Off topic: Just in case

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That proverbial sink

I was playing equipment tetris* for a job recently – a regular occurrence. It occurred to me that most of the hardware I was packing was ‘just in case’; contingency planning if something happens to go pear shaped or I encountered a situation at the very edges of the envelope. There are of course no excuses for not delivering what the client wants, at least if you intend to keep your clients. This means I basically had two complete Hasselblad medium format kits – including backup lens coverage – a set of filters, double the number of batteries and triple the number of cards, critical backups, etc. Add a spare tripod head and brackets to the mix, plus a day bag to work out of, and you’re soon seriously encumbered. This wasn’t even a job requiring external lighting, which brings the packed weight to somewhere in the 50kg region once you include stands and modifiers. In practice, for that once in a blue moon occurrence, you’re glad when you have it – but the rest of the time, your back is cursing you. The rest of the time, you shoot with one body and the zoom. There’s probably got to be an easier way, right?

*Attempting to fit in various camera bodies, lenses and accessories into the smallest possible volume for that amount of gear, but the largest possible volume that would pass for carry on – my record is 24kg overweight for hand carry, at which point Air France forced me to buy another seat. At full price. In one of the front cabins, because the rear one was full – and with a penalty fee for cancelling the old one. I definitely didn’t want to repeat that.

It was even worse with the Nikon kit – I’d carry all three PCEs because there are times when there are no alternatives; use each lens a couple of times (or not at all) and you can’t really predict when because there’s no way to do a sufficiently comprehensive site reccie beforehand for an overseas location to a level you can plan out every shot. At least now my TC and my PCE are one and the same – the HTS gives me a 1.5x multiplier and movements, and doesn’t take up that much space. There’s a tradeoff, of course: the simpler the hardware/ tool/ equipment/ whatever, the more focused you can be on making the most of it – and getting around the limitations to make something visually interesting. Not having it can be equally frustrating when the opportunity arises and you left that widget at home. That said, there’s no guarantee that if you had the widget you wouldn’t miss the shot fiddling with it because you hardly use it etc…

I actually find the same applies across everything – not just photography. You pick up spare XYZ thinking you’ll need it because it’s a fragile or consumable object that you use often…which inevitably turns out not to be the case. The things you don’t have spares for break, and often for want of a small part that there isn’t even a code for. We buy SUVs in case we happen to need the off road capability…which we never use. We cook extra in case we’re hungry, or have unexpected guests. There’s a spare bedroom in our homes for the two days a year somebody stays over. We buy the economy pack, even though it’s twice as much as we need. We hesitate because our heart tells us that we want the bigger, more powerful one, at the same time as our brains are telling us you’ll almost never deploy the difference, and you might as well save the money. We think we are much better than we are, things might be worse than they are – even though arguably human skills are the furthest biased towards comfort over raw survival than we’ve ever been – and that keeps the economy going.

I’ll be the first to admit that I enjoy driving (though probably not with any degree of skill) and can appreciate the difference between most vehicles. A friend recently bought a Lotus Elise, and I accompanied him for the pre-purchase test drives. I admit the experience of the car was so enjoyable – with every bit the anticipated tactility and feedback through the controls – that there was a period where I couldn’t shake the feeling that every motoring experience thereafter was somehow incomplete. Never mind the yoga required to get into the cabin, the complete lack of padding, the manual gearbox, the wheezily pathetic air conditioning, the rattles and shakes, the weight of the steering at low speeds etc. My own car felt like piloting a feather mattress on the way home, and it’s not exactly what most people would call plush. My wife’s car also needed replacing around the same time – there was a week or so where I seriously considered consolidating things into one Lotus and one beige box family wagon.

