Henri Cartier-Bresson type photography is dead

Above is an example of a Henri Cartier-Bresson photo that’s widely admired and considered museum-worth Art, just because it’s such an awesome photo, even though it’s just a staircase somewhere in France and just some unknown guy riding a bicycle. And while HCB’s photos are presented as being found happenstance, for all we know HCB colluded with the guy in the photo to ride the bicycle down that street.

A photo like this today has zero chance of getting you any type of acclaim. There are thousands of people today, maybe even tens of thousands, who consider themselves “street photographers” and none of them are doing anything especially original. Back in the 1930s, only a handful of people were taking “street photos” and Bresson was the best of that very small group.

Whatever the role of photography is today as art, a single photo of an unknown person on an insignificant street in France doesn’t fit into that role.

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It’s worth noting that the photo isn’t very sharp by modern standards. Demonstrating that maybe you don’t need the world’s most expensive gear to create art. On the other hand, with so many photos on the internet, in order to stand out you probably don’t want it to look sub-par in any way, which means not having the slightest hint of unshaprness when viewed at normal web resolution.

Does the Olympus 17mm f/1.8 lens render unrealistic and unnatural images?

A blog post by Robin Wong reviewing the new Olympus 17mm f/1.2 lens states that the f/1.2 lens “manages to render realistic and natural looking results, something I feel is a step up from the older Olympus 17mm f1.8 lens.”

Wow, that’s quite a statement! Phrased another way, the older Olympus 17mm f/1.8 lens renders images that are unrealistic and unnatural.

I find this assertion pretty dubious without some sort of comparison photos so that we can see the difference. People who praise expensive Leica lenses also say similar unverifiable things, they say the Leica lens has a special “Leica look” that you can’t get with cheaper lenses.

I think this could simply be that people are imagining that the more expensive lens produces better images because of cognitive biases. For example, scientific experiments showed that wine tasters rated the same bottle of wine as tasting better when they were told it cost more money.

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It may be pointed out that all wide-aperture lenses produce unnatural results compared to the human eye. When was the last time you ever saw “bokeh” without the aid of a camera lens? To the extent that people prefer images with “bokeh,” they are preferring the unnatural over the natural.

Bokeh (2017) the movie

I watched the movie Bokeh, but it has nothing to do with photography. Except that the guy in the movie uses an old Rolleiflex TLR to take vacation pictures in Iceland instead of a digital camera like normal tourists. I guess he’s supposed to be some kind of hipster.

The main subject of the movie is what happens when everyone in the world disappears, except for you and your beautiful blonde girlfriend, while you’re on vacation in Iceland.

But not that much actually happens. The lights never even go out, because Icelandic electrical engineering is so awesome that the power plants keep running even though there are no people around to work in them. If they had been in New York City, I am sure that the power would have stopped running in short order, and then hordes of huge rats would emerge from the subways making the streets unsafe. So I think they were pretty lucky to be in Iceland when this phenomenon happened.

Should you own a 70-200mm lens?

That’s the question asked by Stephen F. Dennstedt.

And the answer is, “no.” You should not own a lens like that, not if you’re an amateur photographer anyway. No great amateur photos have ever been taken with a telephoto zoom lens. (OK, I am sure that of the billions of photos posted on the web, you can find at least one great amateur photo taken with a telephoto zoom lens, but the point is that it’s a rarity.)

If you’re a wedding photographer and need a telephoto zoom to take pictures of the wedding ceremony, then sure, go for it. But if you’re a “professional” photographer, then you probably aren’t reading my website for equipment advice, and honestly I don’t have any good advice for you anyway. The only thing I know about wedding photography is that my sister overpaid for mediocre photos (but she doesn’t realize the photos are mediocre).

Somewhere out there, someone may ask, “but maybe I ‘need’ this lens to photograph my kid playing sports or something like that.” No, you’re kid doesn’t want the embarrassment of their parent carrying around a massively huge lens while every other parent is just snapping pictures with their iPhone.

Still don’t agree with me? That’s why at the top of the blog it says “For entertainment purposes only. Don’t take anything in here too seriously.”

Olympus 17mm f/1.8 lens

If I could only have one lens, and that one lens had to be a prime, then the 17mm f/1.8 would probably be the one lens I’d choose. Of course that’s a choice that no one actually has to make. But the field of view provided by this lens is a popular choice for one-camera-one-lens people, and is why the Fuji X100 and Sony RX1 series embrace this field of view. (17mm in Micro Four Thirds is conventionally considered equivalent to 34mm on a full-frame camera, but see my blog post on the Micro Four Thirds focal length multiplier.)

This lens is great for taking touristy photos of buildings in Manhattan, as seen above in a photo I took earlier today. A very cold day in New York, the temperature was in the low 20s.

Yesterday I wrote that the Olympus body cap lens is the only lens that makes a Pen-F camera pocketable. Even though the 17mm f/1.8 is the third-smallest Olympus lens (or fifth-smallest if you count the two body-cap lenses as lenses and not body caps), I say that the Pen-F is definitely not pocket-sized with this lens on it. Although technically I was able to stuff the Pen-F with 17mm lens into the large pocket of my winter coat, a trick that certainly would have been impossible with the much larger and heavier 12-40mm, it wasn’t a very elegant fit.

