Photographic Optics and Human Vision

Ganges Aarti ceremony in Haridwar, India - Leica 21mm Super Elmar f/3.4

Photographic Optics and Human Vision

I left New York in September of 2014 with the intention of doing some screenwriting in Asia but photography and cultural studies ended up being my main focus. Everything around me was just way too interesting to retreat to an inner world. If you want to write a screenplay, hole up in a hotel room, don't go to a country you've never been to before. I was in Japan and Korea from 1999-2000 and unfortunately was unable to get back to this part of the world until almost 15 years later. As of today, I've spent two months in China, two in Southeast Asia visiting Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Singapore, and am now in India until I return to New York end of February. I've been wanting to explore these countries my whole life so the only way to really do it the way I wanted to was to just commit to a lengthy block of time. While six months seems like quite awhile, I've found it to be not nearly enough. Enough to get a good taste of it but that's about it. 

The regional diversity of this continent is staggering and thus incredibly visually inspiring. India, where I am now, is in my opinion the crown jewel of this. Despite some common threads, every sovereign state here couldn't be more different from one another, nevermind the countries within countries that define this part of the world. Surrounded by such natural and cultural beauty, I've found it difficult to put the camera down. The other side of it though is widespread, tragic poverty and I've seen things here that have completely transformed my perspective. I think coming to the other side of the world not only is a wonderful opportunity to explore the cultures of billions of others but also makes you acutely aware of your own and the values that define it. If as a westerner you have these experiences and remain unfazed by them then your fashionable armor of cynicism is truly impenetrable. 

I've forced myself into the discipline of shooting with only four Leica prime lenses. A very wide 21mm Super Elmar f/3.4, the standard street shooting lenses 35mm Summicron f/2 and 50mm Summicron f/2, and a very long 90mm Summarit f/2.5. The goal I've arrived at for these images is Naturalism and in trying to achieve this I've come to many conclusions about how the recreation of human vision is affected by various photographic optics. 

The Leica 21mm Super Elmar f/3.4 is my newest addition and has been a bit of a revelation. This lens is very light and compact for a 21mm and is the closest analog to human binocular vision I've found. Standing there looking at a scene with two eyes open, this lens does a remarkable job of reproducing what you see. This has everything to do with the lack of exaggerated perspective, barrel distortion, and chromatic aberration in this Super Elmar which is the problem I've had with most other 21mm lenses where there is so much edge distortion that only the center of the image is useable. By cropping in so much you're defeating the whole point of using such a wide optic. 

I just started shooting in India so these aren't necessarily the best images I'll get here but are good examples of what I'm talking about. They were all shot with a Sony A7R which is my preferred daytime camera. At night, the A7S comes out. I didn't do any cropping on these to illustrate the actual Field of View of the lenses. The new version of Lightroom has profiles for every lens Leica makes and it's amazing how effective they are removing any remaining unfavorable optical characteristics. 

Rishiskesh, India - Leica 21mm Super Elmar f/3.4

Rishiskesh, India - Leica 21mm Super Elmar f/3.4

Rishiskesh, India - Leica 21mm Super Elmar f/3.4

On any other 21mm lens you would never be able to get this close to a subject without really warping the perspective. The 21mm Super Elmar is amazing.

Rishiskesh, India - Leica 21mm Super Elmar f/3.4

For comparison, here are a few uncorrected images right out of the Sony A7R shot with a Voigtlander 21mm Color Skopar f/4. As is evident in about 30% of the image, this is not a high quality optic. Fortunately this camera outputs a very robust file and many of these issues are correctable but it's a time consuming process. 

Uncorrected Image - Tiger Leaping Gorge, Yunnan Province, China

Uncorrected Image - Tiger Leaping Gorge, Yunnan Province, China

Uncorrected Image - Tiger Leaping Gorge, Yunnan Province, China

The Leica 35mm Summicron f/2 is the king of 35mm manual focus lenses and is in my opinion, better than the more expensive 35mm Summilux f/1.4 as it's noticeably sharper, has cleaner optical separation aka Depth of Field, and is quite a bit lighter. I would compare any 35mm lens in Full Frame format to human monocular vision, that is what you see looking at a scene with one eye closed. The 35mm is widely considered to be a "Normal" optic for a Full Frame imager; one that does not create photographic distortion or magnification like wide angle and telephoto lenses do. Technically, a 40mm would be the Normal lens for the Full Frame format as the the diagonal of the 24x36mm imager measures 43.3mm. 35mm is quite close to this as is 50mm so these lenses are both considered Normal or "Medium" focal length as supposedly they, "reproduce a Field of View that generally looks "natural" to a human observer under normal viewing conditions."