Alas, that would be pointless: anybody who’s been to Kuala Lumpur knows that the city is good for four things: a lack of public transport; legendarily bad traffic jams, especially when it rains, which happens often in the tropics; bad drivers who move without looking – let alone signalling, and of course heat. There is probably a reason why they have not sold many Lotuses in Kuala Lumpur – and it’s not because it’s a bad car; far from it. The Elise was probably the most enjoyable thing I’ve driven in…well, ever. It’s because as much as most of us want to indulge our hearts, even if we can afford it, our brains tell us we’re stupid. Or our wives. Or both. And putting up with the pain 99% of the time for 1% of the time when you hit that driving high (plus dealing with your wife being unhappy about driving a beige box for two hours plus of daily commute) seems, well, painful.

At the same time, there’s a problem with sensible thinking: it means avoiding risks and maintaining the status quo. Sensible thinking is the antithesis of innovation and progress; and without creativity, things get rather boring rather quickly. That’s the other problem with being human: most of us are also malcontents; whether that is a product of societal conditioning and the expectation for instant gratification with minimal effort or just the nature of being a self-aware and somewhat contemplative species, I don’t know. But I do know that as much as I try to be sensible, moderate and logical in all things, if I don’t at least turn it up to twelve – forget eleven – for something, I feel like I’m going mad. Fortunately, photography is somewhat cheaper than cars (actually, if it’s medium format, it isn’t). But the good thing is at least you can generate a positive return off your investment instead of just a tax write off.

Admittedly, at times it just feels wasteful – I have eleven ways to get to 85mm-e, for instance. Of those options, I only use at most three of them regularly – the rest are for the edge cases. And they’re not the options you might think – the 24-120 and now 35-90 rank at the top, with the 100 and 85 PC coming in close second. The Otus and 85MMG whose rendering I love – I admit a lot of the time I don’t have the luxury of a do-over or extra bag space, so they stay at home. I admit this bothers me, both because I know I’m making a compromise for the sake of certainty, and because it’s a very inefficient deployment of resources. My mind seems to value efficiency: minimum effort for maximum results – but my heart wants to go climb the diminishing returns curve, no matter how steep that might be.

I’m sure many of us are guilty of doing the same thing even when there aren’t any direct physical or financial resources involved: we take the shot, keep the variants, and take some more just in case. We never look at them again, but we do have to curate them out of the final selection. It begs the question of efficiency once again: why not just curate in-eyeball, and make the one you know you’ll keep?

The simple answer is one of experience. We have to experiment to learn, and experimenting by definition also makes waste. If we could retain 100% of what we learned, we’d probably be a lot more efficient, but sadly almost nobody’s mind works that way; worse still, no two situations are ever the same. And even if they broadly are, doing the same thing and expecting a different outcome is the very definition of foolishness**. If I didn’t for example shoot with the Otuses, I wouldn’t know what I was missing with the other lenses – or that some applications (portraits, for example) work much better with smooth transitions rather than a complete absence of chromatic aberration. Others don’t – like architecture. Sure, we can shoot anything with anything, but there’s always the possibility for better, and more importantly, the possibility for different – and the purpose of photography is of course to see differently, and share that with your audience.

**Or, death by corporate culture.

The oft-challenged (but never beaten) second law of thermodynamics states that entropy is inevitable – this applies to ideas, concepts and the creative pursuits, too. We have to make images that fail to make images that work: if every image is successful, then nothing is really memorable because everything is memorable. We’ll continue to serve as mules to our cameras and buy the next new model and a longer lens to assuage our own fears of just in case, and that one image we couldn’t have made with anything else that somehow also passes muster through the creative filters will give us just enough encouragement to keep doing it again. But I’ll be damned if it isn’t a frustrating and expensive process…MT


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  1. I see that unlike my Nikon D810, the X1D has a low-pass filter. Personally I like the absence of such a filter. How does the presence of a low-pass filter on the X1D affect the quality of the photos taken with it in your experience.

    • I’m not sure about that. Looking at my images suggests that it doesn’t…the files don’t look any different to the H5/6, which also do not have one.

