By MICHAEL PERKINS
SEVEN YEARS AGO, THE NORMAL EYE BEGAN ITS BLOGGY INFANCY based on a very simple idea, one which I hoped might help its content outlast the comings and goings of trends or fashions. That idea was (is) that this photography thing is a journey, not a destination, that we are always on the way to something, be it personal development or increased technical mastery or both. Indeed, our welcome page specifically refers to the “journey from taking to making”, a trek which is designed to reveal something new about ourselves at every turn in the road. This small-town newspaper, then is never so much about the “how to” side of photography as it is about the “why do we do it?” side.
On a personal level, the blog was also a by-product of a yearlong stretch during which I used a 50mm prime lens exclusively, forcing myself to shoot anything and everything with a single optic in an effort to increase my own mindfulness. I needed something that would slow me down so I could anticipate, plan, even pre-imagine shots, rather than effortlessly clicking them off in mega-batches. I also stuck an additional pebble in my shoe by shooting only on manual, again with the idea that streamlining my lens choices and functions would allow me to take greater conscious control of whatever I set out to capture.
This is not just the photographic equivalent of setting off into the wilderness with just a hunting knife and some beef jerky to win some bar bet about your ability to live off the land. It’s not a stunt or a dare. It’s about learning to emphasize your own vision rather than relying on equipment to hand-deliver you technically acceptable but emotionally empty images. Using a single lens for everything still gives you just as many creative choices as you’ll find lugging around half a dozen different optics and gizmos, so what we’re talking about here is speeding up your reaction time (no fumbling to change out gear, hence fewer shots missed), teaching you a personally consistent way of imagining/framing a shot, and getting to the point where your bond with your camera is so instinctual, you’ll devote a much higher percentage of your day to seeing instead of calculating. Prime lenses, which have only one focal length, are also called “normal” lenses, and that word intrigued me. What, in terms of how we first learned to use our senses, could be more “normal” than seeing with a full and profound sense, versus just having things pass by our eyes largely unnoticed? Thus, as I worked to get everything out of my “normal” 50mm, I was also trying to re-normalize my own vision, taking it off the auto-mode settings imposed by cameras that have conditioned us to choose convenience over honesty.
I restate this little epistle from time to time because it continues to inform everything I try to do as a photographer. And because there will come times when you have, due to bad luck or fate or stupidity, limited options for getting the picture. Equipment will fail: cameras will be sucked up by a swamp or tumble over a cliff: batteries will die. And when that happens, even though your technical choices have become more narrow, your ability to make the picture you want will not. Your “normalized” eye will empower you to produce results with any camera, any lens, in any situation. And that’s what the journey is all about. Call it Entropy For Smarties.
In the next installment, I hope to illustrate how I’m trying to call on this flexibility to help me deal with an approaching shooting situation that I know will be more restrictive, gear-wise, than I’d like. I have to keep reminding myself that making images is only partly about the gear. The trick is to make it as small a part as possible.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
SOMEWHERE BETWEEN THE END OF THE FILM ERA AND THE DAWN OF THE DIGITAL AGE IN PHOTOGRAPHY, there was a profound change in what camera manufacturers defined as a “starter” lens for new owners. Many shooters, including your humble scribbler, have wondered just why an 18-55 “kit lens” zoom became the glass that was included with the purchase of a digital SLR, when the baseline lens for film shooters had most typically been a 35mm prime. This is especially puzzling since the kit lenses sold by many makers are optically inferior to a prime in several key respects.
Primes, or “normal” lenses, have one focal length only, and so cannot zoom at all, but they out-perform many of today’s zooms on sharpness, clarity, speed, aesthetic blur (or “bokeh”), and portability. Their proportions are more similar to those seen by the human eye (thus the “normal” tag) and so do not create distortion at, say 24mm, a range at which some banding creeps into a zoom at the same focal length. They also will not exaggerate front-to-back distances as seen in a super wide-angle, meaning that an 8×10 room does not resemble a bowling alley.
So what does a wide-angle zoom bring to the party? Not much, beyond the convenience afforded by zooming out with the twist of a barrel, filling your frame in seconds but, ironically, making you less mindful of the composition of your shot. The few extra seconds needed to compose on a lens that can’t zoom means that you act more purposefully, more consciously in the making of an image. You, and not the lens, are responsible for what’s included or cut.
But let’s assume that you want the kit lens for its wide-angle. This is also no problem for a prime lens. Yes, it’s as wide as it will ever be at a single focal length, but you can change what it sees by just stepping backwards. A 35mm prime is plenty wide depending on where you stand. It’s not like you can’t capture a large field of view from left to right. Just place yourself in the right place and shoot.
Yes, there are times when physical restrictions dictate “jumping the fence” by using your zoom to take you where your legs won’t go, but you can count those occasions on half the toes of a frostbitten foot. Look at the above shot. What else do you need in the shot that would require a wide-angle zoom to capture? And if the zoom can only open to f/3.5 at its widest aperture, why not use the prime and gain the ability to go all the way to f/1.8 if needed?
Here’s the deal: if you can walk to your shot and use a better, less expensive piece of glass once you get there, why use a zoom? If you can avail yourself of remarkable sharpness and fill your frame with everything you need, free of distortion, and gain extra speed, why use the wideangle? Huh? Huh? Riddle me that, Batman.