Earlier this week I was in Las Vegas at the WPPI show (the big Wedding and Portrait Show), and I was honored to be asked to give a talk in Canon’s booth on any topic I’d like (that’s me during one of my talks on Monday — photo by Brad Moore).
While the name of my talk was “Photo Recipes” a big part of the talk was about lenses, but not the standard lens demo stuff (use this lens for weddings and this lens for sports, and the like), but thinking about lenses in the bigger picture (no pun intended there, but I wish it had been): from the fact that the moment you pick up a lens and put it on your camera, you’ve already made your first composition decision, to why so many people aren’t happy with their lens (and it’s not about sharpness or clarity, weight or price).
Here’s the condensed version
It was a 45-minute presentation so I can’t fit it all in here, but one topic I did touch on (with lots of examples) was why so many folks tell me they think their photos either look like snapshots or are just “nothing special” and I think part of that can be attributed to their lens selection. In particular, I feel (just my opinion here, but I’m not the first one to say this), that there’s a lens range that I consider kind of a “no-man’s land” for lenses because it’s where most of the worst photos are taken — when you’re first starting out. That range, when you’re a beginner, is where your worst shots are made (stay with me here), and then you get better and leave those behind.
One of my favorite quotes ever
It comes from Bresson and it’s so right on the money:
He’s right, ya know. Now, let’s think about which lenses most photographers these days start out with. Usually, a kit lens, probably an 18-55mm. You can opt for other kit choices, like a 24-105mm or another popular one is the 18-135mm. But most beginner’s photos are going to be taken within that no-man’s land range of anywhere from 18-135mm with lots of shots at 50mm, 70mm and maybe the 100mm range. The reason I don’t really like a 24-70mm on my full-frame camera is that it’s fairly equivalent to an 18-55mm on a crop sensor camera. That range makes an awful lot of average pictures for people just starting out. It’s the beginner’s range of choice.
So, am I saying you can’t take a good picture with an 18-55mm or an 18-135mm?
Absolutely not. I am not saying that at all — a lot of folks take amazing pictures with an 18-55mm. But a whole lot more, don’t.
So what are you saying?
Most folks that are new to photography are playing the middle ground when it comes to focal lengths. Using the average, standard default focal lengths they have with kit lenses. They live and die in that beginner’s range because they haven’t bought their first “2nd lens” yet, and here’s why this matters:
(1) They can shoot a wide angle shot, but not super wide. Just “average wide.” Like everybody else.
(2) They can shoot a telephoto shot, but not nearly tight enough to really bring you in close to see detail, like the pros do.
I think that’s one big reason they’re unhappy with their shots — and why I feel they often describe their own shots to me as “average.” They’re comparing their images to the ones they see the top pros make, and their shots just don’t look like that. They’re not that wide. They’re not that close. They’re not that “something” and they probably don’t realize what it is, which makes it all even more frustrating. That average kit focal length definitely makes it harder (not impossible, but certainly harder) to create really compelling images because it’s harder to “stand out from the crowd.” At those focal lengths, you’re producing the same types of shots everybody else with a kit lens does. That’s before we even get to the sharpness issues, which is a post unto itself.
So, what is super wide and why does it matter?
My go-to lens for the past year has been Canon’s 16-35mm lens, and quite honestly, I could just tape the barrel down at 16mm — I rarely ever shoot it at anything but 16mm, because when I go wide, I don’t want to go “a little wide” — I want the image to have a chance of looking epic. Of looking big, and sweeping and just flat-out different the instant you see it. I certainly don’t always hit that goal. In fact, I rarely hit that goal, but at least I know it won’t be because of my lens choice — it will be on me; what I’m shooting and how I composed it. Those alone — I’m not limited by my lens.
But I want to go wider!
Wider is better, and I just started shooting Canon’s 14mm lens after Brad tried one out shooting a concert and was raving about it’s sharpness, but beyond that it’s just the “look” you get when you get that wide. It brings something different to the table — something that instantly captures attention. That’s the kind of lens I want to be using (I don’t care that it’s a prime — I’ll zoom with my feet).
