Foto Tips – A Perspective on Lenses

Mark Alberhasky brings us great advice for the photographer on the go.
While every season provides its own unique opportunities for great images, fall colors certainly rate high on most photographers “must capture” lists.
Don’t forget that you’ve got to have your camera available to make the shot when you turn that corner and are unexpectedly confronted with nature’s palette in full glory!

And speaking of being ready for unexpected opportunities, this installment of Foto Tip is just about that.

Regular readers of my essays know that I usually write from a “think out of the box” perspective, trying to motivate and inspire. But today I’m going to keep it simple and share an experience and make a distinct equipment recommendation, something a little different. I’m going to recommend a lens, or at least a class of lens.  One that is very much overlooked in the current climate of large, expensive, high tech, image stabilization zoom lenses. Now, before I reveal my choice, let me say that I’m the first to pack one or more of these great contemporary zooms in my bag when I prepare for a shoot. Like American Express, “I don’t leave home without them” (even though I use MasterCard).

But, I’ve got to tell you honestly, that despite my passion for shooting, and desire to capture images on a high quality SLR as often as possible, it is tough to make myself throw a DSLR body and one of these zooms over my shoulder after a long day.  Sometimes, even late in the afternoon it is a struggle to make myself lug this body / lens
combination around.  So let me suggest something in a totally different direction.

The 50mm lens.

Nikon 50mm f1.4 lens

You know, the classic “normal” lens that may have come with your camera.  The focal length that most of us put on the shelf years ago, since it had such a limited range of uses. Well guess what?  That 50mm became a 75mm when you switched to a digital body (unless you are a Canon full frame owner), and a fast 75mm at that.

Earlier this year, I was intrigued by some images taken in low level ambient light, the stuff that sensitive photojournalistic shots are often about.  These shots are often made in situations where you’d like to be a little inconspicuous (try to be inconspicuous with a
70-200 lens on your camera), and where the weak light pushes even f2.8 lenses (which a lot of people don’t own because they are so expensive) toward their limit.  AND, this is also the time where if you are tired, in the evening or late at night, you left the DSLR and f2.8 image stabilized zoom in the hotel.  No camera, no picture, no Pulitzer!

But your DSLR with a 50mm on it will feel like something you haven’t felt in years … light weight!  I decided to invest in a 50mm f1.4 lens earlier this year, the fastest Nikon makes, and it cost me all of $270!  When was the last time you bought a manufacturer’s fastest prime quality lens for under $300.  And my experience with it has made it an “always pack this lens” choice.  Not only is it really sharp (a single focal length lens is easier to design, and easier to make sharp), but the f1.4 aperture makes shooting in low level light a distinct possibility.  An added bonus is the narrow depth of field from the f1.4 aperture, great for isolating subjects and making pleasing portraits.  And remember, that 50mm f1.4 is really a 75mm f1.4.  Now we are talking a tiny, tack sharp, short focal length telephoto, that is an f1.4 … for under $300.  And because it is so small and light (just under 8 oz), you will still enjoy taking your DSLR along, even when a bit fatigued.

If I haven’t convinced you yet, here are a couple of case studies.

Lhasa, Tibet.
The end of nearly three weeks traveling at 13,000 feet elevation or more, lugging all sorts of expensive zoom lenses with image stabilization.  Get the picture?  This particular morning I was simply tired, too tired to face heavy equipment, much less a bag over my shoulder.  So I put on the 50mm f1.4, stuck an extra memory card in my pocket and went out.  One of the fringe benefits of knowing you only have one focal length at your disposal is that it forces you to “see” differently (and this is a good thing, making you to look from a fresh perspective).  No more zoom in, zoom out; you’ve got to look for the right subject and the right composition.  We were in front of a major Buddhist temple, and I was struck by a woman seated on the ground before me.  She was performing a “grain offering” to Buddha, using a copper dish and barley grains mixed with colorful beads.  Her weathered hands told of a hard life, but one rich with character.  It was overcast and she was in the shade of the temple.  The 50mm f1.4 (acting like a 75mm f1.4) was perfect.  It gave me an intimate perspective, without crowding her space, and it was just right for the low light.  The resulting image has moved almost everyone who sees it. It made a fabulous print that was chosen as a gift for photo industry executives at Photokina, the large industry show in Cologne, Germany which I recently attended.  It happened because as tired as I was, by choosing the 50mm, I was still ready to make images.

Mark Alberhasky FotoTips

Amsterdam, The Netherlands.
We were headed out to a late night dinner.  I actually picked up my camera with an otherwise great “small” zoom attached, and thought, “The odds I am going to get a shot in this drizzly weather are slim, I just can’t carry this tonight.  But maybe I’ll take the 50mm just in case.”  On the way to dinner the blue sky of twilight was reflected in the canals, and on the way back from dinner the colors had completely changed, the canals now bathed in the amber glow of streetlights. Both were worth a try, and both were rewarding.

Mark Alberhasky FotoTips

Mark Alberhasky FotoTips

So, If you’re feeling burdened by your equipment, or are balking at the cost of today’s high quality lenses, give this alternative some consideration.

Make friends with a fast 50mm.

You may be very glad you did.


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