With so many options, which lens is best? If you read the brochures, you’ll learn what lens work best for different types of photography. For example, the 85mm is a great portrait lens; the 16–35mm is indispensable for anyone photographing architecture. Because there are so many lenses, these bite-size morsels of information are helpful. They build up our familiarity and help us understand a lens’s typical range. Remember, though, that there is a difference between information and wisdom.
Information informs us, providing us with new data. Wisdom is the result of experience lived out. Wisdom is where knowledge and experience shake hands. That’s why the young may be smart, but only the old are truly wise. So what lens is best? That answer will come, but it will take time. Truth is contextual and it depends on who you are.
Take two legendary photographers, Eric Meola and Rodney Smith. They both visited and presented at the school where I teach within a short time. Both lectured and inspired the students in amazing ways. Both are revered. Both like to create photographs of people that are poignant and up close. But in pursuit of these types of photographs, each photographer takes a different path.
When Rodney Smith presented he said, “I want to get close, physically close, so I use a normal focal length lens.” Next, Eric Meoloa came to class. He talked about his craft and explained, “I don’t want to intrude, so I use a long focal length lens.” So which lens is best, normal or zoom? It’s up to you to decide.
While the lens choice is up to you, here are a few practical tips. For starters, it is worth thinking about using a fixed or variable focal length lens. Fixed length lenses are limiting, as the zoom cannot be changed. In other words, a 135mm lens is just that—nothing else. Before you write this type of lens off you have to consider a few things.
First, certain people built their careers on specific fixed length lenses. Like Henri Cartier-Bresson, who used a normal 50mm lens. Annie Leibovitz in the early days of her career consistently reached for her fixed 35mm lens to create portraits with a more environmental feel. While it is interesting to consider who used what, there is something even more important about these lenses.
The choice of a fixed length lens requires that you move. In other words, your composition is dependent on where you stand. Using these lenses will teach you how to see and prevent you from getting stagnant and standing still. Without the luxury of a zoom, composition must become physical. These lenses will get you involved. They will make you want to climb, sit, lie, and move all around. You will become aware of space, perspective, and form. And while these lenses are not easy, they will truly teach you how to use your camera more creatively.
Zoom lenses provide immense flexibility. Some zoom lenses have a short range like 16–35mm while others cover the gamut from 28–300mm. Some photographers thrive on having lots of flexibility and not having to change lenses to capture a different view. And these types of lenses are widely used with every genre of photography, from fashion to fine art. If you want to differentiate yourself, keep this in mind: Use zoom lenses as if they were fixed. In other words, change the zoom, but don’t stand in one spot. Rather, change the zoom and then move up, down, sideways, and around in the same way that you would with a fixed lens.
Many things in life are good from afar but are far from good. In other words, after getting close some things fall short of what we expected from a more distant view. Macro photography contradicts this to the core.
When we zoom in on a detail, it becomes something else. In the small details we notice textures and colors that were otherwise impossible to see. These details make viewers lean forward to see more.
The viewer experiences a revelation. What looked good from afar looks even better up close. At the same time, many argue that small details may have higher meaning. As the 18th-century architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe said, “God is in the details.” In other words, grandiose is grand because of the details. And each detail when put together suggests something more—the sum is greater than the parts.
Macro photographs make us say, wow! It’s nice to know that something looks better close up. To get creative with your macro lens, move in as close as possible and keep in mind that by getting close you have the potential to capture something that transcends the frame.
Have you ever wondered how a fish with big bubbly eyes sees its underwater world? And many fish have eyes positioned on each side of their head rather than in front—talk about peripheral vision. In photography, the fish-eye lens pays tribute to our underwater friends. This type of lens was originally developed to study the sky. Scientists were interested in learning more about clouds and so this lens was devised. It was originally called a “whole-sky lens,” and I kind of like that name. The idea was to create a lens that could capture it all.
Fish-eye lenses typically provide a 180-degree view, an extremely wide depth of field, and the capability to focus on subjects close or far away from the lens. These factors combine to make fish-eye lenses interesting and unique. While the resulting images contain distortion that appears bubbly and surreal, for certain subjects this view makes the frame come alive.
