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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?

Fujifilm X20 – the first update

So here is what I’ve decided to do about writing an X20 review: it’s actually going to be a series of short (ish) updates as, and when, I have got something new to say about it.

Typical UK road sign: the weight is given in metric units whilst the distance is in imperial. Are we European or aren't we? ©Neil Turner, April 2013

Typical UK road sign: the weight is given in metric units whilst the distance is in imperial. Are we European or aren’t we? ©Neil Turner, April 2013

I have been shooting with the new camera as much as I can and in as many different situations as I can. I’ve even used it as a third camera on a live commission. Most of the time I have been using the Fuji RAW mode so that I can get the most out of the files and so that I can compare the different ways that you can choose to work with the images. Most people prefer not to have to read long and drawn out musings when they look at reviews – they just want to cut to the chase and so here are a few likes and dislikes in the form of bullet points:

LIKES

  • The colours – straight out of the camera you have clean, realistic and accurate colours. This shouldn’t be a surprise from the company that brought you Fujichrome all of those years ago.
  • Smooth tonal range – at low ISOs the files have a wonderfully smooth tone
  • Handling – the X20 feels good in my hands and it is very easy to hand hold down to some pretty slow shutter speeds.
  • The manual zoom – it is a model of how other manufacturers should be building cameras – enough said.
  • Buttons and dials – related directly to handling but I felt that the way that Fuji have kept the number of buttons down whilst giving you a lot of freedom to customise deserves credit.
  • The optical viewfinder –  it works really well and the addition of shooting information in the viewfinder is a big bonus.
  • Auto Focus – it is good for a compact and tracks moving subjects rather well.

DISLIKES

  • The battery life is not good when shooting with the LCD screen on. It’s a good job that after market NP-50s are so cheap.
  • The Fuji RAW format (.RAF) takes a lot of computing power and a lot of getting used to.
  • Low light performance – I was expecting this camera to be a couple of stops behind a DSLR but I would estimate that it is at least fours stops worse than a Canon EOS5D MkII
  • Video – it is just not that good or easy to use… and don’t get me started on playback!
  • Battery clip – if the small clip that holds the battery in place lasts as long as I tend to keep my compacts I will be surprised.
  • Buil-in flash – it is as weak as consumer models and you have to remove the lens hood if you don’t want horrible shadows across your pictures when shooting flash.
  • Auto white balance – it isn’t that bad actually, except under mixed lighting when it is a bit unreliable.

I like this camera… a lot. That having been said, I am genuinely disappointed with the files at anything over 640 ISO and there is a build quality question mark on the battery clip – especially as you are going to be swapping the battery out for charging with great regularity. If I needed to, I could shoot some editorial assignments with the X20 and that isn’t something you could say about many compacts. More importantly, I would quite enjoy doing so and that isn’t something you could say about any other compact that I’ve used. Professional photographers talk about their “walk about” cameras and the X20 is certainly my choice for that task. It isn’t the “best” at anything but it does represent a good set of compromises and that, at the end of the day, is what you want from a small camera.

As I said in the opening paragraph, this will be a series of updates rather than a single “this is my opinion” review. At the recommended selling price the Fujifilm X20 is a little expensive but the price is coming down on a weekly basis and once it dips under £400 it will become a well-priced piece of kit.

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Possibly the oddest picture I ever took…

©Neil Turner/TSL | London | January 2006

The story was simple: we were doing an anonymous interview with a man who needed to remain unidentifiable for legal reasons and we had to shoot a picture of him at a time and a place that wouldn’t give his identity away. It seemed to be important that it was actually him in the picture and that became obvious when I had to shoot a proper portrait at the same time just in case the court case was decided and we needed a proper picture of him to go with a future follow-up article. Still with me?

The reporter arranged that I meet the subject at a London tube station and to get around the problems of finding someone whose name you don’t know and who you don’t have a picture of I always describe myself and what I’m likely to be carrying and wearing because a) I’m probably going to be there first and b) I’m probably going to be easier to spot (being big and carrying a lot of kit).

The venue turned out to be quite close to where he works and we decided that if any of his colleagues happened to spot us the cover story was that we were doing a fashion vox-pop on what the well-dressed office worker was wearing that season. The cloak and dagger details just kept multiplying.

I decided to go with a silhouette (you can read my thoughts on them here) and just for good measure I added an extra twist with a bit of motion blur too. The result was quite striking if bafflingly anonymous!

The technique is pretty simple. It was a dull winter’s morning in the city and we found a under cover area. I used a Lumedyne flash kit to light the brick pillar and silhouetted the subject against it. Without the flash, he would still have been a shadowy outline but so would the pillar and the picture would have been pointless.

The light that was coming from either side of the pillar was OK but it wasn’t plentiful and so I decided to give it a bit of movement blur by zooming the lens whilst the shutter was open. I ended up with an exposure of 1/8th of a second at f13 on 200 ISO using a Canon EOS1D MkII with a Canon 16-35 f2.8L lens triggering the flash with a pair of Pocket Wizards. Zooming during an exposure as relatively short as 1/8th of a second means that you have to have quite a few attempts to get it right and it also pays to tell the subject what you are doing if you don’t want them to think that you are a lunatic!

In the end I was very happy with this genuinely odd picture. I had arrived at the assignment with almost no idea what I was going to do and pretty much made it up as I went along. That’s why I love my job…