the photoshooter's journey from taking to making

Posts tagged “Zoom lenses




THE LONGER ONE IS INVOLVED IN PHOTOGRAPHY, the greater the temptation is to streamline one’s “quantitative” approach to equipment….specifically, how much of it we need with us at any one time. We’ve all seen ( have often been) the folks who decide to lug along multiple camera bodies, lots of lenses, and assorted support devices and toys, and, for many of these people, that is a workable approach to doing good work. Others decide, over time, that they want less gear that does more. I have lived in Camp One, and I prefer life in Camp Two. I try to decide, before heading out, which camera/lens combo will give me most of what I want in most situations. That means leaving some stuff back at the house and maximizing the flexibility of what you have at hand, or, as the modified stock car racers term it, “run what you brung”.

In recent years, the increased number of wildlife shoots in which I tag along has more or less dictated the use of a telephoto of some kind. However, when the birds and beasts decide to sleep in, I love to default to close work with flowers or other nature subjects. That means trying to make the zoom do the work of a macro lens, since I don’t have a true macro with me at the moment. And, happily, it turns out that I can do about 90% of what I want from a macro with a telephoto anyway.


The minimum focal distance of a zoom dictates that you stand fairly far away from your target (say a flower), or else your autofocus will just whirr and dither, and so the first thing you have to do is back away. It’s not uncommon to stand fifteen or more feet from your subject before zooming in. Of course, at maximum zoom, your choice of apertures may be more limited, meaning you can’t open up wider than about f/4. This, in turn, means that you may not be as able to isolate a sharp foreground object from its softer background clutter as neatly as a macro would allow you to at, say, f/2 or wider. What I do in a case like this is actually underexpose a bit by shooting at a fast shutter speed, trying to position the subject in direct light and letting everything behind it roll off into darkness. It’s crude but easy.

A caveat: true macros are extremely precise instruments, and, in making a zoom do macro-like work, you shouldn’t expect to nail the same superfine detail as a lens dedicated solely to the task. That means you’ll see the delicate patterns on a butterfly’s wings, but you won’t be able to count the dots in his eyes. Still, in comparing the two images here, one a true macro and the other a “zoomacro”, many might concede that they both generally bring home the bacon (spoiler alert: the top photo is the genuine macro). Bottom line: it is easy to force a telephoto to perform this kind of double duty, making your shooting less complicated and cumbrous and producing fairly consistent results.


That Day At The Jetty (2016). A cropped edit of an originally larger 24mm wide-angle shot.


EVERY PHOTOGRAPHIC LENS EVER MADE CREATES ARTIFACTS, distinct biases in the ways it renders the world it sees. When you shoot with a particular piece of glass, you’re also inviting in whatever flaws or limits are baked into that optic’s design and science. If you are the kind of shooter that constantly switches out lenses, this present less of a problem, since you’re used to snapping on the exact glass you need for every kind of shooting situation.

If, however, you try, like myself, to go nearly a day at a space with a minimum of gear, then you start to look for lenses  that do most of what you want in most settings. Occasionally, this means compromising on, or even missing, a shot; but, by and large, it makes you more mindful of the image-making process from minute to minute. You plan better and react faster.

The original 24mm master shot, which is either fuller or too crowded, depending on one’s viewpoint.

In the case of one of photography’s most popular categories, that of landscape work, there seem to be two main types of lenses that do most of the heavy lifting: the ultra-wide angle, which convey “openness” and scope, and zooms, which help isolate specific parts of vast vistas. There are certainly situations in which both are ideal, but, on average, were I to be traveling very light for the day, I would probably take most of the day’s images with the ultra-wide, even if there was a particular area inside a larger scene that was more “important” than its surroundings, a situation in which most of us might utilize the zoom.

This goes to my belief that the composing process almost never stops with the click of the shutter. Rather, the click is just phase one, and a master shot that allows for many post-shot “re-thinks” is the best one to have. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that the center of an immense mountain range is where the light or the subject story is strongest in a given image. If my master shot is a taken with a zoom, I’ve lost the ability to later discover additional approaches that remain possible if I have a wider shot’s worth of information from which to select. Starting with the larger shot, I can shift the cropping to any aspect ratio I want, change the balance of the composition, re-orient the linearity (to create a faux panorama, as in the top shot here) or even realize that there was an even stronger story to be told outside of the frame I originally envisioned with the zoomed master shot. Here’s the core point: it’s easier to have more picture than you need and pare some stuff away than to narrow your options beforehand and trust that you’ve nailed it, meanwhile ruling out any potential re-takes or second thoughts.

