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.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHS OF PERFORMANCES ARE PERHAPS MY FAVORITE STUDIES OF THE HUMAN FACE. None of the self-conscious artifice or hesitant reticence of the standard portrait shoot are present when a player, be it a violinist or pianist, is fully inside the trance of creation. Call it rapture, call it focus, but something almost holy illuminates the features when people sing or play. All the awareness of their face as a mask melts away, as all mental energy surges to the task at hand. Their faces become some other thing, and I can’t resist trying to preserve that.
I recently had a chance to shoot two performances at the same part of the same museum about
ten weeks apart. The first set of images were like walking barefoot through roses; everything worked. The second occasion, just a few days ago, was, by comparison, work, and frustrating work at that. The time of day for both sessions was the same, with mid-morning light entering the hall through cream-color curtains and softening everything to an appealing haze. My distance from the stage was also nearly the same on both days. What created the difference in my results, then, was my choice of lens, pure and simple. All of my “luck” came because the first lens was perfect for the task. All of my muttered oaths at the second occasion were due to how wrong my choice had been.
In the first case, exemplified by the mariachi band in the image at right, I used a 35mm prime, which
is simple, sharp and fast enough, at f/1.8 on the wide-open end, to give me enough light in nearly any situation. In the more recent shoot, I used a 300mm zoom, about the most opposite approach you could try. The lens cannot get any wider open than f/4.5, and shuts down all the way to f/5.6 when fully zoomed in, so, right off the bat, you’re starving yourself for light, especially in a room where most of it is behind the performers. I decided to try the 300 out of pure perverse curiosity, and from a sense of “what can I lose?”, which is a blessing, since, when the results don’t matter, you can try something, just to see what happens.
Well, I saw.
The light reduction with the 300 was more severe than I’d anticipated. Oh, sure, I could get really tight framings on the performers, but I was going to have to either slow my shutter speed to under 1/60 or jack the ISO up to undesirably high noise level, or, as it turns out, both. The contrast between light and dark was the first thing to take the hit, as tone registered in a muddy middle range with the zoom versus the sharply defined values I had gotten with the 35.
Then there was the overall softness of the 300, due largely to the small amount of camera shake on my part, which, in a zoom, is magnified several times over. In both cases, I got usable images, but whereas with the 35mm prime I had a kind of embarrassment of riches, the object with the zoom shoot was to salvage something and slave away like mad to do so.
I could easily have taken wider framed shots with the 35 (since it can’t zoom), then cropped them for tightness later, as I had on the first day. Instead, I got a lot of really tight shots of musicians that needed serious intervention to make them acceptable. But I want to emphasize that this is what experimentation is for. You put your hand on the hot stove, yell “OWWW!” and refrain from touching the hot stove in future. At the end of the second shoot, I had lost no money, no business, and very little time. That’s education on the cheap.
I don’t mind wearing the dunce cap every once in a while, if I know that, eventually, I’m going to end up in a fedora.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHY IS ART’S GREATEST “DEMOCRATIZER“, a medium that levels the playing field for creative minds as no other medium can. “Everyone gets a shot”, goes the old saying, and, today, more than ever, the generation of images is so available, so cost-effective that almost anyone can play.
Yes, I said almost. Because even as cameras become so integrated into our devices and lives as to be nearly invisible, there is at least one big stump in the road, one major barrier to truly universal access to image-making. That barrier is defined by distance and science.
For those longing to bring the entire world ever closer, zoom lenses and the optics they require still slam a huge NO ADMITTANCE door in front of many shooters, simply because their cost remains beyond the reach of too many photographers. Lenses going beyond around 300mm simply price users out of the market, and so keep their work confined in a way that the work of the rich isn’t.
Look at the metadata listed in the average “year’s best” or “blue ribbon” competitions in National Geographic, Audubon, Black & White, or a score of other photo magazines. Look specifically at the zoom ranges for the best photos of birds, insects and general wildlife. The greatest praise is heaped on images taken with 400, 600, 800mm glass, and rightfully so, as they are often stunning. But the fiscal wall between these superb optics and users of limited funds means that many of those users cannot take those images, and thus cannot compete or contribute in the same way as those who can afford them. For an art that purports to welcome all comers, this is wrong.
The owl image at the top of this post fell into my lap recently, and I was able to take advantage of this handsome fellow’s atypical appearance at a public place with the help of a 300mm lens. But that’s only because (A) he was still only about forty feet away from me, and (B) he is as big as a holiday ham. If he and I had truly been “out in the wild”, he would have been able to effectively enforce his own no pictures today policy, as I would have been optically outflanked. Two options would thus emerge: drop thousands for the next biggest hunk of glass, or take pictures of something else.
I am for anyone being able to take any kind of picture, anywhere, with nothing to limit them except their vision and imagination. Unfortunately, we will need a revolution on the high end of photography, such as that which has happened on the entry level, to make the democracy of the medium universal and complete. We need an “everyman” solution in the spirit of the Kodak, the Polaroid, and the iPhone.
The world of imaging should never be subdivided into haves and have-nots.
follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @mpnormaleye.