Thursday, March 5, 2009

New Gear is Fun. Yes, Indeedy.

I've actually been pretty good, compared to the way I used to be, about buying new photography gear. Other than the new printer I bought myself for Christmas (which I needed, as the old one was getting very old and the ink was getting hard to find and expensive) I haven't bought anything for quite some time.

Well, the tax refunds came, and I felt it was my patriotic duty to stimulate the economy a little.

I bought one of these:

EF 135mm f/2.8 with Softfocus

I read about this lens in a book Canon gave me for being one of the first purchasers of the original Digital Rebel (the EOS 300D.) I've been lusting after it for years. It's a 135mm prime lens with a max aperture of f2.8, which is faster than most zoom lenses, but not all that fast for a prime. However, it is unique, so far as I know, amongst currently available lenses in that it has a selectable soft-focus mechanism. It uses controlled spherical aberration to soften the image to two selectable degrees (you can also turn it off.)

In English, that means it can make the subject of the image softer without affecting depth of field or plane of focus. That's what that switch labeled "SOFT" is for - 0 for no softening, 1 for first degree softening, 2 for max softening. Example:

This is a totally unretouched self-portrait. Note how it looks like a Gaussian Blur has been applied or something... but the details are still reasonably clear, which would require either high expertise with the Blur filter, or a lot of fiddling with the parameters to get the optimum blur for this particular image, and maybe partially masking out the beard, which would have been very hard to not over-soften while getting the rest of the face right. Alternatively, I could have used a fast prime and opened it way up, but then I'd have had a very narrow depth of field, which also requires a lot of fiddling to get right, or a very high level of expertise, and even if you get it right, produces radical falloff on a dimensional subject if you want a fairly high level of softening.

This lens just did it all for me, with no work on my part whatsoever. (That's a Level 2 softening, exposure f2.8 at 1/200.) It produces soft, dreamy images which don't look overprocessed or out-of-focus. It'll be very, very handy for things like portraits of "ordinary people," who often benefit from a little softening, and should produce great results even in light which is a little harsh. I'm excited about it.

Interestingly, you hardly ever meet a photographer who's ever even heard of this thing. It was one of the very first Canon EF lenses, introduced way back in the day - first year of manufacture was 1987! It has no IS, and no USM. It's almost as loud as the infamous "Angry Hornet" 35mm f2. Its autofocus, for a lens this fast, is kinda slow in lower light, and it's a bit temperamental. However, as is so often the case with fiddly equipment, it seems to call one to rise to its challenge. You just want to play with it.

The autofocus does work in all softness modes, but the plane of focus shifts when softness is altered, which means you can't focus in 0 and then switch to 1 or 2. At large apertures or high softness settings, you have to pretty much trust the autofocus, especially in lower light, which means you have to be familiar with your camera and know when to be confident that the AF is locked on to what you think it is. On a side note, my cameras are always set to "Center AF only," and I lock-and-pan with separate Focus and Exposure locks, unless I am shooting something that moves around a lot, when I might activate more AF points. This helps me be consistent in my focusing technique.

So, like I said, it's a little touchy. But when it hits, it hits. Example:

ISO1600, f2.8@1/100. Softness level 1. The only light was a 40W tungsten bulb above and to camera right, probably at least six feet away. A little noisy, but dreamy and romantic as all-get-out, with very little post (crop, slight color adjustment.)

Also, I got a Kindle2. I'm still not sure why, but somebody gave me one. It's actually kind of cool. Free wireless internet is a Good Thing.



jimmyd said...

Well, I've heard of the lens. In fact, I've considered purchasing one, probably a used one, more than few times.

When it comes to "lust," I actually "lust" for the Canon 135mm f/2 L prime. But the "L" version of Canon's 135 prime lenses is pricey and for good reason: It might be the absolute best 35mm SLR portrait lens on the planet.

Back in the day (I'm talking about the late 70s and early 80s) I used to shoot a lot of actors and actresses for their headshots. I almost always shot B&W film and processed it myself in my own darkroom. I also almost always shot those hopeful Hollywood stars with a Canon FD 135 f/3.5 prime.

I'm having a hard time rationalizing the price of an EF 135 L prime. (A new runs about $1k.) Since I probably wouldn't use the lens all that much--I don't shoot that many headshot portraits these days--I might buy the EF 135 f/2.8 Softfocus, albeit a used on. I see them often enough on Craigslist for under $300.

If I do purchase one, I doubt I'll use the soft-focus function too often other than experimentally. I think I'd rather shoot sharp for most of my images and add soft-focus, if I'm so inclined, in post.

jimmyd said...

Addendum: Cuz you got me all thinking about this lens today, my wallet is now a couple of hundred bucks lighter. Yep, I found one on Craigslist for $200 and bought it. Altho I'm $200 poorer my camera bag is one lens richer. I guess that's a better way to look at it. Besides, if I don't like the lens I'm sure I can sell it myself on Craigslist or Ebay for what I paid for it.