I do, of course use zooms at times, but, like my external flashes and tripods, I find fewer uses for them with each passing year. It’s odd how you can come to feel greater freedom with fewer tools. But sometimes it’s like the time Itzhak Perlman busted a string just before a concert, then performed the program on just three strings, to the utter amazement of the critical world. Photography proves time and again that there are times when the image’s “melody” magically comes forward. In spite of.



To Susan On The West Coast Waiting (2016). Shot from over 50 feet away with a 24mm wide-angle prime, then cropped nearly 70% from the original frame.

To Susan On The West Coast Waiting (2016). Shot from over 50 feet away with a 24mm wide-angle prime, then cropped nearly 70% from the original frame.


EVERY DAY-LONG SESSION OF TRAVEL PHOTOGRAPHY dictates its own distinct rules of engagement. You can predict, to some degree, the general trend of the weather of the place where you’ll be staying/playing. You can pre-study the local attractions and map out at least a start-up list of things you might like to shoot. And you can choose, based on all your other prep, the equipment that will work best in the majority of situations, which keeps you from carting around every scrap of gear you own, saving reaction time, and, possibly, your marriage.

All well and good. However, even assuming that you make tremendously efficient choices about what lens you’ll most likely need on walkabout, there will be the occasional shot that is outside the comfort zone of said lens, something that it won’t do readily or easily. In such cases, the lens that would be perfect for that shot is likely forty miles away, back at your hotel. And here’s the place where you can pretty much predict what I advise.

Take the shot anyway.

The original composition.

The original composition.

I tend to work with a 24mm prime f/2.8 lens when walking through urban areas. It just captures a wider field within crowded streets, allowing me to grab most vistas without standing in the path of onrushing traffic (a plus) or spending a ton of time re-framing before each shot (a pain). This particular 24 was made in the ’70’s and is both lightning fast and spectacularly sharp, which, being a manual lens, also saves time and prevents mishaps.

24mm, to me, produces a more natural image than the wide end of the more popular 18-55 kit lenses being sold today, since there is less perspective distortion (straight lines remain straight lines). However, since it is a wide-angle, front-to-back distances will appear greater than they are in reality, so that things that are already in the distance seem even more so. And, since it is also a prime, there is no zooming. In the case at left, I wanted the girl’s bonnet, dress and presence on those rocks, but, if I was going to get any picture at all,  plenty of other junk that I didn’t need would have to come along for the ride.

You deal with the terms in front of you at the time. Without a zoom, I either had to take the shot, with the idea of later cropping away the excess, or lose it altogether. There are times when you just have to visualize the final composition in your mind and extract it when it’s more convenient. Simply capture what you truly need within a bigger frame of stuff you don’t need, and fix it later. It’s a cornball cliché, but the only shot you are guaranteed not to get is the one you don’t go for. And this is also a good time to remember that it’s always smart to shoot at the biggest file size you can, allowing for plenty of pixel density even in the aftermath of a severe crop.

You can’t pre-plan all the potential pitfalls out of a photo vacation. Can’t be done. Come as close as you can, and trust your eye to help you rescue the outliers down the road.

But take the shot.


Gee, this one has it all. Terminal mushiness, hazy washout, crappy contrast. Who could ask for anything more? You could.

Gee, this 300mm telephoto shot has it all. Terminal mushiness, hazy washout, crappy contrast. Who could ask for anything more? You could.


THERE MAY BE A STATISTICAL TABLE SOMEWHERE that breaks down the percentage of photographers who use telephoto lenses consistently versus those who only strap one on for special occasions, but I have never seen one. Of course, I’ve never seen a three-toed sloth either, and I’m sure they exist. Fact is, there are always enough telephoto newbies (or “occasional-bies”) out there to guarantee that many of us make some pretty elemental mistakes with them, and come home with fewer jewels than we hoped for. I should know, since I have produced many such “C-minus” frames, like the image seen above. For a better understanding of everything I did wrong here, read on.

If telephotos just had to deliver magnification, and otherwise worked the same as standard lenses, they wouldn’t produce so many problems. In fact, though, they need to be used in several very different ways. For one thing, zooming in exponentially increases not only the chance of camera shake but the visible results of camera shake. A little bit of tremble at 35mm may go undetected, with little discernible effect on sharpness, while the very same amount of shake at 300mm or above creates a mathematically greater amount of instability, rendering everything soft and mushy.

