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Saturday, August 04, 2012

Does One Size Fit All?

Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, USA. Tamron 10-24mm at 19mm.
In the fifteen or so years I have been running workshops and seminars, podcasts and presentations, there has been one constant issue that has featured among so many of those who have attended. This constant has been a lack of understanding of the nature and the true value of lenses and optical nuances. 

Now, let me make one thing very clear. I am not speaking of the technicalities of optics as I am not an expert in the field. Thats's for the guys in the white jackets. I am speaking of the benefit of lens perspective, angle of view, compression and depth of field. When it comes to creating successful, interesting, dynamic images, there are, in my opinion, few techniques which come close to the importance of the correct choice of focal length and f-stop.

Photographers will argue black and blue about lens sharpness, chromatic and spherical abberation, bokeh, blades and barrel distrotion. Blah, blah, blah. Yes these things are important, but there is a lot of snobbery in photography about technicalities, brands and types of lenses. Photographers will argue over the most ridiculous and irrelevant technicalities of lenses, little realising that they make little if any difference to the creative delivery of their images. Often these are the same photographers whose images are so ordinary and uninteresting that it wouldn't matter if they had used the bottoms of old Coke bottles inside a toilet roll. These days, if a lens is bad, its famous for being bad. This is especially true because of wonderful websites such as DPreview, and the internet in general. A lens manufacturer could not survive in this kind of environment if a lens was produced at a certain price and did not perform as expected.

A few short years ago I was in Patagonia running a photo tour on behalf of Darran Leal, a personal friend and well known Australian photographer and photography tutor. Tamron's Australian agent had recently asked me to try out their new Tamron 18-270 f3.5-6.3 zoom with vibration compensation. Having just acquired my Nikon D700, I knew I could not use it on that because the Tamron is designed for a crop sensor and not a 35mm size sensor. So I brought my trusty Fuji S5 and had it permanently fixed to that. I have never been a fan of superzooms, but I was pleasantly surprised with this lens' optical and physical performance. In fact, I was very pleasantly surprised. If I had to travel the world with one lens and one camera, I could see myself seriously contemplating this as the lens I would bring. The three images below show Cerro Torre in morning light, captured using the Tamron 18-270 f3.5-6.3 at its widest (which is approximately the 35mm equivalent of 24mm), then somewhere around 70mm, and then all the way to 270mm (which is the 35mm equivalent of approximately 405mm). I was impressed. I still am, and would happily trust that lens to take me around the world if it was all I could use. 
Cerro Torre, Patagonia. Tamron 18-270mm at 18mm. Exposure 1/800th, f10.

Cerro Torre, Patagonia. Tamron 18-270 at 70mm. Exposure 1/800th at f10
Cerro Torre, Patagonia. Tamron 18-270 at 270mm. Exposure 1/640th at f10.

Model: Sarah Hardy. Tamron 70-200 f2.8 at f2.8
But the fact remains that there is no such thing as a 'one size fits all' lens for photographers. Why would anyone want that anyway? To me, there is nothing more beautiful than a long lens with a wide aperture, such as a 70-200 f 2.8, for example. Even my trusty old Nikkor 85mm f1.8 is a gorgeous thing and I still love it after all these years. We are inseparable. While doing some portraits for a client the other day, I brought out my old manual focus Nikkor 135mm f2.8 because it was the ideal focal length for the situation. It is sharper than many new lenses I have used and much sharper than my newer AF Nikkor 180mm. I am certainly not going to bow to the discussions and debates about lenses that many photographers climb into. If a lens is good, its good. If it does the job well, I will use it, no matter the brand, the age or the technology. Lenses are the tunnels that allow and alter light. That is what they do. The rest is completely irrelevant. 

On the other end of that scale, I love a good wide angle, and have used everything from 14mm on my D700 to create images that I love for their unique perspective. Again, I have been impressed with my Sigma 14mm, very impressed with the Tamron 10-24mm and I love my  AF Nikkor 20mm f2.8 prime. Lenses that do their jobs are like excellent employees. Their names and physical attributes are nowhere near as important to your business as their abilities, their potential and their results. 

Playing cards in Baktapur, Nepal. Sigma 14mm.
Learning to 'see like lenses' is as valuable in the previsualisation process as composition, or any other technique. Generally I try not to officially judge at photography events, clubs and societies. I suppose its because I am not a big believer in the process. If I were, however, I would imagine that my greatest complaint would be that of poor lens choice or lens use. Lens use is a 'make or break' technique in the creation of our images which usually suffers to convenience rather than deliberate choice. Most photographers, I believe, fall foul of the old 'stand there and zoom' method as against choosing the lens that actually makes the image succeed and walking toward or back from the subject. Nothing kills an image more than lens laziness. If you are reading this and you would like me to elaborate, I would be happy to add more blog posts about lens choice and the fine art of 'seeing like lenses'. There are, in my opinion, few components of image creation that matter as much as focal length and f-stop.
My trusty 85mm Nikkor at f1.8, doing its thang...


Tizia May said...

i couldnt agree with you more Shelton. Thanks so much for speaking up about this. I also dont know anything about the "technical" side of lenses but i just know i love them all for different reasons. I have about 6 lenses in my kit and probably use all of them at some stage while photographing my weddings. i also LOVE my trusty 80mm 1.8 lense. its all battered and scratched but works like a charm. it's my baby (next to my D700 and my 70-200 2.8) haha. I am exhausted after each shoot from chaning lenses and running in and out of shots but at least i know i have given my clients the best possible shots...then i'm satisfied xx

Chris Manchester said...

'Seeing like a lens' is something I have been trying to do, so that I can see what will work best for each situation. Most of what I have learnt has come from experimentation, so i would love to read another post with some hints and trick to help me improve this area of my photography.

Ruth said...

I must say I need more help with this. I do have the Tamron 18-270 and like it but like you say, I probably use it too much because I don't know when and where to use what lens. I have a Cannon 50 and a Tamron 17-50 but they pretty much sit in my bag! :( Thanks for the article!

The Life, Times and Images of photographer, Shelton Muller

Images on this blog are copyright Shelton Muller