Poagao's Journal

Absolutely Not Your Monkey

Mar 26 2008

Photographic experiments

I’ve been experimenting lately with restricting myself to just one lens on my 20D, the cheapest, lightest, most basic one I have, namely the 50mm 1.8 prime that you can pick up for next to nothing. The reason I’ve been doing this is not just for greater portability; after all, a larger zoom isn’t really that big a difference when you’re carrying it in a bag. What I really wanted to do was see what happens when I purposely limit myself to a single focal length. The last time I did such a thing was when I had my first camera, a fully manual Pentax K1000 with only the basic 50mm lens, back in the 80’s, and it seems to me as if I have been relying too much on varying focal lengths, especially wide-angle shots. Sure, my popularity on Flickr will probably drop, but hopefully I’ll learn something useful in the process.

protectOf course, with the cropped sensor on my 20D, the 50mm is actually an 80mm lens, but this is perfect for people photography, another area where I need more practice. Most of my photos feature dark empty streets with maybe a person or two in the frame as a kind of punctuation rather than the subject. It’s not that I don’t see people photo possibilities when I’m walking around; rather, I’m too slow and too self-conscious to actually capture them. It seems to me that as soon as someone catches me eye, they are somehow automatically alerted to my presence. I am seen as a threat, and they retreat in fear.

Part of this, of course, is probably due to my appearance, as I’ve been told that I can come across as a bit menacing to people who don’t know me (and even people who do know me). I think, however, that my attitude and reaction to the situation also has a lot to do with it. When I see a photo possibility, someone with an interesting face, for example, in a visually interesting environment, I have an internal reaction that translates into some external signs that the subject senses. They feel my attention and react to it. I need to find a way past this (or through it) if I am going to improve my people photography. For now, I have to work in crowded areas like political events and bus stations to get such shots. Wayne showed me some tricks for faster focusing, but the 50 1.8 is not a fast focuser; usually by the time I get a focus lock, be it on auto or manually, the would-be subject has already fled in terror. Wayne also recommended the Sigma 30mm 1.4, and if I were sure that I would be staying with the 20D I would definitely consider it, but I’m not going to buy any new glass until I find out just what’s going on with Canon’s lineup over the next few months.

Speaking of new cameras, Mike Johnson is wondering just why nobody’s making a “Decisive Moment Digital” camera, i.e. a simple, portable point-and-shoot camera with a large sensor and a fast prime lens. “a small, light, unobtrusive carry-around camera with great handling and world-class responsiveness, capable of being used in all manner of lighting conditions and yielding DSLR-quality results on the gallery wall,” he writes. “The 21st-century equivalent of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s stealthy street-shootin’ Leica.” I completely agree. I’d much rather have the kind of camera he’s talking about than the postage-stamp-sized sensors current p/s cameras have. I don’t need most of the bells and whistles like face detection or in-camera color processing and 14 gazillion megapixels that the manufacturers are feeding the masses.

I suspect the reason camera makers aren’t doing this is because they feel that “real” photographers already have huge DSLRs and wouldn’t go for them, while most people are happy to have a camera that captures the kids playing soccer and don’t care about image quality. I think, however, that “real” photographers would go for such a DMDC in droves, just to have it on them during the day when they don’t have their huge 1D or D3 or whatever weighing them down. Instead, ironically, they’ve been taking the point-and-shoot out of the running for such a demographic by actually worsening performance and image quality by cramming more and more “features” and megapixels onto smaller sensors with substandard glass, counting on in-camera processing to make them look semi-ok on the little LCD screen. As a result, photographers are combing through e-bay looking for p/s cameras from a few years ago, before these trends got so utterly ridiculous.

fixDavid sent me a link to an article that maybe explains why I like to go walking around, particularly with a camera. I don’t feel comfortable looking for pictures so much when I’m with a group of people, or in a social scene. I feel (even more) like some kind of misfit because I’d rather interrupt the conversation to take a shot than miss it. It sounds overly dramatic, but it’s like I’m seeing another dimension that most other people don’t, in a Sixth Sense creepy kind of way, except I don’t see dead people; I see pictures. Everywhere. And yes, they don’t even know they’re pictures.

When I first went digital, however, I thought I could shoot everything, but I was wrong; it has a real cost: time. I need to engage in more self-censoring, instead of just shooting everything that I see. Combing through so many mediocre shots just takes too long, and I already spend too much time each day staring at a screen. I know I can take a decent shot. Flickr and other sites are stuffed with millions of such shots. I need to see what else I can do.

posted by Poagao at 1:27 am  


  1. I remember reading somewhere (can’t remember where though) that Sigma have plans for a camera with a 50mm lens like you mention.

    Comment by David on Formosa — March 26, 2008 @ 2:56 am

  2. Yes, the Sigma DP-1. It has a new type of 4.69 megapixel sensor that stacks the pixels in layers to imitate a larger array of 14 megapixels. Some people say it puts out DSLR-quality photos, while others say it’s a crock. I’m going to wait and see. It could be a good idea, though. And the lens is 28mm-equivalent, not 50, and it’s only f4, not terribly fast. A good, fast 50mm prime is what I’m talking about.

    Comment by Poagao — March 26, 2008 @ 3:30 am

  3. see, it’s posts like this that subliminally compel me to go buy a new camera. Poagao: shill for the camera companies.

    Comment by Prince Roy — March 28, 2008 @ 10:11 pm

  4. There’s nothing subliminal about it, my Liege. I’m just trying to get people to buy cameras for the right reasons, and to be better informed when they do. If I could do it subliminally, I’d be a lot richer than I am now, that’s for sure.

    Comment by Poagao — March 29, 2008 @ 12:36 am

  5. I’d rather interrupt the conversation to take a shot than miss it.

    I can relate to this. I’ll always have one eye on the person/people I’m speaking with and the other scanning the surrounding area for potential shots.

    Comment by cfimages — April 1, 2008 @ 7:30 pm

  6. Ricoh GR Digital II. I think this is a nifty camera that fits many of the criteria listed by Mike Johnson.

    I find walking around with a prime to be a liberating experience. I did this a while back with my trusty 50mm f/1.4 manual focus Nikon lens on a mostly mechanical body, the Nikon FE2. Removing the zoom from the equation really allowed me to mentally focus. I also enjoy the simple non-cluttered interface of older cameras.

    Comment by sjcma — April 3, 2008 @ 6:06 pm

  7. The Ricoh is a good camera, but it fails in one important way: the sensor is only 1/1.75″ big, far too small, and the largest aperture on the 28mm lens is 2.4. It’s roughly the same megapixel-to-size ratio as the Panasonic/Leica D-lux 3, and I haven’t been very impressed with it’s low-light capabilities. Maybe Ricoh will go in that direction for the next iteration, though. Right now the only small-ish camera that comes close to Johnson’s ideas is the hugely expensive Leica M8, and it’s kind of big for a pocket even if it weren’t 10x too expensive.

    Comment by Poagao — April 4, 2008 @ 10:31 am

  8. Yeah, 1/1.7″ ain’t big, but still better than most point-and-shoots’ 1/2.3″ sensors out there.

    If it’s rangefinders that you’re after, a much cheaper option would be to go with the Epson R-D1. Still not very pocketable, but with a pancake lense and jacket with big pockets, it should be fairly manageable.

    Comment by sjcma — April 4, 2008 @ 10:54 am

  9. The Epson looks interesting, if also a bit too large and expensive, like the Leica M8. Also, Epson discontinued it last year, and I’ve heard QC is spotty for that model.

    Comment by Poagao — April 4, 2008 @ 11:48 am

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