  2. Larry Cloetta says:

    Just curious- you mention the “85MMG”. I may very well be missing something here, but do you mean the C/Y 85, or is there another MMG out there? If it is the C/Y 85MMG you were referring to, which one was it, the Planar or the Sonnar? Most people talk about the Planar, but I’m a sucker for the Sonnar, at least some of the time, personally.

    • The C/Y Zeiss 2.8/85 MMG Sonnar – not a huge fan of the Planar, personally. The Sonnars, on the other hand, have absolutely gorgeous rendering. I see it in my 150 and 250 Hasselblad Sonnars too…

  3. “There’s probably got to be an easier way, right?” Yes, there is — the M43 system you abandoned in the quest for El Dorado. With the Hassy, It’s the corporate boardroom scramble all over again. Go back to the EM1, Ming — gofull circle. There are few people on the planet who can use it the way you used to. At least give us an occasional, tantalizing glimpse of your prowess with M43 gear, even if it’s more watches 🙂
    Subroto Mukerji

    • Doesn’t quite work that way, for several reasons. I’d have to buy another M4/3 camera for a start, I have clients who reject those files because they’re too small, I can’t print the way and size I want, and when I used M4/3 gear, the floodgates opened for all and sundry who had an opinion…

  4. Will the Hasselblad HTS 1.5 Tilt & Shift Adapter for H-Series work on the X1D? Is there any way to tilt the new lenses for the X1D? Does the multiplier have to be used for tilt and shift? It would have to be some very good glass IMO.

    • The new glass *IS* very good; results bear out the MTF charts. No way to tilt them as far as I know. The HTS will be supported with the H-X adaptor.

      • I won’t blame you, but you ARE responsible for my ordering an X1D. I have to see for myself. I am doing my TIlt/Shift on the Cambo Actus these days, using the Nikon D810 and I LOVE it. A brilliant piece of equipment (Actus). I mostly use the El Nikor 105mm APO lens on the Actus, which is perhaps the most remarkable lens I own, and I have a lot of lenses. Sounds like the H-X adapter plus at the tilt/shirt adapter is like… a bridge too far.

        • 🙂 Ah well, I can only hope that you used my B&H link then…congratulations!

          Honestly: I feel the X1D’s strength is portability and size, not so much use as a technical camera – but it will serve as a very capable back, too. You could use the CFV back on the Actus with LF leaf shutter lenses, but you’d need the rest of the V camera body and lenses if you wanted to use it as a standalone camera.

          • I feel the same way. Use the Actus for my close-up T/S work and the X1D for a “new leap” for me. I have decided that you are not the only photography that can “see” beauty, only the best IMO. My eyes are good too and I am seriously thinking of not only doing close-up nature work but using the X1D to photography life around me, which I see only too clearly sometimes. It will be an adventure, but beauty is definitely (as they say) in the eye of the beholder. I have mixed my many years of mind training (Buddhist) with photography years ago, so that the process of taking pictures is more important (IMO) than the result, but the result improves the more the process is minded properly. I can see that you “see,” and I just have to take the leap to sharing what I see in the MF medium. I believe I can do that.

            • Everybody sees; the missing bit is the skill to are that translation clear to the next person as audience. The only thing I have over the next guy is some practice at the translation bit…

              • I disagree. What you have, in addition, at least to my understanding, is what your mom and pop gave you, the sensitivity to see, and the determination to find a way to exist doing what you love to do as much as one can. As an entrepreneur who has made businesses out of his hobbies (not photography, of course… no money in that), I see in you someone like myself, only much younger. I lived by my wits and the sensitivity my artist mother put in me, always embroidering at the edge of the society, giving to my generation what they loved. In my case, I became an archivist of popular culture, giving back the popular music and film and rock posters and on and on… to the people. I am retired now, but for 45 years I existed on the edge of real success. Actually, not having quite enough was like staying thin. It was healthier for me than making a lot of money. I appreciate more because of that.

                • I certainly agree that hitting it big on the first outing leads to some serious superiority complexes…there are young entrepreneurs here who got lucky, became incredibly arrogant and then lost it all because they thought they were infallible. Failure ain’t fun, but the experience is worthwhile – IF you can come out the other side.

