. Some lenses, such as the Zeiss Distagon 1/4.35 ZM are abyssal 3D monsters, while others look distinctly flatter. And some cameras produce more life-like photographs / videos than others, irrespective of price points.
But, really, I think the rules of the craft, such as using layered planes outlined by edge lighting, frames within frames, subtle loss of focus through depth, colour shifts in the distance, …, all play a greater role than the lenses and cameras used to capture them. See the last pic above, heavily cropped into a cheap phone image, for instance Lousy quality, yet good 3D.
Of course, it’s better still with better gear 😉
So fast lenses are out for me, while I try to train my eye to actual 3D. Once that’s done, then maybe the two can be mixed intelligently? 🙂
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