Soon, I’ll be able to go even wider
My dream lens was just announced by Canon, and as soon as it ships, I’m picking one up (that’s a heads up to B&H — please keep one for me, and can I get free overnight shipping?). It’s an 11-24mm zoom. I haven’t seen one yet. I haven’t shot it, but I know it’s going to bring me the opportunity to take even wider shots, and show a view most folks aren’t already used to seeing day-in, day out. It’s still on me; choosing the subject and composition, to make the shot, but I know at least with a lens that wide I’ll be starting on 2nd base.
For just two shots from each shoot, I want to go even wider. I want to go “fish”
Last year I started using the Canon 8-15mm fisheye zoom, and I absolutely love it (but I don’t use it at anything other than 15mm fish, so I get the full fish effect but without blacking out any of the edges or turning it into a full circle at 8mm). That lens creates really captivating images, but I’ve found that when you show someone a fisheye shot from a shoot, I don’t care if it’s a wedding or a bowl game, they’re like “Wow! That is really cool!” When you show them a second fisheye shot, they’re like “That’s cool” and if you show them a third it’s like “Uh huh.” It’s a special effect lens, and while it has real wow factor for one or two shots, (it tends to get old real fast, like highly processed HDR), so I know going in to the shoot that I’m only going to show one or two shots from it, but those one to two I show will have a huge impact, and knowing I’m going to get two shots that nobody else has, and that they’re going to have a big impact, well, that’s money in the bank where I come from.
Go long or go home
Dave Black said that to me once about shooting the same semi-long lens at a football game everybody else is shooting, but I think his advice extends way beyond just football. I think this is the other side of the coin that beginners are struggling with — going beyond that 135mm telephoto focal range, and bring something special to the party. 200mm is a great focal length, and there’s so much you can do with it. My Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 is my workhorse lens. I use it for every sport I shoot, I use it for most every portrait, I use it at weddings, I’ve used it for travel, if I was stuck on a desert island and could only choose one lens, it’d be this (or a 28-300mm for full frame, I’m kinda torn). 200mm is a great focal length for sure. Ya know what’s even better? 300mm. Better yet? 400mm. These are ranges beginners rarely capture, and by shooting at 400mm you’re bringing something different, something special, something with impact to the party — something that separates you from the crowd.
This past year I shot an Eagles/Titans NFL game using nothing but one lens, Canon’s updated 100-400mm f/4.5 to f/5.6 IS II lens. It cost less than my 70-200mm, but I was in tight at 400mm, and churning out shots for the first time at a pro or college game without using a Monopod. It was a revelation, but without that monopod I was (ahem) unprotected in front and took direct contact down south with the business end of a bullet pass and well…I saw stars for a few minutes there, but it was still an amazing experience, and one that was financially out-of-reach for a lot of folks, but now is in a lot of shooters’ ballpark (no pun, but come on, that would have been a good one), and that puts them in a better chance to make some magic than they would have in kit land. Again, not that it can’t be done — there are some amazing kit lens shooters out there — you just have to be really, really good.
Don’t take all this the wrong way
I know when I write an article like this that it’s natural for people who have, and love, and have maybe gotten great results in what I called a “no-man’s land” focal range lens to get defensive when they read this, and write defensive comments. Please don’t take it that way. I had all those same kit lenses, too. One of my favorite shots I’ve ever taken was taken with the kit lens on my first DSLR, the original Canon Rebel, so I know good shots can be taken with inexpensive lenses. This isn’t about the price. It’s about what lens choice means to your composition, your images, and your impact.
What I hope to do with this article, and what I hoped to achieve with my talks for Canon earlier this week out in Vegas, was for photographers, especially new shooters who are frustrated with what they’re getting, to realize that part of their problem might be partially focal length based, and I want folks to know how important lens selection is to the type of image you’re about to make. I think it’s the starting point of every shot — the first composition decision — and why we need to really give some thought to which lenses we use and why we use them, because I truly believe it makes that big a difference. When that realization hits you, you can’t look back. This is important stuff, and I hope this helped, at the very least, to get you thinking seriously about your lens choice next time you’re out shooting, or when you’re deciding on which lens to get next.
I’m off to Sacramento!
I’m there on Monday for the final stop of the most fun seminar to teach I’ve ever taught. Hope you all have a wonderful weekend, and I hope to see you back here on Monday.
All my best,
Going really wide and really long (stop snickering)