                  • Well, sure. I guess I was an old-fashioned type of entrepreneur, made of elbow-grease and taking on tasks that others never did, going where no one else wanted to go, like: carefully documenting all recorded music, etc. Perhaps the arrogance came later in time, but not for me or much of my generation. I am talking about the early 1970s on up… for a few decades. All I knew was hard work, 4-16 (or more) hours a day, seven days a week, with no vacations for many years. I hated vacations, because the good news was that I loved what I was doing, which for me was the key to it all.

                    Making money, unfortunately, came second to following my passion. Money was important in order to raise a family, but feeling joy and passion for what I did was an imperative. My ability to put up with tedium far outstrips most folks, so I did things that others would not even think of doing. Anyway, I see some of myself in you, and I am happy to see someone following their inner joy… as much as possible, since, as you know, the rent still has to be paid.

                    • I still am. People are surprised to learn that I don’t have assistants and only one partner who takes care of some of the back end web infrastructure; the rest of it is DIY. I joke that I’m the CEO and the janitor, at the same time. I can understand the no vacation bit; it feels as though you’re wasting time or leaving opportunity on the table or you could be doing something more or you’re not available just in case something comes up; I haven’t taken a day off in five years now. But yes, ultimately, we can’t and won’t have the freedom to do what we want unless it pays the bills, too. Interestingly – doing what you enjoy as a job really forces you to think about and narrow down specifically what it is you enjoy about it…I suppose it’s very much a case of knowing oneself, too…

                    • You write “ I can understand the no vacation bit; it feels as though you’re wasting time or leaving opportunity on the table or you could be doing something more or you’re not available just in case something comes up …” LOL. So very true and a bit sad, but proof of interest and involvement, even if a little crazy. Story of my life. As for “I suppose it’s very much a case of knowing oneself, too…,” for me that involved me becoming basically a phenomenologist, someone who studies consciousness from a first-person point of view. For me, I found that the Tibetan Buddhists know the most about inner psychology, and I have been studying Dharma for the last 50 years or so, ending up running a dharma meditation center since the 1980s. Along the way, I managed to mix close-up photography with what is called Vipassana (Insight Meditation) and that “process” or way of photographing (meditation through photography) brought a clarity and lucidity to my life that is, well, priceless. Like yourself, I blog a lot (everyday) and also like yourself I am a man of many, not few words. Aside from books and articles, I write a Facebook blog to 5000 folks most every day. Anyway, aside from your incredible gift for photography, your concern for the inner-workings of your own consciousness caught my attention early-on.

                    • I’m sure I’m not the only one to realise photography is communication with only one chance to get it right – and communication and psychology are inseparable…

  5. Xpanded says:

    “we take the shot, keep the variants, and take some more just in case”

    Start shooting Sigma Merrill. File sizes combined with that absolutely horrible SPP will soon teach you to take the minimal number of pictures in the first place and cull harder than ever…

    And the shooting envelope is excellent as long as you stay within what ISO 100 on a tripod with self timer can provide.

  6. jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    Reading this post, I came to the conclusion you are going to DROWN in comments, Ming. For what it’s worth, it’s age related – when I was young I wanted the lot – during the succeeding decades I tried everything in sight (and within “affordability”, whatever that meant at that age). Now I can’t be bothered with it. I know what I want, I do what I want, I ignore “opinions” as a form of expression of a latent sense of inferiority or a desire by ego maniacs to control the universe. And life is fun.

    But of course I don’t have to depend on it, for my source of income. Which probably makes a difference to one’s choices.

    I spent many happy hours at one stage, in sports cars – it’s great fun, being caught in a sudden downpour with the hood down (especially if the down pour includes a liberal sprinkling of hailstones, while you’re caught at traffic lights and forced to sit there, taking it all down the back of your neck and, via the collar, down the rest of your back – but on a sunny day, there’s nothing quite like it. Nothing? – well unless you chuck in a flight in a Tiger Moth, upside down – with the dust of decades falling up your nostrils !!!!

