Eric L. Woods

Learning to stop chasing unicorn gear. I am a work in progress.

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A recurring theme on this blog has been reasonable (relatively speaking) alternatives to pricey gear on the market. I’ve compared film camera legends to inexpensive alternatives.

Konica C35 AF2
Konica C35 AF2 vs. Contax T2
KEH Leica M3 and FED 2 blog post.
Leica M3 vs. FED 2 for KEH.com

Have championed underappreciated sensor formats.

OMD E-M1/Zuiko 75mm f/1.8

Most recently I have celebrated a years old camera as a still viable alternative to the newer offerings in the same camera series.

FUJIFILM X100S

Are there compromises asked for these savings? Yes. But for me, the savings outweigh the compromises. And as an added bonus I prefer to carry the least precious camera with me to complete the task. We do live in a world where stressful events like gear getting lost, broken, or stolen are real concerns. Concerns for me anyway. Your mileage may vary.

Here are a couple more examples.

Exhibit A.

Have found workable alternatives for near every high end spec piece of gear, but one lens spec option has escaped me. A full frame longer tele prime lens for portrait work. Optimally a 100mm or longer portrait lens. I would tend to go down the same rabbit hole:

But am I chasing a lens spec for the sake of the lens spec or for a certain look such a lens will give me?

In this case, it was a great amount of compression, background blur, and subject isolation from a distance. What if I tripped over a humbler spec that met the need?

Today I received a request at work, sent to many, for photos of someone that was soon to retire. I did find photos of that person from a few years ago and while reviewing the folder I realized that these photos had the exact look I was pursuing. Namely, a great amount of compression, background blur, and subject isolation from a distance.

I will not share the photos taken at the holiday party from a distance since they were taken after a St. Baldrick head shaving, fundraising event in my office. So… A lot of folks would likely not appreciate my sharing these photos documenting their follicle-free altruism. I will share one close portrait of a friend prior to his close cut instead.

Pentax K-1

Had to think about what I had used that day. I scanned my memory briefly and was fairly certain that this was the fantastic but woefully underutilized Pentax 100mm f/2.8 Macro WR lens on some manner of crop Pentax camera body, perhaps the K-3 II I had a while ago. Thought the compression was due to the 150mm effective full frame equivalency. No longer having a crop sensor Pentax I thought this was a combo I no longer had access to, but no. Looked at the EXIF data and sure enough, this was actually with the Pentax K-1.

Pentax-D FA 100mm f/2.8 WR

This is a lens and camera combination that costs less together used than most of the standalone 100mm plus prime lenses listed above.

Why had I not realized this lens could offer the subject isolation at a distance I was looking for?

This made me go back and look at my previous galleries online. And the answer was simple. I purchase this lens each time I have a Pentax body and really like this lens (It lands on every favorite lens list I have created.), but I have almost exclusively used it as a Macro lens…

Bee

…or a long-ish walkabout lens.

Pentax K-1

But then I found a couple of non-portrait photos without shaved head do-gooders that hinted at this foreground and background blurring at a distance aesthetic I was after.

Pentax K-1
#PentaxK3II #Pentax #100mmf28

This is it. This is what I have been looking for. And I had it all along. A few times in fact. And at a far more reasonable sum than I was pursuing elsewhere. Then I wondered, even with how much I thought of this lens, why I did not appreciate the full potential of this lens. The answers are embarrassing if I am honest.

  • It was not expensive enough.
    • Often it seems that the value or “special-ness” of a piece of gear is largely tied to how much it costs. There are aspirational cameras and lenses on the market that one could argue are not worth what they are going for. Less expensive, reasonably priced gear does not draw the same attention. Easily obtained=underappreciated at times it seems.
    • This lens can be had for hundreds not thousands new and a little more than a couple a hundred used if you shop around.
  • This lens has been around forever in camera gear terms.
    • Latest and greatest is always the rage. Older gear then falls by the wayside and is forgotten about.
  • Older tech.
    • This is an old school screw drive AF lens affixed to a… dun, dun, dun… DSLR. What no mirrorless tech with fancy pants internal focus drive motors?
  • Not Limited.
    • In Pentax-ville Limited lenses are the business. By all rights this lens has all of the Limited hallmarks. But no Limited etched in the side.
  • Viewed first and foremost as a Macro lens.
    • Despite the apparent obviousness of its usefulness as a portrait lens based on specs alone I looked at this lens for Macro only most of the time.
  • f/2.8.
    • Not f/2.0. Not f/1.8. No f/1.4. So it cannot be that special right?
    • But am I after a spec or a look?

