15 July

Through The Looking Glass: Life Lessons From An 85 MM Lens

by Jon Katz
Through The Looking Glass
First photo with the new lens. Through The Looking Glass

I started taking pictures six years ago, I’m not sure I had taken more than a few photos in my life. I had a lot of money then, they had just made a movie out of one of my books, “A Dog Year,” which starred Jeff Bridges and ran on HBO. I was briefly famous, I made a lot of money from my books, I got regular royalty checks and big advances, I was a New York Times Bestseller several times over, TV crews regularly came to my farm to interview me, I was on NPR national radio shows every other week. They used to put a lot of writers on the air then.

I feel deeply in love with photography as my life began to disintegrate, all my photos started as love letters to Maria. It was how we communicated with one another before we felt free to communicate with one another. I bought a nice Canon camera, and I became a student of lenses, especially the famed “L” series lenses, which had the best optics and stabilizers available. They worked for me, I loved taking photographs, and the pictures helped the blog to take off, they brought my life to life.

I bought about a dozen “L” series lenses, even the cheapest one cost $2,000, the bigger ones $5,000 or more. I had macro lenses and zoom and landscape lenses, long ones for wildlife shots, fish-eyes for special  effects. I had a shelf full of lenses.  I became a student of lenses, more than any other thing they shaped my work.

My life changed, as many of you know. Several years ago, as it became clear that the first Bedlam Farm would not sell, and I was desperate to keep it from foreclosure, I traded in most of my beautiful lenses, and ended up with three or four that I liked very much. I could no longer afford to buy the new lenses I wanted, so I learned to use the ones that I had, but until yesterday, I never took a picture with any lens but an “L” series lens, I was convinced they would not be as good, and my photography has become very important to me and my creativity.

I have, for some time, been looking for a portrait lens, a small lens that was clear and shop and would capture the kind of detail in faces that I wanted for people and animals.  I wanted the Canon 85 mm “L” series lens – they all have a red ring – but did not have $1,800 to spend. A few years ago, I would have bought it in a flash, it would  have come overnight, I always ordered everything overnight, I could not wait two days.

I mooned over the lens, and then I saw an add for an 85 mm Canon lens that was not an “L” lens, was not quite as fast, did not have an image stabilizer, which most of my other lenses have. That lens was $369. It had to be junk, I thought.  It could not, I was sure,  be as good as the more expensive one. Perhaps I could save up for it, or trade another lens or to, or go to B&H photo with a suitcase full of lenses again and bargain and barter for it.

But it was different, I was different. Necessity is the mother of invention, and I have been learning to think differently about money. Not having much will do that for you. I decided to read the reviews, there were more than 1,000 of them, they were almost universally raving about the cheaper lens. It was great, it was sharp, it was an incredible bargain, almost as good as the more expensive one and about $1, 500 cheaper. Just do it, said one pro,  you will not regret it.  One seemed to be addressed to me: “If you are used to the L series lenses, and their prices, don’t be a chump, this one will make you happy.”

A few years ago, I would never have even considered getting any lens but the best. I fussed over this for a day or so, I read a couple of hundred reviews, I called B &H photo and asked a sales person about it.  You will notice the difference, he said, it’s not an “L” lens. Maria noticed that I was anxious. Was this a step back for my photography? Would this hurt my photographs. I have never knowingly put a bad one up, I hated the thought.

I decided to try it, and why not try it? The lens has a 30-day return window. I bargained for free overnight shipping, and it came today around noon. I unwrapped it, carefully preserving the package because I might send it back, I expected to send it back. I will not send it back. The photo above is the first one I took with it, I was started by the detail, the color, and the depth of field (softening the background). I took a bunch of photos, including the one above of Maria holding Flo. And for under $400.

The 85 mm was every bit as good as my “L” series lenses, I loved how close to Fate I could get, how the image filled the frame, handled the bright light,  I loved the detail of the hair, the softness around the edges. The ISO setting was 100, Aperture f/3.2, Shutter Speed 1/200.

I was shaken by the experience, it was important. I realized I am still making this transition from one life to another. The most expensive is not always the best, not even for my beloved photography. It is not necessarily wise to get the most expensive thing, it is wise to do the homework and listen to people – online reviews make this possible now, good people are conscientious about sharing their experiences  – and experiment. I have been aching for this new lens for nearly a year, at this price I could have bought one. I am going to trade in a lens or two, maybe explore some other cheaper lenses down the road. I have enough for now. The “L” lenses are wonderful, but my friend George Forss, a legendary landscape photographer, has never purchased a new lens in  his life, he wouldn’t dream of it.

Paring down to fewer lenses enhanced my photography rather than diminish it. I use the lenses I have a lot, I know what they will do. If I have a special knowledge, it is how my lenses react to light and capture light and color. My life is different now, it is simpler, I have a lot less money, sometimes I have no money. I can’t be calling up B&H Photo any longer to order “L” lens and have them shipped overnight. In fact, I needed to launch my own crowdsourcing project to buy my new camera, another good reason to keep my photos free to anyone who wants them.

I have come down from the clouds to my real life, my natural life, a good life. Money is important, but it is not as important as our culture tells us it is. I am heeding the call of Pope Francis and my own conscience to live more simply, to think of Mother Earth, to listen and grow and experiment. And I love being responsible for what I do, I feel better about myself that I have ever felt.

I am broken, will always be broken, am always healing and learning and understanding myself. So this lens, as lenses will do, has helped me see the world anew. There are always ways to be creative, to get what you need, to adapt to what you have. We can survive without all or many of the things we are told we must have. I have learned to never succumb to the poisonous idea that money is what ensures a happy life.

I’m sure the salesman was sincere when he told me I would miss the “L” series lens, I had been spoiled.

I told him then that it was true I had been spoiled, but not in that way. And I am very happy with the lens, it is everything I wanted and need it to be, and at one-fifth of the price I thought I had to spend.

So another life lesson for me, another step towards understanding and authenticity, I realize that this process of change and growth will never end for me, I see that my soul was shattered and in pieces, and that I will always be picking them up and putting myself back to together. I am happy to have my small lens with the gold braid wrapped around it. I can see the world a little better through it.

One step at a time. There is no final destination but death, I suppose, you are always on the path.

Email SignupEmail Signup