You Really Don't Need a Fast Lens
If Conan were a photographer, he would have to answer to Crom in response to the Riddle of Glass. If he did not know the answer, Crom would cast him out of Vahalla. As photographers, we have all faced the Riddle of Glass - believing we must seek good glass for its reliability in documentation. But as Thulsa Doom would explain, glass is not reliable. Rather, flesh is more reliable. What is glass compared to the hand that wields it or the eye that views through it? Only through consistent handling and framing can we take a good photograph.
However, Conan refuted Thulsa Doom’s assertion by defeating him. Flesh, for all its reliability in handling and framing, can be outperformed by glass - hence the riddle. In other words, flesh may be needed for reliability’s sake, but glass can still outdo it. That said, flesh will deteriorate with age. But, so will glass - with haze, fungus, and cleaning marks. What does remain over the years is the heart to optimize results. Without it, no amount of glass or its proper handling and framing would replace an absence of conviction to produce a proper image.
When there is no heart in the photographic process, you would not be able to crush the decisive moment, see your unsuspecting subjects driven towards your frame, and hear the lamentations of admirers wanting more (being Conan’s response to what’s best in life behind the lens). Short of demonstrating such resolve, you might as well contemplate in agony chained to the Tree of Woe. Then, you might consider another stint at The Wheel of Pain, where suffering through endless toil could be your only recourse to revive lost conviction.
Admittedly, framing our innate desire to seek good glass as a riddle, by way of Dino De Laurentiis’s Conan the Barbarian, might seem absurd. But, you have to acknowledge that our unceasing longing for good glass does seem rather perplexing, if not spilling-over onto the very silly. Fact is, we want it too much. For those who have it, they flaunt it on their camera to show that they have what others covet. And for those without it, they obsess over what they do not have from afar by pouring through the repository of online reviews and forums.
So much fuss over good glass… and for what? Fundamentally, what we are obsessing over is the want of a fast lens. A lens that doesn’t distort. A lens that can capture with more definition at higher resolution… that is sharp at the edges and corners… and corrected for optical aberrations with aspherical elements and apochromatic design. But again, this fuss over good glass is primarily about fast lenses. In reality, we are lured by fast lenses because of how much dreamier they render bokeh than slow lenses, when shot at maximum aperture.
It’s the prospect of melting away background details that seduces us to languish hopelessly over good glass - specifically fast lenses. They’re just so much better. They isolate your subject from environmental distractions better than slow lenses. Moreover, they have the added benefit of more speed in low light situations. Fact is, a fast lens can do everything a slow lens can do - except only better. Given that extra stop or two at its disposal, a fast lenses is far more flexible in addressing photo opportunities in need of decluttering or more light.
For that reason, doesn’t it make sense to want fast lenses? I mean, you never know when you might need that extra stop or two for subject isolation or low light. And if to be prepared is just a matter of choosing a fast lens over a slow lens, then wouldn’t prudence insist we all opt for the faster alternative? In fact, shouldn’t we all opt for the fastest available option? Think of the advantages a Noctilux would have over a Summilux in low light or subject isolation! It could mean the difference in getting that perfect photo under poor shooting conditions.
So, it makes perfect sense to obsess over fast lenses. In addition to that, it also makes sense to carry around a fast lens, since you can never predict when opportunity will arise. But then, just how frequently do these types of photo opportunities ever arise? I mean really, how regularly must you isolate your subject from background clutter for that perfect portrait shot? Furthermore, how often are you forced to document in the worst possible light? I’m not saying that these situations never happen. But, does it happen enough to warrant fast lenses?
In reality, the need to photograph in very low light or blur-out background clutter is infrequent, despite what one popularly assumes. Personally, I do not believe the added weight and expense that comes with the extra stop or two is worth the burden, seeing that I shoot wide open with fast lenses one percent of the time. In that way, it makes no sense for me strain my back and wallet just to be prepared one percent of time, since I shoot stopped down ninety-nine percent of the time - given availability of enough light when I shoot during the day.
