When I’m bored I like to browse Wikipedia. There I find all sorts of random facts to use when I have to make small talk with people I barely know. While perusing the many photo-centric pages of Wikipedia I discovered that the word lens comes from the same Latin root word as lintel. Apparently, they share the same double convex shape; thus making my favorite light gathering device a distant cousin of a legume, phonetically speaking.
Lenses are a very complex subject in the photographic world. They are the most important part of our cameras and yet they’re often misunderstood. Today’s blog post is a beginners primer to these interchangeable dynamos and all of their creative possibilities. I hope to make this blog accessible to users of all levels, so advanced users please forgive me if I gloss over some of the details. (I promise to delve deeper into this subject in the future.)
Logically, it’s easiest to start with the widest lens and work our way into the telephoto range. Wide-angle lenses are known for their expansive field of view. One of my favorites is called a fisheye. It’s nickname is easy to understand when you see the kind of images it produces. (See photo above) The Nikon Nikkor 16 mm F2 .8 D is a perfect example. The aforementioned lens has 180° field of view (that’s crazy big in comparison to the 46 degrees that you see with a 50mm). When using a fisheye lens it’s not uncommon for the photographer to capture their own feet within the frame. Corners of the image are distorted due to the extreme curvature of the glass which gives this lens it’s signature look. Landscape/architectural photographers are fond of wide-angle lenses such as the 35mm and 24 mm varieties. Perspective control lenses are also designed with tilt and shift abilities to remove the look of converging lines for a perfectly parallel shot from nearly any angle. ( Nikkors PC-E 24mm F3.5D is one such lens)
Wide-angle lenses provide a deep depth of field and a feeling of space. The image at the top of this post was shot with a 24mm lens at F8. Because of it’s wide angle, everything from the foreground to background is perfectly in focus despite the medium open aperture. I could have shot this same image at F22 guaranteeing sharpness throughout the image, but there was no need. If I had used a telephoto lens with the same exposure the boardwalk would have looked much shorter and the weeds around them would have blurred into a black and white blob. My intent was to create a sense of space. I wanted to show the relative small size of the three children in comparison to the world around them.
Wide angles are also fantastic for lowlight scenarios (especially prime lenses). They are loved by photojournalists, travel photographers, and street photographers alike. Which wide-angle you choose is a matter of preference, but every photographer needs at least one good wide-angle lens in their toolbox.
The next lens is a must-have for every beginning photographer. If you’re going to buy one lens, purchase a 50mm prime lens. I own a Nikon Nikkor 50 mm F1 .4 D autofocus lens. And when I’m not using an 85mm, this is the lens I have on my camera. It’s a perfect starter lens simply because it shows you the world as your eye sees it. The wide-open aperture provides a lot of light. This translates into extremely shallow depth of field, fast shutter speeds, and unparalleled ease of use in any situation. Keep in mind that there are three factors that create depth of field. (Aperture + Focal Length) x Distance between foreground and background. (For all the mathematicians out there, no, that was not a real equation…it just looked cool.) In the image on the left there is 5 ft between the subject and the white brick wall behind her. The aperture is F4 for this exposure. She’s in focus from the tip of her nose to just before the crown of her head. Everything behind is out of focus. If I had doubled the distance between her and the wall to 10 ft away the detail of the brick would have completely disappeared. I chose the 50mm because I wanted that texture to show in the final image but not compete for the viewer’s attention.
The world of telephoto lenses is varied and full of possibilities. Telephoto lenses are anything larger than the normal 50 mm lens. Some common telephoto lenses included: the 60mm which is great for macro (close up) photography, the 85 mm (known as the portrait lens because it’s perfect for head and shoulder shots), 105 mm lens also great for portraiture , and then the 200 mm and 300 mm which work great for sports photography and of course, wedding ceremonies. Telephoto lenses compress the background due to the smaller field of view; exactly the opposite effect of the wide-angle lens. Where the wide-angle lens creates a deep depth of field, telephoto lenses shrink background distances and force objects to look closer together. The portrait of the boy in the chair (right) is a good example. Even though the wall looks only a short distance away in reality it was 40+ ft behind the subject.
My telephoto lens of choice is The Nikkor 85mm f1.8G. The field of view at 85mm is only 28 degrees. Add to this a large aperture (F1.8) and you’ve found a winning combination for shallow depth of field. I also have longer lenses, but again and again I use the 85mm because it keeps me close enough to my subject where we can still interact. I hate shouting at a person from 10+ feet away! It’s hard to get the right expression out of someone if they can’t hear what you’re saying from behind the camera.
When using a long telephoto zoom lens I always use a tripod. As you increase the length of your lens, faster and faster shutter speeds are required for achieving sharp images without the support of a tripod. A good rule of thumb is to match your shutter speed to the focal length of your lens. For example, if I was hand holding a 200mm lens I would need to use at least 1/200 of a second for my shutter speed. That can handicap your ability to use a variety of apertures, especially in low light situations. Some photographers say they can hand hold much lower shutter speeds then this rule suggests, but I’m sure they gained this ability through years of practice. In recent years manufactures have designed lenses with VR or image stabilization technology. VR II on Nikkor lenses can give up to 4 stops of stabilization. This means that I should be able to shoot at 1/30th of a second instead of the 1/200 of a second mentioned above. I’ve had pretty good luck with my VR lens in the past. However, image stabilization does add a significant sum to the price.
You’ve probably noticed that none of my lenses mentioned are zooms. There is a good reason for that. Personally I prefer prime lenses over zoom lenses for their lightweight, sharp glass, large apertures, and affordable price. Prime lenses are a single focal length. On the other hand, zoom lenses are made up of several different lenses together. They mimic the look and feel of the prime lenses (sometimes doing a poor job). The benefits of a zoom lens are obvious when you want to travel light, or you’re attempting to compose on the fly. Zooms are much heavier then prime lenses and can require image stabilization technology on longer lenses if you plan to hand hold.
I’ve opted to have a heavy camera bag and an agile camera set up. But you must remember that I have the luxury of time because I shoot portraits and weddings. For any professional working under stressful deadlines zooms can be a better choice. For the money prime lenses are far cheaper then zooms. However, you might need 4-5 prime lenses to cover the range of work you plan on doing. After assessing your needs you might find that one zoom might be more affordable then buying 5 prime lenses. Prior to purchasing a lens I suggest renting it from a local professional camera dealer. Each lens has its own inherent strengths and weaknesses. Lenses are also the most important investment in your photographic gear. You may change camera bodies a couple times during a decade but your lenses, if you buy the right ones, will last you a lifetime.