My Three Lenses

This is a syndicated blog post from La Noir Image. Editorial by Josh S. Rose. Be sure to also check him out on Instagram. Images and text used with permission

Out of habit (and lust), I read a lot of online reviews of photography equipment. Truth is, I’ve spent too many hours delving into the craftsmanship part of the medium. But it’s a side note to my greater passion, which is shooting. This is why I’m sharing the contents of my camera kit — because in my journeys, I’ve found most reviews of equipment to be written from an expert’s point of view but it’s harder to find a cohesive opinion about a complete camera kit from the point of view of artists. I wish there were more conceptual photographers who shared their set-ups because we could look at their work and make decisions based more on the creative side of photography, rather than the technical.

I offer up a look into my own camera bag because it works so well for me. It’s been chiseled down (over three decades) to be what I consider a perfect “fine art” camera kit. It gets me professional grade shots for everything I love to shoot, which is real life, but even more, it is a set-up specifically designed around photography as a form of self-expression.

Why Rangefinder?

Before talking glass, it’s worth noting that I’m a rangefinder shooter and these are M-mount lenses. The smaller footprint of a rangefinder keeps me in constant visual contact with my surroundings and it keeps the camera more as an extension of me, rather than in the category of “equipment.” My biggest desire is to have my camera be unnoticeable, to me and the people in my shots. Because my goal is to experiment and flow while I shoot. And it’s also worth noting that there are great equivalents to these lenses all across the board, with most every reputable brand and for SLRs as much as Rangefinders.

Why Three?

Deciding on three lenses comes from my own personal experience in 35 years of this kind of shooting. I’ve had more lenses and I’ve had less lenses out in the field. Three, for me, is the magic number for two main reasons:

First, in terms of angle of view, my kind of creative work falls entirely into three popular focal lengths. If you take a look at the chart here, you can see it depicted in the colors: pink, gray and green. Because nearly all shots I take contain people within their environments, I am always shooting in that mid-to-wide range where both of those elements can co-exist nicely. But each of the focal lengths express the relationship between person and environment differently – and those differences are often essential to what I’m trying to convey. I’ll discus those differences when we get into the lenses.

Secondly, there’s no doubt that you could fill up your shelves with tons of great lenses, all of which would offer different ways at the same shots. But I have found that three is enough to get any kind of shot and have all my lenses with me at all times. Any more and I’m having to make decisions about what to bring all the time and it’s too much for me to process. In fact, oddly, when I have more than three lenses, I’m actually more likely to just choose one. Whereas when I have three, more often than not, I take them all. So, in an odd twist, I end up with with the widest daily variety with three lenses.

Let’s get into the set. We’ll start, as they do in the movies, with a wide shot:

Super Wide: 21mm/3.4 Super Elmar

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Obviously, wide angle is the choice for landscapes, but it has great use in shooting out on in life, as well. For those expansive cityscapes that highlight the relationship between humans and their environments, 21mm is my favorite focal length, offering no-distortion views of large geometrically-driven, architectural backdrops as well as a unique look at the world that can include incredible detail in the foreground, background and middle ground. There is no denying how great the natural look of a 35mm lens is, but there are just so too many ideas I have while out on the street where the extra environmental elements are desirable for me. At the moment, because of the themes I’m currently working on, the 21mm is on my camera constantly.

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There are other choices in the super wide category — from near-fisheye up to 24mm, or so. If I were shooting documentary work indoors or true landscape images, I might prefer a 14mm. But my themes always tend to involve humans and their environments in some way, so when I go wide, it’s to heighten the drama of the environment. The 21mm gives me a very interesting relationship between that environment and the human form, much more so than the 35mm. And the 21mm Super Elmar is the sharpest lens, not just of all the 21mm lenses, but perhaps across the entire Leica line, making it both the best of the wide angles and the best quality image. It’s also amazingly compact for what it does. I’m constantly finding myself thankful for the extra detail and true lines that the Super Elmar provides. There are also a lot of little advantages that come with the high quality build of the Super Elmar. As an owner of the previous, non-ASPH 21mm, not having to deal with detail drop offs, fringing and vignetting common with a lot of wide angle lenses makes this an easy one to love.

