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Monday, March 24

Talking Gear: Walkabout Lenses


I love using film and printing in the darkroom but I also love camera gear. I know there are lots of serious photographers out there who don't like talking about equipment and I respect that. But there are lots of others who are quite happy to read about and discuss cameras and lenses. So what to do?

The first thought I had was a sneaky one: write about equipment but try to couch it in such a way that it doesn't look like a gear-related post. I suspect you would have sussed that out quite quickly so I decided just to go for it and announce it up front.

Therefore, anytime I'm talking about gear, I'll preface the post title with "Talking Gear". That way, if you don't want to read about equipment, you can bail out without wasting too much time. Of course, it would be great if you still read it anyway, possibly out of a misplaced sense of loyalty towards this website. :)

I thought I'd kick off with walkabout lenses after reading a review on a photography website that said such a lens was always a wide-ranging zoom. That was a new one on me and far too proscriptive but perhaps I just missed the memo. I'd rather thought a walkabout lens was any lens you liked to attach to your camera when going for a stroll throughout the countryside or town. It could be anything that did what you wanted it to do, prime or zoom.

Life Begins At Forty

Anyway, it got me thinking about my favourite walkabout lens and it would be great if you could chime in on the comments with your own, personal preference. As a lot of others photographers have figured out for themselves, I prefer the angle of view offered by a 40mm lens on the 35 mm format. It's roughly the same as the 80mm lens on a Rolleiflex or a 127mm lens on 5x4. When you're talking about just a few mms either way, it might seem a big dogmatic or idiosyncratic to insist on 40mm but there are good reasons why it's just about perfect for me.

I find a 50mm lens to be just a little too narrow in its field of view. Although I prefer a 35mm to a fifty, the wide angle can be just a little too wide. Sitting happily in the middle, the 40mm is spot on. It also seems easier to design a forty which has very little distortion or light fall off and it can sometimes be made smaller than either of its two close rivals. I love the FOV of a Rolleiflex as well and the 127mm Ektar I have for my Speed Graphic is great.

For me, once you have the requirements of FOV and image quality nailed down, a good walkabout camera and lens is all about portability. I have to laugh now that I used to use a Nikon D700 and 28-105mm Nikkor as a walkabout kit, an outfit that is huge and weighs a ton. The Nikon combo tips the scales at 1.55kgs or about 3.5lbs. Now, I think a Pentax MX and 40mm f2 Voigtlander Ultron would be the bee's knees - a pairing that weighs in at a svelte 1.5 lbs. I have the MX and will be selling my lovely Hexar AF to finance the Ultron. If anyone has an Ultron and fancies a swap, you know where to find me.

Here's a pic of my preferred combination on Stephen Gandy's Camera Quest page on the Voigtlander Ultron.

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The Ultron is supposed to be a cracking lens although I haven't used one or even had a fondle. Ken Rockwell reckons its as good as just about any Leica optic. Ken says, "The 40mm f/2 SL-II is among the sharpest lenses I've used on a Nikon. …it's sharper than Nikon's sharpest fixed normal lenses.

"Criminy, it's worlds ahead of Leica's 1973 40mm f/2 Summicron-C, and seems as good as Leica's newest 35mm f/2 Summicron-M Asph, even though I haven't shot them on the same camera."

The Ultron is well made and compact but not so small that you can't get a proper grip of it. Pentax aficionados will know that the company made a very small pancake lens, the 40mm f2.8 M, but I haven't been convinced by it. It might be worthwhile trying one, though, as it sells for about a quarter of the Ultron. From what I've read, it doesn't seem to be too sharp wide open although it improves as you stop down. It's not a bad lens: it's just sort of middling to good. I think it would lose out a lot in edge definition when compared to the Ultron.

On the plus side, it makes for a more compact package but it might just be too small to handle easily. Still, never say never. If I were to try one out and find it was great for prints up to a maximum of 12x8 inches then it would be a good buy.

And the MX? If you haven't handled one, they're just little gems. The viewfinder is very big although not quite as bright as an Olympus OM1's. It has a nice heft to it without feeling heavy. Just enough weight to feel like a well made product. When you pick one up for the first time, it feels just a little heavier than you might have imagined.

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My MX somewhat overshadowed by the bulk of another fantastic 35mm SLR,
the Minolta XE7.

My MX is a beauty and I had it serviced a couple of years ago. It's been largely sitting in a drawer since then and it deserves to see a lot more use. With the Ultron on the front, it would be the first camera I reached for when heading out the door for a walk. Coupled with a roll of Delta 100 if the weather was good or Delta 400 for those cloudy days, it would take a bit of beating.

But what about you? Do you have a favourite walkabout combination? It would be interesting to know what readers are using. I'll bet there are one or two surprises.

You might also like:

THE Walkabout Camera
A Sharp Wee Number
TLR Versatility
Zuiko 50mm F2 Results

15 comments :

Anonymous said...

It is just too bad the 40mm is so poorly represented in 35mm cameras. It is also usually very expensive to. For these reasons I've opted for the much more common and affordable 35mm f2.8 optic for my OM-1 when I need 'a little bit wider' view. My perferred 'walk around lens is the 50mm however, fast, sharp and cheap.

Oddly, my favorite fixed lens 'walk around' camera is a original Olympus Pen. It has a 28mm lens that on a half frame has the same approximate angle of view as a 40mm on a full frame camera.

John Robison

Jan Moren said...