With these lenses you need to get really close whether you’re photographing waves, dogs, friends, or a family with ten kids. The closer to the subject with this lens, the better. Be sure to keep in mind that the distortion increases as you move further to the edge of the frame. In other words, for less distortion, compose so the main subject is in the middle of the frame.
When someone watches something with wide-eyed wonder, what exactly does that mean? The phrase is bursting with information. There’s the childlike connotation, a sense of wonder, astonishment, and surprise. It surely reveals that someone is awestruck. This is exactly how I imagine the personality of my wide-angle lens to be. When I look through, the lens begs me to see the world with wonder and awe.
Wide-angle lenses are exciting and true. Fish-eye distortion appears fake; the wide-angle lens distorts in a less dramatic way. These lenses help us take it all in in a believable way. They make images that are expansive, environmental, broad, all-encompassing, and spacious. Rather than zero in on one subject, wide-angle lenses help us tell more and remind us that some of the best views in the world are with wide eyes.
The problem most beginners have with wide-angle lenses is that they pull in too much. By showing everything they show nothing. To effectively and creatively use this lens, notice lines, capture scale, and think about the background and foreground.
The wide-angle lens allows you to quickly change perspective, bending lines or causing them to travel down the frame. On the other hand, when you’re shooting a larger scene it’s key to include a subject in the foreground. The foreground subject will anchor the frame. Or photograph something that shows a sense of scale and makes you realize how much grandeur there actually is.
While the other types of lenses tend to spice things up, the normal focal length lens is in a class of its own. I think of normal lenses like the 50mm as timeless, natural, honest, reliable, dependable, and fair. It is an unpretentious lens with an earnest and genuine soul. It’s not overly dramatic, and it definitely doesn’t play tricks. If I had to make a comparison, I’d say while other lenses are shiny, the normal focal length is like canvas, corduroy, or natural wood. If it were a note of the piano, it would be my middle C.
I could go on and on. And why wax poetic about such an ordinary lens? It is because I want you to give this often-overlooked lens a second chance. In my opinion, the 50mm lens is the perfect mix of form and function. It is compact and easy to carry around. The normal lens doesn’t impose or get in the way. And this lens sees the world in a way that is close to the human eye. The normal focal length lens requires that you do the work. You can’t rely on something else. The pictures this lens creates are honest and true.
To create a few compelling portraits of the world-champion surfer Kelly Slater, I chose a normal 50mm lens. The two images (above) show the results. The photo shoot (below) shows my approach. Photograph © Travis Lee.
Without the zoom, when I use this lens, I tend to get in close, some would say too close. When photographing a person this may result in a little distortion to the face. I think a touch of distortion creates an amiable, honest, and intimate feel. Plus, because it is a focal length that is shorter than most, it helps me get out of my comfort zone. The lack of zoom requires that I move my feet and engage.
In general, the word zoom is used to describe a rocket ship that moves quickly and often soars up into the air. Telephoto zoom is an appropriate name for this type of lens. The word telephoto refers to magnification, and these lenses allow you to work quickly to get up close. It’s thrilling to be a ways off and then look through a high-powered telephoto zoom lens. Instantly, you feel like you’re there. Even more, these lenses give you the ability to compress the scene. In other words, they make objects in the frame seem connected and close.
To understand how these lenses work, think about standing next to a tall skyscraper. As you look up the building will appear towering and huge. If you look toward the top of the building it will make you feel uneasy, almost as if you might fall back. What you’ve just experienced is similar to a wide-angle lens. Then imagine you are one mile away and looking back at that same building with a pair of binoculars. The building will appear tall and skinny, like a small spike that is pointing up into the sky. That is how a telephoto zoom lens works.
Perhaps that example will help you imagine this lens on a smaller scale. Photographing people with zoom lenses has the potential to create a very flattering look. Rather than wide and distorted, telephoto lenses make people look their best. And telephoto lenses allow you to blur the background and simplify the scene. For zoom lenses the background is key. (Remember that for wide-angle lenses you need a foreground.) Even blurred, the background becomes a backdrop of color, shape, and form.
Now that we’ve discussed lenses and their range, you still might wonder which one is best. That question is difficult to answer because it is so vague. A better question might be, how can I take what I’ve learned and put it to good use? Or how can I gain a bit of wisdom while I seek to create photographs that reflect who I am?