    Some time when you have time, can you provide any kind of run down on the quality of Nikon’s PCEs? I’ve tried all over the place, and drawn a complete blank, except for a comment suggesting Canon’s are “better”. So in the end I’ve resorted to w/angles & formatting or cropping to suit the subject, instead. I’ve basically given up on the PCEs, for lack of technical reviews of them, but I’m still curious as to how well they perform against primes of similar length & quality from the same makers (or whatever).

    • Nope, it’s not gear related – I’m safe 🙂

      PCEs: the 24 I review here. I suspect the reputation is because it’s very easy to knock just slightly off plane, and that creates all sorts of softness issues that are compounded further by focus shift and field curvature. If used with care – then results are stellar, and I think better than the Canon. The 45s from both are about equal, and not as good as the 24s. At the 85/90 end, advantage goes to the Nikon; it’s a newer design anyway. Both have trace longitudinal/lateral CA that gets much worse with movement, but goes away on stopping down. The Canon 90 lacks the bite of the Nikon though. No comparison for the 17 TSE, for obvious reasons.

      For what it’s worth, I’ll use the PCEs as default if working stopped down unless I need speed (Otuses) or AF (1.8Gs). I find the corners and edges unshifted to be much better than the regular primes; probably because they were designed from the start with a much larger image circle in mind.

      • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

        Thanks for taking the time out, to post that information, Ming. It’s the first intelligent & informative discussion I’ve seen on PCE’s. All the others were – at best – simply descriptions of how to use them.

  7. Kristian Wannebo says:

    “.. equipment tetris ..”
    May I suggest Chapter IV of Three Men in a Boat ?
    ( for relaxation after, or for – ahem – inspiration? 🙂 )

    • Haha, certainly 🙂

    • Quite so. “Throw the lumber over, man! Let your boat of life be light, packed with only what you need…” Fat chance!

      • Kristian Wannebo says:

        Well, once in a while you find you have to.
        And afterwards you feel relief (even if it was only partly) !

        ( And there _are_ those who naturally do it ! )

        • Sure. Unfortunately my quote from Three Men in a Boat was from chapter 3, before they did the packing…!

          • Kristian Wannebo says:

            And a good preamble to the packing … yes?
            Also applicable to the photo amateur who only shoots for himself or herself,

            Yes, I found it (an e-book version helps), and to me it’s also about lumber in our minds.

  8. I just love your sentence: “Yoga required to get into the cabin . . . ” Probably one of your best articles – ever.
    If I may add: 100% certainty does not exist; therefore I like to take a very small, final riks. It makes life MUCH easier. And this fraction is increasing with my age.

  9. John Prosper says:

    You indicate in the past (I believe it was in the Zeiss 8/2.0 review) that you have owned and used the Nikon 200/2.0 before. Is the high resolution and outstanding contrast fairly consistent from max to minimum aperture, or is there a noticeable falloff of contrast/resolution once one starts employing aperture settings smaller than f/5.6 or f/8? I am not looking to get this lens right away, but I see it as a possible super versatile optic for theater/portraits/sports/wildlife—doing the job of multiple lenses all by itself.

    • I honestly didn’t find it as spectacular as I’d been lead to believe; on the D800E it performed much like the 85/1.4G: sharpish, but wide open there were very visible traces of lateral CA which required some stopping down. If I’m going to be using it at f4, I might as well save the $ and weight and get the 70-200/4 VR instead. It’s too bad the Zeiss 2/135 APO is rather tricky to focus, because that is noticeably better across the board…including size and price. 🙂

      • John Prosper says:

        When i saw the MTF curves for the Nikon 200/2.0, I suspected it wasn’t as great as so many claimed.

