Tag Archives: Dorothea Dix Hospital

The Myth of the Superfast Lens

Sigma sd Quattro, ISO 100, f 2.8 Handheld

I’ve been engaged in an ongoing documentary project, photographing the grounds and buildings of the Dorothea Dix State Mental Hospital in Raleigh, North Carolina. (The photos that illustrate this piece are of the hospital director’s residence, now abandoned). The Dix campus is a stunningly beautiful piece of property that sits on the edge of downtown Raleigh. The city has been eyeing it for years, hoping to raze the hospital and buildings and convert the grounds to a public park. With the push to de-institutionalize mental health sufferers, the hospital and its numerous support buildings currently sit empty, falling into disrepair while waiting to be bulldozed and replaced with luxury hotels and manicured lawns.

I often walk my dog on the property, and when I do, I’ll usually make a point of taking a camera along with me, if for no other reason than it makes me look – really look – at what’s around me, and it affords the opportunity of recording it for posterity. One thing I’ve learned in 50 years of photographing things is that the things you most take for granted – the things you expect to always be there – are the things that ultimately aren’t. Time has a peculiar way of transforming the most ‘permanent’ of things.

I think, for example, of the year I spent in lower Manhattan in 1978, walking almost daily through the World Trade Center Plaza on my way to school on Broadway just north of the Twin Towers. I usually carried a camera – I was on my way to and from Art School studying photography – and yet I never bothered to photograph what was right in front of me because it all seemed so obvious, so blindingly ‘there’. In all my negatives from that time I find one photo – one – of the WTC towers, a basic tourist snap of the buildings themselves. In hindsight, I’d been given an incredible gift – and I’d squandered it. This, of course, is how we learn, if we learn at all. Often the most effective pedagogy is regret at missed opportunities.

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Sigma sd Quattro, ISO 100, f 2.8 Handheld 1/30th Second

As I’d expected to remain outside in the late-afternoon sun, I’d taken my Sigma sd Quattro with 17-50 2.8. Not exactly the camera I’d have taken were I expecting to be photographing inside, given the Sigma’s reputation for lack of usability at higher ISOs ( I most profitably use it at 100 ISO), but I’d tried a back door to the residence, found it open, and knew I’d probably not have  the opportunity again, so in I went (missed opportunities and all that). All of the photos used to illustrate this piece were shot handheld at 100 ISO…with an f 1:2.8 lens. Indoors obviously. The point being, it can be done. Those of us raised shooting film became quite adept at it. We had to. Either that or we lugged a tripod around with us, which wasn’t always an option.

Which is all preface to a larger issue – the digital age’s fetish for large aperture lenses. Like most fetishes, it can’t be justified rationally. It makes no sense. In the digital age, when hyper ISO is a reality (10,000 ISO being common), there simply is no need for them. None, other than to pimp the one-trick pony that is ‘bokeh,’ which, to my eyes, is the single worst visual affectation brought about by digital capture. Suffice it to say that, as a general rule, the more you rely on bokeh to make your photographs interesting, the shittier the photographer you are. Full stop.

Back in the film era, high-speed lenses served a purpose. Most usable film stocks maxed out at 400 ASA. Tri-X and HP-5 – 400 ASA box speed films – were considered ‘fast’ films preferable for low-light handheld work. 10,000 ISO was a thing of science fiction, akin to flying cars. We learned to work within the parameters of the limitations of the technology. We became ‘photographers.’

The Noctilux: A $12000 Photographic Affectation.  If You’re Rockin One of These in the Digital Age, Freud Would Say You’re Probably Insecure About the Size of Your Penis

It was these constraints that led to the production of high-speed lenses. It wasn’t for the bokeh. They were made and used for a reason – to maximize one’s ability to shoot in low light. Doing so was usually a two-fold strategy. Push your Tri-X or HP5 to 1600 ASA, and use the fastest lens – usually an f 1:1.4. If you had unlimited funds, you’d take advantage of the speed gain of the Noctilux or the Nikkor 50 1:1.2, but you usually did so only as a last measure, given the optical compromises inherent in large aperture lenses. Best bet was to learn to shoot handheld, which, with some practice, was easily doable down to 1/15th/sec with a 50mm lens and even lower with a 28mm.

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Given the above, I find it a delicious irony that high-speed optics are now all the rage. Were you to believe what you read on the enthusiast websites, any optic f2 or above is inferior. Serious photographers rock big aperture lenses. The irony, of course, is that we no longer need them. Lower light? Just jack up the ISO. Understanding this, and fighting the ‘common knowledge’ that says you need a Noctilux allows you the use of generally better optics, optics that just happen to be much less expensive because they’re so much cheaper to produce. You can buy the VC 35mm 1:2.5, a super sharp, contrasty modern lens if there ever was one, for $300; or you can buy the optically inferior VC 35mm 1:1.2 for 4 times the price. Your choice. Using an M10, it won’t make any difference in terms of low light ability. None. What the 2.5 will give you is sharper photos, all at 1/4th the price. Hell, it even has decent bokeh.

The Anti-Leica

Christmas Presents to Myself: a Weird Novel About the Death of Roland Barthes (The Guy Who Wrote Camera Lucida) and a Sigma SD Quattro

I love quirky things, whether it be cameras or motorcycles or cars or music. Or people, women in particular. If I were to buy another motorcycle, it would have to be a KTM RC390. Cool little 390cc one cylinder 40 hp “thumper” engine in a dedicated lightweight track bike package that will smoke a liter bike (1000cc) when the roads start to bend a little. Maximum fun in a small, affordable package. Let the 20-somethings with their 180 hp Kawasaki’s and Yamaha’s snicker; I’m happy to leave them for dead when the pace heats up and the road turns twisty.

