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Portrait Photography With the Canon 50mm f/1.2 L


Portraits with the Canon 50mm f/1.2L

Portraits with the Canon 50mm f/1.2 L
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I was hired to photograph an event recently that was to take place in a dimly lit restaurant. Aside from carrying 2 flash units with me, I decided to rent a Canon 50mm f/1.2 L lens for some low-light non-flash photos. This bad boy is Canon's top of the line 50mm lens and it only costs $30 to rent at Pro Photo Connection in Irvine. Plus, I was able to take advantage of the old trick where you can rent 3 days for the price of 1: rent it after 3:00pm on Friday, pay for Saturday, they're closed Sunday, return it Monday morning.

Canon 50mm f/1.2 L

The lens worked like a charm at the event, but I wasn't about to let the remainder of my short time with this beautiful lens go to waste. So I called up my brother and we conspired to do a little photo shoot on Sunday. My goal was simple. I wanted to really put this lens through its paces by using it in a realistic fashion for which it would be most suited. That means low-light natural-light portraits with the aperture wide open. No side-by-side comparison images, no analyzing color fringing, no looking at MTF charts - none of that useless drivel. I wanted a real-life, practical application experience with this beauty of a lens.

I prefer natural light over artificial light any day of the week. But it has to be good natural light. No direct sunlight on this shoot. I wanted something soft yet dramatic. Something that would bring out the rich textures of denim and highlight the rugged good looks of my brother (yeah, I'm comfortable saying that...), without creating too much contrast for my film to handle. Oh yeah...and I'd only be shooting film. Film with an ISO rating no higher than 160. For the series you see here, I used Kodak Portra 160 on my Canon EOS-1v with the Canon 50mm f/1.2 L. In some soon-to-come posts, I'll also show you  shots I made on medium format Kodak Portra as well as medium format and 35mm black and white Ilford Delta 100 film. I'll be talking more about this in the next post, but this was my first time shooting Kodak Portra and I have to say (and pardon my French) goddamn is this a beautiful film. I finally understand people's obsession with this film stock now.

Now I know that the majority of my readers shoot digital, not film. And that's cool. The only reason I'm pointing out that I shot film here is that I want my readers to understand that you can get great portraits without a ton of Photoshop work! These portraits were done on film, meaning no Photoshop, no Lightroom trickery, nothing. This is how they came out of the camera. I see so many portraits these days that have a dozen different Lightroom filters applied, an extra hour's worth of skin smoothing, the eyes over-sharpened and over-brightened, a cheesy ultra-stylized imitation film look applied...just way too much editing. But I want to show you that all you need is good light and good shooting technique. Find yourself a nice, big, soft light source, then put your model there. Then it's just a matter of knowing how to shoot in manual the right way (interested in learning?).

I'm going to be talking all about how to find good light for portraits in the next blog post, so stay tuned. For this post, I want to focus on the Canon 50mm f/1.2 lens.

I'll give you my straight, un-scientific opinion right off the bat: if I were to buy a wide aperture 50mm prime lens for my Canon DSLR, I wouldn't get the 50mm f/1.2 L, I'd get the Canon 50mm f/1.4 lens instead. Don't get me wrong, the Canon 50mm f/1.2 L is a sharp, well-built, beautiful wide aperture lens, but it's just too expensive and too heavy for my taste. The 1.2L is about $1,700 and weighs 1.3 pounds! The f/1.4 version, in sharp contrast, only costs about $450 and weighs just 10 ounces. A good 50mm prime should be lightweight, small, and inconspicuous! That's half the point of these lenses.

Now some may say, "Yeah, but the 1.2 version must be a lot sharper." I'm sure it's a little sharper...but $1200 sharper? I doubt it. From the side-by-side reviews I've read, it really isn't that much sharper - at least not enough to justify the price and weight. The cheaper 50mm f/1.4 is plenty sharp even for me. What you're really paying for with that extra $1200 isn't so much the glass as it is the weather sealing (you know, so you can shoot portraits in the rain), the tougher build quality (so you can do some portraits in battle), and curved aperture blades. The 50mm f/1.2 has curved aperture blades whereas the 1.4 doesn't. This means that the aperture on the 1.2 actually forms a circle instead of an octagon. Some people make a big stink about how this makes the bokeh (that's the out of focus areas in the background) look better. It probably does in side-by-side comparison images, but again, I really wouldn't say it's worth $1200.

