The Case for ‘Dumb’ Lenses - Use ‘em today, use ‘em tomorrow

26 March 2023

Since the weather was decent here in Galway, I spent yesterday out on the hoof with a pair of fully-mechanical Cosina lenses and my mirrorless camera. It was a low-impact afternoon which even included meeting up with a fellow photographer from Co. Mayo over a couple of beers. All in all, a great afternoon.

Leaving Walsh’s – Sony A7 and 50mm, f/2 Cosinon-S

Someplace on the internet I recently saw somebody talking about the ephemeral nature of lenses with electronic controls and how they will likely become expensive paperweights when their particular bodies/mounts are dropped by the companies who produce them. Not a trivial matter when the average price for a lens these days is a grand and sad because of guaranteed obsolescence.

We have a long list of dead lens mounts already, but the difference between the dead mounts of yesterday and those we will see in the future is that much of the control for lenses in the past was mechanical. Mechanical controls, like aperture rings and physically-coupled focus rings, make it possible to readily adapt lenses to just about any camera as long as the lens’ native film/sensor to flange distance can be maintained.

But what’s going to happen when a company like Sony (or Canon, Nikon, Fuji, etc.) decides to eliminate a particular lens mount because tech is moving on? Does that $3k G Master lens, which is entirely controlled by wire, suddenly become unusable? It’s highly probable that it will be.

Sony (not picking on them for any reason, it’s just because it’s fresh in my mind) has just cancelled the legacy A-mount system which it brought forward with the purchase of Konica-Minolta’s consumer camera division back in the 2000s. The A-mount survived for 37 years across ownership by Minolta, Konica-Minolta and, finally, Sony. But, now it’s no more, at least in terms of new products which use it.

The A-mount is a lot like the Pentax KAF system with it having a mix of electronic and mechanical interfaces with the host body. The electronics in many of the lenses can be bypassed leaving the lens to function on a dumb adapter (one without electrical contacts) with modern, short-registration mirrorless cameras. There is some potential for these A-mount lenses to be used with cameras going forward, at least in manual mode.

The Brothers Wilde – Sony A7 and 50mm, f/2 Cosinon-S

We do already have examples of lenses which cannot be used on anything in a practical way. The APS SLR systems briefly marketed by manufacturers in the 1990s have lenses which, by and large, are completely electronic in terms of control mechanisms. These cannot easily be adapted to cameras in production today. There was an attempt by a cottage company to produce a smart adapter for APS lenses in at least the Minolta variety, but that was short-lived and expensive.

Sony has actually produced smart adapters for their mirrorless bodies which allow their A-mount lenses to autofocus and provide EXIF data. But, this is from a company that had some stake in keeping A-mount users in the game as they were forced to switch to E-mount. Canon and Nikon have done similar things with their DSLR lenses in anticipation of the DSLR becoming a thing of the past. It’s entirely possible that these adapters will also become unusable as the bodies and firmware that support them are phased out.

At the other extreme of the dead mount spectrum are the screw mount lenses, like M39 and M42, which have origins dating back to the 1920s. They can be used on nearly any camera body made at this moment because they are purely mechanical and very simple at that. No, there is no information passed from lens to camera (except in terms of the light transmission through the lens), but that’s the beauty of them; they just keep going generation after generation.

Today, I own a bunch of lenses with legacy mounts (some inexpensive, some expensive), most notably K, SR and M42. As long as I don’t damage them, and as long as there are cameras and adapters available, I will be able to use them and (hopefully) pass them on to someone else who can potentially use them. On the other hand, my dedicated autofocus glass will probably cease to be usable at some point in the not-so-distant future. It seems crazy to me that all of these fabulous tools will ultimately be destined for a landfill.

There are still ‘dumb’ lenses being manufactured and sold today. Samyang maintains a line of purely mechanical, manual focus lenses with respectable performance. Meike, 7Artisans, Loawa, and Irix are among the companies (all of which happen to be Chinese) making modern manual focus lenses today. These lenses, some of which are capable of supplying EXIF data, are largely devoid of a need for a specific camera body as long as the focal plane spacing is correct.

We’ll see how long the current batch of lens mounts stay in production. Hopefully it will be a very long time, but I won’t be surprised if it isn’t given the way the camera industry and market are going.

The Artificial World – AI’s rapid creep into the realm of the photographer

17 March 2023

On this rather wet and gray St. Patrick’s Day, I’m going to reflect a bit on the rapidly-changing photographic world I see around me at this moment.

For the first time in my life, I’m questioning the future of photography as an art, a medium of truth (photojournalism), and historic preservation. We have arrived at the dawn of the ‘Artificial Intelligence’ (AI) Generation and the application of AI to just about anything one can think of. Often, such application is really without substantial reason and without any thought of the implications.

