ETHEREAL ON THE CHEAP
By MICHAEL PERKINS
FOR MANY PHOTOGRAPHERS OF, umm, A CERTAIN AGE, our first cameras came out of the box pretty much ready to go, with lens and body working as two halves of a predetermined factory assembly. The lens half frequently was pre-set at a single focal length, and, in the really rudimentary models, a single shutter speed. Varying the results of such tools meant doing something as simple as shooting in shade instead of direct sun, or accidentally standing too close to your subject for an express ticket to Blursville. We learned the limits of our earliest cameras by operating them badly.
But this was not a worthless exercise, since all those crummy misfires, while teaching us what didn’t work, also taught us to eagerly explore what might work. As we graduated to better, more responsive/instinctual gear, we carried that approach to learning with us, and can still call upon it when we care to. Because, even as we have become accustomed to more and greater options via ever more sophisticated lenses and gear, we can still learn a great deal about our own creativity by deliberately limiting our choices from time to time, which is why I became fascinated, years ago, with the idea of keeping a chosen lens on a camera for an extended period, forcing myself to shoot any and everything with it regardless of subject or conditions. In a sense, you’re re-introducing the uncertainty and occasional failure of your earlier shooting techniques back into your work. But you’re also learning to problem-solve and improvise, infusing a new kind of energy into your photography.
The Normal Eye, you may recall, originally sprang from a year that I spent shooting exclusively with an f/1.8 50mm lens. Since that time, I have occasionally attached other lenses, all with differing strengths and weaknesses, to various cameras for extended periods to see what I could do when I couldn’t do what I preferred to do. It has always yielded me surprises and a lot of fun. Lately I am going steady with an old Soviet-era Helios 44M, a f/2 58mm prime dating from the late 70’s. Having been built for some of Europe’s most mass-produced cameras, the Helios is a solid, well-built beauty that is also plentiful in Ebay Land. It’s also cheaper than devalued Russian currency and produces both flatteringly soft portraits and distinctive bokeh, so a win all around. Many contemporary “art lenses” produce some of the same effects as the Helios but at a premium price, so seeing if you like the looks it creates while risking less than $40 is hard to resist.
Wide open at f/2, the Helios, a fully manual lens, has an aggravatingly shallow depth of field. We’re talking taking fifty pictures to get five in which you truly nail the focus. However, the gentle drop-off you’ll see between cleanly defined objects and their immediate surroundings affords a buttery, smooth quality that, with a little intentional over-exposure, can produce a decidedly dreamlike, pastel-flavored effect, as seen in the example above. For $40, I will gladly use this thing chiefly for this look. Now, certainly, this lens, like every other hunk ‘o’ glass, has idiosyncratic deficiencies and is not great for everything. But at these prices, it is worth spending, let’s say, at least a week learning how to consistently produce the results you want with it, as much for your own education as for the number of keeper images you’ll harvest. Consider also that this lens was originally sold as the “kit” lens for Zenits and a range of other Euro-cameras. It came in the box attached to the body. It was supposed to do most of what you’d want to do without swapping out to other glass, so that, by shooting with it exclusively for extended periods in today’s world, you’re experiencing essentially the same learning curve that was engineered into the lens back in the glory days of the U.S.S.R. It’s not exactly like riding a bucking bronco without a saddle or rope, but still, the horse does buck.
Learning what to do when your gear hits its design limits can either be frustrating or liberating. The choice of which of those feelings you, yourself, will experience, like all other choices, is yours alone.
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