What Lens

“I wondered a little when you posted
that you were buying the 5D with a
28mm lens. I had you pegged as a 50mm
man.” – Stephen Bray

Yes, it’s true.  If I only had one lens to use, it would be a good 50mm f1.4 (full frame).  I picked up the 28mm 1.8 because I got a good deal on it (honey they were on sale, look how much I saved) and because it had been a long time since I had used true wide-angles on a full-frame.  And it is useful for scenics.

If you were to go through the images in the store, you’d find that 90% of them were shot with the equivalent (not counting the camera format) of a 50mm, give or take a few mm’s.  It is one of my gripes with camera makers that the first thing they try to sell you as part of the “package” is a zoom lens.  I would rather see them offer a 50mm f1.4 equivalent.  It’s one of the first things I end up talking about when people (friends, cousins etc.) ask me how to “get better” at their photography.

I look at the kit they have, and try to forbid them from using the zoom lens that came with the kit, and going to a normal type prime lens, at least f2.0

This almost always seems like a novel idea.  How will they be able to get closer to the subject?  (You walk closer).

But what if it is a mountain that is far in the distance (I will make exceptions for objects that you can’t get close to, or if you need the perspective of a long lens).  However, this is a different subject, and you are asking about how to get better and I am giving two rules: use a normal and hopefully “fast” lens, and take the camera with you everywhere.  Yes, everywhere.

The two rules are related.  It is going to be more difficult to take the camera with the heavier zoom lens with you everywhere, and since the zoom lens is going to be slower than the prime lens, you are going to end up wanting to use flash more often.

It is a little bit like the advice a friend once got about playing the trumpet.  The teacher refused to give the student a trumpet at all, and had him only blowing into the mouthpiece for about three months to develop the armature before handing him the trumpet.

My own experience, when I went back to photography was to use a camera with a fixed normal lens for close to a year before getting a camera with interchangeable lenses.  It is really an excellent way to get a feeling for what is in the frame, and what walking a few steps forward or a few steps back can do.

I have nothing against zoom lenses; I just don’t think they are a good way to begin.  Once you’ve got a feeling for a normal lens, I would add a semi-long (maybe 90mm or so) lens for portraits, or getting closer.  And after that you are on your own and can buy out the store.

Before I get mail about my prejudice against zoom lenses – let me put it into context – I’m only talking about the beginner, or the student (at whatever stage) that is in need of a kind of optical purification.  I own and will use a long zoom sometimes – but it comes at a point where I understand the consequences, and I can say for sure that I don’t carry it with me at all times and use it when I need a good long lens.

Wide-angles on the street are often used as measurement of street courage.  The shorter the lens, the closer you need to be to the subject, and hence there is a sort of macho thing about using short lenses for street shooting.  However, I don’t believe any prizes are given for street photography with the shortest lens.  The shorter lenses for the candid shooter usually come later in the career; when you need to up the challenge a bit; or you like the challenge of having more bits of the puzzle in the frame.  So, just as the long lens is not for the beginner, neither is the short lens.

– The Art of Photography, Dave B’ck-mahn


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My name is Dave Beckerman. I am a fine art photographer working in New York City.

9 thoughts on “What Lens”

  1. Dave, I think our shooting style and gear list is very similar. My two favorite Canon lenses are my 50/1.4 and my 16-35/2.8L. I shoot probably 90% of my images with these two. I think the wide angle comes from my photojournalism background. I love my EF 70-200/2.8L for portraits. My EF 100-400/4.5-5.6L sits in the closet. I think I’m going to sell it. –Brent

  2. Dave,

    I didn’t have you pegged as a zoom biggot. May the forces of optical equality strike you down! 😉

    I now think of you as the “Mr. Miyagi”* of street photography frowning on your young disciples as they brandish their “kit” zoom lenses. “Lens on, lens off” grasshopper put that zoom away.

    Seriously … you speak the truth. I remember the day when the 50mmm was in fact the kit lens. You started their and added primes like a 28mm and 100mm.

    Of course one can argue that zooms were pretty mediocre optically even a decade ago. And if you wanted to use quality, lower speed film you needed a fast lens and zooms were not nearly as “fast” as a prime.

    Well we have rather nice zoom lenses today and digital has for the most part made ASA or now ISO speed less of an issue. But using a 50mm as a training tool certainly has validity.

    From what I remember, one of the reasons camera manufacturers used a 50mm focal length was because it approximated the field of view of human vision. Sure humans have greater peripheral vision than a 50mm but you only focus and concentrate a certain field of view at any given moment. This makes sense as the lens see more or less what you see. That’s a great place to start. Make what you see a worthwhile composition.

    * The Karate Kid

  3. Ah, Master, I see you jest and yet question my ownership of zooms. Well, the 70-200 is a great lens for a photojournalist and portrait photographer. I bought the 100-400 to photograph professional minor league baseball and horse shows, neither of which I do anymore. As you know, you just can’t walk out onto the field to photograph a runner sliding into 2nd base, dust flying and sometimes players. You have to shoot from the sidelines, and it’s the same with horse shows. 🙂

    But, fine art and street photography, or even documentary photography … that’s a different matter–the 16-35 or 50mm are lenses of choice. It’s a good thing I didn’t mention my Tamron 28-300 as a backup lens. 😉 –Brent

  4. When I got the iPhone, I immediately went to look for an app to download free books – which I found – and of course am now reading The Art of War (which is where this tone is coming from). DB

  5. I wanted to add that this topic of focal length has been on my mind as I cary around the equivalent of the kitchen sink in my camera bag. I have often wondered what would be the least amount of stuff I could get away carrying and cover 90% of the focal lengths I would use.

    In order to figure this out I used a feature called a Smart Collection in Bridge to sort my top selects. Smart Collection sorts all the aggregate metadata – including focal length. I imagine Lightroom has this same feature.

    This is great way to see what focal length(s) you use most commonly.

    What I’d like find is way that this info could be exported to a chart of some kind. I think it would make the info easier to analyze and share.

  6. Where’s the beef? Two blog entries in a row about lenses and maintenance tanks. I might as well just get myself a subscription to Popular Mechanics.

    Maybe you should open a third site devoted to the aesthetics of photography, instead of the nuts and bolts. I mean isn’t that what it’s all about? The beautiful, the moving, the strange?

    (Sorry for this bilious outburst. My D-67 4/f.0 just OD-ed)

  7. I am not using a full sensor camera, i.e. Nikon D80 but stiff prefer Sigma 30 mm 1.4 and 18 to 105 3.5 Nikon VR zoom for most of my work.

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