That got me to thinking about the positives of this lens.

  • Not a Limited but…
    • Tank like metal build, etched and painted markings, great looks, and even adds something many Limited lenses do not have. It is weather sealed with one of the most robust mount gaskets I have seen. So much so that I have no issue taking this lens out in torrential rain without hesitation. I can say that about exactly no other lens I own.
Pentax 100mm for blog post
Pentax 100mm f/2.8 Macro WR
  • Sharp. Sharpity, sharp, sharp.
    • Hands down this is one of if not the sharpest lens I have ever used.
Pentax 100mm f/2.8 macro WR
  • Colors.
    • Have seen no better colors ever regardless of brand, format, etc.
Fall
  • Bokeh.
    • Good gravy this thing has phenomenal bokeh. Backgrounds and foregrounds are velvety smooth.
Duke Gardens - Pentax K-1
  • Performance that defies its specs.
    • Has exactly none of the features we are told are required in this modern age and performs phenomenally anyway.
    • When used as a portrait lens it has few peers optically.
Duke Gardens - Pentax K-1

Not all is gravy. There is one down side. Exactly one. There is no such thing as a perfect lens.

  • No focus limiter switch.

That’s it. That is all I have got. But in use, I do not find it to be that great of an issue. Things I do to work around it.

  • As long as you are only shooting at a distance or only shooting Macro it does just fine. Flipping between near and far focus points causes issues.
  • Avoid Live View contrast detect at all costs. If I am using Live View manual focus is the way to go. Much quicker and more reliable using through the viewfinder phase detect AF.
  • Manually rack the focus. Instead of tasking the lens with finding its way just grab the focus ring and bring the lens into range and then let it take over. A snap as long as you are not trying to AF at the exact same time.

Other Macro lenses I have used have had such a switch and there are benefits, but also one down side as well.

  • My feeble memory at times.
    • Not the lenses fault but with each focus limiter switch lens there have been times where I have wondered why the lens is struggling only to then realize that I had not adjusted the switch since the last subject. Once you get used to manually racking the focus this beceomes a non-issue with the Pentax.

What next?

Simple. Use this lens more, especially as a portrait lens. I have taken it for granted for far too long.

Exhibit B

This is one of my favorite shoots ever and one of the first where I was expressly asked to come and shoot when I was not even seeking work.

Grace Photo Shoot
Grace Photo Shoot
Grace Photo Shoot
Grace Photo Shoot
Grace Photo Shoot

They loved the photos. And the same camera took these shots below as well.

Carnival.
Night Gallery
Co-Op City, The Bronx
Co-Op City, The Bronx.
Co-Op City, The Bronx
Co-Op City, The Bronx.
Trees and shadows.
100 Men In Black.
100 Men In Black
dinner rush
Pan Pan Restaurant, Durham, NC. Used to go to the one in Harlem years ago before it burned down and they moved South.
100 Men In Black at UNC Pembroke
100 Men In Black
100 Men In Black at UNC Pembroke
100 Men In Black
100 Men In Black at UNC Pembroke
100 Men In Black
TWC Arena Charlotte Bobcats
TWC Arena, Charlotte, NC
TWC Arena Charlotte Bobcats
TWC Arena, Charlotte, NC
TWC Arena Charlotte Bobcats
TWC Arena, Charlotte, NC
TWC Arena Charlotte Bobcats
TWC Arena, Charlotte, NC
TWC Arena Charlotte Bobcats
TWC Arena, Charlotte, NC
Benjamin Jealous
Former head of the NAACP Benjamin Jealous. Duke Chapel.
Duke Chapel
Duke Chapel.
100 Men In Black at Duke Chapel
100 Men In Black at Duke Chapel.
Duke Chapel
Duke Chapel.
Field
UNC Campus.
Tunel
UNC Campus.
Field
UNC Campus.
Ferris wheel.

What did I use? It does not matter. (But, I will mention it later.)

When I go back and look at these photos I do not think:

  • I wish I had used pixie dust camera brand x, y, z.
  • Should have used sensor size this or that.

What I do think is that I really like these photos. They document a point in time, a person, or people and bring a smile to my face.

