Robert, one of our subscribers, asked this very question. I have briefly touched on the subject in numerous articles on my blog but I have never taken on this issue face to face.
While going through my notes and working on this article I soon realized that danger lurks around this topic. Instead of focusing and exploring the idea of seeing at each focal length, we could fall into the trap of discussing gear choices “lens A vs. lens B.” Even though important, this is not the route I would like to take or explore at large.
The starting point of these explorations must be how to see photographically and creatively. When you think about it we are visual animals and we use sight in all our daily activities. The problem with photography is that many people don’t recognise the distinction between seeing as a function of living and seeing as a craft of photography. That’s why many people pick up a camera and think that photography is so easy because they associate their ability to see with taking images. There is a major difference between two.
When seeing in our everyday lives, our objective is to achieve a certain goal such as getting to work, reading an article or riding a bike, etc. In fact, when you examine your daily routine you find that you usually focus on important things (often the same things) and filter out the rest. In fact, this selective seeing is imbedded into the natural mechanics of the human eye. Our eye is capable of seeing sharply only in small areas and it needs to move around the scene in random fashion extremely quickly. Only then does our brain process these pieces of information to put them together like a puzzle.
Fujifilm X100F, ACROS + R film simulation
As if those limitations were not enough, photographers are faced with focal length choices, adding another layer of complication to an already overburdened mechanism of seeing.
Before we go any further let’s arrange lenses in three groups:
Normal focal length lenses – a standard 50 mm lens reproduces a field of view that is much like the way we see. In fact, most early photography was shot with this focal length. What is interesting is that some masters of photography whom we so admire today shot much of their work only with this focal length (Henri Cartier-Bresson).
Short focal length lenses (wide-angle lenses) – 35 mm, 28 mm, 24 mm and wider are the lenses that tend to exaggerate space, providing a much more visible separation between subjects. They are the most difficult to use but for those who master these lenses, they provide stunning imagery.
Long focal length lenses (telephoto or similar lenses) – lenses with a longer focal length than standard (longer than 50 mm). These lenses tend to compress the space, forcing subjects together.
With the exception of standard focal length, the 50-mm lens, there is a multitude of choices in other groups. The choice could be overwhelming!
Going back to our original quest: how to “see” at each focal length. Most people would tell you to practice and get better – indeed, a fashionable and inspirational answer. The honest answer is mastering one focal length in your lifetime should be viewed as a success, two or three of them I would consider a huge achievement. Of course, this answer goes against the industry mantra of selling you as much gear as possible and then convincing you that you must update your gear over and over again to be a better photographer.
Do you want to learn photography? Do you want to learn how to see with each focal length? Then you must start with just one focal length! For example, Cartier-Bresson worked for his entire career with a Leica rangefinder and one 50 mm lens. Please don’t buy many lenses at once. This is the single biggest mistake aspiring photographers make!
X100F, Velvia film simulation.
Where do I start?
Since the 50-mm focal length coincides with the way human eye sees, it should be the lens to start your photographic life with. It makes sense. However, instead of starting with this natural focal length, I usually urge my students to start with the 35-mm lens (23mm on a cropped sensor). Here is why.
Although the 50-mm focal length allows you to observe and photograph a scene at a normal, safe distance, the 35 mm will force you to get closer. Getting closer to your subject is one of the biggest secrets in photography not only from a visual perspective but also from a getting-comfortable-with-your-subject perspective.
When shooting with the 35-mm lens, you will learn to pay attention to the entire frame and eliminate any unnecessary elements.
With the 35 mm, you can take environmental portraits, shoot street and travel photography and make landscape photos. The versatility of this lens is only limited by your creativity; therefore, it should be easier to protect yourself from the temptation of adding another lens.
After shooting for a year or more with just this lens, your brain will slowly learn how to see at the 35-mm focal length (or 50 mm if you choose to go this route). You will notice you are stepping closer to your subject. You will be moving around your subject much more than previously, trying to find the right perspective. Finally, you will uncover visuals which previously you would have missed because you were standing too far away.
Okay Olaf, I started with the 50 or 35 mm lens. What’s next? There are two ways to consider:
- Go full-throttle ahead into a wide-angle world, something like 21 mm, for those more inclined into landscape photography, or
- Go with the 85 mm, so-called classic portrait lens.
Personally, I would leave exploring a wide, wide angle lens to the end since these are the most difficult to master. As a next step, I would certainly recommend the 85-mm lens.
The best way to add focal length to your arsenal is to attach your new lens to your camera and leave it there. At least for the first month you must shoot exclusively with this lens. Initially, you will find yourself frustrated and confused. Whether you go with wide-angle or telephoto you will immediately get the urge to buy another lens. What usually follows is a bigger camera bag and more lenses – just in case you need them. Then erratic swapping starts. On many occasions, I have seen photographers going into a swapping frenzy – changing lenses every few shots. But this way you will never learn how to see with one focal length.
Next time we will explore in more depth the various focal lengths and how to “see” while shooting with them. Stay tuned.
X100F, Classic Chrome.
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