35mm/2.0 Summicron

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35mm, of course, is the standard — coveted by a long history of street and documentary shooters. Its angle of view captures the world with a highly-desirable mix of environment and subject matter. People like to say it’s how the eye sees the world. I don’t necessarily agree with that, but I do think it might be how the eye likes to see the world, with a straightforward and excellent equilibrium of person and space. When I shoot with the 35mm, I know that the viewer will be looking at the people in my shots and that they will be the first read, but environment will play a key role in the moment captured. If it’s human gestures that I want to capture, for some reason, or a group interacting, or the human plight – this is all great territory for the 35mm.

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There’s nobody who is going to argue against the 35mm/2.0 Summicron and that’s the lens I (and most rangefinder photographers throughout its history) probably keep on the camera the most. Besides being a ubiquitous focal length, the Summicron provides an unparalleled quality of image, in an incredibly small and beautiful package.

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People have a hard time putting words to it, but the Summicron provides a “true” look with both incredible sharpness and a very beautiful way of decreasing that sharpness as you move out of focus, allowing your subject to stand out on the image in a number of different ways — either through contrast or detail. And often through both. This is an area of fine art photography that is not discussed nearly enough, to my mind – how lenses help separate foreground elements and background elements. This is the true key to beautiful imagery, as far as I’m concerned.

One of the things that the 35mm Summicron actually doesn’t get enough credit for is how beautiful it shoots wide open. People often give other lenses more credit for gorgeous bokeh (which I think is a confusing term), but at 2.0 the Summicron holds its own quite well in that arena, too. When I do choose to only have one lens with me, for say a long trip where I want to keep it simple, this is the one. And there is no compromise in that decision. As an example, here’s two other shots from a recent trip to Toronto where I only brought this one lens (the guy above is also from the same trip):

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50mm/0.95 Noctilux

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In fact, 50mm and 35mm shooting can appear very similar, from a pure focal length perspective. And while I do like to use this for portraits, if it were a professional job, I might prefer a length over 70mm. But as mentioned, this is not the kit for professional portrait shooting — this is for real life and my own creative expression. And for that, this focal length (and in particular, this lens) does a number of things for me that my other lenses do not:

For one, at 50mm, I’m getting a more intimate view of person and environment than the 35mm. So, even when shooting outdoors, I’m in a little tighter than normal. You might not quickly notice it, but I do think that you feel it. I call this my “emotional lens,” because I tend to put it on when I’m feeling especially empathetic or having a desire to be closer, in all ways, to what I’m shooting. I think it connects you to the subject quite a bit more than the 35mm, and therefore it’s an important tool to have, specifically for a wider emotional range, if nothing else. Even when people are not in the photo, I feel up close and personal to my subject, while still including environment, and that gets me a shot with a lot to take in and feel. As a viewer, you’re in the shot.

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There are a lot of choices in the 50mm range, including a 50mm Summicron that is every bit as incredible as the 35mm Summicron. Personally, I’m partial to the Noctilux, which opens up to a mind-blowing 0.95, for a beautifully smooth and artistic rendering of out-of-focus areas. It is, in fact, not a very sharp or clinically well-detailed lens, but for this more intimate kind of shot that I like to get with it, that only seems to add to the emotionality of the image. And while I do love the high contrast and detail of the 35 Cron, the look of the Noctilux is what drew me to photography to begin with, so it is an important third lens for me to have.

It’s a beast, in terms of size and weight, but certainly no more so than any given lens on an SLR. It’s really the only item I have that isn’t completely compact, so in fact, it doesn’t feel like too much of a sacrifice to carry around. Not pictured below is the 6 stop filter I have on it usually, so that I can actually shoot with it during the day — it lets in so much light that even at its fastest shutter speed and lowest ISO, images are still blown out.

And those are my three lenses. The way I roam, I keep the camera out and the other two lenses in a Billingham bag that seems tailor-made to hold two extra lenses, an extra battery, a lens cloth and some SD cards. On my big outings, I can be out walking for upwards of 5 or 6 hours and this set-up makes it easy.

The holy grail of photography kits, for me, is not really about the technical purity of the construction (although of course I love that stuff), but in the feeling one has when there is 100% confidence that anything I think of out in the real world is achievable through what I’m carrying with me at any given moment.

My hope is that more photographer/artists talk about their own set-ups, especially in relationship to the kinds of shots they take, which seems to be the more human way of thinking about it. I hope this is helpful. Feel free to hit me up with any questions. You can always find me plugging away at Instagram.com/joshsrose.