Learning to Truly See Through The Lens

Written by stuestler on March 12th, 2011

A student in an upcoming photo walk recently asked a great question – and it caused me to start thinking of introducing this idea early in the learning process, rather than save it for advanced classes.

She has a DX format SLR (1.5 crop factor from 35mm full frame), and she asked “should I just bring my 35mm f1.8 or do you think I should bring the 18-55mm kit lens too?”

Here is what I replied:

“Back in ‘the day’ when I started out learning photography (when you projected the image through the lens onto a rock and then chiseled it out on the stone) everyone began with a 35mm camera and a 50mm “standard” lens. The first thing we wanted was more lenses, and at that time (early 80’s) zooms were still “amateur” quality, and serious photographers used primes.

Zooms have improved now to the point where they’re the “standard” lens, and few people rely on a single prime lens for their shooting.

As a student, having the single focal length to use caused us to become more aware of the relationship of lens-to-subject, of composition; we learned to use the “two-step zoom” (you use your feet move closer to or farther from the subject). In my advance classes I give an assignment where the student must use just one focal length for all of their shots. It’s OK to use a zoom lens if that’s all they have, but they must choose a focal length and stay with it for the entire assignment.

It causes you to become much more attuned to your subject, more aware of composition and light, to think more creatively and explore the possibilities of framing and composition more fully. I believe some of that is lost with the availability of zoom lenses and the ease of changing focal length rather than working with the image and the subject.

So, if you’re up for it, I’d say use the 35mm, and if it’s convenient maybe bring the kit lens along just in case you’re really not happy with what’s going on with using the prime. “

So what lens do you shoot? Do you rely on the technology and availability of quality zoom lenses to just rack the focal length in and out to suit your preferences for the shot, or are you intimately aware of the relationship each focal length has in the perspective and point of view it produces with your subject

70mm Lens

Henri Cartier-Bresson, one of the best-known and well respected photographers of the 20th century is famous for using his M-Leica and 35mm lens for the majority of his photographs.  It’s not about the camera. It’s about the eye and the creative mind behind it.

Think about using just a single focal length lens – whether a prime, or just restricting yourself to a single focal length setting on your zoom. Become thoroughly familiar with all the possibilities and restrictions of that lens. Concentrate on making the best images possible with that focal length. Then, once you’ve become intimately accustomed to that view, choose another focal length, and do the same with it.

16mm Lens

It doesn’t have to be the “normal” 50mm or equivalent field of view. Some people are more comfortable seeing the world from a wide angle viewpoint, while others look for the close detail of a longer lens.

There’s no right and wrong answer here, and no single “ideal” focal length lens. But learning to truly understand the feel and possibilities of each will certainly improve your creative bag of tricks.

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