Luminous landscape


Michael Thompson

While I was in the middle of taking an extended series of black and white street portraits, over a period of several months with a 400 Takumar often combined with 1.4 or 2.0 extender that people I focused on saw me more often than not, before I could get a shot off. It started to frustrate me to be robbed again and again at the last moment of the naturalness of someone unaware. I wanted to capture that magic moment before they realized their picture was being taken – or better yet – not at all. So what were my alternatives? Up to now I had been doing all my work hand held. I knew that using a larger lens would mean having to use a tripod. This I had to accept. The question was how much larger was I willing to go. I first checked out the specs on the 500mm and 600mm. The 500mm I felt would not to be powerful enough. And the 600m – what a weighy monster that one is. See Michael Reichmann’s reviewhere.

There had to be lens that would give me that reach and the flexibliity to capture the unaware. It was when I saw the specs of the 800mm ED(IF) that my head started to spin – especially when I read the price of a new one is $15,000. That was certainly too high for my budget so I started looking around for a reasonably priced used one. After a few weeks I ran across an ad for one in mint condition in Hamburg, Germany (I am living in Switzerland) for $6000 – complete with original case and the specially designed 1.4 extended (see Fig 4). I called to reserve it and by the following weekend I had already shot a couple of rolls using my old video head and tripod setup. That was the easy part. When I got the negatives back from the lab I noticed that they were all "soft". My disappointment led me to find a more suitable tripod and head.

800mm with hood fully extended Fig 1What I did not fully realize when I bought this lens is that I would need a very robust tripod and head setup to stabilize the weight of this lens to insure sharpness. I will never forget the moment I picked this baby up in the shop – it was a bit intimidating just seeing the shiny alu flight case in comes in. I knew right then and there that there was no way I was ever going to shoot this white beast hand held! I then started looking for a suitable tripod. After trying several I came across a well made swiss carbon fiber tripod that was light weight and robust enough to properly balance this lens. Another advantage of this particular tripod is it’s light weight and quick release clamps which make setting up and tearing down quick and painless (see Fig 3). Now all I needed was a head. (Or so I thought!) This lead me all across the internet through forums and reviews of other large heavy llenses. The name Wimberely keep coming up in discussion groups, so I decided to check this company out. After a few quick back and forth informative emails and after sending them the exact weight and diminsions of the 800mm ED along with a photo of the plate hole arrangement that I finally ordered one of their Wimberly Gimbal Heads and appropiate attachment plate. I was naturally very excited unpacking and assembling the head – now I would finally see the full capabilities of the 800mm ED! Again I shot a few rolls and waited unpatiently to pick the negatives. To my disappointment only the shots taken at 500 or 1000 were super sharp everything else was again "soft". Now I really was at a loss.

800mm with Wimberly Gimbal HeadWas it the tripod, the head or the lens itself that was causing this softness – or even worse a combination of the three? Then I remembered reading "somewhere" on the web about some sort of supporting rod that attaches between the camera and the tripod. I just had to remember where. It was the 600mm review cited above that had mentioned this very important detail. So I ordered a Manfrotto 359 Long – Lens Camera Support (see Fig 2). Now with this new ingredient added to my setup everything fell into place. In fact I can with confidence take photos 30 and most of the time even lower. Definetly worth the $50! I then purchased a rugged and light mountain climber’s narrow backpack just long enough for the 800 to fit without the camera attached. I can attach the tripod on one side and the camera support on the other side. I wear a small LowePro pack infront carrying the camera body,lens and accessories. I am mobile with this set up and can walk or hike a long distance if need be.

Detail Manfrotto 359 Long–Lens Camera Support Fig 2 Detail Schweizer CT–75CF Carbon Fiber Tripod Fig 3I have so far used this lens exclusively for shooting street portraits in black and white. For examples see below. When everything is set up this lens is a joy to use. Just looking through the viewfinder still gives me a thrill. Besides being heavy(6.5Kg) this lens is solidily built. The aperture ring is not too stiff and clicks smoothly in place (see Fig 5). The rubber coated focusing knobs are a delight to adjust – smooth and precise action at your finger tips (see Fig 6). One can even lock the focus with a small horizontal metal knob located directly above the focusing wheel on top of the lens (see Fig 1) 1.4 Extender specially designed for 800 ED(IF) Fig 4 800mm 1.4 Extender attached to 800mm ED(IF) Fig 5

1.4 Extender specially designed for 800 ED(IF) Fig 4
800mm 1.4 Extender attached to 800mm ED(IF) Fig 5

Changing rear filters is a snap (see Fig 7). Just turn the black knob and lift the metal filter holder out add a filter and slide it back into the slot. With a twist of the knob it is locked securely in place. The leather lens cover is well made – my only complliant is that the inner lining is red and it begins to rub off and become visible on the while outer coating of the lens.Since I was shooting in winter light and often with either the 1.4 or 2.0 extenter I was quite limited with shutter speeds and apertur settings especially because my subjects were often walking and I was using 100 ASA film most of the time.

