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Thursday, April 16

Erwin Puts' old articles available again

Many readers will be aware of Leica afficionado Erwin Puts and I'm sure you'll have your opinions about him both pro and con. Erwin is one of those writers who tends to incite annoyance and enjoyment in equal measure. His critics accuse him of being overly-enthusiastic about Leica products but many fans of the German marque love him for the same reason.

I've always liked reading his stuff although it can get a little on the technical side (for me) so you have to pay close attention. I was one of those who once thought he was blind to any Leica deficiencies and slow to see the merits in the lenses of rival makers but if you take the time to really understand the points he's making then that criticism tends to evaporate.

I'm writing about Erwin because I visited his website a week or two ago and found that he'd revamped it, ditching many of his older articles in the process. I'm not sure when this happened and it could have been some time ago. A quick trip to his old site via the Wayback Machine revealed that much of his earlier material was still viewable. But the question was, "For how long?" There's much of interest there and it would be a big loss if it were to evaporate as sometimes happens on the internet.


So I wrote to Erwin suggesting I could find a home on The Online Darkroom for his older articles to ensure they were still around in years to come and easy to find. This seemed to have set him thinking and in his reply he revealed that he'd redesigned his website to make many of the posts available again but I could add them to my blog if I wanted. I had a look at his website and Erwin has done a good job of pulling up the old stuff and making it accessible so I'm happy to leave it at that.

However, re-reading one Erwin article I was struck by something he said when discussing those factors which take the edge off "sharpness" (Erwin doesn't like that word but I'll leave it to you to discover why). Specifically, it concerned the oft-given advice to new photographers that they should aim for a shutter speed that is at least the reciprocal of the lens focal length, so 1/30th for a 28mm, 1/125th for a 105mm mm lens, etc. Rubbish, said Erwin. He states:
Using a camera without support, that is handholding, is the most important cause (of image degradation), especially when combined with slow shutter speeds. A speed of 1/250, pressing the camera against your forehead, will generate more degradation than using a full second on a stable tripod.

The validity of the classical rule: a safe shutter speed is the reciprocal of the focal length (1/50 for a 50mm lens, 1/250 for a 200mm lens) has never been demonstrated. My testing indicates that the minimum is 1/250 for focal lengths from 15 to 50mm and at least 1/250 for 75 and 90mm. A longer focal length and of course the variolenses demand 1/500 to 1/1000 for best performance.
This "rule" has been bandied about for as long as I've been taking pictures so where did it come from and who decided that the reciprocal thing made sense? It might not be quite so important if you're using medium or large format but it's obviously a good idea to get the sharpest neg you can when shooting 35mm because of the larger degree of enlargement often required.

Of course, the complementary advice that the sharpest lens is a tripod - or words to that effect - has also been around for decades so people have long recognised the value of a solid support. However, I've never really thought it necessary to use a shutter speed of 1/250th with a standard lens to minimise camera shake. How much sharpness have I been forgoing by the use of 1/60th?

Erwin's other sharpness-shedding no-no's are inaccurate focusing, improper exposure, too small an aperture (leading to diffraction) and poor quality filters. Fair enough. But it's his claim about the minimum shutter speed that's got me worried - especially where my dull day shots are concerned!

If you want to immerse yourself in some technical know-how then Erwin's site will keep you reading for days.


Gerald said...

I've not heard of Erwin before, and I will take the time to have a look at some of his articles. But from reading your post, he does sound like he's the ancestor of those people today who spend their time talking about megapixels and taking pictures of test charts.This is not really what photography is about. Perhaps he's right about photos taken at 1/250 or less, but unless you have a professional need (ie you're shooting for billboards) does this really matter? The reciprocal rule is used because ultimately it works for most people, most of the time, for most uses.

I suppose it boils down to whether one wants to be Ansel Adams or Gary Winnogrand. For most of us, nobody is going to admire a boring photo just because it's a fraction sharper when looked at with a loupe or blown up on a computer to 1000%.

Sorry, I know I go on about this a bit, but I feel like if people get too hung up on this sort of thing they might as well shoot digital

DavidM said...

