Promotional images for the play, August Osage County. Zach Scott Theatre.
It always happens this way. I talk all about technique and miracle lenses and I start believing that I'm as smart and talented as I've led myself to believe I am. And so the universe comes back around and kicks my butt. I'm fifty-five. I haul my reading glasses around with me all the time and I should be wearing the bifocals I own but I usually can't be bothered. Today I went to photograph a famous playwright under available light in a dark theater. I'll blog about the shoot another time but for right now it's all about my own hubris.
I packed a quick bag of stuff. I was intent on using my Zeiss lenses on a 7D and a 5Dmk2. I was so confident that I'd be able to make the combinations work even though the subject has dark skin and the theater I was shooting in was dimly lit and had black walls. I brought along a pair of reading glasses so I could review images. And it's a good thing I did because my rate of keepers was dismally low. I just haven't practiced manual focus enough to make the 50 and 35mm lenses sing sharp in dim light. The 85mm was relatively easier. The other two? Like pulling teeth.
I could have packed a 35mm f2 AF lens and a 50mm AF lens. I have them both in the drawer. But I was out to prove (with a swagger) how superior the vaunted Zeiss glass could be. What an asshole.
Now I had the distinct (dis)pleasure of throwing out about a third of my shoot to technical issues. Oh hell, there were no technical issues. I just couldn't hit focus reliably today. Even with the cool screens I put in the cameras. Didn't I test them? Sure I did. I walked all over downtown Austin in bright sunlight over the course of a few weeks and startled myself with the biting sharp results. But that's not the same as trying to focus in dark, flat light, with a moving subject while handholding the camera. Now I've embarrassed myself. And I wasn't going to tell anyone because I shot lots of frames and I have good coverage for what my client needs, but I thought I would come clean to remind people that good technique takes unyielding practice and that sometimes the best tool for the job at hand isn't the most impressive tool but simply the one that will do the job best.
And while we're at it we might as well kick around a few mortality issues. I had perfect vision right up to the age of 42. I mean I could count the feathers on an eagle flying a mile above me with the sun right behind him and I could read 2 point typed from inches away. Then, like nearly everyone else, my eyesight changed. I compensated. But there finally came one of those embarrassing moments that finally pushed me to the eye doctor with my tail between my legs.
It was the mid-1990's. Business for photographers was booming. We were buying 5 series BMW's and dropping cash on big Hasselblad systems. We just couldn't miss. I ordered a brand new Hasselblad 203F with the 110 f2 Planar, the 150mm f2 Sonnar and the 50mm f2.8 Distagon. What a gorgeous package. The 203F had a focal plane shutter which meant medium format with fast lenses and a top shutter speed of 1/2000th. Very revolutionary compared to the Hasselblad V series cameras. And pricey.
I took the camera along on a shoot at Motorola. It should have been a piece of cake. I was photographing a group, lit with flash, sitting in two rows in front of a canvas backdrop. But no matter how I turned the focus ring I couldn't get a good, sharp image on the screen. I finally called over my assistant and she focused the camera and swore it was in. We did a Polaroid and it was good. So we shot and moved on. But I was convinced that the fault lay with the camera and lens. I boxed up the camera and the offending lens and sent it off to Hasselblad for evaluation.....along with a spitty letter.
About ten days later I got a call from a person with a Scandinavian accent. The conversation went something like this:
Them: "Mr. Tuck, I have your Hasselblad camera here in front of my and we have thoroughly tested both the body and the lens. They are perfectly calibrated."
Me: "Well, what was wrong with them when you got them. What did you have to calibrate?"
Them: "Oh no, Mr. Tuck. You misunderstand. We got the package and your letter and immediately sent them to the lab for testing. We didn't have to make any repairs or adjustments. Both were perfect right from the box."
Me: (fueled with hubris): "That's impossible. I know what I saw. I couldn't get the finder into sharp focus!" (Anger and frustration amply present in my voice....).
Them: "Forgive me Mr. Tuck but I must ask, how old are you?"
Me: "I'm forty two."
Them: "And may I ask when you last paid a visit to your oculist? (pause) Your eye doctor?"
Me: "I never go. I have perfect vision...."
Them: "You did, Mr. Tuck.....but now.....?"
They kindly sent me the camera and lens back and I did go to see the "oculist" and was fitted for a pair of reading glasses. The doctor recommended bifocals but I scoffed. Two weeks later I went back and got the bifocals as well. The camera worked fine right up until I exchanged it for a digital camera, years later.
The moral of the story is not that you shouldn't use manual focus cameras. Or that you shouldn't try to keep pushing the envelope. I guess the moral is that we all age and we all change and while it's tough to admit some things get harder. And you have to practice more than the young and the spry.
The thing that gets in the way is.....hubris. En garde.