Ok… What was it? An Olympus E-P5.

Old and New Olympus PEN

Really liked it, but only had it a little while before convincing myself that I needed more. More pixels. More sensor surface area. An inbuilt viewfinder. Faster lenses. More this. More that. More! But if I am honest there is little I have accomplished since photographically (Is that a word?) that I could not have accomplished with this same camera.

As proof of this I used a MFT walk down memory lane last year as a pandemic distraction and I still got along just fine. When I was done with the distraction last year I sold it all off, but the point was made. Even with certain performance perks, my current gear lineup is a choice, not a necessity.

But back to the task at hand. Namely…

Learning to stop chasing unicorn gear.

This post was not really meant to be about a lens or a camera. The Pentax 100mm and Olympus E-P5 were meant to be examples. Reminders. Reminders of what?

  • Be mindful of what you are pursuing.
    • Are you chasing a spec, a name brand, some other fixed variable, or what you can do with it?
    • A lie I have often told myself is that I can only do x,y, z with this gear or that. This is simply not true most of the time.
    • There are times where I had to admit that I really just wanted to say the words that I own this or that rather than actually having a real need for it. It is a want not a need if I am honest.
  • While there are a few extreme exceptions there are usually any number of ways to accomplish a certain task or achieve a certain look.
    • Exceptions would be things like sports or wildlife photography where there is no way around needing a bazillion frames a second AF-C burst rates or a 10,000mm focal length lens respectively.
  • Often times only you would notice the difference and not the subject.
    • I have taken some of my favorite photos with the humblest of gear. Have taken some stinkers or meh shots with big hitters.
    • But here is the thing. The subject usually does not care.

New gear releases are relentless. Pixie dust cameras abound. Both threatening to crater bank accounts in a moment of weakness. Then when you do buy in it does not stop. What of the gear release around the corner? What of that one next lens you choose to obsess over? It never ends.

But taking comfort in what you have already and pursuing less cost prohibitive solutions does bring a sense of peace. For me anyway. Also helps to be realistic about your own needs. For example:

I was having a bit of a regressive gear obsessive fit regarding the GFX system… again. Like I said in the title, I am a work in progress. Then it hit me. I have a potential photography job in the works. This would be an event that would require:

  • 2 bodies. Same mount.
  • A wide, fast prime.
  • A fast portrait prime.
  • Swift AF.
  • A solid flash for each just in case.

I already have this. In order to switch to GFX I would need to sell all of it and maybe be able to get one body, and one lens… Maybe. Two lenses? Nope. Flashes? Likely not. And let’s be real, I would only be able to afford the newest GFX entry, the GFX 50S II. And while a capable camera for many purposes it would not be the proper tool for this type of shoot with contrast only AF. On top of that the lenses I would be able to swing would not be all that fast.

So that leaves me where I am. Happy with what I have. Lower tier models and older gear. All of which can be had for a reasonable sum. Not exciting, but good. Right? I think so. This same kit has performed flawlessly time and time again for a multitude of purposes.

Well, that wraps up this episode of talking myself out of impulse buys based on want rather than need. These reminders to myself are a great help.

Thank you for playing along at home.

Addendum:

Adorama and SIGMA have conspired to enable me to immediately contradict myself a day after posting this. What happened? Glad you asked. Sale happened.

The two main SIGMA Art lenses I was looking for above in this post (105mm and 135mm) can now be had for less than $1,000 brand new with one caveat. This only applies to the SIGMA SA mount versions. But this is not as problematic as it would seem. Sure, only a few weirdos out there that own a SIGMA SA mount camera (<ahem, cough>, me. I am one of those weirdos.) could make use of these lenses as is. But… there is this adapter you see. The SIGMA SA to Sony FE MC11 adapter will allow this camera to be used on Sony FE cameras. And this adapter is also currently on sale for $174. So let’s add it up.

  • SIGMA SA
    • Heck of a deal for us SIGMA SA mount camera owning weirdos at $999.
  • Sony FE
    • Even with the added cost of the SIGMA SA to Sony FE MC11 adapter this comes in at hundreds less than the Sony mount version of this lens. $426 less to be precise. This lens used regularly goes for more than this.

And if the 135mm f/1.8 Art is more to your liking that is $100 less. Stay tuned as there will likely be more on this as things develop.

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