So if you want a beautiful, heavy, expensive, weather-sealed 50mm lens with curved aperture blades, go with the Canon 50mm f/1.2 L. If you want something lighter weight and much more affordable that is still plenty sharp, go with the Canon 50mm f/1.4. You'll only lose 1/3-stop of light on the aperture (which is almost nothing) and you'll just have to live with straight aperture blades - like virtually ever other lens manufactured.

Whatever the case, if you decide to use either of these lenses wide open or nearly wide open, get ready for a lot of blurry pictures. The depth of field is so insanely small at these ultra-wide apertures that once you achieve focus, try not to breath, otherwise your area of focus will shift off of where you want it. I had a hell of a time keeping the focus in the right spot with this lens. Just look at the first picture below for what I'm talking about. The DOF is so small that it doesn't even reach his ear!

Keep an eye out for my next two blog posts talking about finding good natural light for portraits and shooting in B&W.

Portraits with the Canon 50mm f/1.2L

Portraits with the Canon 50mm f/1.2L

Portraits with the Canon 50mm f/1.2L

Portraits with the Canon 50mm f/1.2L

Portraits with the Canon 50mm f/1.2L

Portraits with the Canon 50mm f/1.2L

Portraits with the Canon 50mm f/1.2L

Portraits with the Canon 50mm f/1.2L

Portraits with the Canon 50mm f/1.2L

Portraits with the Canon 50mm f/1.2L

Portraits with the Canon 50mm f/1.2L

Portraits with the Canon 50mm f/1.2L

Portraits with the Canon 50mm f/1.2L

Portraits with the Canon 50mm f/1.2L

Portraits with the Canon 50mm f/1.2L

Portraits with the Canon 50mm f/1.2L

Portraits with the Canon 50mm f/1.2L

Photo a Day Challenge: Day 21

Photo a Day Challenge: Day 21 - Boy in Canoe on Ilford Delta 100 filmBoy in Canoe - Woodbridge Lake, Irvine, CA
Monday, September 2, 2013 at 2:32pm
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It was Labor Day on Day 21 of my Photo a Day Challenge and I was walking around Woodbridge Lake in Irvine in search of my shot for the day. There was a lot of activity going on at this artificial lake on account of the holiday and the energy there was very enjoyable. I really love some good ol' community fun and recreation. Everyone is having a good time, we're all taking a break from the bustle of daily work for a change, the smell of barbecues fill the air...classic Americana.

With my Mamiya RZ67 camera in hand loaded up with my usual Ilford Delta 100 film, I took a stroll around the lake with my eyes peeled for a good photo. I walked and walked and walked, attempted some photos, failed, then walked some more. I had nearly circumnavigated the entire lake and was on my way back to the car feeling quite defeated. A full hour searching this big lake and I just couldn't find a thing. I was itching to photograph some people, and there were tons there, but I couldn't make anything work.

Then I made it to the top of a pedestrian bridge spanning the lake and spotted a couple of kids out navigating the waters. They were clearly friends - one in a canoe and the other on a paddle bike. I immediately liked these kids. In a world of iPhones and Xbox's, they were doing what kids should be doing on a beautiful day like this: getting away from their parents and enjoying the weather. I loved the role they were playing in the larger scene of Americana surrounding this lake. The perfect weather, the barbecues, the calm waters, the energy of everything...it was all punctuated perfectly with these two kids operating their respective water craft. They were the bow on the present that was this scene.