My favourite camera and lens is the Pentax 67 and 90mm f/2.8. Of course, that probably weighs more than the D700 you mentioned, even with a waist-level finder...

I tend to stay at about 35-45mm in general; I like compact cameras like the Rollei 35 that often have 40mm lenses, and I bought a 35mm for my grandfathers Minolta just the other year.

But now and again I also like a short tele for a walkabout. A 165mm for the Pentax is a nice change of pace, and lets me see familiar places in a different light.

jonogmun said...

I have three cameras, Contax G2 with a 45 mm lens, a Mamiya 645 with three lenses (55, 80 and 150 mm)and a recently acquired Mamiya 7II with a 65 mm lens. I find that the wide-angle lenses suit me and I hardly ever use the 80 or 150 mm lenses on the 645.

Omar Özenir said...

My favourite walkabout lens is permanently mounted on a Rolleiflex TLR :)

Michael Stevens said...

A little while ago I ended up coming to the same conclusion as you. After dithering between 35mm and 50mm Canon and Leica lenses for my Leica M4-P I bit the bullet and went for the Minolta version of the 40mm Summicron and haven't really looked back.

Jon Hoffmann said...

I wish I had kept my Rolleiflex. Now its a nifty fifty on my FM3A

Unr3touched said...

My favourite camera would be my Meopta Flexaret VI TLR (so I'm in the same spot as Omar, when it comes to choosing my favourite lens - there's only one :-) ).

Anyway, when it comes to 35mm Film, I actually prefer 50mm lenses - can't really say why, it's just the way it is.

Jez said...

I'm thinking of getting a Pentax MX to complement my Super-A. Darn you, hope this article doesn't lead to still higher prices! And I agree about the 40mm focal length. Feels just right on my Yashica TLR and Ricoh 500G rangefinder.

Neal said...

Historically I've opted to stick with "normal" lenses depending on what format I'm carrying.

and while I love composing with my rolleiflex I've noticed that a recent acquisition for me has been getting a lot of use, that is my little Rollei 35, which has a 40mm lens. interesting really. It's quite a nice little camera with a smacking good lens for it's size. It's still the smallest fully mechanical 35mm film camera ever made. (and i believe they are still in production)

That aside I really do like a 35mm lens for "walkaroud" type work. which to be honest I don't really do that much of. or at least I don't profess to be any good at. at least compared with my more thoughtful work in larger formats.

zeitguy said...

When I shot film exclusively I used the Nikon F with the 85mm f1.8 more than all the rest of my lenses combined. At the time I did mostly street stuff and portraits. When I went through my Minolta phase for a few years I went wide with a Vivitar 21 f4 on an SRT201. I switched to a Maxxum 9xi with the 35-70 "beercan" zoom which has been one of the most versatile and tack sharp lenses I've owned. Back to the Nikon with a F4s and a 24-120 AF. More general assignment stuff. Heavy kit. Now my film preference is my Leica M3 with a collapsible 50. My digital is still the D700 with a 24mm f2.8 AI Nikkor and the 85 f1.8 in mypocket. Not so much into people shots since I've retired.

David McCormack said...

My Fuji 6x9 rangefinder with fixed 65mm is my favourite walkabout camera. Not small but handles like a 35mm... surprisingly!

But I have just successfully bid for a Nikon FM2 on ebay. I still have my original FE from my college days in 1979 but it is now completely knackered (thanks to a fall on the Aonach Eagach ridge... just the camera not me!!) but my original Nikkor 50mm 1.8 is still pristine (wasn’t mounted on the doomed FE) and I can’t wait to get it on the FM2!

Somehow for me, zooms and black & black film have never gone together.. always primes. Colour & zooms are ok though!

Tim Fitzwater said...

I almost always have my 55mm f/1.7 Rokkor(SRT era) on my Minolta X-700. It is a little long but I absolutely love the look this lens gives everything. I carry a wide angle in my bag too but prefer to move farther away if possible.

Herman Sheephouse said...

All depends on the mood Bruce!
Till he got ill it was the 75mm Tessar on the Rollei T, but now I am happy with the super-scuffed-up 75mm Rokkor on the Minolta Autocord - it's a hell of a lens.
For 35mm, I am really happy with the 50mm Canon 1.8 on the M2 . .
I do still love my old pre-Ai 35mm f2 Nikkor - it's a sterling performer.
And if I am feeling lazy, the 40mm Zuiko on an Olympus Trip is a superb performer for no money at all . . well hardly any.
Variety is the spice of life!

Joe Iannandrea said...

Looking back, I've come to realize that if I head out with just about any normal-ish focal length it somehow has a way of working out to be just the lens I need for most situations. The 127mm "normal" lens that came with my RB67 is pretty close to what could be considered a short telephoto, but though there are times the shot I need calls for true wide angle, I don't think there's been a time I felt the 127mm was just a bit too long and the shot would work better with something in the 80-90mm range, though I'm sure if my standard lens was something in that range I'd find them equally versatile. I used to consider the ability of a zoom lens to be set to the exact focal length you needed an important advantage. It's taken me decades to realize this doesn't amount to much in the real world.

Kevin Allan said...

I prefer medium format and a Yashicamat 124G is my walkabout MF kit.

For 35mm I have two Pentax MX bodies with 28, 35, 50, and a rarely used 135m lens. If I want to take just one lens it is the 35mm; I don't think that the weight advantages of the 40mm lens are worth the money as the MX+35mm lenses is plenty portable enough.