I've fumbled my way through "Towards a paradigm..." There's rather a lot of dense writing and my coffee went cold, while reading it. It's mostly baffling to me, without a cabinet full of historic Leicas to refer to.
On the other hand, he seems to admire Apple, so he understands the drive for quality, and he likes Geoffrey Crawley very much so he knows a good writer when he sees one.
Thank you for revealing him to a wider audience.

Herman Sheephouse said...

Bruce - Erwin wants you to buy a Summilux. Full stop. End of story.

I agree with Gerald though - see the current FB for a full-blown rant!

steve said...

There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept." - Ansel Adams

I've shot my Rolleiflex hand held at 1/8sec in a subway station and the photo came out acceptably sharp. How does that rule work for medium or even large format. I think it's a stupid rule, might be good for DSLR n00bs or people using the stinky dipper hold with digital P&S.

John Robison said...

Thirty five millimeter is a small negative. If you want 'sharpness' make small prints. I like 6X9 inch on 8X10 paper. Why try to press it into duty it is not good at. However, if you crank up the enlarger as high as it will go and look at the magnified print and see no indication of camera shake then whatever shutter speed you are using must be ok.

DavidM said...

This hand-holding rule, like so many other cherished sayings in photography was never more than a rule of thumb. Even the quoted 1/250 on a tripod is a rule of thumb, without supporting evidence. Astronomers manage astonishing angular resolution with very much longer exposures. We should remember that "photography" isn't just about wandering the streets hoping for appealing random incidents.
There are always two (at least!) factors in viewing a photograph. We can look at the subject, and pronounce it to be (using Gerald's expression) boring or non-boring. This is very hard to define. I have a friend to whom pictures of cricket are non-boring and I cannot, however hard I try, share his view. I believe I am not alone, but neither is he.
Family albums are non-boring to the family, but it's a matter of common experience that they are tedious to everyone else. Boring-ness is not an objective quality.
On the other hand, we may look at the whole image, as an object in itself and find all sorts of things that interest or delight us. Sharpness may well be one of those things, along with such matters as tonality and the more obvious virtues of composition.
I suggest that we can, in fact, enjoy fine workmanship for its own sake. (To swap hobby-horses – isn't that what the Church of the One True Leica is all about?)
It's when the two aspects come together that we may begin to think of great imagery.

Bruce Robbins said...

But isn't "great imagery" just as subjective a term as "boring photograph"? Discuss. :)

DavidM said...

You're entirely right.
"We begin to think of GI." Beginning to think seems like a benefit to me – a better way altogether than sticking on boring/not boring labels or sharp/unsharp ones or even attaching the Summicron/all other lenses label.
Although we can't define "great" in the way we can define sharpness, we can, and should be able to debate and discuss it usefully in a way that we can't discuss boring-ness.
So, I think you're even more right. "Discuss" – you've hit the nail on the head again.

Richard G said...

Erwin has put a lot of work into his assessments, and there is a lot of substance to them, and authority. His writing is a bit opaque at times, verging on oracular.

As to shutter speeds I find it depends. I was stunned when I saw the result of stability when I had pressed my ASPH 28 Leica lens to a window for a shot at 1/125s on the Monochrom Leica. On the other hand, a shot from the hip, or rather, on the hip, in a bookshop at 1/6s with the 35 was strangely very sharp.

My 50mm lens Kodachromes at dusk in Italy, including some from a moving boat in Venice, are surprisingly sharp. I can't think they were any faster than 1/125s. With digital I find a faster shutter speed is necessary for maximum sharpness with the greater resolution of a totally flat sensor and modern aspheric lenses, when that even matters. Where I had been happy with 1/250s I now want 1/500 or preferably 1/1000s with digital.

I have printed some large (A2) from the Monochrom hand held and the from the Leica II at 1/500, both with 50mm lenses, and they are as sharp as you'd like.

Eisendstaedt was accosted by someone in a street where he was using a tripod. When told that his shutter speed was 1/60s the questioner assured the master he could hand hold that speed. Eisenstaedt assured him he could too, but that he didn't know whether his shot might not end up on the side of a truck and so it had better be properly sharp.