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In Praise of Excellence

Dustin Abbott

June 3rd, 2017

In Praise of Excellence

Don’t get me wrong; I do love to post-process images.  It is that second dimension of modern photography where you can take a good photo and make it great.  About four years ago I wrote a series of articles for Alien Skin Exposure’s blog on how to take an image from good to great through post processing. (Part 1 | Part 2| Part 3)  Through quality (and nuanced) processing technique you can take a good photo and make it transcendent.  If you look at the top-rated photos at most photo sharing sites you will see a lot of fantastic images…almost all of which have received a good deal of processing work.  But today’s article and photo gallery is called, “In Praise of Excellence”, and it celebrates the exceptional nature of two of my favorite lenses in my own personal kit along with the kind of images that come right out of the camera when you are using great glass.

There are definitely some things that you can improve through processing.  Color rendition, contrast, tone curves, highlights, shadows, and more.  You can change the whole look of an image.  But there are some things that software simply cannot emulate.  The quality of the rendering, the creaminess of the bokeh, subject isolation, and that unique three-dimensional look the best lenses can give.  

I am unquestionably blessed to get to do what I do.  I have access to all the most recent lenses and gear, and it is exceptionally rare that I don’t have gear that belongs to someone else sitting around.  But can I make a rather jaded confession?  There are moments when I crave using my own gear.  I don’t want to use the latest and greatest; I just want to use what’s familiar.  I have carefully put together a kit that includes a number of my favorite lenses, and often I’m not shooting with them because I need to be covering the newest gear.  

Thursdays are my day off, and I often like to just get out in the woods for a few hours to hike, decompress, and shoot “just for the fun of it”.  Thursday arrived somewhat cool, overcast, with periodic rain.  The upside?  Colors were rich and saturated.  The downside?  After a very wet spring and a damp morning the mosquitoes are out in force.  I felt like I deserved a blood donor sticker by the time my hike was over.

When I selected the gear for my hike, this is what I chose:

Gear Used:
Canon EOS 5D Mark IV (5D4): B&H Photo | Amazon.com | Amazon Canada 
Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L II USM: B&H Photo | Amazon.com | Amazon Canada
Canon EOS 6D: B&H Photo | Amazon.com | Amazon.ca
Super Precision Matte Eg-S Interchangeable Focusing Screen
Zeiss Milvus APO Sonnar 2/135m: B&H Photo | Amazon | Amazon.ca
Cotton Carrier Camera Vest and Holster

I used the Cotton Carrier harness/vest to allow me to carry two camera bodies with lenses attached for quick access.  I find that a backpack is less practical for me on these types of hikes (where I don’t need to carry other things) for the simple reason that if I don’t have quick access to the cameras I end up passing on photo opportunities because I don’t want to mess with stopping long enough to get at the gear.  The quick access provided by the Cotton Carrier means that I come home with more photos.

I carried a 5D Mark IV with the exceptional Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L II mounted on it.  Both of these items cost too much (particularly here in Canada), but when I tested them they stood out to me as being worth the extra money.  I think that the 35L II is the best prime lens that Canon makes under 200mm.  It has the most Zeiss-like rendering of any Canon lens that I’ve used, with that amazing mix of contrast, sharpness, and three dimensional subject rendering while also offering very smooth bokeh rendering.  Combine that with one of the best builds ever in a Canon lens and fantastic autofocus, and you have a lens that just might be worth its lofty asking price.  Roger Cicala from LensRentals said this after tearing down the 35L II and inspecting its build: “Sometimes things are expensive because they’re worth it. Sometimes they’re heavy because they’re so solidly constructed. This is one of those times.”

I also carried a Canon 6D with the also exceptional Zeiss Milvus APO Sonnar T* 2/135mm lens attached.  The predecessor to this lens (APO Sonnar 2/135m “classic”) was the first modern Zeiss lens that I reviewed, and it was an eye-opening experience.  I was shocked by how badly it outperformed the Canon 135mm f/2L that I had in my kit at the time.  I definitely was interested in the lens, but it is extremely expensive…and manual focus only.  Last year I reviewed the newer Milvus version of the lens, and was again reminded of just how exceptional a lens this is.  I’ve reviewed all three of the Otus series lenses (Zeiss’ most high end line), and frankly the Milvus 2/135mm deserves to be named with them.  It definitely upholds that standard of excellence.  When I had an opportunity to add the Milvus 135mm to my kit, I didn’t hesitate.  I keep a Canon 6D body setup for MF (manual focus) glass because the 6D allows the focus screen to be easily swapped out.  I have an EG-S matte precision focus screen installed that makes manual focus a much simpler (and more enjoyable) process because you can literally watch things come into focus in the viewfinder.  The sensor on the 6D has held up really, really well, and still provides beautiful image quality.

And so, here are the images that I got from these combinations over the process of my hike.  Many of them are at very large apertures, to provide a unique depth of field look to set them apart.  None of them have had any processing other than a RAW conversion in Lightroom.  I’m sharing this article, and these photos, to let you know that while great photography is and will always be about the photographer and his or her eye, that quality gear does matter.  These photos simply wouldn’t be possible with a kit lens…no matter how much you processed them! 

Some lenses are just expensive, but others are expensive because of a wonderful excellence that sets them (and your photos) apart from the pack.  This article and gallery is in celebration of excellence.

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