Tips & Techniques » Language of Lenses
The Practical And The Personal
I’ve had a long love affair with wide-angle lenses. Although I’ve collected quite a few lenses over the years, wide-angles are my sentimental favorites. I’ve often traveled with nothing else.
How can you be sentimental about a mere optical device? Usually we choose a lens (or a corresponding zoom setting), for practical reasons – the subject simply demands it. This makes sense, but it’s limited. It’s true that taking a picture of a bird at a distance calls for a long telephoto lens and an architectural interior requires a wide-angle. But, in addition, the angle of view of a lens creates a picture with a distinct personality, a 'look.' This expressive quality is what I mean by The Language of Lenses. For me, the wide-angle view comes closest to what I’m most often trying to express in a photograph.
|Figure 2. Flock of Sheep, Ardnamurchan, Scotland|
As you progress in your personal work, you will find yourself gravitating toward a point of view that is uniquely your own. Great photographers of the past used characteristic angles of view. The best-known photos by Edward Weston and Ansel Adams were made with moderately long lenses. Henri Cartier-Bresson nearly always used a normal lens. Andreas Feininger was a master of long telephoto and Garry Winogrand created a startling wide-angle language.
Why Do They Look Different?
Imagine standing 3 feet away from a window that is 3 feet wide and 2 feet high. Your angle of view will be around 60 degrees wide - similar to that of a normal lens. You can change your angle of view either by changing your distance to the window or by changing the size of the window. Let’s imagine making the window 4 inches wide. Your view is much narrower now, but the scene is unchanged from before - there is simply less of it. This is like a telephoto view. The distance to the window is analogous to focal length, and the width of the window is analogous to the size of your sensor or film.
Now imagine a 12 inch wide print of what can be seen in each window. Observe it from 3 feet away.
The view through the small window is now 3 times wider than is was to the naked eye; it has that magnified, flattened, telephoto 'look.' You can see much more detail than you did before.
The print of the large window shows things at only a third of the naked-eye size so less detail is visible. But now, the things that were off to the sides of the window are now directly in front of you in the print. This can give the remarkable feeling of your vision being expanded. This is the secret to the wide-angle 'look.'
|Figure 4. Rooftops, Vinalhaven, Maine|
Some Technical Lens Nomenclature
Since there are so many sensor sizes available in digital cameras today, camera marketers usually express the angle of view of a lens in terms of '35mm equivalents.' This refers to the angle a lens of a given focal length produces, when used on a 35mm camera. This makes sense to a generation of photographers reared on 35mm cameras, but, if that doesn’t include you, it can be confusing. Just remember that a '50mm equivalent' is considered normal. Numbers less than 50mm goes toward wide-angle and numbers more than 50mm goes toward telephoto. Thus a '17mm equivalent' is ultra-wide and a '400mm equivalent' is long telephoto. Virtually every camera you buy today comes with a mid-range zoom lens built-in, or as part of a kit, and allows you to explore some of the medium wide-angle and short telephoto ranges. Get familiar with your equipment and don’t worry too much about the numbers.
The Telephoto Language
Photos made with long lenses tend to show things that are located 'out there.' The viewer is an observer, not a participant, in the picture.
|Figure 5. Farmhouse, Vinalhaven, Maine|
The Wide-Angle Language
The wide-angle view brings the viewer into the picture. Since the lens includes things that are around you and not just directly ahead, you can even include yourself or your shadow in the scene. In Fig. 1, Roshven, Scotland you feel that you are walking into the landscape – you know exactly where you are. Incidentally, the horizon of this picture is not really horizontal. There is no rule that says that a picture can’t be tilted, but sometimes a telephoto shot that is tilted just looks crooked, while tilt in wide-angle can be read as reflecting the viewer’s own motion in the environment. Look at Winogrand’s effective use of camera tilt. Here are some words from the wide-angle language:
Practice Your Language Skills
As you proceed in your photographic journey, explore your tools to the limit. Take pictures every day. Don’t wait for inspiration - just make pictures. Force yourself to spend a day using nothing but a telephoto lens; another day, nothing but a wide-angle. Pretend each one is the only lens you have. If you fear you might miss a great picture, console yourself by realizing there are an infinite number of pictures you will miss in your lifetime. Examine your work carefully (daily!) and your own language will naturally emerge.