Sunday, November 25, 2012

the curse of the 50mm lens

Cozy up with a tall glass of egg nog and enjoy!

Temptation had me yearning do a Thanksgiving post but fate decided otherwise. Over the last two years I had written posts dedicated to the American day dedicated to giving thanks and moreover, giving in to pure, unadulterated gluttony.

Two years ago, it was my story how to shoot your nuts but fear not, it was more a lighting tutorial rather than a violent story of castration. You can read about that post [here]. By the way, the nuts of mention are absolutely mouthwatering. If I'm not mistaken, the tutorial also has the delicious recipe.

Last year's turkey day was some of my ranting (as I'm known to do) with an awesome run and gun, from the hip, improvisational photo shoot. The results were rather interesting. In the end of the post I also shared the how-to of the images included. Be sure to check that one out over [here].


Don't get me wrong, I had every intention of strobing some turkey, stuffing and mashed potatoes. The urge to throw the Westcott Apollo over a plate of pumpkin pie was gnawing at my consciousness. So why on earth did I divert from the holiday cheer? It was something so powerful that my Thanksgiving leftovers, converted into a hoagie on a seeded Sarcone's roll, created by yours truly, couldn't cure.

The curse of the 50mm lens! [queue film noir music clip; Dunt Dunt Dunnnn]

Flashback (not the LSD type)

[queue harp intro to my past; dwoola blinga slinga] Ok, I don't know how to put the harp sound into words but I know you can hear the sound playing in your head.

The date was December 11, 2010, I shared with the world, what I thought would be a one time occurrence, the tragic story of my Canon 50mm 1.4 USM. Low and behold, the story did have a surprise ending. I highly recommend getting reading that post [here] before you dare to go any further. Let me emphasize to photographers of all levels, who have not had the opportunity to work with a 50mm prime, I beg of you, I forbid you, for that matter, to become familiar with the back story before continuing any further. It may change your life. [HERE] [IS] [THE] [LINK] [!] [!] [!]

Bold statement? I suppose. Are there many of you who did not heed my warning? Most likely. Hell, I know me and if I told myself that I had to read that post before continuing, there is a significant chance that I would have ignored myself. So, for those that were defiant in my direction, I will give a short synopsis of what went down in that article, in my life. For those who actually read the post, wow, bravo! Impressive to say the least. It reminds me of one of those "Which Way" books from my childhood. I digress. For those who actually did read, I'll keep the backstory short and sweet.

It wasn't long after dedicating my life to capturing light in interesting ways that I learned about the importance and quality of working with prime lenses. For those new to the photography world, a prime lens is one that is of fixed focal length. If you are a newbie and purchased your first DSLR kit, chances are your first lens is the 18-55mm 3.5-5.6, whether it be Nikon, Canon, or whatever brand. Typically, especially entry level, DSLR packages come with this zoom lens. It zooms, You can shoot wide at 18mm all the way up to a normal length of 55mm. Primes, on the other hand, don't allow for this. Primes come in just about any focal length. You can get super wide 10mm primes, 50mm, 85mm, 400mm, whatever.

Fixed focal length lenses have some benefits over zooms. Now, this is not to say there aren't awesome zooms out there. The holy trinity of zooms (more about that another time) are superb pieces of glass, and the prices to match. Where was I? Oh yeah, primes. Ok, one of the super duper features of nice prime lenses are their ability to have nice large apertures. With the big aperture (f-stops) you get two benefits.

First, is the ability to let lots of light through the lens. Allowing lots of light through the glass allows you to work more efficiently (faster shutter speeds) in low light situations.

Second, with those big wide open, fast, apertures (lower f-stops equate to larger apertures) you get beautiful bokeh (soft blurred backgrounds).

Lastly, and I'm sure I'm leaving some stuff out, and this is something all beginners should pay attention to, the primes force you to FOCUS WITH YOUR FEET. Many times newbies and even seasoned pros, when working with zooms, find themselves planting their feet in one spot and working to get the shot from that single solitary position. With primes or fixed focal length glass, you are forced to move in, out and around your subjects, working to get the right composition. In the long run, this will exponentially improve your photography skills.

