Yes, I’ve told the story before, but it warrants being told again. I think about this exchange between JD Milazzo and me now almost 16 years ago. I was sitting on the steps to the second floor, the manual to our new Canon 10D in my hand. JD asked what the difference between aperture priority and shutter priority was. In true fashion, I quipped: “Why make this any more complicated than it needs to be? I mean, make sure the camera is set to “A” (fully automatic, by the way), aim it at what you want to photograph, and press the shutter. This isn’t complicated, so let’s not make it more difficult than it needs to be.”
Every time I have picked up a camera, packed the car full of gear – literally – parsed any one of the dozens of technical parameters that are part of creating visual images, I hear myself say those words. And every time I hear myself utter those words, I regret them. Painfully. I have had demanding jobs – for example, running a global IT department with a staff of nearly 400 – but no job I have ever had has been so totally demanding. Intellectually, emotionally, and physically. I can’t say this is true for every photographer, but it is for me and it is for JD. At the end of an assignment, I am spent. Over the years, that has taken a toll. I won’t go into all that here since it is chronicled in “The Way Back.” The first installment of that series appears earlier in this magazine.
So, I needed to find a way back to my passion. A way past the pain, the exhaustion, the frustration, and, most of all, a way past the technology. A way back to being in the moment. A way back to the raw emotion of a shadow on a wall, the dying of a flower, the movement of water over a stream bed. I needed to find myself again.
In the early days, I never thought that the fact that I was a digital photographer from the beginning of my career was a liability. Well, that was another illusion. It was. Sometimes, I still think it is. I’ve learned, for example, that it is one thing to understand concepts like dodging and burning intellectually, it is quite another to actually experience using those techniques. I realize that now that I’ve started using vintage lenses. All those features I take for granted as a digital photographer, for example, an automatic lens diaphragm that stops down prior to shutter release so a photographer can see more clearly what he or she is about to photograph, wasn’t “standard issue” until the advent of the SLR, the predecessor to the DSLR. All these features we now take for granted – all designed to make photography easier and more accessible, ultimately, have contributed to and fostered the idea that photography is as simple as “point-and-shoot.” Fostered comments like the one I made to JD while sitting on the stairs that day.
When I decided that I’d try vintage lenses, I had no idea what I was in for, just as I never really understood how technical and complex photography is. Back in 2014, when JD and I worked the Pentax booth at WPPI in Las Vegas, I saw a Pentax 67ii, the last in the long line of 6×7 cameras from Pentax. It looked very much like the Pentax 645D and the prototype of the 645Z, so, I assumed, in retrospect, that it would work much the same way. Wrong. Very wrong.
At the show, we met Sandy Ramirez. Sandy is a long-time Pentax photographer who is quite technically astute. He was the one who originally mentioned using 6×7 lenses on 645 cameras. I was intrigued, and that was as far as I went. For reasons not entirely clear to me, I decided in August of this year to start looking at 6×7 lenses. There weren’t many – certainly when compared to the sheer number of lenses Canon and Nikon make for their DSLRs. Some used technology I’d never heard of before – like a leaf shutter. For the next month, I did a significant amount of research. The Pentax forums were very helpful – there’s an entire forum about 6×7 lenses and related technology. There were other sites I visited frequently as well. Over time, I decided that I had to do something. I’d lost my passion for photography and if I didn’t get it back quickly, I was headed for trouble.
My first purchase, I determined, was going to be the 55-100 MM which proved to be better rated than the other zoom Pentax made for the 6×7, the 90-180 MM. The 55-100 is F:4.5 “all the way through” while the 90-180 is 5.6. Price was an issue also. The 55-100, according to the Pentax Forums, was averaging $765 and the 90-180 averaged $900. Given that I had no idea if I’d stick with a vintage lens, and given that I still needed to purchase an adapter, I decided against the 90-180.
I learned Pentax had been a pioneer in using lens coatings, and, in the early 1970s, had introduced SMC into the branding of its lenses. SMC was short for “super-multi coating.” Why the 55-100 and not prime lenses? Well, I wasn’t sure where this was going and, while I’ve adjusted to using prime lenses, there are times when they aren’t optimal. There’s the whole “stop-and-change-the-lens” thing which can be annoying and which can interrupt the flow of a shoot. Any way, I starting for the 55-100 MM, and the adapter I’d need.
Prices varied and I learned quickly I’d be able to purchase one for well under the average posted on the Pentax site. In the end, I spent $365. Plus, of course, the adapter, which was another $90.
Could I have spent less? Yes.
So, then, why didn’t I?
There are a number of reasons:
- Camera bodies come and go. Usually, lenses do not. One of the lenses we still have is the original Canon 16-35 MM we purchased initially for use with our 10D. It still works just fine, and likely will for a long time to come.
- A camera body can be rated by the number of shutter clicks – literally by the number of photos created. There no such rating for a lens. Given that I was buying a lens that was about 50 years old, I wanted to make sure it would last, and I had no idea how well it might have been taken care of, if there were any issues with the elements or the diaphragm.
- I knew that if my experiment failed, I would need to sell the lens and I wanted to minimize my loss.
- I’ve learned that the outward appearance of a lens or camera body can tell you all you need to know about how well it was maintained and used. A lens or camera body with a lot of scuffs and marks simply hasn’t been cared for well and that can only lead to expensive repairs or to having to purchase another lens.
Used lenses, on Ebay at least, are rated from “parts use only” to brand new, in the box. The latter category comes with a premium price tag – as much as or more than the original selling price. I spent much time looking at different lenses and how they were rated. I knew what I wanted:
- Glass that was in great condition.
- No fungus or haze inside the lens. The haze would effect image quality. The fungus could be dangerous to my health.
- No balsam separation inside the lens. Essentially, balsam, I discovered, was used to glue the individual glass elements in a lens together. All the research I did suggests that balsam separation did not effect image quality. I was concerned that it would effect the life of the lens. However unlikely it is that a lens would fall apart as a result of separation, I didn’t want to take that chance.
- No noticeable scratches on the lens. Scratches are not likely to effect image quality but they do reflect the care a lens received. I didn’t want problems.
- Though coating failure may not effect image quality, I didn’t want to take that chance.
Before you purchase a used lens, I’d strongly urge you to look closely at the photos in the Ebay ad. Ask for more if you need to. I’d also closely check the reputation of the seller. Also I found a great site that helped me identify when my lenses were purchased and how they were designed. Click here to visit the site.
In the end, I purchased 3 6×7 lenses: the 55-100 MM, a 200 MM, and a 300 MM. The 300 came in the original box, all the paperwork, including the original leather and felt lens case. Opening it was quite the experience. Amazing actually. I also purchased three adapters. My research suggested that third-party adapters would work but at a price – they don’t focus to infinity. Average price: $80/adapter. The 200 and 300 were significantly less expensive than the 55-100. I paid $98 delivered for the 300 MM and $119 delivered for the 200 MM. Subsequently, I purchased a vintage lens case for the 200 for $49. I had to re-glue the inner lining on the cap/lid, but overall, it was in excellent shape.
Would I do it again. Yes. Was I prepared for how these lenses would impact my photography? No, not really. That is exactly what I wanted.
Ironically, everything is manual now – focus, camera settings, diaphragm control…. Just the way it was in the days of film. No point-and-shoot. Not any more.