That Other Lens

Why other? Because it wasn’t made for the camera I use. It’s the first non-native lens I bought, a Takumar 50mm f1.4, produced for Pentax Spotmatic cameras from 1964 – 1975. My copy was made in the 70’s and is coated with Thorium, an innovation at that time, meant to reduce glare. No longer in use, the coating is slightly radioactive. I hope I haven’t alarmed you – it’s a very nice lens.

 

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1. In this photo taken after a rain shower, you can see what’s called smooth bokeh – the almost musical lilt of the out of focus areas – and the decently sharp focus on the middle twig and raindrop. You also may notice a slight yellow cast overall, and “problems” in the colors, e.g. the twig in the lower left corner is unnaturally red, and some others are greenish. This lens isn’t sharp the way modern lenses are and may produce flare and artifacts, but I like it.

 

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2. A spore-heavy fern frond leans toward the ground near the Fidalgo Island shoreline. In the distance is Lopez Island, one of the San Juan Islands.  Words don’t readily convey the different feeling this lens has but I’d say the colors and background have a mellow, warm softness, and the fern leaf here is cleanly rendered.

 

It’s fair to say I still am a novice when it comes to photography, especially the technical aspects.  I never took a photography class, though I did go to art school. Until about ten years ago, photography was essentially a documentary process for me, and I only used basic point and shoot cameras.  When digital came along I bought a simple digital camera and adapted happily – after all, I didn’t miss a darkroom experience that I never had in the first place.

As I became more and more interested in photography for its own sake, I upgraded to an interchangeable lens camera. I went through several of them as I looked for the best combination of features for my situation. My current camera, an Olympus OM-D EM-1, is old by today’s standards, but it works for me. It’s relatively small, has excellent image stabilization, is weather-sealed, accepts a host of lenses made by Olympus and Panasonic, and is solidly made.

 

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3. It’s not only about bokeh; this lens does a beautiful job with sharply focused subjects, too. Two ferns intermingle here – the brown fern (Bracken) will soon decompose on the ground; the green one (Sword fern) stays green all year. The photo was made using a smaller aperture, but because the lens doesn’t “talk” to my camera, there is no data to tell me what aperture I chose. You could always make notes as you shoot if you wanted to evaluate apertures.

 

4. Heavy rain creates an intermittent stream that will aid the decomposition of leaves.

 

After getting the OM-D EM-1 with its standard kit lens, I began exploring different lenses. I was curious to know just how using a different lens affects the outcome of an image. I learned that prime (fixed focal length, or non-zoom) lenses are generally sharper than zoom lenses. The kit lens was a zoom and I wasn’t crazy about it, so I bought a prime that I could use in a variety of situations, a 20mm f1.7 by Panasonic. On my micro 4/3rds camera it’s like a 35mm or 40mm on a “normal” camera. I loved the 20mm and used it often – for travel, landscapes, closeups, you name it. I was getting the bug. I saw what changing a lens can do.

 

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5. After rain, in my yard, mid December.

 

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6. Another photo from the same day, looking down instead of up, using a smaller aperture.

 

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7. Thistle plants silhouetted against thin December sunlight at Deception Pass State Park.

 

As I read about different lenses I began seeing discussions about a certain vintage lens with a very enthusiastic following.  My curiosity was piqued. It sounded like the kind of lens that would render outdoor scenes with a certain poetic finesse, and I was drawn to that idea. I do like the technical bells and whistles that make modern lenses render scenes with great veracity, but I think there’s a place for both kinds of photographs – those with a more impressionistic look and those with a perfectly documented look. Of course there are many looks besides those two; that is just one polarity I tend to be very aware of.

 

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8. On an overcast December day the mood is somber, with a particularly soft beauty the vintage lens conveys well. I was attracted by the layers of texture and color: the dark water of the pond, the reflection, the cattails’ broken leaves and tall flower spikes, the lichen-covered fine twigs and tree branches behind them, and the hidden depths of the forest.

 

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9. A raindrop hangs suspended from the tip of a Redcedar leaf.

 

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10. The same tree, another raindrop. Using spot metering, and pointing the camera at the leaf in the first picture, and at the sky in this one, results in photos with altogether different moods. Spot metering is one of those exciting discoveries that opened up many possibilities for me.

 

I found the Super Takumar lens I’d read about on Amazon and bought it (in 2014) for $145, with tax and shipping. These days you can find it for less than that – a bargain compared to modern lenses. I bought an adapter online too, which set me back another $10 or $20, and then I was off and running!

Getting used to the lens was a challenge; for a long time, the focus seemed wobbly. I missed using autofocus and knowing my image would be sharp where I wanted it to be sharp. Maybe the lens wasn’t attached to the adapter properly, but in any case, after a little fiddling and by returning to the lens over and over again, I got used to it.

Each frame requires focusing. You must set the aperture, too. That’s a great way to make you slow down and think before shooting. Pretty soon changing the aperture and focusing the lens both become second nature. The all-metal lens has a satisfying, solid feel and is heavy for its small size. You feel like you’re holding something worthwhile. The mechanics are a joy – being a tactile person, I appreciate the smooth feel of the well-engineered focus and aperture rings.

 

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11. A fallen leaf comes to rest on driftwood in my yard.

 

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12. A narrow patch of woods between my house and the house next door is overgrown with blackberries.

 

 

 

 

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14. Thin blades of grass that grow out of the rock dangle from a cliff at Deception Pass State Park.

 

15. Next to the cliff, a sandy beach strewn with driftwood and strands of Bullwhip kelp is pockmarked from morning rain.

 

16. A cyanotype made in Silver Efex Pro of a mass of broken reeds, also at Deception Pass.

 

17. Lace lichen caught on the tips of Douglas fir tree branches could be mid-air calligraphy.

 

I go back to the vintage lens when I want to shake things up a little, or when I recognize conditions are good for using it. I think it has a special affinity for spring greens and the warm colors of autumn leaves. Not so much for snow. It’s recognized as a great portrait lens; maybe I’ll explore that one day.  For now, it’s a lens I appreciate for its unique rendering and for the way it helps me see the world a little differently.

A review of the lens is here.

I’ve shown photos made with this lens before here.

 

 

18. Even in December, mushrooms appear in the grass.