This means that handheld shots at the longer focal lengths are fundamentally harder to do. Solutions can include faster shutter speeds, but that cuts light at apertures of f/3.5 and smaller, where light is already diminished. You might get around that with a higher ISO, which may not produce acceptable noise on a brightly lit day, but you must experiment to see. If you simply must have longer exposures, you’re pretty much onto a tripod, and, if workable, a cable release or wireless remote to guarantee that even your finger on the shutter doesn’t create a tremor. Remember, you’re talking about very minor amounts of movement, but they’re all magnified many times by the lens.

Some people even believe that a DSLR’s process of swinging its internal mirror out of the way before the shutter fires can create enough vibration to ruin a shot at 400mm or further out. In such case, many cameras allow you to move the mirror a little earlier, so that it’s stopped twitching by the time the shutter opens. Lots of trial and error and home-bred calculus here.

One of the factors fouling many of my own telephoto shots comes from shooting at midday near major cities, adding both glare and pollution to the garbage your lens is trying to see through. Colors get washed out, lines get warped, sharpness goes bye-bye. For this, you might try shooting earlier, taking off your haze filters (’cause they cut light) and seeing if things come out clearer and prettier.

Telephotos are a fabulous tool, but like anything else you park in front of your camera, they introduce their own technical limits and challenges into the mix. Seldom can you get results by just swinging your subject into view and hitting the shutter. Get comfortable with that fact and you will find yourself taking home more keepers per batch.



Fake macro done with a zoom at 300mm. Actual object is about six feet away. 1/160 sec., f/8, ISO 100.

“Fake” macro done with a zoom at 300mm. Actual object is about six feet away. 1/160 sec., f/8, ISO 100.


OVER YOUR LIFETIME AS A PHOTOGRAPHER, IT DOESN’T TAKE A LOT OF EFFORT TO ACCUMULATE A SMALL WAREHOUSE OF SPECIALIZED GLASS. Lens acquisition just may be the crack cocaine of photography, since we all know that the best picture of your life will be taken with the lens you don’t yet own.

We slobber with envy over magazine spreads which lovingly detail the bursting kit bags of the pros, which far too many of them pose for in magazines, at least once. I think it is a kind of passive-agressive attempt to scare most of us other shrimps into abandoning the craft altogether and finding honest work, like breaking into ATMs. I swear, there must be proof that a significant percentage of the second mortgages in the world are traceable to “daddy needs a new fisheye”.

One of the most expensive hunks of glass for many of us will be a dedicated macro lens. Assuming that you don’t buy a third-party bauble made from a child’s kaleidoscope in an emerging nation, the investment can be daunting, especially if macro shots are a small subset of your total output. Forced to choose between a dedicated macro and a decent quality zoom, however, I have sided with the zoom every time, since, in a pinch, it can serve as a decent sub for a macro. Detail is your big factor. You have to decide if you want to count the feathers on a robin’s back, or if you want to be able to see the mites that live in the feathers. If you’re a mite man, then apply for that second mortgage now.

Shot from about five feet out, zoomed to 220mm: 1/80 sec., f/8, ISO 100.

Shot from about five feet out, zoomed to 220mm: 1/80 sec., f/8, ISO 100.

Standing just a few feet from your macro subject and zooming out to, say, 300mm allows you enough magnification to fill your frame. Of course, you should be absent any bloodstream caffeine, since camera shake will become a large part of your life. You could default to a tripod, but since you’re improvising a macro shot, you are probably too close to the object to want to impede foot traffic (or simply waste opportunities) getting set up, so it’s better to experiment with various ways of bracing the camera against your body. And again, cut the caffeine.

Your depth of field will be shallow, which will actually help out, since the bokeh will eliminate distractions around or behind your subject. You will also be far enough from what you’re shooting to keep you from casting a shadow over it with your body. If you want a sharper image, you can go to a smaller aperture, but as you’re completely zoomed out already, you are already down to f/5.6 and its attendant light loss. A smaller aperture means you’ll have to slow your exposure, and that could give your handheld shot the dreaded shakes again. Everything’s a trade-off.

Bottom line: it’s cost-effective to make the lenses you have do everything of which they are each capable than to build a mountain of specialized glass in your closet.

Remember when golf was the expensive hobby? Ah, them wuz the days.