Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The Mermaid Parade and the 50 Summicron

Unknown Mermaid, Coney Island, Summer, 2013

Last June we attended the Mermaid Parade in Coney Island, as I've done many years before.  Shortly afterward, I posted on how the cops had ruined a perfectly good parade by cordoning off most access points and herding the spectators into pens like cattle.  It was really overblown.  In all fairness, though, this came right on the heals of the Boston Marathon bombing so I imagine New York's Finest were on high alert.  Still, I felt it was overdone.

Anyway, we did manage to make it onto the boardwalk, which is IMHO way better than the actual parade anyway.  While wandering along, eventually we stumbled into a party.  Nice, I thought.  I pulled out my ME, framed an image and immediately felt constrained by my 50mm Summicron. It just felt too narrow.

Prior to my Leica years, used to shoot a Canon 1D Mark 2 mounted with a 28mm Canon f/1.8.  Given the 1.3 crop, the 28mm effectively became a 35mm (28 x 1.3  = 36.4).  I bought it when I felt the need for a good, everyday prime lens.  I had wanted a 50mm field of view because so many famous photographers have used that lens.  It's even said that you can shoot the world with a 50mm lens. So shooting a cropped sensor camera at the time, I thought to get a 35mm to give me a near-50mm field of view (35 x 1.3 = 45.5). At the time Canon's 35mm lineup was either not enough or way too much. It was a choice between one that was really light and cheaply built or a second that was astronomically expensive and as heavy as a zoom lens.  So, I went with the 28 for an effective 35mm field of view.

I quickly learned two things.  First, this field of view is perfect for shooting scenes in your immediate surroundings.  In other words, scenes where you are a participant. You can be part of a conversation, at a normal conversational length, and still photograph the other person; very useful indeed. Because of this quality, scenes photographed with a 35mm contain a sense of context that enables a viewer to fully understand the image.

Second, it is virtually impossible to use as a portrait lens in vertical orientation, unless you shoot a 3/4 body portrait.  But for tight headshots it was too wide.  Still, I shot New York, Denver, Barcelona, Chicago and Miami with that lens and really grew to love the 35mm field of view. For years, that was my go-to combination. I still have that camera and the lens and have recently used both.

When I got my Leica ME, I had now re-entered the "full-frame" world and thought to get a true 50mm.  I bought a used Leica 50mm Summicron, a lens that is generally regarded as the gold-standard of 50s. The lens is very sharp wide open at f/2, with beautiful and smooth bokeh.  Also, because of its narrower field of view, it lends itself to impromptu portrait as well.  You can shoot a scene, like a 35, but will have to take two or three steps back, just enough to be next to the action but far away to be just outside of it. Because of this remove, it's a lens that make you more of a spectator than participant. Still, the 50 lends itself to both scenes and portraits and is in this sense a much more versatile lens than a 35.

So, on this day I ventured into the crowd armed with my 50 'cron and immediately was struck with a sense of claustrophobia.  The 50's field of view was too narrow to shoot in a crowd, at least easily. I felt like I was too close, like the shots would lack the context necessary to enable a viewer to make sense of the image, the very context that a 35 would provide. Still, this is what I had with me and what I needed to shoot.

Afterward, when viewing the photos, I came to a slightly different conclusion.  Yes, the 50 is tighter, but it's photos are not claustrophobic.  The photos that come from a 50 in a crowd are intimate, they draw you into the action and make you feel you're right next the people, invading their personal space. This isn't easy to accomplish, by the way. To adequately shoot a 50 in a crowd requires an understanding of the crowd and a sense of tracking people in the crowd with the lens, something that is easier said than done. When properly done, however, it can yield a sense of true intimacy in the photos.

Without question, for crowds a 35mm field of view is much easier to shoot and will easily give a great result too.  The 50 is narrower and I found much harder to shoot in a crowd but when successful, though, the shots from a 50 are intimate and personal, something the 35 really doesn't accomplish.

You can view images from the mermaid parade here on my Flickr feed.

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