On internet forums, there seems to be some negative sentiment about the sharpness of this lens. I think this lens is pin sharp when stopped down. Wide open: I previously did a test against the 12-40mm and don’t see anything wrong with the wide-open performance. The 17mm lens is a little bit more sharp at f/2.8 than it is at f/1.8, but that’s hardly something to be shocked about. The lens still seems decently sharp even wide open.

So I don’t know if the negative sentiment about this lens comes from:

1. Unrealistic expectations. (I do agree that this lens is a bit overpriced.)
2. Bad quality control. Maybe some people have bad copies of the lens.
3. One particularly negative review that came out shortly after the lens was available for testing, even though their own tests showed this lens is as sharp wide open at f/1.8 as the Olympus 14-42mm kit lens at 14mm stopped down to f/5.6, and sharper wide open at f/1.8 than the kit lens ever gets at 28mm or 42mm at any f-stop.

I may add the warning that this lens has some noticeable field curvature, so if you take a picture of a brick wall at f/1.8, the corners will definitely come out soft.

The Olympus 15mm body cap lens

When this lens first came out a few years ago, there were a bunch of articles on the internet praising its ingenuity. And then, after two or three months, you never heard anyone talking about it again. Everyone who praised it apparently came to realize that, objectively, it was a pretty crappy lens (although an excellent body cap), and their praise was just a case of temporary G.A.S. induced love. End of story.

The photograph above was taken today with the body cap. I attempted to improve the image in Adobe Camera Raw and Photoshop, and cropped it to a 2:3 aspect ratio (currently my favorite aspect ratio for still photography). Can you tell that the lens is crappy without pixel peeping? Actually, I think if I had taken the same photo with the super-sharp Olympus 12-40mm lens, and you could compare them, you would notice that the photo taken with the 12-40mm is technically superior. But I think that, when the image is reduced to a web size and viewed by itself, the body cap passes the decency test, but just barely.

I think that Olympus could have made a much better body cap lens if they had wanted to. If only they designed a four-element lens instead of a triplet. But I’m not a lens engineer, so what do I know?

What I like most about this lens is that it’s really the only lens that makes an Olympus Pen-F pocketable (but that would still be a coat or jacket pocket, not a pants pocket). And as I previously pointed out, sharpness is a bourgeois concept. Possibly. Just because I wrote that doesn’t mean I’m 100% sold on it.

As crappy as the body cap lens is, I still like the image quality more than what I get from my iPhone 6, but maybe if I upgraded to an iPhone 8 or X then I would have a more positive impression of iPhone image quality.

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The black body cap lens has been discontinued. You can still get the silver body cap lens for $49.99 at the Olympus website.

m43 25mm lenses compared


If you’re an m43 gearhead geek, you will love this article by Roger Cicala at Lens Rentals. But if you’re not an m43 geerhead geek, I recommend just skipping this post.

What I found interesting is that the Panasonic 25mm f/1.4 has a lot of sample variation, and I think I’ve encountered this problem with other Panasonic lenses. I have a 14mm f/2.5 lens, and the performance is pretty disappointing, but other people on the internet insist it’s a great lens, so I assume I have a bad copy. On the other hand, my 25mm f/1.4 is quite sharp, so I guess I lucked out with that lens.

Another reason I tend to avoid Panasonic lenses is because they cause more fringing, especially on Olympus cameras. For example, when I used the 25mm f/1.4 outdoors, wide open, I saw purple haze around bright objects in the photo. I’ve also encountered other weird fringing with the Panasonic 25mm f/1.4 that didn’t correct well with the tools available in Adobe Camera Raw. Unfortunately, this is a lens flaw that Roger Cicala doesn’t test for.

Regarding the Olympus lens, Roger Cicala noted that the lens has field curvature, and this is something that affects all of the Olympus 1.8/2.0 primes. Don’t expect to take a picture of a brick wall with these lenses wide open and see sharp bricks in the corners.

Roger Cicala also noted the significant sample variation for the 25mm f/1.8 at the corners. That’s another problem that I’ve noticed that afflicts the Olympus prime lenses. There are a lot of de-centered lenses, where you have one side or corner that’s more out of focus.

Roger Cicala didn’t compare the 25mm f/1.8 to the 25mm f/1.2 when both were at f/1.8. They are both pretty similar at f/2.8, and the f/1.8 is quite a bit sharper at f/1.8 than the f/1.2 lens is either at f/1.4 or f/1.2.

In my opinion, the conclusion from the tests are as follows:

1. The f/1.8 is the sharpest lens wide open, and that’s the lens to buy if you don’t need an aperture wider than f/1.8. Especially if you have an Olympus camera, because I don’t think that Panasonic lenses work as well on Olympus cameras.

2. If you do buy the f/1.8, make sure you test it for de-centering and buy it from a place where you can return/exchange it if you feel you have an especially bad copy (but be realistic, don’t expect perfection centering).

3. The f/1.2 is a pretty good lens if you desire something faster than f/1.8 and you can afford it. And you don’t mind the size and weight. I don’t see myself buying one in the future; I rarely use the 25mm lenses that I already own.

The current price for the f/1.8 is $324, which is the least expensive of the lenses tested, but that’s still a lot of money for a normal prime lens of only a modest f/1.8 aperture. I suspect that Olympus (and Panasonic) have a very high profit margin on these lenses.

I don’t shoot that often at 25mm (which is approximately equivalent to 50mm on full frame), but it would be a great focal length for taking flattering pictures of yourself to post on social media. Wider-than-normal lenses produce unflattering distortion, while longer-than-normal lenses look like your trying too hard.