Likewise with cameras. You’ve probably noticed my penchant for the much-maligned Leica’s in the M series – the M5 and the M8 – and the quirky Ricoh GXR with its modular lens system. Great cameras all. The GXR is my absolute favorite digital camera of all-time. I absolutely love it. It’s the KTM RC390 of digital cameras – small, light, produces beautiful files with a certain character, performs great in the real world as opposed to on the spec sheet, and it’s different in a cool way. I much prefer it to both the D3S and D800 I’ve owned, the D3S too bulky, the D800 with unnecessarily massive files. The GXR hits the sweet spot. Of course, by an iron logic inaccessible to me, this also meant that it would be a commercial failure, which it was (general consensus was that it was a good idea in theory, but in practice just didn’t cut it for some undefined reason). There’s something about the “general consensus” that always gets my contrarian juices flowing. “Common opinion” is just that: common. Look up the definition and get back to me if you think that’s a good thing.

As far as digital cameras go, you can’t get more “much-maligned” than the Sigma Foveon cameras. They are glacially slow (as a friend says – “slower than a wet fart”), basically useless at any ISO over 400 (just like film), produce huge files and most require proprietary Sigma RAW software that runs at a snail’s pace and frequently crashes. They also, when used correctly, produce stunningly sharp and nuanced Black and White images that rival the best Medium Format. Of course, given the above, I had to have one.

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You might remind me that I’ve spent years denigrating the obsession with photographic “IQ” and wonder about the inconsistency and why I appear to be doing an about-face now. Guilty as charged. As a general rule, I am of the opinion that a 12MP APS-C sensor is sufficient for most any photographic need short of massive prints larger than 20×30 inches that need to hold fine detail. 12MP files from my GXR certainly can hold their own against fine-grained 35mm film negatives (Panatomic-X for instance) carefully shot with Leitz or Zeiss optics, and in most instances,  medium format 21/4 negatives as well. I’ve got a 40×60 inch print of my quirky wife hanging over our bed (the print is hanging over our bed, not the wife), taken with the 16MP GXR APS-C Zoom lens module. It’s stunning, even at that enlargement, the detail even when viewed close up really amazing. Why any general interest photographer would need more is beyond me. I just don’t understand the point of 36 or 42 or 50MP sensors given how people generally view and display their photos; detail in even a ‘middling’ 24MP full frame camera cannot be fully articulated on a 4k monitor or in any reasonable size print. 12MP is more than enough.

Taken with a 16MP APS-C Ricoh GXR and printed at 40×60 inches. Looks Great.

I will admit, however, there are times, very infrequent for me and I suspect for most everyone else, when you simply need the most resolute image you can get. Back in the day, you’d grab a 6×9 MF camera like a Fuji 690, or you’d rent a 4×5 or larger view camera to get what you needed. You certainly wouldn’t use your 35mm Leica, even with the sharpest Summicron. Medium format cameras were often bulky and a pain in the ass to shoot, usually requiring a fine grained film and a tripod, but when you nailed it the results were stunning. The resulting negative could be printed as large as you wanted with minimal loss of quality. That need does still exist today, even more so given the massive print sizes made available to even the most casual happy-snapper with the use of inkjet printing, at least for those absolutely needing to print big. Of course photography is not just about IQ, but it is nice to have maximum IQ in these certain limited instances and for the money, Sigma Foveon cameras offer eye-wateringly sharp images at ISO 100-400 that MF systems costing 10x as much would envy. The SD Quattro, Sigma’s latest Foveon camera, can shoot DNG and thus does away with the need to use Sigma’s abysmal RAW software. Interesting camera, cheap too.

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So, in the spirit of Christmas (i.e. buy a bunch of shiny crap you don’t need) I took the plunge and bought a Sigma SD Quattro with massive 17-50 zoom attached. I bought it for one specific purpose – to shoot very large b&w prints for a documentary series I’m doing about the old Dorothea Dix Hospital grounds here in Raleigh, a beautiful historic state mental hospital complex that’s being bulldozed to make way for a city park. I live directly across the street from its entrance and have watched it transformed from a bustling hospital that treated our most vulnerable citizens to a decaying warren of unoccupied  buildings set amongst pristine grounds full of beautiful huge old oaks. All soon to be uprooted.

Like most good things, I suspect we won’t miss any of it until it’s gone, and then we’ll realize nobody thought to memorialize it. Nobody seems to paying attention to the fact this local landmark, so important in our city and state’s history, soon will be a memory. The few I see sitting in the grass while their dogs run seem too busy looking at their phones to admire the faded beauty of the place and the majestic oaks they’re sitting under. So, given my training as a documentarian, I’ve decided to shoulder the responsibility myself and make a record of the place before its gone, and given current visual culture, nobody is going to pay me any mind if I ultimately propose to exhibit 8×10 B&W silver prints; too small, not sharp enough, simply not cool enough. What they’ll want are huge, hyper tack sharp prints. Hence the Sigma SD Quattro.

It certainly lives up to its reputation: it’s slow, and quirky and produces eye-poppingly sharp photos you can blow up to massive sizes with minimal loss of detail. To my eye, sharper and more pleasing than the files from the D800. Would I use it as I would my Leica or GXR. No, those fit different needs. But when I need big and sharp, while you can’t tell it from a computer screen, it’s about as good as it gets.