My Quest for the Holy Grail….

…or more specifically, the holy grail of Headshot lenses!

I’m writing this to explain my thinking, as much to myself, as to anyone else. My name is Neil Buchan Grant and…..I am addicted to fast glass!

When I used Canon gear, I spent a fair amount of time trying out, buying and selling, 50mm - 85mm lenses in search of the ideal portrait lens. I pretty much had them all, even the legendary and fickle 50mm 1.2 and the 85mm 1.2. When I moved to Leica I bought the 50mm Summicron f2 and ended up trading it for the 50mm Summilux f1.4, both manual focus lenses.

That focal length soon became my preferred choice and this lens has served me well over the years, firstly on the Leica M9 and laterally on Sony A7 full frame bodies. I’ve used it almost exclusively wide open and always for the same type of shot, the headshot or close portrait. Many, whilst lifting their head from a text book, would say a 50mm is too short a lens for portraits but I love it! Its true I could reach a similar result in terms of bokeh and subject isolation using a 45mm or 75mm prime on my EM1 and achieve a flatter perspective into the bargain, but I’ve become used to working closer with a subject where you don’t have to raise your voice to communicate with them. And I suspect it changes the way the subject reacts to the camera or the photographer. 

Since I work mostly with Olympus micro four thirds cameras these days, I have of course been using, and with some good results, the Panasonic/Leica 25mm 1.4 lens on my OMD’s and PEN’s. This lens offers a very sharp contrasty image with great background rendering and it has been responsible for some of my favourite images so far, on any system, a few shown below, all made with this lens, just click on an image to enlarge it and click again to scroll through in full screen

But inevitably if I’m out looking for the best I can get in terms of subject isolation and bokeh, if I want to hear a subject or client say “WOW”, I’ll end up using the Leica Summilux. It just gives such a special look, not too diffuse as with a Canon 85mm 1.2 or the Leica 50mm Noctilux, but still giving a creamy, luxurious, up-market feel to the image contrasted with a big wallop of sharpness and micro-contrast just where it counts.

Here are some pictures I’ve made with the Leica 50mm Summilux attached to a Leica M9, Sony A7 and Sony A7s, just click on one to enlarge it and click again to scroll through in full screen

But the truth is, when I look at all of the photos I’ve taken over the past few years, these portraits with the 50mm’s are in the minority. I shoot a lot of photographs which demand more context and often a wider perspective. I’m starting to shoot more flash too, a style which tends to work better with, or even requires that the lens is stopped down from its maximum aperture.  And if I’m honest, I’m getting a bit fed up of dragging around a second body just for these shots. Working with 2 completely different menu systems is not ideal either. Its not as if I even have any Sony lenses for the A7s. The fact is I can do 99% of the photography I make using the OMD system. So much of what I and probably most of us shoot has little to do with subject isolation or breathtaking bokeh. Here are a few shots to illustrate, made with a variety of lenses on the OMD and PEN cameras, just click on any to enlarge them and click again to scroll through in full screen

But for the head shots once you’ve got used to a 50mm Sumillux, its hard settle for anything less beautiful. For anyone who doesn’t know, to achieve an equivalent look on a micro four thirds camera body, the lens would have to be a 25mm f0.7, throwing almost a third more light onto the sensor than actually exists! I’ve tried the f0.95 Voigtlander too but found it really struggling to produce an image that didn’t break up and go all ‘hazy’ on me when shooting wide open in contrasty light, not to mention the sharpness wide open. And what’s the point of a fast lens like this if you have to keep stopping it down. As you can see, I’ve really taken the ‘no compromise’ label which Leica use to describe their glass, to heart in my quest.

So my crystal ball (and common sense) is telling me that nobody is going to make a 25mm f0.7 micro four thirds lens. How about a slightly longer focal length at a smaller maximum aperture? A 27.5mm or 30mm 1.4 for example, could possibly offer me the closest thing I’m likely to see. Schnieder Optics announced a few years ago that they were going to make a 30mm 1.4 lens for micro four thirds. I salivated. Then upon visiting their stand last year at Photokina in Cologne, I noticed in their literature that its proposed maximum aperture had miraculously changed to f2.8! Subsequently, by all accounts, they have given up on producing this lens altogether.

Recently my unhealthy quest has been brought sharply into focus since Sony announced their new flagship camera, the A7R mark II. In considering whether to upgrade from my 12 megapixel A7s to this 42.5 megapixel beast, I have come to the conclusion that, while it might be ‘nice’ to have all that digital real estate, I really don’t ‘need’ it. I’ve already had to sell an A7 body to buy an A7s only 9 months later and I’m pretty sure however amazing this new A7Rmk2 is, there will be an even more impressive ‘mk3’ out in a year’s time, such is sony’s determination to make their mark!  

I cannot fault the quality and versatility of the thick, juicy 16 megapixel files my OMD EM1 gives me and that can only improve with the next version of body. The OMD ‘system’ is, for most of what I do, the ideal system. The tests show that their trio of Pro zoom lenses are built to such a high optical specification that they well outperform the current m43 sensors which already offer me sufficient quality to make giant AO sized prints (and I’ve seen larger in exhibitions) The pioneering in body stabilisation continually gives me belief defying shutter speeds without the need for a tripod. And it all fits in a small bag I can walk onto any plane with, even with a Quadra ELB 400 lighting unit packed in there! And if that’s not enough….my EM1 is about to receive the mother of all firmware upgrades, giving me silent shooting,  1/16,000 top speed and a host of other goodies. This is a remarkable decision on the part of Olympus almost 2 years after the EM1 was launched and with a successor undoubtedly just around the corner. It seems as far as my wallet is concerned Sony are all ‘take take take’ and Olympus are the complete opposite. 

So, I think I may have found a ‘one camera’ solution, but it will require some retraining of my brain for it to work! One of my Leica M lenses (I haven’t sold any of them) is my 35mm Summilux f1.4. Its a great lens on any full frame body but I’ve only used it once attached to an Olympus body and I was in a bit of a hurry on an Olympus funded commission. It seemed okay but as time was against me and I was really being paid to show how great Olympus lenses were, I stopped using it after a few shots. It offers an equivalent focal length of 70mm on an Olympus body, so that’s only 10mm more than the 60mm lens that nobody is going to make for me! At f1.4, on paper it would only offer me the equivalent level of subject isolation as the long end of a standard f2.8 zoom on a full frame body. But…it is a Leica lens and it retains very similar characteristics to its big brother the 50mm.  I’m hoping that I can get my head around the longer 70mm thing and start using it in the same way currently use my 50mm so watch this space!

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