There was a pact – an unwritten rule – between photographer Jim Richardson and myself in our Capital-Journal days. Buy a new lens and the assignments covered that day for the Topeka paper had to be shot with that lens. Sounds simple enough. But, try photographing a city council meeting with a 600mm lens or cover a prep football game with a fish-eye lens. We always did though. Often with strange results. The comment the next day from our boss Rich Clarkson was always, “Got a new lens I see.” You darn right I did. It is hard to beat new glass shining back at me.
Pulling out a new lens beats almost any Christmas gift by many, many millimeters. I’ll roll that lens over and over, end to end studying every inch. A new lens locks so sweetly onto a camera. No matter the assignment, just making the first pictures with a new lens is very special.
There is a harsh reality with that first shutter release. The lens will never be quite as sharp, never quite as smooth, never quite as dust free. Oh, I always try to baby a camera or lens as long as I can, but at some point the reality of my work strikes. Shooting sports is far from a genteel pursuit. Pristine is not a word my cameras or lenses know well. I care for them, but over time the incredible number of photographs I make every year takes its toll.
So it was last week that the box on a new 70-200mm f2.8 Canon zoom lens was opened. This is one of the two workhorse lenses of my calling at KU. The other – a 15-25mm f2.8 zoom lens. The new lens was my third such zoom in my 14 years at KU. For all the advancements made with digital cameras, the lens is still the critical element. It is as they say when discussing a car, “where the rubber meets the road.” When the lens reaches the point it is no longer “tight” the time has come to make my pitch to my boss for another. There is one truth in photography. A photograph that is not sharp is not a good photograph. Plain and simple.
There was no great magical moment when the first photograph was taken with the new lens. It was just one of the hundreds upon hundreds of mug shots I take every year. It was a wonderfully sharp, crisp and sweet image though. That was followed by a photograph of a fire in an air conditioning unit outside the KU strength complex. It was like my newspaper days covering spot news with a new lens. Later that evening, the wonders of that new lens revealed themselves completely. Shooting a KU men’s basketball game, every image seemed just that much better than the game before with my older lens.
I’ve gone through more equipment in my long career than I can remember. Save for one lens and one camera, I am not sentimental about my equipment. I have kept my first camera, a battered Nikkormat. The other a beloved Nikon 600mm lens that so favored me with good photos that I could never part with it. I have thought about making that giant battered lens into a lamp and joke that Laura could keep my ashes in it.
The latest lens will do its job just as I hope to do mine. It will get banged. It will get nicked. It will get rained on and get dusty. It will get old and tired. We’ll do all that together until a new lens has to be pulled from a box and wonderful new glass shines back at me again.