focal length

Zooms Vs Primes

©Neil Turner, October 2014. Shooting my own shadow with a 28mm f1.8 lens.

©Neil Turner, October 2014. Shooting my own shadow with a 28mm f1.8 lens.

Talking and writing about photography on the web seems to have become a whole series of two sided contests. Sometimes it is interesting and a genuine dichotomy (Nikon Vs Canon, Mac Vs PC) where there are absolute direct comparisons to be made and a range of technical and personal preferences to be considered. At other times they are silly (film Vs digital, DSLR Vs mirrorless) where it is comparing bananas with pineapples. Somewhere in the middle of these two extremes sits the Zoom Vs Primes debate. Everyone has their own views and everyone’s work is different.

An amazing 14 years ago (and 14 years into my professional career) I wrote a short piece about choosing lenses and why you might like zooms for some jobs and then have the ability to choose a focal length for others. It wasn’t all that long before then that I’d had to use primes all of the time because zoom lenses weren’t up to the job in terms of quality. For me it all changed in 1995 when I switched to Canon EOS for the first time and the original 70-200 f2.8L and 28-70 f2.8L lenses which, along with the auto focus on the EOS1N, changed everything for me. For ages the only Canon primes I had were the 20mm f2.8 and 300mm f2.8L and the vast majority of my work was shot between 28mm and 200mm.

I’ve spent a lot of my career in press pens and fixed positions where I cannot move and where it made sense to use zooms lenses to compose but weighed against that I’ve also done a lot of work where I have a lot of freedom to move around and can position myself so that I don’t need to use a zoom to fill the frame – I’ve been able to “zoom with my feet”. Here’s what I said in 2000:

There are two ways that you can choose which of your lenses to stick on the camera:

  1. You can say “there’s my subject and here I am, let’s see which focal length on my zoom works best”.  Sometimes at sports matches and political events you have your position and that is that, or…
  2. You could say “I want the effect that my experience tells me a 28mm lens will give me so I’ll select that focal length and move to the right position to make that happen”.

Either of these could be a valid option and, in many cases, the first is decided for you by circumstance. Most news photographers use zoom lenses because it makes sense to have fewer lenses when you are never quite sure what kind of work you will be doing on any given day.

Personally, I use a combination of both approaches. If a position forces me to choose a certain lens then I’m with option 1. Given complete freedom to shoot what I want I’d go with 2. More often than not I’ll go with, say a 24-70mm lens intending to shoot at the 24mm end and get in a position to shoot that way. I will shoot several frames and then start to move around, zoom in and out and shoot a variety of similar images, each with subtle differences. I try to make a point of shooting with just about every focal length available to me on every job. Sometimes I am right about lenses first time but often I’m not. What had seemed like an obvious task for the 28mm ends up being a spectacular 200mm shot and vice-versa but the result is that you often end up with images that are just that bit better.

I nearly always shoot on location so I cannot preplan every detail. Going equipped with a range of lenses is vital. Your choice of lens will depend on so many questions running through your mind. How is this image going to be used? Big, small, upright, horizontal, front page? Double page, back page, website, magazine or newspaper? Is it going to have copy running over it? Will it have more than one usage?

If I cannot answer any or all of those questions, then I’ll shoot every variation I can. Shall I start with a long lens, if it’s a portrait then being further away may relax the subject and I’ll get in with the wide when they are more comfortable. Background, what’s behind them? Can I use a change of lens get rid of a poor background?

Answering self-set questions and making compromises is the key to news photography. Choosing the right lenses helps to reduce the number of technical compromises that you are forced to take, giving you more time to make the creative compromises that you want to make.

So has anything changed in the intervening years to make me come back and have another look at this debate? Yes – several things:

  • The resolving power of the camera chip is now so great that lenses need to be sharp to get the most out of that resolution
  • The amount of pixels crammed onto a chip means that you can “zoom by cropping” in a far more aggressive way that you could ever do before and still end up with a file easily large enough for a wide range of uses
  • Zoom lens quality has improved
  • The choice of super-high quality prime lenses has become far wider
  • The quality of digital images means that how a specific lens renders out of focus parts of the frame has become an issue for a lot of people
  • Photographers are constantly seeking ‘an edge’ and to challenge themselves to see their work differently in an era where we all have much the same gear

This debate has raged and it has ebbed and flowed. I’m not necessarily talking about how the worldwide photographic communities have seen it here, I’m talking about my own psyche and what happens every time I pack a bag to go and shoot some pictures. I love the discipline and the way that having three or four prime lenses in a bag makes me think but I have the it when I have primes and cannot move around as much as I’d like to. Short of taking three zooms and four primes on every job (I don’t have an assistant and my fifty year old spine would buckle under the weight) it is always going to be a compromise. Today I’m shooting an editorial portrait where I have plenty of time and it will be just me and the woman that I’m photographing so I’ve packed the primes. Yesterday I was at a job where moving around wasn’t an option and I went with just two zooms.

