At Home in a Crowd
It seems that the vast majority of photographers who go down the rangefinder route will begin their journey with either a 35mm or 50mm lens: for me it was the latter: a 50mm f/2 which was lovely, but old and already well-used when I got it. There was oil on the blades and the focus throw was very, very long; allowing precise focusing, but with a trade-off in speed.
After perhaps a year of shooting with my older kit, I was lent a Zeiss 50mm f/2 Planar from a friend, more or less immediately convincing me to change my glass over to Zeiss equivalents. The build quality is exceptional, the focus throw is much more usable in fast, real world situations. Perhaps most importantly the optics are simply stunning: especially when you consider the compactness of this little gem. This is no ordinary “nifty-fifty”.
As my photography developed so did my approach to it, and what I was looking to document. I wanted to get closer. There are, of course, two ways of doing this: get a longer lens or get physically closer. Initially I tried out some longer lenses, from a 90mm all the way up to 400mm with an SLR system.
Whilst these did offer me images with fuller frames, and a closer “feeling”, they did not give me the images I was looking for. Something was missing, and I couldn’t work out why… until I watched the film adaptation of “The Bang Bang Club” and heeded Kevin Carter’s advice to a young Greg Marinovich: “Forget the long lens bru: stuff only looks good up close.”
Whilst I’m sure some licence was taken in the making of this film, the advice is spot on. I realised that, paradoxically, by using a longer lens to get the closer image I was in fact distancing myself from the scene and therefore avoiding any close connection that may exist between photographer and subject. I was removing elements of context and emotion from my images by literally stepping away from the action.
There was only one solution: to work with an iconic, tried and tested tool which would remove the barriers found in the lenses I was familiar and comfortable with. In May this year I purchased a Zeiss 28mm f2.8 Biogon-M, which signified an end to my retreat. From here I would push forward, right into the thick of it.
Despite a global pandemic prompting official instructions around the world to socially distance from others, my documentation has rarely involved themes of isolation. This summer has been filled with protests and demonstrations on a level that I have never seen before. Along with my three colleagues at New Exit Group, I ended up in the midst of many lively and often violent events during a summer of unparalleled social unrest and discontent.
For numerous reasons as the summer drew on, disdain and aggression towards photographers within these crowds grew massively from both protestors and authorities alike. There were a large number of incidents where photographers were attacked, even hospitalised simply for being there. In these somewhat hostile environments it is absolutely crucial that the equipment I was using was (for want of a better term) bullet-proof, and not a target for attention.
As the 28mm Biogon is so small and unassuming, it made navigating my way through crowds very simple. I think that because of its size, along with the compact rangefinder camera, it is perceived as much less threatening than some of the big press DSLR rigs, and as a result it meant that I could truly get physically closer and also engage with the subjects in a way that I haven’t been able to do previously. The form factor of the lens meant that it didn’t even necessitate a stealthy approach - instead I could openly work as a less offensive, or seemingly voyeuristic part of the crowd.
During this summer I shot almost exclusively on Kodak Tri-X 400: a quintessential black and white film, celebrated for its beautiful contrast and classic cubic grain. In combination with the 28mm Biogon, with its outstanding design and T* coatings, the rendering on this emulsion is deep, rich in detail and with tones right across the image even in uneven lighting conditions. With my meterless rangefinder I have to trust my eye to achieve a correct exposure, but even when slightly off I rarely suffer from highlight bleed or much loss of detail - the quality of the lens compensates for many issues that may occur with this kind of faith/experience based metering.
Similarly, when using this lens on digital cameras, this lens performs flawlessly both on native M mount cameras, as well as when adapted onto the full frame Sony a7iii or APS-C Fujifilm X-T3. Wide angle lenses often feature a distorted look, with heavy vignetting, but distortion is so well controlled with the Biogon design that I’ve never had an issue, even with subjects filling half the frame up close!
So far, I’m really struggling to find any drawbacks of significance to my application of this lens to documentary photography. There are faster wide angle rangefinder lenses on the market, but the maximum aperture of f2.8 has not been an issue for me once. As a matter of fact, I usually close the aperture down a fair bit on this lens due to my use of it: with such a wide lens I rarely (if ever) find myself looking to isolate a single subject by using a shallow depth of field. I feel that this focal length lends itself perfectly to capturing a slice in time - a layered scene with a foreground, midground, and background - rather than a bokehlicious Instagram offering - no substance, and usually about what’s not in focus!
In fact, using a wide-angle, stopped down lens has been immensely helpful in situations where I can’t frame using the camera - at one point in heavy rain with a fogged viewfinder I needed to shoot blindly, zone focusing as chaos erupted around me during a Met Police horse charge. I couldn’t tell exactly what my images would be like, and was certain I would come away with as blurry a mess as the situation had seemed. Instead I was rewarded with some of my proudest work to date.
There are other 28mm M offerings with significantly higher price tags, and if I’m totally honest I cannot work out what the extra money pays for. This lens feels solid. It is reliable. It performs at least as well as any M mount lens that I have owned, from even the most prestigious of manufacturers. This is the “nifty-twenty-eight” if ever there was one. This lens really is special, and if you’re planning on being at home in a crowd, this well-built, discreet and classic lens will help you navigate your way through it and capture true emotional depth in a beautiful way.
Thanks for taking the time to read my thoughts on this wonderful lens! If you enjoyed my photographs here please consider following me on Instagram! I buy all of my film from Analogue Wonderland. You can find the debut zine from my collective, New Exit Group, at this link here.