        I actually hoped Zeiss might consider developing a 200/2.8 or 200/2.0 APO or faster lens. It wouldn’t necessarily have to be an Otus—just a solidly designed opic much like the 135/2.0. I love the 135/2.0 too, but would love to see Zeiss design an even larger focal length optic. My faith in Zeiss’ lens design mastery has really been climbing sky high. 😉

        • I suspect like the tilt shift I’ve been asking for, they’re likely to determine the economics don’t work. After all, how can you argue with the lure of the E mount market? 🙂

          • John Prosper says:

            It’s really a crying shame. I suppose I have to hope for more high end products from the Sigma Art series or Tamron’s Super Performance line.

        • Zeiss did make a 200/2 for the C/Y mount, and one shows up on eBay every so often. A quick search suggests that it has harsh bokeh, and that the Canon 200/1.8 is sharper wide open and has softer bokeh, but the Canon’s not usable on F-mount anyway. No idea if a Leitax conversion can be done on it either. Some suggest that the Leica 180/2 is very good too, and that’s probably easier to convert to F-mount than the Contax.

          The Nikkor 200/2 though is a bucket-list lens for me. With the VR1 going for mid-3s these days, one may be achievable soon …

          I’ve been using the 135 APO quite a bit recently, and while its contrast and microcontrast are stellar, you can definitely see some signs of non-APO behavior. Its bokeh fringing becomes noticeable in certain situations.

          • John Prosper says:

            Many thanks for your thoughts! Back in the film-based camera body days, I owned a legacy Zuiko 180/2.0 that was one of three legacy Olympus manual focusing telephoto blockbusters—the 350/2.8, the the 250/2.0, and the 180/2.0. Even though the 250/2.0 was the sharpest of the trio, I always felt the 180/2.0 to be the most versatile to use, and I would definitely be interested in something similar from 180mm – 200mm. I suppose I could always look into trying to re-acquire a legacy Zuiko 180/2.0 and do a Leitax conversion. At 6.85 inches (174 millimeters) and 67 ounces (1900 grams), it was super compact and relatively light for such a large aperture optic.

            I saw an article by DigiLloyd ( that strongly suggests the legendary Leitz 180/2.8 is even sharper than the Leitz 180/2.0.

          • I think they only promised lateral CA correction, not longitudinal too…must dig out that email from Dr. Nasse.

  10. John Prosper says:

    I do not even want to get into your frustrations with efficiency versus idealized perfection: it’s a battle I have been waging my entire life, which I always seem to be losing one way or another.

    I recall you once stating that the Nikon 24/3.5 PCE does NOT have independent axes for tilting/swinging and shifting (or something close to this). Have you ever suggested to your contacts at Zeiss that they consider building a more perfect PCE? And if they are open to building a 24mm PCE, would they also be willing to building a normal focal length and a short focal length PCE—all with high contrast and resolution? They don’t necessarily have to be Oti, although a short tele Otus with seemingly contradictory bright max aperture combined with great flat field characteristics (at a predictably staggering Otus price!) would be sweet. The ability to combine the use of close up/macro, tilting, and portrait capability all in the same lens would be outstanding!

    • I’ve suggested it. They say the market is far too small – and I believe them. Besides, you almost never need tilt on a lens that wide anyway; it would make more sense to completely eliminate all possible planarity issues by only offering shift (or ideally, a position sensor and 0.1deg/ 0.1mm readout of position like the Hasselblad HTS adaptor…)

      • John Prosper says:

        Quick question. All this talk from Zeiss about the market being too small for a Zeiss medium wide angle PCE lens, does this also affect your desire for a 120mm short tele macro with tilt, Otus or otherwise? I would be interested in any macro with tilt in the short tele range, especially if it’s fast enough to double as a portrait lens.

        • My desire is independent of what the market wants, and has been proven so on the occasion of just about every major camera release. 😛

  11. paulsterio69 says:

    Something wrong with the first section, seems like the entire first part of the article is hyperlinked to the Flickr picture. Good read as always though!

    • It’s WordPress, sorry. It seems the issue happens when I edit the post afterwards using a different version of their editor and the HTML tags don’t close…

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