…at three a.m seating on a rug, talking to my mother-in-law`s boyfriend, Brooks. When you get to stay at the house of someone who you have little to no intimacy, it`s pretty usual for both parts to try to make some kind of small talk. Our conversation that night was anything but small. We were talking about photography, lenses, brands, and why the hell were Leica`s cameras so expensive. At one point, Brooks went inside the house and brought a black case, a big case that seemed to be heavy. He sat again and put the case on the floor opening it. I remembered a movie from 1987 called “Duck Tales: Treasure of The Golden Suns” when uncle Scrooge gets the gold fever after seeing piles of gold in an ancient city in south America. I was completely astounded to see such an impressive collection of Leica lenses. Some of them dated back to the seventies. Even though they looked and felt way better than my 2013 Canon lenses I could never convince myself that old is better, or even that well-constructed metal lens would perform better than cheaper plastic ones. I started discussing the resolution capabilities of the lenses and the fact that I could not understand a camera costing over nine thousand dollars with lower technical capabilities over a four thousand dollars professional camera made from Canon or Nikon. Brooks than interrupted me (which, apparently, is the only way to make a point after I start discussing a subject I really like) and said “sometimes, it`s not the resolution of the lens or the camera you want. It`s more about the character and the way the image is retained”. From the top of my technical standpoint, I thought to myself: nice way of justifying spending money in some fancy gear that can be outmatched by a hundred dollars plastic 50mm lens. Next topic please.
Days gone by and I kept that tough. How can a piece of equipment have character? I mean, from where I come, lenses have resolution, contrast, MTF graphs, distortion, vignetting, and so on. Objective variables that can be measured in a lab. If you want to find out the better 50mm lens, the only thing you have to do is study the data. Slowly, as if it knew it was time, an old wish came to surface: maybe I should have given the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 a chance. The Sigma case was a closed one for me. I wanted to buy a 50mm f/1.4 and my options were Canon`s (which had the bad habit to break the auto-focus motor from time to time), the Zeiss (wich weld some impressive optics but no auto-focus and some weird blur in the background) and the Sigma. The Sigma showed a gigantic front element and held the record of weighting over one pound. It was a nice piece of glass with a modern design and some controversial optics, let alone the fact that users kept reporting an erratic auto-focus system. I decided not to buy any of them, but the images from the Sigma, mainly it`s background blur (or bokeh), kept me wanting it.
A few days later, we were in New York and I came across B&H, probably the biggest photographic equipment store in the U.S. I asked the salesperson to try the lens in my camera and test the auto-focus to check my results. They were terrible. The lens seemed to have it`s own will, and would focus wherever it felt it should. And to make things worse, the camera provided focus confirmation. It was like it was saying right in my face (would it be my eyes?): “here you go, I can confirm you selected the central focus point and that the focus is anywhere but there, so you`re clear to push that button and capture a new random impression of reality!”. I asked for another copy and things got a little better. If we consider the fact that the depth of focus provided by a lens opened at f/1.4 is of about 5mm and that everything in front of it or behind it will be strongly out of focus, it`s not an wanted characteristic to have an autonomous self-aware auto-focus system. The times I could get it right, tough, the images were stunning. The focus point was dead sharp, while the surfaces close to it had a slight dreamy look with the background condensing itself to the image in a soft and almost creamy way. The characteristics that made the images produced so great were not objective. The lens sharpness is not great, the resolution is average, and objectively my decision not to buy based on these variables was utterly right. The crazy glass, nevertheless, produced the best images my camera ever caught.
…and I took a leap of faith. Spent the near four hundred dollars almost knowing I would regret not have listened to my own reason. Got back to the hotel and took the lens out of the case. It was a different copy from the one I`d chosen at the store. I was back into the lottery game. Roll the dices and let`s check the personality of my new lens. I tested it as I never did before. I wanted it to be good, and tried almost every combination of distance, aperture, and focus point. All the tests made me comprehend one thing: this was a different kind of equipment. The mass production of photographic equipment pasteurized the results one can get by using it. When you buy a lens in U.S it produces approximately the same results as a lens produced in Japan. But not my Sigma. This gigantic barrel is a very peculiar, complex and demands knowledge so it can deliver the best images I`ve ever taken or completely useless misfocused crappy images when recklessly handled. I started comparing the images produced by my new lens with my old Canon 50mm f/1.8. The Canon is a cheap plastic made lens with the best optics one can get if only the objective factors are evaluated. The images it produces are dead sharp, with good color saturation, reasonable bokeh but something was missing. Something, somehow, turned my objective scoreboard insufficient.
More than seven hundred miles away, Brooks was right: the lens had a character, and I liked it.