The Third Revolution in
Lens Design: Stabilization

Review by Dirck Halstead

In photography, there are few "revolutionary" developments.

If you think about it, there have only been three kinds of cameras.

The first, is the camera that Matthew Brady used during the Civil War. It consists of a box with bellows to focus the optic onto a light sensitive glass plate. The aim of the photographer was to capture a significant moment on one piece of "film."

This camera evolved into the Speed Graphic, the camera all news photographers used, up through the 1950s.

In 1924, a new kind of camera came on the scene. It was the Ermanox, a small camera that used a miniature plate and a 50mm F1.8 lens, making it suitable for low light candid photography. There was no longer a box with bellows. This was the predecessor of the Leica, that ultimately led to the Nikons and Canons we use today.

Using the new Ermanox, Dr. Eric Solomon began to capture photographs behind the closed doors of Berlin's high society. Solomon was able to work with great freedom because there was no flash to interrupt a situation. This inspired a young AP photographer named Alfred Eisenstadt to use the camera as a quiet, unobtrusive way of recording people and their interactions with one another. It was this kind of photography that LIFE magazine fixed on to create the word "photojournalism."

Larger formats, like the 21/4 Rollei, were used by many photographers trying to retain the quality of the large image, and still have the "natural" feel of the 35mm.

Today, there is the Optura video camera. It may be the next revolutionary development. A small camera that can deliver both video and stills.

Similarly, in the case of lenses, there have been few "revolutionary" optics.

The Ermanox designers decided that the "normal" lens would be a 50mm. Over time, the 35mm and 90mm lenses were added to help the photographer capture his or her vision.

I call these lenses "evolutionary." As optics got better, we went from a 50mm f.2 to a 1.4; the 35mm went down to the 1.4 aspheric. Wider angles were developed by the engineers, and the range started to extend to 105mm and 135—then 200 and so on.

Unfortunately, the "revolutionary" lenses have been few and far between. These are optics that have changed the essential way photographers work.

The first of these lenses dates back to 1936. Adolph Hitler had become smitten with the young filmmaker and actress Leni Reifenstahl, and commissioned her to make a documentary on the 1936 German Olympics. That year, Germany excelled in pole-vaulting, which usually took place in the early evening. Reifenstahl, who was shooting with a 35mm film camera, had problems documenting the athletes in the low light. Hearing of the problem, Hitler challenged the premier lens maker, Carl Zeiss, to create an optic that would be long enough and fast enough to capture the pole-vaulters at the moment they cleared the bar. These athletes would be shot by a cameraman positioned in a pit that had been dug into the earth. For this purpose, Zeiss produced a new lens, the 2.8 180mm. It was spectacular, and it pushed the limits of lens design.

In the late 1950s, still photographers began to discover this lens. The 2.8 "Olympic Sonar" became a required lens for every serious photojournalist. It allowed the photographer to isolate the subject and  traverse space in order to bring a large image to the editor's light table. The mark of a "real photojournalist" was the inclusion of the 180 in his or her kit.

The next big step was taken by Canon and Nikon when they introduced the 300mm f2.8 in the late seventies.

This lens allowed photojournalists, especially sports photographers, to reach out and capture decisive moments from over 50 feet away—and do it within the range of the available film emulsion speeds.

The zoom lens for professional use, especially the 80-200 2.8, allowed photographers to replace the 180 with a lens that could now pull back to mid-range.

These are the essential "revolutionary" lenses that have existed until now.

Last year, Canon introduced the 300mm f.4 stabilized lens. This heralds the era of the new "revolutionary" optics.

The stabilizer contains two tiny solid-state gyro sensors that are installed in the lens elements. Unlike old fashioned gyros that were large, heavy, externally mounted devices that require ample power and a lengthy delay for warm up, Canon's image stabilizer mechanism fits in the the lens. It is powered by the camera, and becomes fully functional within a second of activation. Sensors can detect angular velocity changes in the relationship of the camera to the subject.  When the sensors detect yaw and pitch, they pass angular velocity signals to a 16-bit microprocessor that in turn controls a magnetic coil that shifts a group of lens elements parallel to the focal plane in direct response to the direction and degree of movement. Canon's image stabilizer technology reduces the effects of camera/lensmovement by up to two full shutter speeds compared to conventional hand-held photography.

This technology allows the photographer to hand-hold a 300mm lens and get sharp images at shutter speeds as low as 1/30th of a second. The results can be seen in this recent photo of President Clinton.

Photo of President Clinton by Dirck Halstead

What this means is that the news photographer who had been lugging around a 300mm f.28 can now drop half the weight and go to the new lens that does the same thing as far as capturing the image.

By adding a 1.4x telextender you can have a 450mm f5.6 lens deliver an image - previously capturable only at 1/125th of a second—at 1/20th of a second (especially, if using a light unipod).

Granted, this does not apply to sports photographers, who still need all the speed they can get from an optic. But, for the average news photographer, it means a lot less weight.

Photo of President Clinton and Janet Reno by Dirck HalsteadBy lowering the shutter speed needed to capture the image, the iris can be dropped down into ranges never before used. The image of Clinton and Janet Reno, shot earlier this month in the Rose Garden, was captured on 100asa film at 1/20th of a second at f.16. Now, the photographer can hold both the foreground and background when using a long lens.

Canon has come out with the first of what will be a series of stabilized lenses that cover the range of 28-300mm.

Along with the 300mm f.4 L series lens, that lists for $2,500, just a little more than the older non-stablized 300mm f.4; there is now the 28-135mm f 3.5-5.6, that lists for $870, and the 75-300mm f.4-5.6, at $920. Other lenses are in the planning stage.

Let's think for a moment of what the possibilities are.

As news photography moves to digital, the weight and clutter that the photographer carries to assignments is increasing dramatically. Look at wire service photographers today. They carry a full kit of cameras and long lenses; PLUS a backpack that holds a powerbook, and all the paraphernalia needed to transmit the pictures they shoot.

Suddenly, we are talking about adding a video camera to all this other equipment in order to service the needs of the new multimedia publishing we will all have to deal with. How on earth, are we going to carry it all?

The answer is: the basic camera package must be reduced dramatically. It is this need that the stabilized lenses addresses.

For the past decade, the basic package that I have carried on every White House assignment—not unlike what most photographers have to deal with on a day to day basis—has included the following: 3 camera bodies, a 17-35mm f2.8. lens, a 28-70mm f2.8 lens, a 80-200mm f.2.8 lens, a 300mm f2.8 lens, a 1.4 telextender, strobe and battery pack, a hard case to sit and/or stand on, a unipod, and 40 rolls of film.

This package that I have shouldered day in and day out comes to over 30 pounds.

Now, let me tell you what I carry today on the same assignment:  2 camera bodies (a spare in my luggage), a Canon 28-135mm f3.5-5.6 stabilized lens, a 300mm f4 stabilized lens with a 1.4x telextender, a 50mm f.1.8, a strobe, a unipod, and an Optura video camera, with a vice clamp and audio cable in a case.

This package, which gives me total multimedia capability is half the weight of the first kit.

Yes, I have dropped the 200mm range lens; but the fact is, that at that range I can walk into or away from the shot. I need the long glass on the far range when I can't access without the reach.

By reconfiguring my kit, I have been able to lighten my load and  expand my storytelling to meet the needs of the new multimedia market. We are at the point of vast changes in photojournalism. Camera manufacturers are trying to help us configure ourselves to meet the new requirements.

We all need to pay attention.

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