On the Threshold of Winter (with the Asahi Takumar 85mm f/1.9)

I shot a performance of composer Michael Hersch's On the Threshold of Winter opera for the Peabody Institute in Baltimore. It was one of my first times shooting with the Asahi Takumar 85mm f/1.9 portrait lens, adapted as usual to my Sony a7ii via a $10 M42 screw-mount adapter. I was so happy with how it handled low light. The beautiful set design also helped...

Asahi Takumar 85mm f/1.9. Shutter 1/160, ISO 1250. The aperture was probably around 2.2 or so - it doesn't need to be stopped down much for nice sharpness.

This particular Takumar lens dates from the 1960s. Later versions of it got the Asahi "super-coating" and in the 1970s it was made in an f/1.8. From what I've read and seen, the f/1.8 is a little better - they improved what was already a great design. The differences seem pretty minor to me though, and I was content to save a little by going with the f/1.9 - I got one in pristine shape for about $300 from an American seller on eBay. Another shot with the lens was used by Vanderbilt University for the poster promoting the opera's upcoming performance there.

I love the bold word layout the designer used. The figure in the background is a work by sculptor Christopher Cairns. Shutter 1/125, ISO 1000, aperture around 2.5.

Soprano Ah Young Hong after getting her hands dirty. Asahi Takumar 85mm f/1.9. Shutter 1/125, ISO 1000, Aperture probably around f/2.8.

I also used my native Zeiss lenses for wider shots. The following was one of my favorites, which came at the end of the opera.

With the Zeiss 55mm f/1.8 ZA. Shutter 1/80, ISO 1250, aperture 4.0. The lighting was pretty much just a spotlight on the singer, which made composition fun - lots of black negative space to play with. Placing her in the upper half of the frame makes her look elevated somehow, running contrary to the obvious sense of exhaustion.

Another shot with the 55mm f/1.8 was used by the Baltimore Sun for their very enthusiastic review of the opera...

Shutter 1/60, ISO 800, aperture 2.8. Exquisite colors as usual from the 55mm.

Zeiss Distagon 35mm f/1.4 ZA in Japan

One of the reasons I picked up the Zeiss Distagon 35mm f/1.4 ZA was so I'd have a high-quality wide-angle for a trip I was taking to Japan. I got some nice shots with it like the following ones, but my final verdict is that it's just too big and heavy for a 35mm lens. The thing that bothers me most about the size of it isn't the inconvenience, but how much attention it draws. Candid street photography is a lot tougher when everyone is noticing what looks like a giant zoom lens.

So I'll be (probably maybe) selling it at some point. I'm not particularly into native lenses for my camera anyway -- I don't like using autofocus, and I don't mind changing the aperture manually (which you have to do with this lens anyway). Plus the cost was like 10 times what I'm used to paying for vintage lenses.

But I can't say I wasn't very happy with some of the shots it caught, like these five...


This is the great Mistral Bleu Bar in Tokyo. The Zeiss was very nice here wide open at f/1.4, with a 1/80th shutter and 1250 ISO.

Zeiss confidently calls their 35mm Distagon the "master of light." It does handle various exposures wonderfully, such as this overexposure on the very scenic Miyajima Island, near Hiroshima. Shutter: 1/250th, f/2.0, ISO: 100.

This was peeking into a record store in Osaka. I loved the Lightin Hopkins poster on the wall. The lens gave me a pretty flexible depth of field considering it was wide-open at f/1.4. Shutter: 1/125th, ISO: 100.

Another from Osaka, also wide open. There's a lot going on here between the bright lights and the bits of night in the background, but the lens did fine with all of it. The bicyclist isn't as sharp as she could be, but that was only due to her movement, and my zone-focusing being a tad off. Shutter: 1/100th, f/1.4, ISO: 500.

This was on a train from Nara to Kyoto. Obviously this one is more a matter of content than anything special photographically -- I might've been just as happy with a phone photo of the moment. I always feel self-conscious taking shots like this. That raises the question: Is it creepier to overtly grab shots like this with a big lens like the Distagon, or to be stealthy about it with something smaller? Shutter: 1/250th, f/6.3, ISO: 500.

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.