Famous portrait photographer Yousuf Karsh once quipped, “Look and think before opening the shutter. The heart and mind are the true lens of the camera.” To that point, our talent and energy create good photographs. And while the camera is the repository of details and data, lenses actually shape the way those images look. Choosing a camera is technical, utilitarian and economic. Choosing the right lens is art.
As our tools grow more sophisticated, it is easier for us to fashion more interesting photographs. The differences between amateur point and shoot, prosumer, mirrorless, cell phones and DSLRs cameras are constantly being reduced, but lens choices are ever expanding: autofocus, vibration reduction, variable aperture, etc.
Besides improving our capabilities, lenses have character and personality. You change lenses for simple reasons. If you want to see more, you mount a wide angle lens. The “glass” actually captures more than you can see with your naked eye. If you are trying to shoot a friend on the opposite ledge of the Grand Canyon and you cannot approach closer, you need a telephoto. It produces a much narrower angle than your eyes.
In practice using depth-of-field can dramatically alter the appearance of an image. A wide aperture can be employed to throw a distracting background out of focus and enhance a delicate portrait. While a small aperture will put everybody in focus for a big group photo. Your eyes can’t do that.
Artistically, different focal lengths have unique looks. Here I will share the secret lore that is never revealed: lenses “see” differently, i.e. they have personalities. And with a trained eye that character can be exploited by your imagination, to your benefit.
Long lenses PULL subject and background closer together; it compresses a shot. At the same time, telephotos isolate. Short lenses PUSH point-of-interest and the surrounding scene apart. Wide angles integrate. It takes a little practice to become familiar with the effects but it is well worth the investigation.
Usually you select a lens to include just the amount of information you want your viewers to see. That dictates composition. Physically, you use a wide angle up close to your subject. It is intimate. It is aggressive. My friend often said, “A wide angle will make you mean.” On the flip side, a telephoto allows you to be a little aloof.
To further muddy the waters, there is another candidate: the zoom lens. Initially invented to be a multi-purpose device: to cut down on weight and make you more mobile. Zooms give you an infinite selection of focal lengths. They are complicated and expensive but they fill in the “blanks”.
Most photography is committed between 35mm and 100mm. But to round out the roster I have to mention the extreme lenses: fisheyes and ultra telephotos. They are usually specialty items but worthy of consideration once you have mastered the others.
There is a lens to fit every compromise. I carry an assortment on my jobs around the world and I have the bad back to prove it.
Photos and Text by Lou Jones