Ah Young Hong

Promo shots I did for opera singer Ah Young Hong. This one was with the Helios 44-2 58mm, which can be very nice for overexposed shots.

Shutter: 1/40th, ISO: 1000. F-stop probably somewhere around 5.

We loved this outtake, done with the Helios 40-2 85mm next to one of the Juan Munoz sculptures outside of the Hirshhorn Museum.

Shutter: 1/500th, ISO: 80, f/1.5 to get the full swirly Helios bokeh.

One of the shots we were going for was something to use on the poster of an upcoming opera. The tone needed was dark and gritty, which was tough since our photoshoot was in the day and dark alleys weren't an option. But we found a good indoor wall of big stone bricks:

And with just a bit of editing the shot was grungy enough...

Asahi Takumar 135mm f/3.5 lens. Shutter: 1/50th, ISO: 1250, F-stop around 5.6.

If You Leave Showcase

I'm a big fan of the If You Leave page. They curate photos from around the world that consistently have a wonderful balance of artistry, technique, and experimentalism. The other day I submitted this bat photo to their flickr pool.

Pentax Asahi Takumar 135mm f/3.5 lens at f/3.5. Shutter: 1/250. ISO: 2500.

I had taken many bat photos over a period of two weeks, but this was my favorite, for both the clarity of the wing's transparency and how the face is in a perfect profile creating a silhouette that (to me anyway) is suggestive of determined movement. I was hoping it might make If You Leave's various social media feeds, but when it did I saw that it's one of 200 photos that will be reviewed for two November exhibitions - one in London, one in Berlin. Only 20 photos will make the cut, but it's fun to be in the running!

The idea for the photo came about one night after I shot one of the free summer punk shows in DC's Fort Reno Park. I was walking through a quiet corner of the park after dusk, and I noticed bats overhead. I started to come back to that spot almost nightly, getting a lot of mosquito bites and figuring out the best ways to catch the shot I wanted.

Yet again, I found I got the best results with my Asahi Takumar 135mm. It's not very fast (f/3.5) for low light, but with manual focus I didn't want too wide open of an aperture anyway. I used zone focusing of around 10 to 16 meters. I'd try to focus a bit while shooting, but it was quite a challenge - the Asahi focus ring has a very long throw, and bats are such fast, zigzaggy flyers. I found that 1/250, maybe 1/200, was the slowest I could go with shutter speeds.

One thing about shooting as the light fades - our eyes are so good at adjusting to dusk that the light might look the same to you as it did at sunset 30 minutes or an hour earlier, but you've had to make constant adjustments to your camera's settings. The aperture of pupil has opened all the way up to about f/2.1 from anywhere as high as about f/8.3. The next time you've been out in low light for a while, check out how much bokeh your naked eye can have. It can be tricky to actually see well, but if you hold your hand in front of your eyes while focusing on something a few feet away, you'll see in the corner of your eye that your hand is in a nice f/2.1 blur.

One night while going after these shots, I stayed long after the usable levels of light had faded. I was enjoying the full moon and the peace of the empty park when I noticed one of these deer walking not twenty feet away from me. It had no idea I was there. I was amazed at how silently it moved over the grass, and also nervous it would notice me and come after me with those antlers. But it moved on, and after he and his friends met by some streetlights I got this shot.

This one was with the Helios 40-2 85mm lens. Shutter: 1/10. ISO: 3200. I believe I had the aperture somewhere around f/2.5. 

Three Silhouettes

Turner Classic Movies has, to my joy, been running film noir classics all summer. In keeping with their summer of darkness, here are 3 black and white silhouette shots.

The first was selected for Explore on Flickr. That mostly just means bragging rights, but the image got over 6,000 views so that's neat I guess. I was walking up Wisconsin Avenue in Washington DC, and I noticed a guy walking into the light of the alley I was passing. I was shooting the Zeiss Distagon 35mm wide open at f/1.4.

Zeiss Distagon ZA 35mm f/1.4. Shutter: 1/60th, f/1.4, ISO: 400.

The next is with the Helios 44-2. Not the type of shot that lens is best for, but I was happy that the bird waited there long enough for me to move until I was catching it against one of the brighter bits of cloud.

Helios 44-2. Shutter: 1/1000, f/11, ISO: 100. Extra tweaking in editing to turn the gloomy up!

Next is Hemlines playing against the sunset at Fort Reno here in DC. This one goes back to the Asahi Takumar 135mm f/3.5. I talked about that lens in my last post, but I have to say again what a bargain it is to get this kind of performance from a lens that can bet found well under $200. The sharpness is so crisp that it picked up individual hairs here very clearly from 15+ feet away.

Asahi Takumar 135mm f/3.5. Shutter: 1/2500, f/7.1 (or something close to that), ISO: 250.

The Helios 40-2 85mm f/1.5 as a Concert Lens

The Helios 40-2 85mm (actually 85.18 mm) portrait lens is very much a cult item. A new one from Russia runs for about $450 and vintage Soviet copies will often run over $300. Photographers have even started taking them off of the Soviet night-vision devices that utilized stripped-down versions of them, even though those are locked into wide-open f/1.5 aperture.

Everyone who isn't trying to sell you one is in agreement that there's nothing great about its image quality. It's also not very convenient to shoot with. It's quite large for an 85mm, and it's absurdly heavy at over two pounds -- almost twice the weight of the Sony camera body I hooked it up to.

So why is there a market for it? Because of its very unique, weird, swirly bokeh. Click here (all links open in a new window) for a great example from the lens's flickr pool. If you've got just the right background - usually branches and leaves with abundant light - then the out-of-focus light will melt and funnel around the center. Another typical example. Even when you don't have the perfect background for that effect, you'll still get unique results. Not usually pleasing in my opinion, but unique.