In my opinion this notion is worthy of reconsideration as it's true but it only accounts for how we see with one eye which does make sense for a single optic and single imager. It does not take into account the fact that our vision is binocular and the Field of View our brains resolve is actually far wider than either a 35mm or 50mm lens reproduces. As I mentioned, I've found the 21mm Super Elmar to come very close to what we see with both eyes open even though we're actually seeing even a touch wider, more like a 18mm. Some of this extended field is in our peripheral vision though which is not fully processed by our brains and the distortion found on most lenses wider than 21mm mitigates any real authentic increase in Field of View. In practice, a 24mm or 28mm is also a good choice but if the optical quality of the lens isn't there, what you photograph will not be a good reproduction of what you actually see with your own eyes.

The 35mm lens is still a relatively wide Field of View, reproducing most of what we would see with our binocular vision but attractive optical separation is also possible because this lens is actually very slightly telephoto. This is why it's the preferred optic for street and docu photography; the context of the subject is nicely reproduced but the depth of the scene is well defined by separation.

Haridwar Station, India - Leica 35mm Summicron f/2

Rishiskesh, India - Leica 35mm Summicron f/2

Though not the first choice of most photographers for a portrait lens, I love shooting them on a 35mm if you're able to get close enough because it creates an image with both a lot of context and very pretty depth of field. 

Footbridge over the Ganges in Rishiskesh, India - Leica 35mm Summicron f/2

The way I'm shooting these days, I'm not using a 50mm lens for much more than portraits. This lens while considered to be close to a "normal" size is in my opinion, actually very telephoto. You still get the context but the subject is significantly separated from it which makes it perfect for capturing a lovely close up from a distance. The Leica 50mm Summicron is tack sharp but because the the focus is so much more selective, getting the image in focus quickly and accurately can be quite difficult. 

Haridwar, India - Leica 50mm Summicron f/2

Haridwar, India - Leica 50mm Summicron f/2

Any lens longer than a 50mm really starts to flatten things out too much in my opinion. You don't get an accurate sense of depth in the scene anymore. This is obviously useful for digging out subjects from a distance or for a particular artistic effect. Setting up a long lens shot in street photography can be quite difficult as you have zero control over your subject. I prefer to just get close with a 35mm, 28mm, 24mm, or even 21mm. I actually love shooting people with the 21 as it forces me to get closer than I ordinarily would which means discretion and sensitivity become even more crucial. 

Here are a few examples from the Leica 90mm Summarit f/2.5. Do your eyes see like this? Mine don't! The truth is, very long telephoto lenses as beautiful as they can be employ an optical trick so will never reproduce an image that is a faithful analog of your vision. 

Rishikesh, India - Leica 90mm Summarit f/2.5

Ganges Aarti ceremony in Haridwar, India - Leica 90mm Summarit f/2.5

Rural Isolation in Laos

Rural Isolation in Laos

Instastory published 12/24/14.

Laos is a remote and sparsely populated country of unspoiled, natural beauty. You see things there like these waterfalls near Luang Prabang, that don’t look real and yet no humans were involved in the construction of this scene!

Homestays are an excellent way to immerse yourself in the local culture. I've done one in almost every country I've visited on this trip and have had incredibly rewarding experiences that would have never happened on the beaten tourist trail. This is the Mekong River in Laos en route to the remote Khmu village of Dongchieng. 

The captain of the Mekong (Not So) Express. He loved me! 

The people who provide these long journeys down the Mekong actually live on their boats and have evolved this amazing, aquatic culture.

This disabled man on the boat I’m assuming was the son of the captain. He was fascinated watching me process photos in Lightroom so I took a quick snap and pulled it in to show him. I don’t think he had ever scene a picture of himself so was a little moved by it. It was very touching. Though smartphones are becoming prevalent around the world, I've been to a few places so far off the grid it's like traveling back in time. This was one of them.

