Which lenses? So many choices!

While it can be argued that the most important aspect of photography is everything that happens up to the point the shutter button is released, in many ways equipment influences the photographer's creativity. While my equipment has changed over the years, at first I thought it was the vision and thought which happened before the shot which had the most impact. To be fair, I still feel that way, but I didn't realize (or more correctly, didn't really internalize) how much equipment enables that creativity.

I've mentioned before that I first got into photography with relatively simple equipment (especially compared to modern cameras). Manual focus, manual exposure, and prime (fixed focal length) lenses. The hobby started really taking off for me when I switched to the Nikomat EL with a 35-105mm f/3.5 lens, a big hunk of glass with what would now be considered so-so performance. Just adding the auto exposure (only aperture priority, but I could also think of the aperture ring as a shutter speed dial, since turning one affected the other) got me thinking more about what was in the frame.

Some think that a zoom makes a photographer lazy, but I think it was the right lens for me at the time. It allowed me to just carry the one, and while I don't have the ability to figure it out, I bet a majority of my shots were at 35mm, 50mm, and 105mm. In other words, I treated it like three prime lenses. I also had a relatively good flash mounted on a grip so I could easily bounce at all angles, not to mention have the flash not directly above the lens.

Moving to the Nikon F3 added a motor drive (for auto film advance) and more coverage (28-85mm and 70-210mm lenses). I loved having both the 28mm and 210mm ends. The motor drive only saved a little bit of time, but I didn't have to swing the camera away to advance the film; it's amazing how much difference that makes.

Around the time Kellen was born, we had switched to an AF Nikon, and while I felt I was pretty good at focusing, the switch to AF made it so all I had to do is confirm what I wanted in focus was indeed in focus, rather than thinking about how accurately I needed to focus for the given aperture. The camera was also much smaller and lighter (the F3's motor drive took 8 AA batteries). However, the big mental shift was we also had a portable Olympus film camera, greatly reducing the places where we'd be without a camera. Yes, that camera was very limiting in what it could do, but it was certainly good enough for its intended purpose, grabbing the moment on film.

In the mid-90's I went back to my F3, and while I still felt it was a great camera, I quickly got to the point where I wanted to have something smaller that I'd be more likely to have with me. I ended up making the switch to digital, and ended up with an Olympus which was essentially a digital equivalent to the one I used before. Again, it was great for what it did, but I thought I'd want something with a better lens. My Sony did have a better lens (again 35-105mm, but this time f/2) and was not that much larger than the Olympus, plus it had full manual control. I thought I was happy again.

The next itch was for something which performed better; I didn't like having to wait so long for the camera to start up. I still wanted something portable, and ended up getting the Canon G7. It gave me even more control, and was quite a bit faster. The lens was longer (35-210mm) and was my first camera with image stabilization, which I thought was great.

Over the past year or so I followed the new Micro Four-Thirds format, thinking that the Panasonic GF1 would be a good step up; it's still small but also has interchangeable lenses. The more I thought about it, the more I realized how much I missed having the flexibility of choosing the appropriate lens for the circumstances. The larger sensor (translating to image quality) and better performance would also be big steps up. However, even though the GF1 with the 20mm lens wouldn't be that much larger than my G7, any other lens would make the camera quite a bit larger. I realized that the G2 would not be that much bigger with a lens mounted, and the better viewfinder, display, and handling would be well worth it.

However, I was very undecided with what lenses I would want. Would the 14-42mm (28-84mm in 35mm terms) be enough? I was mostly interested in what I would want while traveling, so I did a quick count of my pictures from Eastern Europe. Only a relative handful were beyond 100mm, and of those, most were way out beyond 180mm. Because of that, I figured the kit lens would probably be enough, and going from 35mm to 28mm on the wide end would be a bonus.



