Case for Glass

Software filters and post-processing have created countless creative options for photographers and cinematographers. With all of this digital processing at our fingertips, we can quickly focus on one element and lose sight of the entire imaging process.

Whether it is the soft vignette of a wide-open Voigtlander 40mm f/1.4 Nokton on a full-frame Sony A7 or the crispness of a modern Nikkor prime on a Panasonic GH3, the choice of glass can have a huge effect on the aesthetics of a captured still or recorded scene. For me, it is discovering, exploring and harnessing these characteristics that bring to life both photography and cinematography. The imaging process involves choices that affect the creative result.
On the Beach (2)
Now I’m not suggesting that software filters and post-processing are bad. I use both to achieve looks, especially when I’m trying to create a mood or simulate a long-lost (or no longer affordable) analog approach. However, to me starting every imaging session, whether photo or video, with perfection takes something away. The choices I make before even shooting the first frame have consequences and they, in turn, frame my creative process for that session.

My approach stems from my early days in photography and videography where I concentrated on framing the shot in-camera rather than fixing it in post. To be effective in-camera, one needs to understand the elements of the camera package, from physical filtration and light control to optics to the capture medium, whether film or a sensor. In college, I would spend hours trying the different broadcast video cameras in different lighting situations to learn the characteristics of the various CCD and tube sensors so that when I needed a particular “look,” I could pull the right camera for that shot. When it came to photography, I did the same thing. I shot with myriad film stocks (Kodak Tri-X, Ilford FP4, Kodak Portra, Fuji Superia, etc.) to understand how each film would react in different situations so when I needed a look, I could pick the right stock.

One thing that eluded me in those early days was my knowledge of glass. I didn’t have access to nor the budget for different types of lenses, so the camera package defined my creative parameters. Even when I shifted to DSLR photography, I was constrained by my choice in system: Nikon cameras with Nikkor glass have a look. Using some other system’s glass on a Nikon body is a challenge. When it came to video, whether consumer or broadcast, the situation was the same: the lens was paired with the camera. The flexibility of optics seemed to only realistically exist in the exotic photography and cinematography domains — until mirrorless came along.

Armed today with two different mirrorless systems (Sony FE and Panasonic m4/3), I have an incredible amount of creative control over my in camera production. I can choose to use a wide-angle lens from the 1950s or a state-of-the-art stabilized zoom for long, tripodless shots. I can pair that lens choice with the sensor type to achieve a particular effect, or modify the light path to get more out of the lens than was originally envisioned by its designers. I can choose to use a “flawed” lens to create an optical effect or switch the imaging system to monochrome to see the effect lens coatings will have on image contrast in real-time — or I can happily use a kit zoom and snap crisp shots all day that are processed later if the spirit moves me.

Although software creates options, the choice of glass creates new possibilities at the point of capture. Yes, you can’t always fix those choices in post, but to some people like me that’s simply part of the creative process — a process that starts with choices about how to capture images in the first place.

The images used in this post, including the cover image taken with a DIY homemade lens, can be found on my Flickr site at