Sunday, February 18, 2007

The Elusive "Normal" and the Myth of the Fifty

The "normal" lens these days is a cheap consumer zoom, ordinarily bundled with a DSLR. Modern computer design, manufacturing techniques, and quality-control strategies have made many of these lenses into minor triumphs of human enterprise, akin to an economy car that doesn't need an oil change for a hundred thousand miles. The fact that they can be "good enough" optically while being so cheap to manufacture and also versatile enough to market easily is a "hat trick" that is, within its small sphere, mighty impressive.

Many such lenses are surprisingly good under a certain percentage of shooting conditions, too. Of course, however good they might be at ƒ/8, on a tripod or on a day with plenty of light, focused sufficiently close to infinity to be optimal, still, few exceed what might be termed a "B" grade overall. Spend more money, and you can do better. Most people never do. The mere act of purchasing a better lens as a better lens immediately puts a camera owner into a minority.

Pursuing the absolute best puts any photographer into a very small minority. Most people—let's not be too delicate here—don't give a rat's ass.

Thirty years ago, a slow 50mm lens ("slow" meaning within shouting distance of ƒ/2) was "normal," in that it was included with many SLR purchases and was considered the most basic lens. Photographers could upgrade to a faster 50mm and/or one with close-focusing capabilities (the so-called macro, which often wasn't; a macro-focusing lens is one which can reach and exceed 1:1 in magnification). Buyers often had fun building up lens "arsenals," "covering" a variety of focal lengths. Emblematic of the centrality of the 50mm in those days, and oft cited, was the fact that Henri Cartier-Bresson used nothing but. (Not strictly true, but close enough.) Now, of course, there are legions of enthusiastic photographers who have never used a 50mm at all. It's more fashionable now to denigrate than the praise the 50mm. It's a bit of a throwback.

Still, it remains an interesting focal length. It's just a bit too long on 35mm. The standard is that a "normal" angle of view for any format is the measure of its diagonal, which for 35mm is approximately 42mm. This would be more normal than normal. (It is often stated that 50mm became the standard because Oskar Barnack chose it arbitrarily for the first Leica. Not true; the "Ur-Leica" had a lens much closer to true normal for the format, at least according to an Englishman who got to take it apart once).

The slightly long 50mm has two salient visual properties in my opinion (to give credit where credit is due, I think I heard both ideas articulated first by John Kennerdell, a writer/photographer of travel guides for Asia). First, it has a certain "chameleon" property. That is, it can be made to mimic a slightly telephoto "look" and also a slightly wide-angle look, depending on how the photographer "sees" in any certain situation. Assuming you've learned how to mentally organize pictures as wide-angle compositions and as short-tele compositions, this chameleon property can be endlessly intriguing. Second—and this is impossible to prove—it may be true that, with a 50mm, you get a lower percentage of "acceptable" compositions but a higher percentage of true "hits"—pictures that are really outstanding—than you do when you're using "easier" focal lengths. This is John Kennerdell's thought, anyway, and I've come to agree with the notion, although of course I am—and, I would imagine, John is, too—short of the kind of data that would overcome skepticism.

From a lens-connoisseurship standpoint, there is one truism about 50mm lenses that I think is, in a very subtle way, a myth: and that is that they're almost all of very high quality optically. "Even cheap 50's are great," you'll read on the 'net. Or words to that effect.

Well—acknowledging that I'm looking at this from a fiercely uncompromising, true-believer optical nitpicker standpoint—I don't agree. It may be that there are a lot more examples of A-minus lenses among 50s than other types, and it may also be that the average is very high, and that the worst ones don't fall below a high C. But overall, I am more likely to be happy with a 35mm or an 85mm design than I am to be truly happy with a 50. A-minus and B-plus 50s are common, but A-plus 50s are rare indeed. There are just not all that many lenses of this focal length that meet my standards. The list of the very best is a very short list.

I've recently found another one that makes the grade, which is the occasion for these posts. Read on.

This is the second of three related posts, in descending order this time (anti-blog style)—continuing below.


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