The intensity with which I appreciated these kids engaging in such a simple activity may seem strange to some people. But it was so reminiscent of that certain type of picturesque childhood you saw in the movie Stand By Me or The Sandlot. These kids reminded me of a time and place when red-tape, regulations, and iPads didn't rob kids of their desire to explore and get into trouble. These kids are exploring as much as the rules will allow. It may not be the same as finding a dead body or trying to recover a prized Babe Ruth-signed baseball from "The Beast," but they're doing as much as they can with what they got. I have a lot of respect for that.

But back to the picture-taking. From my vantage point high up on the bridge, I visualized a shot from directly above the canoeist as he paddled slowly under the gangway. Lucky for me, he decided to stop right below me, allowing me to fire off a frame of him and his friend without ever giving away my position. Both shots were exposed at f/10 at 1/250 of a second.

Photo a Day Challenge: Day 21 - Boy on Paddle Bike on Ilford Delta 100 filmBoy on Paddle Bike - Woodbridge Lake, Irvine, CA
Monday, September 2, 2013 at 2:31pm
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Read the backstory on this Photo A Day Challenge here. See previous days here.

Photo a Day Challenge: Day 8

Photo a Day Challenge: Day 8 - Commuters Exiting Train on Ilford Delta 100 FilmCommuters Exiting Train - Tustin, CA
Tuesday, August 20, 2013 at 6:49pm
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On day 8 of my Photo a Day Challenge I had an itch to photograph some people in a candid daily setting. This would probably fall under the category of "street photography" but since my neck of the woods isn't exactly a bustling metropolis, I opted for the local train station in search of some activity. It was right around rush hour time so I knew there'd be a lot of trains unloading passengers from Los Angeles.

I don't remember exactly when or how I worked out this pre-visualization, but the composition I imagined involved a straight shot of the train door with commuters exiting onto the station platform. I didn't really want any recognizable faces. I planned to shoot from about the neck down.

When I arrived at the station, I saw that the southward track would be ideal on account of the setting sun. The low light from the west would illuminate that flank of the train perfectly. As I tried to nail down my composition, I realized that this shot was going to be very difficult. First off, I'd need a train there at the station so I could dial in which lens to use and where to stand. Since the trains aren't there waiting very long, I wouldn't have much time to do this. And then there was the metering. I utilize a system for manually metering that's quite similar to the Zone System, and it's all done with a handheld light meter. To put it plainly, it's not the quickest metering method, but boy is it precise. And since I only had 4 frames to work with and no immediate image playback, I needed that precision. I did my best metering off a passing train on the opposite side of the tracks, double checking it on various parts of the station platform.

With my settings were dialed in, I claimed a spot sitting on the ground near a railing, pointed my camera where I thought the train door would be, and pre-focused as best I could. The top-down waist-level viewfinder of this camera was perfect for this shot because it allowed me to look down into my camera, not towards the train. From the commuters' point of view, I was just some guy sitting on the ground looking down at his camera. No drawing attention, no taking people out of the moment.

Now it was a waiting game.

I heard a train rumbling down the tracks and I perked up, ready for action. I knew I'd only have 1 or 2 chances for this shot. My camera is a manual frame advance design which means once I trigger the shutter, moving to the next frame takes at least 1 second. The moment could be gone by the time I move to the next image. The train rolled in for a stop, the doors opened, and I steadied my camera. I didn't trigger the shutter as soon as the doors opened. Instead, I observed the activity for a split second until my gut told me "now." Luckily, my instincts were right and the first frame came out exactly as I hoped. Upon reviewing the film, I was thrilled to see that the exposure was spot on, the framing was as I envisioned, and the moment of activity had just the right amount of interest to it. The shadow of the man against the train was a nice bonus.

The exposure settings for the image at top were f/13 at 1/125, no filters. After this successful photo (which wasn't confirmed successful until days later when I developed the film), I fired off 2 more "safety" shots of the train departing - neither of which were phenomenal - and this one image of long shadows streaking across the concrete.

Photo a Day Challenge: Day 8 - Late Light and Shadows on Ilford Delta 100 FilmLate Light & Shadows at the Train Station - Tustin, CA
Tuesday, August 20, 2013 at 7:07pm
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Read the backstory on this Photo A Day Challenge here. See previous days here.