So I figured I was set for most of the time, but what about the telephoto end? Because of the way the camera mount is set up, I can get adapters for practically any other lens, and the whole world of used glass opened up. I picked up 50mm and 135mm lenses for the Pentax mount, but ended up being disappointed with the 135mm; it's fast (f/2.8) and pretty small, but the aperture is sticky and the bokeh (quality of blurred backgrounds) is pretty ugly. Clicking on the image to the right, you can see how the background shows strong donut-shaped blobs instead of being smoothly blurred. Very distracting.

Baron's green racer

Baron's green racer

The 50mm lens has much better bokeh (example is on the right). The lens works out to be the equivalent of a 100mm f/2, so the speed is nice. I tried it out for an entire indoor exhibit at the zoo and there were only a couple times I felt it was too tight. In fact, for the most part it was just the right focal length. It seems to be a good complement to my kit lens, which is f/5.6 at the long end. It's manual focus and not image stabilized, but it worked great. Not to mention it's quite small and light, even though the adapter adds an inch to the length.

Spider web

Spider web

The two lenses ended up not costing very much, since I bought them along with a camera body which I was able to sell. I still wanted to try to get something better on the long end, so I picked up a 70-150mm f/4 (constant) lens in a Canon FD mount. It's quite a bit larger than the 135mm and is a full stop slower, but it was cheap enough ($20) to be worth trying. The big thing I need to watch for is the focus doesn't stay constant throughout the zoom range, so I need to zoom then focus, even though I'm used to the reverse. As you can see to the right, the bokeh is much better than the 135mm. What's interesting is I don't seem to have a problem holding the lens steady, even zoomed out (which is equivalent to a 300mm lens) at 1/125 second. I'm still working on focusing; I'm pretty good if I have the time to properly focus, but it's more hit and miss for quick shots. I don't have the numbers available to me, but I'm guessing most of the shots are at the extreme ends of the zoom range.

So why did I buy cheap lenses instead of buying lenses with AF and image stabilization? I see the legacy glass as a cheap way to try out various focal lengths to see what I use the most. I made an offhand comment to Kellen that I thought I mostly used the short and long ends of my kit zoom. Since I had the information, I looked it up: 30% of my shots are full wide, 25% are full telephoto, and about 25% hover around "normal" (40-50mm or so). At first I was surprised at the normal length, but it does make sense. What's funny is I was musing to Kellen that I'd be happy with the Panasonic 14mm (28mm equivalent), 20mm (40mm equiv), and 45-200mm (90-400mm) telephoto. Considering my focal length percentages, plus the fact that I've taken almost twice as many photos with my telephoto zoom as with my kit lens (although much of that was practicing with the lens), that guess seems right. If a 12mm were available (equivalent to 24mm), that would work well, too. The one thing that would be missing is a faster telephoto, mostly so I could control depth of field.

Another thing I'd want to explore is a lens for close focus, such as a Nikon 55mm Micro Nikkor for macros. But if I wanted a lens with AF and full auto aperture, I'd need to go with the Panasonic 45mm f/2.8 (very expensive) or the Olympus 50mm f/2 (less expensive, needs an adapter). But getting the legacy glass would let me see how useful it would be without making the investment up front, and at this point the old lenses won't lose much (if any) of their resale value.

I've spent a lot of time talking about the hardware, but how has all of this changed my photography? I feel free to all but ignore the equipment because it simply becomes a tool that works with me, just like with the EL or F3. With the portable cameras, I always felt I needed to work within their limitations, as well as waiting for them to catch up with me. As a bonus, even with the relatively heavy telephoto, I'm still carrying far less than I did with any of my SLR kits. My camera looks pretty tiny compared to Kellen's, but I find it fits my hands well. As a bonus, I can mount the kit lens and use it almost like a point-and-shoot, or hand it to someone else with little explanation of how it works.

I don't find myself changing lenses all that often; on the contrary, I mount the lens I think I'll be using, and then I just keep shooting with that lens until I come across a shot that absolutely needs another lens. Even with the 50mm prime lens, I just step closer or further away to frame, and rarely find it a problem.

While photography had become a method of documentation, it has once again become a hobby. I can probably blame Kellen for that, since doing Project 365 gave me the itch to explore the art of photography once again.