Take the photos shared on this blog entry. They were all taken stopped down during the day. And it’s not as if I had to shoot at high ISO to stop down. I captured all these photos at the relatively low film speed of ISO 200 in the late afternoon with the descending sun diffused by the passing clouds. The fact I did not opt for a fast lens had no adverse impact on the documentation of these photos. The sky did not fall, the world did not crumble, and all life did not perish. In the end, all the photos turned out just fine without the use of a fast lens.
I seldom need to take photos in low light. All my photo worthy moments happen during the day, when there is sufficient light to stop down. And even if I were compelled to take photos in very low light, I would still need to stop down - whether to capture a group photo or an environmental portrait with sufficient background clarity. Only if I am forced take a group photo in very low light, might I try to pull off a Stanley Kubrick - by lining up the lead eye of everyone in-frame on the same plane of focus for the money shot at maximum aperture.
But to do that, my heart must be fully committed. Hitting tack focus in very low light on the lead eye of a group of people, all along the same plane of focus, with a fast lens at maximum aperture requires substantive effort - not only in its proper execution, but also in the direction of the subjects. I mean, it is not as if having a fast lens will automatically bring focus into the darkness in a very low light situation. Though the lens might be fast, you still must want a good photo enough to frame and handle that lens properly under poor shooting conditions.
And that is precisely the point. Good glass - regardless of how fast it is - cannot take a good photo for you. For that reason, obsessing over and coveting good glass is counterproductive. What we as photographers should be doing instead is spend more time and attention on improving our proficiency in composition and shooting fundamentals. Of course, that takes substantive effort, which requires a sincere commitment of heart to follow through. After all, the route to better photography is from effort and not good glass or shallow depth of field.
When you finally see the light - stopped down with clarity no less - it forces you to reexamine your want of fast lenses. Our mainstream want of good glass is indeed a riddle. What is most perplexing is that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with good glass. It’s just this obsession over fast lenses that makes no sense, since most of us never need to shoot wide open. And when we do, it’s often better that we stop down a little to optimize our capture. Fact is, we’re mostly shooting stopped down anyway, so we might as well be happy with a slow lens.
Personally, I just believe it makes more sense to regret not having the right lens one percent of the time in low light than to regret having too much lens ninety-nine percent of the time in sufficient available light. Even if I’m ever caught in the situation in which I do not have enough light shooting a slow lens, I will make do. Besides, if I’m ever in that situation, I would still opt to stop down anyway on a fast lens. I mean, let us get real. How many natural low light portraits shot wide open devoid of background clutter do we need to photograph anyway?
That said, good glass is better than bad glass, and wanting what is good is always better than wanting what is bad (or rather not as good). There is no denying that logic. Where this logic falls apart is when one wants good glass for vanity’s sake as oppose to needing it for a substantive reason. To that end, I have a dry box full of fast lenses collecting dust. I mean, I never use any of my Noctilux or wide angle Summilux anymore. They’re really only good for show and technical curiosity, which means I’ll never be caught lugging them around anymore.
So to answer Crom, the Riddle of Glass is very simple. Glass is only good if you use it. As such, that means the good glass we covet the most are the worst glass to have, for we seldom use them or use them fully. Because of that, the best glass to have is the one you are going to use, since that is the one that will motivate your heart to bring out the best in you for capturing the desired results. Taking a good photo depends on your conviction and not a fast lens.
If on the other hand you swear by your Leica 75mm f/1.25 Noctilux-M ASPH, despite weight and expense, then you are a much more committed photographer than I will ever be… with committed being the operative word.
All images have been digitized on a Pakon F135, automatically cropped from full negative during the scanning process, and fine tuned very slightly in Adobe Lightroom.
Three rolls of film (at 24 exposures) were shot and developed at box speed.