Focusing wheel Fig 6 Rear filter holder Fig 7The quick focusing knobs made my shooting a breeze. Sunny days were the best even though bright overcast days proved also excellent results. Always having to compensate for the extenders (1 to 2 stops for the 1.4 and 2 to 3 stoops for the 2.0). But even with these limitations I was able to use 75% of the shots. It is such a pleasure to pan with the Wimberly head that I soon became addicted to feeling its smooth and precise movements. It became almost a game to see how fast or close I could pan someone and still achieve sharp results (see below Fig 16). One of my main complaints when using color film is the viqnetting with the lens wide open (6.7). This disappears at 8 and with B+W film it is not noticable. Many of the portraits were taken with 6.7 and never any smaller than 11 due to the avaliable light and low film speed. I can say without a doubt that this lens is sharp wide open.


The First Color Tests

I wanted a controlled reproducable setting for my first test subject which I could repeat over several days at the same time (11 a. m.) and with the same calm sunny conditions. After scouting around the city I live, I finally decided to choose a building facing east with off – white siding and antennas perched on top (see Fig 8).The distance between camera and build is ca 700m or just short of the infinity mark. I was using a UV filter and Kodak Porta 160NC film. I kept my speed settings high so to compensate for any slight movement of the antennas. Afterwards I found that in calm conditions I was able to get the same sharp results at 30! First I took a shot of the building with a100mm lens to get the location in perspective (see Fig 8).

100mm 11 / 1000 Fig 8 Then one with the 800mm (see Fig 9),
And one with the 1.4 Extender (see Fig 10) All negatives were scanned at 4000 dpi on a Nikon Super Coolscan 9000.
Detail Antenna 800mm 6.7 / 1000 Fig 11 Detail Antenna 800mm 22 / 1000 Fig 12I choose to zero in on the antenna to compare grain and sharpness. Fig 11–14 are details from an enlargement of ca 5m x 4m! Let’s look at Fig 11 and 12. As expected there is more detail in Fig 12 f22 than Fig 11 f6.7 (wide open). But not that much. As I examined my test photos it became increasingly clear that the 800mm delivers consistent sharpness from f6.7–f22 and even f35. So I was forced to enlarge to extreme sizes before becoming aware of the small discrepencies. The horizontal "blades" at the bottom of Fig 11 and 12 show some subtle differneces as well as the top rectanglular mesh.

Detail Antenna 800mm Ext 1.4 / 6.7 / 1000 Fig 13 Detail Antenna 800mm Ext 1.4 / 22 / 1000 Fig 14 On the Street –B+W PortraitsInterestingly, the same holds true with the shots taken with the 1.4 extender. The mesh and blades of Fig 14 is a touch softer but at the same time yields for detail than Fig 13 which is to be expected due to their respective f stops. The grain comparisons were even more difficult to distinguish although Fig 14 grain is softer than the rest. But again it is important to keep in mind how subtle the differences are.

Here are a few photos from my Street Portrait series taken with the extender 1.4 and more often with the grey 2.0 extender.The approximate distance of the subject and camera settings are given under each photo. All of these examples are details taken from enlargements ca. 110cm x 80cm. Film used was either Ilford Delta 100 + 400.

Ca. 10m / Ext 1.4 / 6.7 / 500 / motion / Fig 15 Ca. 12m / 6.7 / Ext. 1.4 / 1000 / motion / Fig 16Ca.20m/Ext.2.0/8.0/500/static/Fig17 Ca.20m/Ext2.0/8.0/500/static/Fig18 Ca.12m/Ext2.0/6.7/500/motion/Fig20 Ca.8m/Ext1.4/8.0/500/static/Fig21After using this lens intensively for the past year I still feel I have just begun to discover what this fine piece of equipment is capable of. Because this lens gives excellent results with such a wide gamut of settings I feel I have just scratched the surface of its potential. Sure it is big and heavy and requires a heavy head and sturdy tripod. But if you are inspired enough to carry the weight and your creative urge demands the reach and quality this lens provides than by all means go for it! I have yet to be disappointed by the results.

As mentiioned above, I have used this lens exclusively for B+W street portraits. Now that this series is completed I will be taking this lens to the mountains and into other various natural settings which I am sure will pose their own challenges and rewards. I will also be testing it with the extension tubes to see how it fares in close–up work. These and other topics will be dealt with in a near future update – Field Test Part 2.

Michael Thompson © 2006

Octrober, 2006

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