I gave the lens a try for concert photography. I've never seen anyone else use it for that, but I figured it's not an all-bad fit. The fast f/1.5 is good for a concert's low light, and I like using portrait lenses for concerts. You usually won't be able to fit the whole band in your shot, but a lot of concert photography is ultimately one or two-subject portrait photography anyway.

I took it to a small-venue show and decided to shoot exclusively at f/1.5. Obviously focusing at that setting was a challenge, especially since the focus ring has a fairly long throw. And even when you do get it in focus, it's soft at f/1.5...

Upcoming Washington, DC band Nox. The focus was't quite perfect on the eye and face, but the lens's softness worked well with the backlighting here, giving a bit of a dreamy halo. Shutter: 1/60, f/1.5, ISO: 1600.

Puff Pieces. This was as good as I was able to get from the lens in terms of image quality performance, and I thought it was pretty decent for a wide-open shot. Nice color and respectable sharpness - other than the lens flare circle below the spotlight and a few hints of lens's bokeh style, it looks like a shot you'd expect from pricier modern Canon or Nikon glass. Shutter: 1/60, f/1.5, ISO 500.

Chain and the Gang, one of my favorite bands to see live. Nice little lens flare center right, and as well as some interesting flaring far left. Shutter: 1/50, f/1.5, ISO: 1000.

Ian Svenonius is a tremendous frontman. Shutter: 1/50, f/1.5, ISO: 1000.

Favorite shot of the night. I like the subtlety of the light coming off the wall behind them. And all three of them look so sincerely happy and unaffected, like they forgot they were onstage in front of an audience. Shutter 1/50, f/1.5, ISO: 1000.

Three Soviets

One of the main reasons I got on the mirrorless bandwagon with the Sony a7ii is so I could use legacy lenses with the M39 and M42 screw mounts. After finding some candidates, I searched Flickr for groups dedicated to them, choosing the lenses based on the results others were getting with them.

These included 3 Soviet lenses, seen below in the order: Industar-69 28mm f/2.8, Industar-22 50mm f/3.5, and the Helios 44-2 58mm f/2. All three were picked up on eBay from Ukrainian sellers. All three cost less than $50 each (including shipping) and all arrived in decent condition. The only catch was having to wait 2-3 weeks for them to reach me in Washington, DC. Some first impressions:

Industar-69 28mm f/2.8: Pancake wide angle lens on an M39 mount. What's great is that the profile is so low that I can keep the a7ii in the pockets of my larger coats while using it. I find it to be way too soft at f/2.8 (though that could be just the one I got -- you never know with inexpensive vintage lenses what is or isn't due to an issue with your individual copy), but it gets nice enough at around f/4 up. I get excessive vignetting with my adapter -- unlike my Fotasy M42 adapter, the length of my Fotodiox M39 adapter is not adjustable, otherwise I'd lengthen the adapter when using it with this lens. So uncropped daytime shots can look a bit silly...


But for lowlight and night shots, the vignetting can fit in very nicely...


Industar-22 50mm f/3.5: M39 mount. Aesthetically this is the coolest lens I've ever owned. Yes, having a steampunk-y chrome vintage Soviet rangefinder lens adapted onto your digital camera is exactly the sort of thing hipsters get mocked for, but you can't look at it and not love it. And I really like the way this lens handles. I like focus levers -- the one on this one will accurately lock at infinity and has a push button release that works well. The lens barrel itself locks in place at full extension when in use, but is collapsable for storage....


I try to keep it always locked forward when it's on my camera -- it's rather scary knowing a jagged ring of steel is shooting back within your camera right in front of the sensor (or in the Sony a7ii's case, the anti-aliasing filter over the sensor). To make sure this $25 lens wouldn't ruin my $1700 camera, I measured using the a7ii's sensor plane mark, and found there's a small window of safety.

The performance has been a nice surprise. It's fairly sharp across the board, the vignetting isn't bad, and some of the lens flaring can be quite pleasing...



I'm also pleasantly surprised by the sharpness. A long exposure night shot, taken somewhere around f/6...


Not totally up to par with my brand-new Zeiss, but again, keep in mind that this lens was had for less than $50!


Helios 44-2 58mm f/2: This one goes on the longer M42 mount. Optically, it's also a terrific bargain...



It's also taught me how to use preset stop-down lenses. These are lenses with 2 aperture rings -- one that clicks and sets your minimum aperture, and another non-clicking ring that actually controls the aperture. The point used to be that if you wanted to shoot at, say, f/8, then you could set the clicking ring to f/8, and then set the controlling ring to wide open (in this case f/2) so you'd have the most light for focusing and composition. Then when you're ready to shoot, you could quickly turn the aperture control until it stopped at you desired f/8.

That aspect is anachronistic for most of us, but I've found I really like it otherwise. Most modern manual lenses have clicking aperture control rings -- the advantage to clicking in place is that you can be sure of the exact aperture and you're less likely to accidentally change it. But one disadvantage is that you usually can't set it between stops (say at f/3 or 3.1 ish). And if you're shooting video it makes it tougher to change the aperture during the shot because of the lens vibration of the clicking, as well as the noise if you're also recording audio. This is why you'll see some hacked "de-clicked" lenses out there. This double-ring setup (which still exists on a few still-in-production lenses such as the Helios 40-2 85mm) gives you the best of both worlds -- smooth aperture control with one ring and the exactness of a click-stop with the other.