Yunnan Province, China, 2014

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I picked up a 50 lux during a layover in Hong Kong enroute to China.  Now the 50 isn’t exactly a focal length that I am used to.  Not even a lens that was on my wishlist.  I had a brief encounter with it 10 years ago when it was de rigeur for a newbie to practice with just one lens and that it had to be a 50.  It was some rule that I read somewhere and which I blindly followed.  I’m not slamming it by the way.  In fact, I swear by it.  If you want to learn about exposure, try to lessen the variables and increase the givens so that you’re able to get to that point where you can easily associate your type of light with a base iso-aperture-shutter and focal length combination and then go from there. 

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If I may digress a bit, ever wonder how the greats were able to do it on film?  I have a theory.  The ISO was a given.  The focal length was a given.  The aperture was usually set at some favorite opening (5.6, 8, etc) and all that really needed adjusting was the shutter dial.  Spend a few months feverishly shooting with that setup and you can probably get to a point where you can appreciate the nuances of a 1/45 vis-a-vis a 1/60 under varying conditions.  I can go and delve into the wisdom of that approach even further but that will have to be a different article altogether. 

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Going back, my first encounter with the 50 was with Canon’s plasticky offering aka “the nifty fifty”.  But it didn’t really float my boat.  It’s a great lens for the price but the length was too vanilla for me.  It was early days obviously and ultra wides and long zooms would easily seduce.  There were no in betweens during that time.  I usually found myself at the widest end of my 17-40L or the longest of my zoom at 200mm.  The 50 was relegated to some lens pouch used only as a conversation piece just to let people know that I had a prime in my bag.  Oooh, right?  Poser is what it was.

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10 years later and having been ecstatic with the fact that I could live with just either a 21mm or a 35mm, an offer to photograph a friend’s family member a few weeks ago using Leica’s 50 lux came up.  I thought I’d give it a try but also knew inside that I’d probably switch back to my 35 cron after a few clicks.  The 50 lux was a nice lens but the focal length just wasn’t for me.  Boy was I wrong.  The damn thing never left my cam and I found myself shooting with it like a madman.  I’d find out a few days later that I had 40 usable images being queued up to be emailed to my friend.  I shot those 40 in under two hours.  Wide open.  Manual focus.  You might think that it’s no big deal.  But it could be if you shoot with rangefinders.

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The mystery of the fifty would unfold slowly over a one week period in Yunnan, China.  I would discover it’s strengths.  And would also discover my weakness.  Using the 50 during that time was like looking at oneself in the mirror.  I found myself asking the question if I was a 21 or if I was really a 50.  Or a 35 for that matter.  Back in 2012, I used the 35 exclusively without skipping a beat.  I could live with it as a one lens setup but also realized that I missed going wider hence the 21 finding its way to my cam bag in 2013. 

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But the 50 was an eye-opener.  I used the 21 for only a few hours in China.  And during those times when it was on, I noticed that I couldn’t wait to pop it out and slap back on the 50.  After the 35, I thought the 21 could be that one lens setup.  But no dice.  Especially when one had to do portraits.  Where the environment was very compelling, the 21 or the 35 would fit the bill.  But if the subject was, well, the subject, the 50 lux just renders it at a different level.

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One would think that the difference between a 35 and a 50 would be just, well, 15mm.  In fact, people say that the conventional wisdom would be to go with a 75 if you already have a 35 (sort of a 2x multiplier) because the next immediate focal length would border on being redundant.  But it is not necessarily so at this range.

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Wides suggest that you have been allowed into a subject’s personal space.  The 35 would immediately be thought of as maybe more intimate than a 50.  You are allowed to get close (as opposed to having a license to get close).  It also suggests to some extent the kind of person you are or the mood that you are currently in.  Wides may suggest a more sociable atmosphere where the photographer becomes part of the experience.  The 35 would even suggest that you care more.  Maybe 🙂

Yunnan 09

For the longest time, I wanted to be that; to be close.  I wanted to conquer my fear of people.  The ultrawides were my power pills.  I thought I was making inroads with my photography from this perspective.  And to my credit, I have had a good run with portraits for the past year or so using either the 21 or the 35.

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Sure I had fun with the wides.  I still do.  It’s dangerous to buttonhole oneself as being this or that.  One can be sociable but be closed the next.  The trick is to ride that rhythm to figure out where you’re at most of the time.  The 50 made me confront the truth about myself.

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That I was an observer.  I could go Capa all day long and nail it but I wouldn’t be happy.  Getting close is not how I was wired.  Getting involved is not clearly my thing.  There was a reason why I couldn’t bring myself to do projects.  It was too contrived.  Seriously, a lot of stuff that you read online or off regarding personal projects are pure hogwash.  Most of the time, it is about ego.  Peel enough photojournalistic layers and you’d see that a lot of photo essays wouldn’t be able to stand on its own two feet; maybe 3 if a tripod was used 😉

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My reality has nothing to do with my subject’s reality.  I see beauty where my subject would see pain.  I do not feel any compulsion to “connect”.  At its basest, it is probably just a transaction… a few dollars for a few snaps.  If you’re lucky, it will only cost you a passing glimpse of his or her picture on your LCD screen.

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Have 50, will travel.  For now 🙂