Religion and ethnicity in Asia is a complicated topic. Discussion of ethnicity at the national level is usually tied to ancestral claims to land so is something often suppressed by the various governments in this part of the world. This is Dongchieng, a Khmu jungle village in Laos accessible only by the Mekong River. 

There are 3 major ethnic groups living in Laos. The Buddhist Lao majority and the non-Buddhist Hmong and Khmu indigenous peoples who are animist, believing in nature spirits, magic, and the practice of complicated rituals to appease evil elements. 

The Khmu live mostly deep in the highlands in isolated villages in Laos where they can maintain their ancient beliefs and lifestyle with little interference from the communist government.

Dongchieng was one of the poorest places I’ve ever been. So far off the grid that electricity, plumbing, and other infrastructure is non-existent. Their limited electricity comes from solar cells, batteries, and gas generators. This was the only place in the world I’ve visited where I didn’t see a single smartphone. Though the people here seemed pretty happy, there is always a palpable sadness in such poverty.

The Khmu are very hardworking, honest people who just want to maintain their way of life as they have for thousands of years. They seemed pretty indifferent to visitors though I learned that they host these homestays fairly frequently as it’s an excellent source of income for the village.

This is Mr. Tong, the Khmu guide on this homestay. He left a village like Dongchieng and was a monk for 8 years so as to gain an education. He recently rejoined the secular life to start a family. In Theravada which is the Buddhism of Southeast Asia, monks are free to leave or return as they see fit. In Mahayana, the Buddhism of the Far East, monkhood is a lifelong vow and to leave once ordained brings enormous shame to the family. I'll save the story for another time as it's a long one, but I owe Tong big. He's a good man. 


Welcome to Hell. Patong Beach, Thailand

Welcome to Hell. Patong Beach, Thailand

Instastory originally published 12/22/14. These photos are a little raunchy. You've been warned.

I knew what I was getting myself into once I was on the ferry to Phuket. I had been warned about Patong Beach but if someone tells me not to go somewhere, this is usually an indicator it will be anthropologically interesting. 

"Farang," means foreigner and comes from the Vietnamese word, "farangset,” which means "French,”  little vestige of the colonial era. As a farang, many Thai people view you as an ATM awaiting extraction and will go out of their way to get you into their establishment, even if it means physically pulling you in. I’ve come to learn that “personal space” is a totally western concept. Additionally to be called a racial epithet to your face is a strange and alienating feeling even though the Thai’s insist the term isn’t racist. It is. 

Prostitution is illegal in the Kingdom of Thailand yet somehow it's a multi-billion dollar industry employing hundreds of thousands of people and is openly visible in any city or town. Minimum wage in Thailand is 300 Baht / day or 10.34 USD. Salaried employees don't do tremendously better and despite the superficial appearance of a prosperous nation, poverty is rampant and the only way for many women to earn decent money is by prostituting themselves. Thailand is a place of enormous cultural and natural beauty but there’s also this dark, ugly side. A side that many visitors experience in a way that supersedes all the other amazing aspects of this country. 

Russians comprise a large contingent of the enormous tourist mass that descends upon southern Thailand this time of year. In places like Patong Beach, they have their own nightclubs, restaurants, and organized crime. 

Many Russian girls are lured to Thailand with the promise of work in 5 star hotels and posh night clubs and instead find themselves passport-less, addicted to drugs, and walking the street in shitholes like Patong. 

There are 3 genders in Thailand. Male, female, and "kathoey" which is neither one nor the other but has become synonymous with "Ladyboys," who are a uniquely Southeast Asian phenomenon. In this part of the world, gender and sexual identity are much more amorphous than in the west. Though not by design, acceptance of non-traditional norms has probably made Thailand the most sexually progressive place on the planet. 

As sexually progressive as Thailand is, it's equally exploitive and many kathoey earn their income by prostituting themselves in sex tourist destinations like Patong Beach. I’ve heard that some hope to find a western sponsor willing to pay the 350,000 Baht (10,600 USD) for gender reassignment surgery. A princely sum in Thailand that's about 10 times the annual income of most earners.