In Praise of Compact Lenses
I do like what a fast premium lens brings to the table. If only I didn't have to deal with the added bulk it brings into consideration. Unless you're deliberately striving to render a particular look, is all the effort really worth the fuss? From the perspective of daily use, what does a photographer really need? Speed is certainly handy, in those lower light situations. But seriously, is that extra stop or two really necessary under most typical shooting situations?
Furthermore, is it always necessary to isolate the subject to the nth degree? Is the impact from that extra stop or two really going to make a material difference? Would it further pull the subject out from the background? Would anyone even notice it? Moreover, would the bokeh really be that much better than what's typical of an already fast lens? What's more, is bokeh even necessary for every image capture?
We do live in a stopped down world, where light is usually sufficient for most documentary needs. So, what's the logic of a fast premium lens like the Leica 50mm f/0.95 Noctilux-M ASPH, the Leica 75mm f/1.25 Noctilux-M ASPH, or even the Leica 21mm f/1.4 Summilux-M ASPH if you don't have a specific need for that extra stop or two? This is not to say that bulkier premium lenses are unnecessary. Far from it. But why carry the added bulk, if there isn't a need to shoot wide open?
Bulk is a practical consideration that should never be taken for granted. Failure to recognize it can adversely impact both your user experience and overall productivity in documentation. Also worth mentioning is how bulk can monopolize space inside your camera bag, which can greatly reduce what one can bring along on a shoot. Plus, there's also a safety concern in how bulk can draw unwanted attention from those with criminal intent.
Personally, I believe many of us are much too clouded by the promise of specification to realize how fast premium lenses are just too high maintenance for daily use. It's like a thoroughbred used to perform mundane tasks - which essentially is an overkill - when all you really need is a good work horse. And that's the point. As impressive as fast premium lenses are, they won't do a better job in most conventional situations than something more common like a compact lens.
It's just unfortunate the benefits offered by compact lenses are often overlooked, given a lack of bragging rights. But it's easy to see why, seeing how much less substantial they are in presence. We're all prone to vanity. And because of that, the natural inclination in selecting which lens to bring is generally determined by emotional responses as oppose to practical consideration in optimizing user experience and overall productivity.
There's no pretense in the compact lens. It's designed to facilitate productivity in most normal shooting environment. And that's what many of us tend to forget. So, for this weeks blog post, I will give recognition to my favorite compact lens - which is the Leica 28mm f/2.8 Elmarit-M ASPH, version I. In my opinion, the 28 Elmarit is probably the most useful M-mount lens, since it more than satisfies the majority of documentary needs without causing any unnecessary burden.
Of course, there are those who will remain unconvinced of my choice, given the modest maximum aperture of the 28 Elmarit. Because of that, I've also included a second compact lens for those needing a crutch in lower light situations - that being the second pre-aspherical version of the Leica 35mm f/1.4 Summilux-M. In my opinion, the 35 Lux II might possibly be the best compact M-mount lens, if usability in low light is expected from time to time.
It should be noted that this post is not a straightforward one-on-one comparison. That isn't the objective of what I'm attempting to demonstrate. Besides, it wouldn't make sense. One lens offers a wider angle of coverage, while the other offers usability in lower light. That said, what I intend to demonstrate is just how visually appealing both are in actual use. The only reason I included the 35 Lux II is to offer those unconvinced of the 28 Elmarit a faster compact alternative.
What may not be immediately clear to those still clinging onto the misguided bragging rights offered by bulkier premium lenses is how liberating compact lenses are in use. And it's not just the reduction of weight around your neck or inside your camera bag. It's also the reduction of extra care required in handling these lenses during actual use. Given how much less cumbersome compact lenses are, they're much less prone to getting in harms way.
Even if you accidentally bump a compact lens against a hard surface, and manage to damage its finish, the emotional pain inflicted by that sudden lapse of care won't cut as deep. Simply put, compact lenses are not premium lenses. They're not objects of desire with innate bragging rights. In fact, they're the opposite, given its larger scale production run. As such, they're commoditized in value, which does significantly ease the level of care they generally receive in handling.
And that's the beauty of compact lenses. They're much more relaxing to handle, given how they free us from the constant worrying typical of handling a premium lens. Because of that, the focus when using a compact lens is no longer compromised on safeguarding the lens, but shifts fully towards the documentation process. In other words, using a compact lens will free you to focus completely on taking photos, as oppose to coddling your gear.
Frankly, it's just more fun to shoot with a compact lens. There's no baggage involved, compelled by any premium, in using them. Because of that, there's no pressure to justify a compact lens by having to shoot wide open all the time - even when the noonday sun is high above the sky. As such, there's no need to constantly fuss for tack focus. With a compact lens, it's just a matter of zone focusing and letting the depth of field do its job.
Given the less painstaking documenting process of zone focusing, your subject can be more relaxed in posture. They don't need to hold a pose. As such, the overall impression of the image capture will appear more natural without that deliberate look of a photo feathered for tack focus. On top of that, zone focusing better enables the prospect of capturing the subject in motion. In doing so, it can make the documentation come alive.
This is not to say that one cannot zone focus with a fast premium lens, or handle it with greater ease. Of course it can be done. That said, it's not easy to do that, given how we typically value fast premium lenses. They're big and expensive, so they must be handled with care. And because they're expensive, the pressure to justify it is ever present. In my opinion, dealing with that burden can be toxic - which is why compact lenses can be so much more rewarding in actual use.
Remember, photography is not about the gear. It's about the final image. In the end, no one is going to care about what gear you used if the image capture is visually compelling. That said, there is a place for fast premium lenses. Nevertheless, nothing beats a simple compact lens in facilitating the decisive moment. It's fun to use, making the resulting documentation appear all the more fun!
Exposure and color balance of some photos have been tweaked slightly in Lightroom, for the sake of consistency in presentation. Any material editing beyond a slight tweaking will be disclosed with the image caption.