My internal debate doesn’t end there though. I am always looking back through my work and being self-critical and, if I’m being entirely honest with myself, I am probably a better photographs with zoom lenses. There, I’ve said it. Much though I love using a 135mm f2 I shoot better pictures eight times out of ten with a 70-200 f2.8. The same goes for the 28 and 50 against the 24-70. How can I ever hold my head up in the company of some of my favourite photographers who never use zooms now? Luckily they are all people who don’t care what you use as long as you get the pictures and the rest of my favourite photographers are shooting 99% of the time with zooms anyway.

It turns out that this is a silly debate after all because we are photographers whose goal is to produce the best and most interesting, creative, exciting work that we can within the bounds of what is possible and what is required. I’m going to persevere with my little bag of primes because I want to. When in doubt it will always be the zooms for me – aren’t I the fortunate one to have the choice?

The best lens for portraits?

On a photographers’ forum last week there was a lot of discussion about the best lens for portraits. Can of worms opened. Mac vs PC or Nikon vs Canon style debate well and truly started.

I have written before about portrait lenses and I won’t bore you with repeating my previous post (if you missed it, catch up here) except to say that when people ask this question they normally mean headshots or mug shots where the subjects head and shoulders will fill most of the frame.

©Neil Turner, February 2012. Bournemouth.

This portrait of a local artist was shot using an 85mm f1.8 Canon lens wide open but what lens should you use for this kind of picture. The debate will rage and answers anywhere between 85mm and 135mm (all measured on full-frame cameras) will be given, supported, doubted and even ridiculed. Most arguments that don’t get broad agreement also don’t have a simple answer. Sure there’s something lovely about the feel of a portrait shot on an 85 but what about the degree to which you have to invade the subject’s ‘personal space’ to get the composition? What about those 85mm lenses where the close focus isn’t good enough to get that bit tighter still? With a 135mm lens the personal space issues largely go away and the close focus issues almost always go away too – but is the effect as nice? Can you ever include something of the environment in those pictures? Would you even want to?

The actual answer (as always) is that it depends on you, your technique and your own taste in pictures. A few weeks ago I was looking back at some corporate headshots that I had shot and I had to tell another photographer on the other side of the world how I had shot them so that he could replicate them so that when his pictures and my pictures were printed on the same page nobody (hopefully) could tell that two photographers were involved. One of the things I needed to give him was the focal length of the lens used so I got the pictures, went through the EXIF data and noted it all down. I had used a 70-200 f2.8L lens and so the actual focal length was between 120mm and 130mm.

I was a little surprised that it was that long and so I grabbed a folder of images that I keep on my hard drive of corporate portraits to show prospective clients some examples of what I have done in the past and looked through the EXIF on those. These were pictures that, by definition, I really like and it quickly transpired that the tighter compositions were all shot between 120mm and 150mm on the 70-200. Again, quite a surprise – I had always seen myself as an 85mm lens user!

Well, one thing led to another and I decided to do a quick ‘audit’ of all of my favourite environmental portraits to see what lenses I have favoured. This was less of a shock because in the folder of 120 of my favourites the widest lens used was 16mm (on a 1.3x crop body, so we’ll call that 21mm for the purposes of this exercise) and the longest was a 300mm (on a 1.6x crop body which becomes 480mm in this context). There was a lot of bunching in the 35-45mm area and some more around the 120-150 area but the spread of focal lengths was otherwise pretty even – which pleased me greatly because it confirmed what I always say to others;

“There is no such thing as THE perfect portrait lens”.

This exercise is a bit time-consuming but it could have a lot of uses in professional photography. For example, anyone used to zooms wanting to buy a couple of prime lenses should think about going through the exercise to help them decide which ones would suit their style. Anyone wanting to know what lenses to replace as a matter of priority in these cash-strapped times could also benefit from a focal length analysis. The reverse is also true – a photographer who wants to change the way they do stuff could see what they normally shoot with and deliberately avoid those focal lengths. The possibilities are endless once you start to think and we can all do with a bit of style analysis from time to time. How we choose and use lenses has always been a preoccupation of mine and this exercise has helped me to rationalise that.

Indeed why stop there? EXIF data is amazingly useful and so you could also do an aperture comparison. My quick one revealed that I shoot a surprisingly large amount of pictures using three apertures f2.8, f8 and f22. In my sample, those three apertures accounted for over 50% of my pictures. I’m not sure what to make of it but I will work it out one day.

©Neil Turner/TSL. January 2008, London. 173mm focal length on a 1.3x crop body = 225mm

What started out as a simple answer to a simple question somehow turned into statistical analysis. Many people would say that is the exact opposite (they might even use the word antithesis) of what we, as creative people, should be doing. I have a lot of sympathy for that argument but, in a world where there are tens of thousands of great photographers vying for work, every little advantage we can eek out for ourselves and every piece of information that we have to work with could just be worth it’s weight in fluorite glass.