I am one of those fastidious perfectionists who looks for top quality and sharpness in all my lenses. To that end, I have already spent a lot of money on optics and have quite been pleased with the performance of my acquisitions. Today’s optics are generally excellent and deliver image quality that can exploit the stringent demands of digital sensors. It is now possible for me to enjoy image quality that I could have only dreamed about when I first got into photography, back in the days when I was a skinny teenager with a full head of hair.
It’s all good, right? People should be happy and just shoot, right? Well, no….just troll any well known photography website and there endless debates, discussions and flame wars about which lenses and camera systems are the best. Somehow, many of us with a passion for photography have become a bunch of neurotic, naval gazing, self-aggrandizing measurebators.
I’m guilty of it too, but if only to best spend my hard earned money on gear that I will be happy with. Ultimately, you get what you pay for, so I try to get the best I can afford. Once you get past budget or low-end offerings from Nikon, Canon, Pentax, Olympus, Panasonic, etc., it’s all very good stuff. None of it is really that bad. Yet despite all the good gear out there, people are arguing over minor and petty differences. Time to shut up and just take pictures.
So, for a change, it’s good to go back to something simpler, something flawed, something unique and something really cheap. In other words, low-fidelity photography. I figured if I am going to go cheap or lo-fi, I’ll go the distance. Once again, the hobby becomes fun and spontaneous instead of a platform for technical showboating.
Good gear is meaningless to making good art. Give me a $150,000 Steinway and I could not make any music. Give me the best paints, brushes and a canvas, I could only render a vomitous mass of poorly drawn shapes. Remember that scene in the Blues Brother’s when Ray Charles plays a shitty used electric piano? He’s got the whole town hopping and dancing, because he’s that good. Stevie Ray Vaughn played a beat up old guitar, yet he made it sound better than anyone on the planet. Spending $10,000 on new gear won’t make you take better pictures.
Time to get back to some basics and spend $66 bucks!
To start my foray into lo-fi, I bought a Lensbaby 3G for $50 at Henry’s Outlet Centre. It is a unique, simple and brilliantly designed optic that allows for selective focus and blurring. The Lensbaby 3G is a manual device, there is no autofocus, no auto-aperture and it features a quirky operation that is like using a combination of an accordion and vise-grips to focus. It is the antithesis of automation, edge to edge sharpness and image purity. It’s just plain fun to use and never produces the same effect twice. This strange lens will take a while to master and that’s part of the enjoyment. I’ve seen some very creative art done by others with Lensbabies and they inspired me to get one.
Perhaps the ultimate lo-fi photo tools are Holga cameras and lenses. They are dirt cheap and just plain awful. It does not get anymore ghetto than Holga. However, there is a characteristic lo-fi look to all Holga lenses and cameras. Holga has something of a cult following among analogue photographers, since the emphasis is on inspired creativity instead of technological perfection. True lo-fi or analogue photography should be done with film. However, one can still get a “Holga look” with digital. I decided to purchase a very cheap Holga lens from Ebay. This plastic wonder cost me only $16 shipped from China. It has a fixed f8 aperture and a gnarly focusing mechanism.
The Holga lens does everything a regular lens does, but very badly. It has horrible vignetting, poor sharpness, significant chromatic aberration, low contrast and a stiff focusing ring that barely turns when it gets cold. I could not wait to try it out!
Both of these lo-fi lenses were mounted to my Olympus OMD EM-5, which is masterpiece of modern technology. However, because of the camera’s retro design, these lenses did not seem out of place on it.
My first day out with the lo-fi lenses was at the Riverside Cemetery in Lindsay, Ontario. It was a suitably cold, ugly and dank winter day. If the weather sucks, it only makes sense to use dodgy, blurry and quirky lenses for a macabre theme. To hell with cute pet shots, flattering portraits, or majestic landscapes, I wanted dark and ugly. My inner Edgar Allan Poe was being channeled through these lenses. I would have killed for raven on headstone, that would have been the money shot.