…or: Why you should stop agonising over gear, grab your nearest camera and just shoot shoot shoot.
This was meant to be a very different article. You see, stuck as I was with my family in lockdown, I thought it would be the perfect time to compare a bunch of 50mm lenses in everyday use, from a lowly 50mm 1.7 Minolta to a monstrous 55mm 1.4 Zeiss Otus. I was going to post the results blind, and let you all guess which lens was responsible for which shot – but when I got my scans back from the lab I realised that it was a pointless exercise. Let me explain.
Like most people who’ve spent any length of time half-obsessed with photography gear, I’ve collected an awful lot of 50mm lenses. Some were virtually free, attached to camera bodies I was after. Some were super-cheap to replace kit zooms on camera bodies I was after, and some were more carefully considered.
The idea was to shoot all the lenses on the same emulsion at a lowest-common-denominator aperture of f/2.0, and post them randomly ordered without hints or clues.
The contenders were:
Minolta’s MD 50mm f/1.7 (AU$10) on an XD7.
Canon’s EF 50mm f/1.8 (AU$100) on an EOS 300X.
Zeiss’ Planar 50mm f/1.4 (AU$1000) on a Nikon F6.
Zeiss’ Otus 55mm f/1.4 (AU$5000) on a Canon EOS 1V.
The emulsion used was Kodak Ultramax 400, because I want to support Kodak wherever I can, and because I’m too skint to burn through pro film at the moment due to Coronavirus-inspired salary cuts.
But here’s the thing; the photos were all lovely. Despite the drug-store film and bargain-bin price, despite the penalty of being almost wide open, despite being attached to an almost 50 year old camera, the little Minolta didn’t put a foot wrong. The little Canon, that’s so cheap-feeling it should come from a Christmas cracker, produced glorious, sharp, saturated shots, shot after shot. The Zeiss Planar, which has an internet-chatroom reputation for being marshmallow soft and unpredictable, was a joy to use and equally, the images were a joy to behold. And the Otus, which is just so heavy that I hardly ever wanted to pick that camera up, produced predictably beautiful shots – just as good as the Minolta, in fact.
The conclusion, which I must admit even surprise me and I regularly use all of these lenses, is that it really, truly, cross my heart, honest to goodness, pinky swear, doesn’t matter one jot which camera you grab when you walk out the door. Just make sure you grab a camera.
It’s probably worth noting that I’m not saying there’s no difference at all between lenses, or that a tiny Minolta fifty is every bit as good as a big fat Zeiss Otus. On modern sensors, wide open, in portrait use or food photography or a great many professional situations, lenses matter. It’s just that, for the vast majority of what I do as a hobbyist, they don’t.
I’m not going to mention what was shot with what, but please feel free to ask or guess in the comments if you’re interested.
And to all of you whose lives have been turned upside down by this stupid virus, all the best for the future. It will pass. Remember, if you’re going through hell, keep going.
All film purchased from Melbourne’s brilliant Walkens House of Film, and processed and scanned by Melbourne’s brilliant Halide Supply lab.