As usual, I got a bit off track. Now, back to the backstory. It was back in 2007 when I decided on my first prime. after much research I had decided on the Canon 50mm 1.4 USM (I was a Canon shooter back then). A 50mm lens is, in my opinion, the most versatile of the primes. This length is the closest to what you see with your eyes. As for brand choice, I never get third party glass. I used to shoot Canon and used only Canon glass. Nowadays I shoot Nikon and use only Nikkor glass. Just a personal preference. Now, Canon makes a few 50mm lenses. The 50 1.2 is a sweet lens but very pricey. The 50 1.8, or plastic fantastic, is ok and super cheap. I went with the middle ground. The 50 1.4 was solid, fast and right around five hundred bucks.

I immediately fell in love with the 50. It became my goto glass. I had a couple zooms and an 85 1.8, all pro, top quality glass but that 50 had me at hello. I actually had to force myself not to use it as all of my images looked like, well, they were shot at 50mm. I had to change things up from time to time.

It wasn't long after having my first 50 that problems began to occur. For some odd reason, the autofocus motor simply died. I was devastated to say the least. Turned out that was a common problem with that particular model. Search after Google search led me to the same unknown answer but infamous problem to the popular Canon 50 1.4.

I wasn't a fan of manual focus but hell, Ansel Adams didn't have autofocus. I do everything else manually, why not focus the old school way. You know what, my hat's off to Ansel Adams. Some things are just better left in the past. Don't get me wrong, there are many times that I need to focus manually but for normal situations, autofocus is the only way to fly. Needless to say, I became fed up with that lens in no time.

The story didn't end there. It was some random day that the lens miraculously came back to life. I was almost in tears. My love was back. That didn't last too long though. Ever since that day it died, that 50 never worked the same again. The motor would crap out any time it wanted to and usually at the worst possible time. I did, however, find a way to coax the motor back to life. By simply working the focus ring back and forth, in autofocus mode, it would usually fire back up. A small annoyance but it worked nonetheless.

At that time, I didn't feel cursed, I just felt I got the bad apple from the bunch.

Sometime In 2012

It was mid January when I made the big decision to change my entire photographic system. Until this year I was a straight Canon shooter. Now, besides the 50mm incident, I never had an issue with Canon gear. I simply had a secret crush on Nikon. When both companies announced their new flagship cameras, I made the decision to switch. It was the D4 that seduced me with her big curvy body. I ordered immediately. Making the big jump, I also had to invest in a pro line of Nikkor glass. For the work I typically do, I decided on three Nikon lenses, the 24-70 2.8 (one of the holy trinity lenses), the 85 1.8 and of course, the 50 1.4. Yep, I couldn't start my Nikon system without the 50mm. It was a must have for my gear arsenal.

It was just before June when I got the call from Oswaldo, my rep from Calumet. He was calling to tell me that my shipment of gear had arrived. In seconds I hopped in the Xterra and sped down to Columbus blvd., the location of Calumet in Philly.

I fell immediately in love with my new system. The D4, sexier in my hands than I could have ever imagined. The lineup of glass, glorious. Wouldn't ya know it, I was shooting that 50 as if we were old friends, reunited. [queue me frolicking in a field with the 50]


It was a warm day late in August. I was riding shotgun in a Jeep, with Karol Escobar driving, headed towards the Italian Market to meet with some investors of All Hallows' Eve. She parked on 10th Street, just off of Federal. Parked in my lap was my bag and on top of that some gear, including the new 50. I was eager to get shooting that day. My subject, the investor, was a very unique individual. Perfect for the front of my camera. Without hesitation, I jumped out of the Jeep, street side. Little did I know, I hadn't secured all of my gear. Thinking back, I'm not sure how that could conceivably happen as I'm a bit obsessive about protecting my gear.

