Saturday, June 20, 2015

Lessons Learned Using Prime Lenses

Philadelphia, USA 2015. Canon 5Dmk2/Zeiss Makro-Planar 100mm f2

David Palumbo

Disclaimer: This post is about photography but also, like, not about photography.

For a number of years, my camera and single lens (a Canon rebel and off-brand 28-70mm f2.8) were purely tools that made my life as an aspiring and eventually professional artist easier.  They were used for shooting reference and shooting paintings and very little beyond that.  As a teenager I did have an interest in photography and I still kind of remember how to work in a darkroom, but to be honest I never really understood what I was doing anyhow.

Currently, improving as a photographer is one of my main areas of interest.  Not to help me as a painter (though it has helped) and not to make money, but just because I love doing it. I also enjoy talking about photography with people who share my enthusiasm and so, every now and again, I might advise someone on buying/upgrading their photo equipment.  The other day, I was asked specifically what lens might someone buy that would encourage them to shoot more photos.  This might sound like an odd question but it really took me back to the moment when I rediscovered the joy in shooting photos for their own sake.  As it turns out, it was a specific lens that played a big part.

One of the problems that I always had with going out shooting was that my camera felt so bulky and conspicuous.  If I did take it somewhere, I usually was so self conscious about it that I would leave it in the bag and, as a result, not actually use it.  To shoot more photos out in the world, I needed something that was a bit more discreet.  If I could comfortably walk around with the camera in my hands, I would use it.  As it happened, Canon had just released a 40mm pancake lens that was pretty cheap.  Ridiculously cheap actually (currently selling for $150).  Mounted on the body, the lens is so small that it looks like a dust cap.  It is also remarkably sharp.

Paris, France 2012. Canon 5Dmk2/Canon EF 40mm f2.8
 Around this same time, I was heading to Europe for two weeks to see places that I had never seen before.  I wanted to bring my camera and decided to try something a bit risky: leave behind my big versatile zooms and only take the pancake.  I knew if I took the zooms, even just one, I’d run into my usual problem and end up leaving it in the room after the first few days.  Sure, I might find the 40mm too limiting, I might be frustrated at not being able to zoom in on gargoyles or whatever, but it seemed a worthwhile risk if I’d at least use the damn thing. 

Restrictions Promote Creativity

At it turned out, I used my camera every single day of that trip and shot nearly 2000 photos.  I only remember one shot that I really wished I had another focal length.  I’m certain there were others, but I'd just go on shooting and forget them a moment later.  If I saw something interesting, I either found a way to frame it or I found something else interesting about it that I could frame.  My composing became more conscious simply because I actually had to work to compose anything.  I had to think about where to stand and quickly became aware of what a difference thinking about that made. 

Venice, Italy 2012. Canon 5Dmk2/Canon EF 40mm f2.8

40mm on a full frame sensor is very close to our natural field of vision (generally agreed to be around 43mm) so I started thinking about shots as “what am I experiencing” rather that any random detail that caught my attention.  With a long zoom available, I probably would have defaulted to a lot of telephoto stuff where I can stand safely in the distance.  Some would have been alright, but most of the time I’d have been cropping out all the context that actually makes a subject interesting.  Being restricted to a natural angle of view, I was confronted with peripheral details and, as a result, started exploring the ways environmental context influences the story of an image.  Essentially, I stopped making hasty snapshots and started trying to make more deliberate pictures.

Tools That Make You Happy Lead To Better Results

The following year, my friend Julien Alday came to visit me.  Julien is also a lover of photography and he had brought a little mirrorless Panasonic with some old manual lenses on adapters.  I had seen this once before (Ev Shippard had some pretty cool old Russian gear at IMC one year) but I’d never really had a chance to play around with them.  When I learned that there was a whole world of semi-forgotten photo gear at bargain prices which could fit my camera, I fell whole hog into manual primes.  To be honest, I went a bit nuts for while.  Soviet lenses held a particular fascination to me.  Besides the unique "vintage" look of the images I was really taken with the history and beauty of the lenses themselves.  In some cases I was even bold enough to disassemble a defective lens and attempt repairs or alterations (one of my proudest MacGyver moments was being on the side of a highway in Ecuador and using the plastic spoon from a yogurt container to reattach a loose focusing ring on a Russian Helios 44-3).

Quito, Ecuador 2015. Canon 5Dmk2/Helios 44-3 (58mm f2)

When you use an adapted lens, nothing is automatic.  Besides focusing, you also have to dial in your aperture for every shot.  Suddenly, choosing an f-stop really made sense to me.  I was seeing the result while shooting.  It made me feel even more connected and involved and that made the whole thing even more fun.  And the more fun it was, the more places I wanted to bring my camera and the more photos I wanted to shoot.

You’re Best Off Committing To A Plan, Whatever The Plan Might Be

When I’m going on a trip, one of the most prolonged decisions I make is what lenses to bring.  When I was buying up cheap old lenses left and right, I wanted to bring all of them.  The first time I traveled after my vintage frenzy I brought five (a 17mm fisheye, a 24mm, a 35mm, a 58mm, and a 135mm) so I could be ready for everything.  I was back in zoom lens indecision mode, except with interchangeable parts.  Ultimately half of them pretty much stayed in my suitcase because it was just too much.  Two or three lenses turned out to be plenty if each one is assigned a specific job.  On that earlier trip where I had just one lens, I was committed to a plan.  It was a 40mm plan and I made it work.  Having so many choices, I tend to lock up and second guess.  Having “wide angle or telephoto” as my choices, it’s grab one and figure it out.  I now realize that I don’t always need the perfect tool, I just need to be committed to the tools at hand.
 
Rome, Italy 2014. Canon 5Dmk2/Voigtlander Color-Skopar 20mm f3.5
You Don’t Have To Prepare For Everything, You Just Have To Spot And Seize Opportunities

Some people who shoot with primes will joke that whatever lens you currently have mounted is probably going to be the wrong one.  There is definitely some truth there.  Our eyes take in the world is such a complex way that we can shift from taking in expansive scenes to focusing on minute details in an instant.  In a visually exciting place or moment, we can be kids in the candy store wanting everything.  Trying to capture every single impulsive thought just isn’t possible.  With a zoom, you can quickly jump from wide angle thinking to portrait thinking and back again in seconds and I’m not saying that’s a bad option to have, it just isn’t the choice that interests me right now.  I’m more interested in deciding “I want wide angle stories right now” and then finding those opportunities even if conflicting opportunities might tempt me.  I’m not going to catch everything no matter what, so I acknowledge that and focus on what I really want to catch most.  At first this was frustrating and I was constantly swapping lenses, but more and more I’m adapting what I see to the choice I’ve made.

The thing about creative pursuits is that, in the big picture, there isn’t a best way or even really a right way.  There are an infinite number of ways and some or better suited to one person or situation than another.  Working with limitations reminds us of this because it narrows down our options and makes it easier to find good solutions for that given moment.  This isn’t really our natural state though.  Our impulse is to want as much choice as possible.  That often does more harm than good.  Assuming that we don’t end up paralyzed by too many possibilities, we tend to make lazy choices because they are easier than working to find the more interesting ones.  So long as the main goal is to keep moving forward, obstacles often turn out to be opportunities to do things you would never have thought of otherwise.  Adapting and improvising are where magic happens. 

Philadelphia, USA 2015. Canon 5Dmk2/Zeiss Makro-Planar 100mm f2

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