How a prime lens changed me
TageSK | Photo Techniques | Published Oct 9, 2011
In theory I have had photography as a hobby the last 35 years. Reality, however, was filled to the brim with children, studies, work, books, and a BMW motorcycle. In fact, the Canon FTb I remembered that I used to use had not seen a new film for a decade. Or more liklely two. But I knew that "one day"....
That day did not arrive in 2003 with the first digital camera I got. Even though I (slowly) started to photograph things, it was just that: Things. And travel; it was indeed nice to be able to take pictures of food I ate when travelling. It did not tickle the nerve, and I did not view it as "photography". The pictures replaced notes, little more.
Fast worward to 2009. One day my wife made a mistake: She bought a Nikon D-80.
Once upon a time, she had a Nikon F. She hauled it around for years; it was always with her. She wanted to get back that feeling, and after surveying the marked, she bought a D-80. It quickly turned out that the body was just a tiny fraction too large for her hands. She could not comfortably press the buttons and turn the wheel at the same time. She dumped the camera on me and bought an Olympus instead. She was happy. In other words, I did not select the camera, it was choosen for me.
The moment I picked it up, felt the perfect fit in my hand, and the solid weight, I knew the day had come.
As with all modern cameras, "my" D-80 had a kit zoom (18-55 f/3,5-5,6). I did not notice; in the sense that I was learning to phtograph again and that the lense Per Se could matter was beyond me.
Working in a very techno-savvy environment, I as acutely aware of the dangers of gearfaggotry. Some of my friends would tell me that it was obvious that their images sucked; Nikon was out with the D-90 and how could anyone blame them for not taking decent images with the stone-age D-80? This line of arguing would, not surprisinly, hold also for Canon. Cameras, lenses, straps, you name it.
Obviously, f/3,5 isn't stellar, but if I sayed away from snapping people at night I was all right. And, after all, the world is large so there is noo need for taking those late-afternoon pictures. I did not belive that replacing the 18-55 f/3,5-5,6 with a, say, 17-55 f/2,8 would matter much. Fortunately I did not spend the money; the problem wasn't sharpness but lack of skills. Good for me that I realised.
When I got Lightroom I could watch many images as once; I have set-up with two large screens and Lightroom can use them both. One fine day, while looking for something, I noticed somwthing odd. Something with my images and how they were taken. Carefully studying the details on many images I noticed that three out of four, maybe even more, were taken in the 25-35 mm range. Some with at 18mm and some at 55. But the overwhelming majority was taken at "normal".
It seemed as if I either zoomed all the way out to get a winde angle, zoomed all the way in to get a tele, or kept moderately in the "normal". The number of exposures taken at, say 20mm or 40mm was negligible.
Now that I had noticed, I started to pay attention. On some trips I would ensure I used the whole zoom range, on others I would stick stictly to, say, 30mm. Later I would study each frame and try to remember the scene, what I was thinking, and what I though about the result.
The conclusion was unescapable: I was not using my zoom. Even on those trips where I had "forced" myself to utilize the zoom to its full potential, I ended up with some landscapes at 18mm, some far away things at 55mm, and lots of things around 30mm.
Basically, I was not using my zoom. Then, why did I have one?
The prime lens
I used a few weeks trying out different focal lenghts with the zoom. I would fix the zoom-ring with tape, and get a "feel of it". I decided that 35mm was too long (too bad as Nikon makes a nice 35mm f/1,8) and that 24mm was too short (good for me, since I can not afford the Nikon 24mm f/1,4). That effectively left me with Nikon 28mm f/2,8 and Sigma 30mm f/1,4.
I tried them both in the shop. On the Nikon, the focus ring rotates (becuase it is driven from the camera). I could easily see myself holding on to that ring as the camera try to turn it. For that reason only I got the Sigma. Even though the Nikon is a fraction of the size and weight.
When I got home, I sat down and looked at my lens. It is almost as heavy as the body. A meaty heavy thing. Maybe this wasn't so smart, after all?
|My Dutch friend, in Delft, Holland.|
It took some time, a few months and several hundred shots before the fixed lenght finally stuck. It takes some time to (re)learn to take a step back to get the right frame. It takes practise to ignore the utterly flat Dutch landscape (no 18mm zoom at hand) and to ignore the doves lined up on the clock tower (no 55mm zoon at hand).
That leaves people, I guess. People at "talking distance".
|Bodil, at lunch, with a prosecco.|
Now, more than a year later, I rarely have to take down the camera if I have lifted it to the eye. By now I know quite well how much will fit in the frame I have. If there is not enough room, I don't life the camera. I don't need to look down the lens to find out. I don't need to life my hands to make a frame; I just see it.
I did not know that a prime lens teaches you the size of its frame. But it does. And here we are at the crux of the matter: The prime lens has changed my outlook on the world. And that is not a small feat, I must say.
|My wife after a fantastic dinner in Pitigliano, Tuscany; What is she thinking? (ISO 200, 1/10 s, f/1,4).|
Then, later, I found the joy of having f/1,4. Images from my "old" D-80 are grainy already at ISO 400. Two full stops more light than any zoom helps a lot.
In addition I can create a depth of field that is only a few centimeters. Such a powerful artistic tool is somehting that I hope to master in the future.
All in all
The restriction placed on me by the prime lens has released creativity. I know writers that use pen and paper; the slow flow of the text is necessary for the brain to keep up. For me, it seems, the fixed outlook is necessary for the brain to keep focused on what is actually in front of me. Rather than searching for what I can "make" by zooming.
Sooner or later I'll go back to a very long zoom (Nikon 18-200mm f/3,5-5,6, or Tokina 11-16mm f/2,8) to search for a new "prime length". Maybe I wil feel at home also at 200mm or at 12mm. Just as I now feel at home at 30mm.