The unthinkable happened.

The world halted to a motion slower than any Phantom could capture.

My body froze.

The new 50 smashed face first into the asphalt.

FUUDDGGE! Remember when Ralphy knocked over the lug nuts?

The curse was upon me, I now had no doubt in my mind.

She was bent, bruised and broken. I was in tears. Literally. I had to get my composure together as I was to begin shooting only minutes from that tragic disaster.

I forced myself to erase the event from my head, at least until I completed the pending shoot.

A couple hours and a few hundred frames later, the shoot was wrapped. I made my way home barely able to hold my head up as I imagined our short time together on this big blue marble.

What was the deal with the 50mm? Am I cursed? Are we not meant to be together? Is there a force unknown to me, trying to keep us apart?

The answer to those questions shall soon be revealed. Luckily, while investing in my Nikon system, I had also contacted good friend and my State Farm Agent, John Flaherty. At the time of purchase I also invested in an insurance policy covering all of my new and existing gear.

I filed the claim the same day as the tragedy occurred. Due to being extremely busy, I couldn't order another new 50 until this past week. It should arrive any day now. I may take it to be exorcised or blessed, I haven't yet decided.

I don't wish this curse on anyone. I just advise all photographers to understand what I've written and take it to heart. Maybe the curse is only on me. I do hope so. These past events are enough to drive a man crazy. Good luck to you all.

Just When You Thought It Was Over

Yeah yeah yeah, I know, today's post is a bit lengthy. I could leave without a quick tutorial/discussion about the photo. That's why were here, right? Screw being cursed or whatever. The show must go on.

The opening image is that of my broken Nikkor 50mm f/1.4G. Between the cap and the body you can see the actual front element resting on the cap. Still hard for me to look at.

My original idea was to capture the lens falling to the floor and popping the strobe just as it hits ground. Without a sound trigger, this was quite a challenge. I set the camera to a shutter of 2 seconds, with an aperture of f/2.8 and an ISO of 50. The strobe, which you can see in the BTS image, was set to 1/16 -2/3 power. These settings allowed for a nice ambient with the bokehlicous lights on our new Christmas tree to work as the background. Opening up to 2.8 created that nice blur. I had to crank down the ISO to 50 so that I could get a long enough shutter to give me time to drop the lens a few inches while popping the strobe. I handheld the Pocketwizard to pop the strobe.

After missing each frame my wife became more and more annoyed as the sound of the metal hitting the floor was a bit loud. I shot a few more frames before she finally put her foot down. She explained I could go somewhere else but my annoying while she was tree decorating had to stop. I couldn't move locations as I wanted those lights for the background. The option was to trash the action shot and go for a static positioning of the lens.

For the static shot I could have readjusted the exposure but decided the flash to ambient ratio were perfect. Hey, if it ain't broke don't fix it. Camera shake was no worry at 2 seconds since the body was secured to the floor with a bit of homemade vibration reduction (a towel under the camera for cushion.

Take a look at the BTS photo again. Notice on the front of the strobe head, some mod? That's a Rogue grid. I had it set to 16 degrees, really channeling the strobe into a nice narrow beam, focusing the light only on the lens and nowhere else.

Between the grid and the flash head is a 1/4 CTO gel. I was working with the tungsten bulbs of the tree lights and a tungsten light overhead. The 1/4 CTO balanced the strobe with the ambient, just right. Oh yeah, I set the white balance to a Kelvin of 2850 degrees, ideal for tungsten situations. Sometimes I even go down to 2700, if I feel the image is too warm.

Post production consisted of, hmmm, not much really. A couple teeny tiny ACR adjustments, nothing more.


I don't feel like typing anymore. I'm tired, thirsty and hungry. I gotta go!

Oh, the dog bowl, if you were wondering. Did I use it to bounce light back at the lens for some rim? nope. Added fill for the image? nope.


Sometimes things are just what they are.

Until next time...