Berlin gets really excited when Hollywood comes to town. Almost as if someone forgot to tell Berliners that their city is back on the A-list for, well, just about everything ranging from startups to tourism to art, miniscule galleries and world-class film premieres included. Pardon my cynicism at this degree of fandom, but I suppose I am revealing myself as a native New Yorker. So Potsdamer Platz was stuffed to the brim on Monday with fans of Lord of the Rings for the European Premiere of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, now the fifth movie in the trilogy.
Fans dressed as Orcs, clearly happy to be strolling down the red carpet.
It was my first red carpet since getting back from Thanksgiving in New York last week. Which meant I finally got to test my new gear. I’ve been hunting around for some of the long Nikon lenses, for those moments where, well, I am crushed in behind two photographers taller than me, getting shots of people fifty feet away. Like Monday. The lenses have been damn tough to find in Berlin. I know, I know, Poor But Sexy. But still, the only 300mm lens I’ve found in the whole city was for rent. I even went to visit the Nikon reps at Calumet during a show, but they just had one of those odd 80-400 superzooms for tons of money and a questionable quality, but none of the fixies. So I swung through Adorama in New York, as I always do, and managed to score a wild deal on a 300mm f/4 AF-S lens for a meagre sum, as I am want to do.
Good on me, too. The red carpet was ginormous. I mean, huge. How big? Here’s the surprise guest of the night, beauty Orlando Bloom, waving to the press. This apparently wide angle shot is on a standard portrait lens – a 50mm shot Dx, so about 85mm.
Guest star of the night Orlando Bloom (Legolas), waving to the press.
So I shot with an effective 85ish mm lens, and a 300mm lens on my other body. I had my effective 35mm Fuji X100 in my pocket, in case I wanted a shot with other photographers’ gear in the way. I didn’t.
To further set the scale, they built a dragon. Smaug, to precise. Here we have Benedict Cumberbatch, who played the dragon, in front of the dragon. I’d guess the model (the dragon, not the guy) was about 4m tall and 15m long. For those of you who aren’t comfortable thinking in metric, that converts to really big.
For Scale: Benedict Cumberbatch standing in front of the Smaug model. It’s really, really big.
To catch the difference between the lenses, well, that shot was at 85mmish. This one is at 300mm – neither he nor I had moved. He’s just pointing to his dragon, now.
Benedict Cumberbatch who plays Smaug the Dragon, thumbing towards him
This lens is gorgeous. It does everything a lens should and nothing it shouldn’t. Skip this paragraph and the next if you don’t care about the lens. It eschews VR – useless for moving subjects – which makes it light, cheaper, and probably last longer since there are less moving parts. It takes a 77mm filter thread – big standard for Nikon. It is AF-S (quick) SWM (quiet), IF (no external moving parts) and D (backwards compatible to pre-automatic cameras) and ED (fancy glass). What it “lacks” is G – which would kill the aperture ring on-lens and compatibility along with it and the nano crystal coating, which I would would have liked. Because it is not a zoom lens, it is way lighter than other similar looking lenses, and it has a minimum focusing distance of 1.45 meter – the same as the 70-200 f/2.8 VRII. But this is a 300mm lens, making it effectively much closer. Yay! It also means there is almost no distortion. I hardly see a difference in straight lines using Adobe’s default correction. Big score, especially for using it with film. The f/4 makes it one stop less sensitive, and slightly worse at subject separation in some situations. Looking at these photos, no complaints there. It would be great to have an extra stop, but not for 6 times the price and weight. For the extra 5 grand I could have bough a D4 instead, which gets plenty of extra stops over most cameras.
For the record, the main reason I didn’t go for the 70-200 VR II. (other than price and a variety of other gripes) is that at 70mm, you can’t focus close enough for a crop shot of a person’s face. I lost a couple of shots due to that. Red Flag.
Back to the Hobbit. Some people are tough to recognize in real life. While that is probably great for the privacy of actors and actresses, it makes it tough to properly caption your pictures, or to try to get someone’s attention. Martin Freeman, who plays Bilbo, was easily recongizable. One point for the press.
Martin Freeman (Bilbo Beutlin). Note the dragon’s eye staring down at him.
There were some blunders of the night. Early on, this couple came by, and were, well, mistaken by a number of the photographers as being Peter Jackson and his wife. Evidently he was part of the production team. Whether or not he heard the photographers calling out to him as Peter, well, he and his wife played along. That happens.
The Not Real Peter Jackson with his wife.
Gusts of wind happen, too. Which is how I caught this hair moment of the Real Peter Jackson, left, with his daughter, Katie. Note that the dragon is the background on most of these shots.
The Real Peter Jackson and his Real Daughter, Katie Jackson, and a gust of wind.
Looking at those shots, this lens is doing its job. Contrasty, sweet subjects with a perfect separation to the dragon. These tele shots run around f/8 to f/11 – so the subjects are perfectly sharp, front to back, while the background has become abstract. If you check out the Orcs, you can count the blades on the aperture ring. If only I shot Canon, I could attach my beloved Dresden-built lenses with more aperture blades than you can count. Literally. But I don’t, and it doesn’t seem like we can expect production lines to return to that kind of extraordinary quality openings anytime soon, where we could count off the abbreviations of modern lenses and get 22 blades.
Here’s a picture of some pretty people to finish this off, since you have made it to the end.
Just look at all those cheekbones. Evangeline Lilly (Tauriel, Elf) and Orlando Bloom (Legolas), posing for our lenses