Monday, 16 November 2009

The Best is the Enemy of the Good

I knew I'd regret getting sucked into gearhead world, but -- like Joni Mitchell and Hell in the song "Blue" -- I thought I'd take a look around it, though. Having earned a bit of spare cash (did I mention I sold thirty pictures at my recent exhibition?) I found myself in the unusual position of having the option, should I so decide, to buy pretty much anything that took my fancy, and at a time when new and exciting photographic gear seems to be emerging every week. Within reason, obviously: there was no point in even looking at the Leica M9 but, hmm, perhaps the X1?

I'm just no good at spending money, though. It gives me little pleasure. I do enjoy the thrill of the chase -- getting good stuff cheap, sniffing out, running down and snapping up unconsidered trifles at a bargain price -- but there's no fun to be had (for me, anyway) in simply looking up the good stuff in the catalogue, typing in my Visa number, and waiting for it to be delivered. It feels like cheating. So, as a compromise, I decided I'd pass up on the Panasonic GF1 or the Olympus EP1 this time round, bank most of the money against next year's crop of photo-novelties (hello, GF2 and EP2) and hunt out something tasty on Ebay instead.

I like Ebay. It reminds me of what was once my favourite magazine, the Exchange & Mart, which my friend Alan and I use to pore over together in our early teens. The Exchange & Mart -- which finally ceased in print just this year -- was a typographic and typological miracle, columns of tightly-packed classified ads expressed in a special language of categories, abbreviations, and euphemisms which you had to master to get anything out of it. We rarely actually bought anything -- that wasn't the point. As I have written before, growing up in a new town gives you a thirst for and curiosity about Old Stuff. The Exchange & Mart was a weekly dictionary of Stuff, and a practical education in the value people put on it, and indeed in what people value. Why is a used Gibson Les Paul guitar so expensive? Why is a used Ford Willys jeep so cheap? Who is this writer Henry Miller, and why are his books mixed in with thinly-disguised pornography? And why do people have such a thing about SS ceremonial daggers?

Ebay has the same attractions, but with the added delights of pictures and interactivity. There is an exciting sense of risk, but also a compensating sense of community (decreasingly so, sad to say) . It's all about strategy. There's no sense in wading in and placing an early, hopeful but modest bid. But there's also no sense in making bids that overvalue the item you're after. You need to feel out the market, bide your time -- maybe sitting out the first few times your object of desire comes up for sale, just to watch what others are willing to pay -- and then make a calculated pounce. The ultimate satisfaction, which truly gratifies one's inner market trader, is to realise that no-one else is going to bid, and that the the price is going to stick at 99p for an item without a reserve price and worth considerably more.

So, what was I going to take a caculated risk on? As I have bought into the Canon SLR system in a modest way, I thought it might be worth taking a look at "L" lenses. It should come as no surprise to long-term readers of this blog that I am a "kit zoom" photographer. Eighty percent or more of my work is done with the EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS zoom lens, which comes attached to the bottom-of-the-range DSLR I use, but which I have found to be a perfectly satisfactory lens, though I am not the kind of person to put it on a tripod and photograph test cards to calibrate the degree of its perfection or my satisfaction. It takes very nice pictures.

However, camera manufacturers run two parallel universes, as far as lenses are concerned. There's an affordable "consumer" range, in the main perfectly adequate assemblages of glass, but in plasticky housings and far from weather- or dust-proof, and then there's a "professional" range, with stellar optics, and robust, weather-proof housings. The main difference, of course, is weight, size, and above all price-- you can add a thousand pounds or more to the cost of your pathetic, plastic, "consumer" lens
for the pro equivalent. That's a lot of money.

In the case of Canon, the pro lenses are designated "L" (for "ludicrously expensive") and have a tasteful red line around the barrel. It's hard to avoid conflicted feelings... On the one hand, you suspect that that you may be falling short, somehow, on image quality; on the other, if like me you have arte povera tendencies, it's fun to laugh at foolish "advanced amateurs" overburdened with their collection of heavy and expensive lenses.

So, having a bit of funny money I thought I'd see what all the fuss was about. I settled on the EF 17-40mm f/4 L USM: one of the cheaper L lenses, but with a good reputation, and covering the sort of modest zoom range I like. I got into my Ebay stalker's hide, and waited, watched and pounced. For £390 I thought it was a reasonable bargain.

Now, if you are susceptible to "fit and finish", a lens like this is a pleasure to handle.
It's big, weighty, and everything is just right, from the damping of the focus and zoom rings to the feel of its heft in your hand. My little 450d practically squeaked with delight as I slotted it in. You just know it's going to take your photographs into a new dimension.

Except, it doesn't, not really. Or, at least, it hasn't. In fact, I'm losing a lot of shots I would have got before, doubtless due to the lack of built-in image stabilisation. "IS" in its various guises has been one of the real advances made possible by digital photography -- with good technique you can hand hold at shutter speeds that were previously impossible, and guarantee sharpness at more normal speeds. As you get older (or colder, or both) this is a serious advantage. And the cheapie 18-55mm zoom has it, and the "stellar" 17-40mm doesn't.*

Of course, the shots I do get are pretty good, quality-wise. Several people remarked on the "fossil marble" image in the post Fishy Rice, which was the first "L" image I've posted. There is a certain descriptive clarity which the lens brings to the image-making process which, normally, I would have to bring out in post-processing. But it really doesn't make me think, "The sheer quality of this lens is worth all the shots I'm missing because of its lack of IS". In the end, it's a lens designed for 35mm film cameras, and the game has changed since then.

This is in many ways a pleasing result. I'll stick with my nice, cheapie zoom, and recoup my money on Ebay. I've had a little adventure into gearhead world, and returned intact. But the fact that I've had the lens on the camera all week and have no pictures I really want to share with you speaks for itself. As someone (Voltaire?) once said, "The best is the enemy of the good"...

* There is an argument over whether in-lens IS is superior or inferior to in-body IS. Clearly, a camera system wth in-body IS would mean that the qualities of such a lens migh have a better chance of shining through.


Kent Wiley said...

Thirty prints from one show! Way to move the merch Mike!

I know you hate the thought, but how about a ... tripod to go with that new lens? It's really not that painful. Really...

Mike C. said...


Yes, I can't get a show in Britain, but am practically wallpapering the living rooms of Austria! So it goes.

(N.B. Mauro, if you're reading, a portion of the show may go on a mini-tour to a little gallery in Innichen, Italy)

A tripod? Argh, never... Even when I was using my Mamiya C330 as my camera of choice most days I used a bolt-on grip that turned it into a Weegee Speed Graphic lookalike. All I needed was the cigar and the hat...

Anonymous said...

I usually strongly recommend against the 17-40mm on crop sensor cameras - it's relatively slow and has a somewhat limited range, going no wider than about 28mm-e.

It's completely transformed on a full-frame camera though and is incredibly fun.

Mike C. said...

So what do you recommend, dwa? And will it cost me lots of money?

Gavin McL said...

When I decided to move on up from a point & shoot I bought a Nikon D40 on the basis it was the cheapest DSLR. I initially intended to stick with the kit zoom but when I found out that you could use old nikon manual focus lenses on it I couldn't resist buying some on E-bay. It has been a lot of fun so I'm sorry your new lens hasn't worked out.