My day job is within a major Irish university. AI has crept in to so many elements of university operations that it has begun to create real concerns for maintaining quality on all fronts. Students have figured out that AI can be used to cheat systems. Professors have figured out that they can use AI to circumvent processes (poorly, I might add) which have typically involved the hard work of rational, educated humans. ChatGPT has become topic of daily conversation – and within no greater area of concern than ethics.

At the same time, I’m watching AI creep into photography from all angles. From the assistance of AI in editing (blatant manipulation, more like) to the de novo synthesis of portraits of models who don’t exist at all. AI is now everywhere and promises that anyone can live the dream – even one that they create completely from scratch. I won’t even touch on deepfakes here, because that whole end of AI and digital manipulation demands more attention than I can muster in this space.

I would be lying to you if I said that I haven’t seen some very interesting and moving images produced with the assistance of, or completely by, AI technology. On Flickr and other photo sites, there are a few people using AI generators to produce completely synthesized images of all kinds of subjects which are quite amazing. Dreamy and otherworldly productions of this nature can be art, in my opinion, as long as we call them that with a clear understanding that they are ‘created’ images and not photography.

But, when I see that a company is now offering to effectively ‘model’ products on imaginary people for other companies via AI generated imagery or that influencers will use AI generated images to sell a vision of a world that doesn’t exist, I’m freaked out a bit. It’s not that these activities are so vile on their own (sometimes they can be, in my opinion), but rather because the lines between reality and fantasy have just grown so unrecognizably blurry overnight.

Where I’m most concerned about AI and contrived imagery is with photojournalism and historic preservation. Seeing is believing has been a fairly constant part of my everyday life up until recently. Yes, manipulation of photos is not new, contrived stories and allegations are not new, and blatant fraud has always run rampant to some degree. But, in the vast majority of situations, seeing – even through a photograph taken by a reputable person – has been believing.

Can we trust what we are seeing anymore? Well, in an absolute sense, we cannot when it comes to what we are being fed via the internet and via many media outlets. How can we possibly make on-the-spot determinations that what we are seeing is real and not generated by AI? We simply can’t at this point in time (unless we detect that the model suddenly has seven fingers on one hand…)

Strange days, indeed.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day.

Keys to Immortality? – Photography and the stopping of time

4 February 2023

Where the hell did January go? Wasn’t it just Christmas? It’s obvious that this year is going to be steamroller because I honestly don’t know where the past month has gone.

This first blog entry for 2023 is the result of a bit of protracted thought about a really awful film. On a whim, my wife and I went to see Babylon last week. This entry isn’t intended to be a movie review, but I have to say that I knew the film was going to suck when the first ten minutes included in-your-face explosive elephant defecation, a raucous, orgy-filled party scene and eroticized female urination to get it off the ground. Anyway, I didn’t like the film because it was just too much all the time (3 hours of it) and I thought it was a severe waste of a lot of serious potential. The story line was interesting and I think a more visionary director and more skilled editor could have made it into a truly good film. But, that didn’t happen, did it?

There was at least one interesting moment in the film, however, and it got me thinking about my own feelings regarding how images can at once stop time and also accelerate time. This applies to both moving and still images.

Three quarters of the way through Babylon, Brad Pitt’s aging, movie star character is told by a Hollywood film columnist that he needs to accept that his career is over and that he’s a has-been. While she’s at it, she goes on to say that he needn’t worry; he will effectively become immortal because, at some point in the future, someone will haul his silent films out of a vault and he will live once more on the silver screen. Shortly thereafter, just off screen, Pitt’s character ‘ventilates’ his skull with what appears to be a large-caliber revolver.

I’ve long thought about the impact of photography and cinematography on our perception of time and also our ability to record the aging process of people, places and things. As my wife likes to say to me, time waits for no man. Or does it?

A model immortalized by photographer Toni Frissell back in 1951 - she will remain youthful as long as one can gaze upon her 1951 likeness.  Courtesy the Library of Congress

[The appearance of] Youth is one of the things we humans seem to value most. We spend much of our adult lives attempting to maintain a youthful appearance as if it alone will stop the clock. In an instant, the camera does have the ability to arrest time – or at least it creates that illusion.

For example, any one of Graham Nash’s fabulous 1960s photos of a youthful David Crosby remained a likeness of a man that existed once upon a time even as he continued to age and will remain so even after his recent death. Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, both long-dead, are still in their prime each time a network runs Casablanca (1942). Conversely, I can watch a youthful Tom Hanks in Splash (1984) and then immediately afterward watch him in Elvis (2022) and it can be a jarring effect to see him age nearly 40 years in an instant.

Last autumn I was looking up pics of Georgia O’Keeffe – one of my favorite artists. I am repeatedly drawn to images of her at all stages of her life, from those taken by Alfred Stieglitz when they very first met (c1918), to those taken by Ansel Adams toward the end of her life (as well as Adams’, c1980). Through photography, I can observe how she appeared all the stages of her adult life. At will, I can stop at any point along the journey from her youth to elderly stage and observe her and her contemporary surroundings. She effectively becomes immortal at any point I choose her to be immortal.

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