Site search Web search

Vivid Light Photography, digital and film photography online
The Use and Selection of Lenses
by Gary W. Stanley

With today's computer technology, 35mm lens designs have made a tremendous leap forward. The old notion that fixed focal length lenses are much sharper than zoom lenses, while true a few years ago, is not nearly as accurate a statement today. That gap has now narrowed to such a point that it would probably take an optical "bench test" to tell the difference. As I tell people who attend my seminars, "I don't photograph benches."

What's the point Gary? Well, as I've told many of you: "If you do what you do best, most lenses will do what they do very well." I happen to be sold on zoom lenses for example. Many people come up to me at my seminars and ask that same question over and over again. "Are they sharp? Is the quality good? Are you comfortable with the lenses you use?" My first reaction is, how did the images in my program look? "Great Gary, they're very sharp and really looked vibrant." Okay, if they are sharp when you look through a loupe, and they look sharp when you project them, what else are you looking for?

I have found any slight disadvantages of zoom lenses like greater minimum focusing distances and slower speed variable apertures to be well worth the sacrifice, and many of the Pro zooms from Tokina, Tamron and Sigma are f/2.8 throughout the zoom range and still priced reasonable. When I'm precariously balanced on a rock in a mountain stream, or at the edge of a cliff overlooking a great canyon (Zion canyon above), not having to change lenses to change focal length, or not having to move forward or backward physically to improve my composition is a real plus (puffins below).

Convenience is the real key here. Years ago, the 50mm lens was the standard lens to come on most camera bodies. Then you purchased a 28mm wide angle, and a 105mm or perhaps a 135mm lens for portrait or close-up work. Later on, you might add a 300 or 400mm telephoto to your collection for some wildlife work. Today a 28-80 or 28-90mm zoom is standard in most camera kits with many people buying the body only and upgrading to a 28-105mm lens as their standard starter lens. Some of these lenses can be purchased for around $175, have five or six year warranties, are optically sharp and well made too. Not bad!

Most of the major lens makers have been very successful with the 28-200mm range and a few with 28-300mm. They have been award-winning lenses with good optics. Recently several manufacturers have introduced zooms in the 17-35mm range, the 24-120, 135 and 200mm range, and in telephoto zoom lenses, the 80-400's. For me as a professional, I thought that was probably stretching things a little. That was of course until I tried them. "Never say never Gary." My favorite two-lens combination from Tokina, for example, is the 24-200mm and their 80-400mm. With Nikon, it's the 24-120 f/3.5-5.6 and their 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6 VR (vibration reduction) lens. With either of these two lens combinations, a carbon fiber tripod, this old photographer is a happy camper. Probably one of the greatest advantages to many folks has been as travel lenses. When you don't have a lot of room, these lenses can be lifesavers. When you are hiking and trying to save weight this a great way to go. When I was hiking in Zion National Park in Utah recently, I carried the 24-200mm Tokina on my F100 Nikon body, my carbon fiber tripod from Hakuba, and my Tokina 17mm wide angle for the really wide shots and was comfortable leaving my camera bag in the trunk.

Then there is the issue of shallow pockets verses deep pockets. For my kind of work, a 'slow' lens is not a major problem. I've got slow speed film, my camera is on a tripod and I'm using a cable release, as long as the rocks don't move I'm golden. Suppose, however, that you occasionally want to photograph wildlife or your kid's soccer game. Well, you run right out and buy a $10,000 600mm f/4 lens right? Not! "This is a hobby and I'm on a budget you say." How do we even the playing field? You do it with film and perhaps a quality tele-converter like the Kenko Pro 300 series.

Today's films are very good. Fuji's new Provia 400F professional slide film or Fuji Superia 400 amateur print film are good examples. Use these films in place of a 100 ISO speed film and you have effectively increased the speed of your lens by two full stops. Instead of now trying to shoot with a shutter speed of 1/60th of a second, you now have a shutter speed of 1/250th. Yes, people with faster lenses can do the same thing, but that's not the point. You and I are the ones with the budget restraints, not them, and this is a great place to start.

The other solution to the budget problem may be the Canon Image Stabilizer series of lenses. These lenses can help reduce camera shake when hand-held, without the expense of the larger, faster lenses. Because Canon was first to make this type of lens available, they have several types to choose from. Their 75-300 IS lens is only around $500, the 100-400 IS lens has a street price of about $1,699. Nikon at this point only has one Vibration Reduction lens the new Nikon 80-400 VR. It sells for about $1,599. Compare that to a 400mm f/2.8 at around $8500. The down side: the Canon lenses only fit Canon, and the Nikkor only Nikon. Bummer! I own a Minolta or a Pentax you say! Time to let the major after-market lens manufacturers know they're missing the boat on this one!

Also keep in mind that when you put one of these lenses on a tripod, Nikon and Canon tells you to turn off the IS or VR system. Well you might as well go with faster film and a less expensive non-stabilized lens like Tokina's new 80-400 with tripod collar for about eight hundred dollars less and available in various mounts. You see, there are many ways to approach this issue, and some ways will save you major dollars.

You now have a better idea with regard to getting the most bang for the buck. As far as understanding what lens is right for you, base that decision on your individual needs. Faster lenses or faster film is probably the way to go for action sports or wildlife shooting. Slower lenses and film will be fine for landscape and nature shooting.

With regards to what lenses do, remember that wide-angle lenses expand the apparent distance between things, and telephoto lenses will compress the apparent distance between things. Wide-angle lenses are most often used to help create that 4x5 look, for two reasons. One, as I just said, they expand the apparent distance between objects and two, they allow you to get close to your foreground subject, yet have enough depth-of-field to keep everything sharp from front to back. Look for a foreground subject to compliment the scene or your main subject; flowers, rocks, trees, people, etc. Use it as an anchor to your photograph or to balance the overall shot, leading your eye comfortably through the composition.

Telephoto lenses on the other hand, compress the apparent distance between objects to create those stacked mountain views that you see so often . 

Frequently, I will shoot more than one composition from a particular vantage point using my 24-200mm to give me both a wide angle and a compressed telephoto look.

Another great use for the telephoto lens is that it allows you to compose on very specific parts of a scene, to view just that small portion of your composition. I try to challenge myself to photograph something other than just the grand landscape when I'm in great locations like Zion.

There are, of course, specialized lenses like macro and tilt-shift lenses. Most people understand what they are designed to do, so I won't get into the details of each. 

For those of you either on a budget or those who need to travel with minimal equipment, I have another suggestion. I will frequently use a zoom lens in the 70-200 range or 70-300mm as my close-up lens. I will ad a Nikon close-up lens to the front of this lens to increase its close-focusing capability and use the zooming feature of the 70-300mm to control image size. Nikon makes two different filter-thread sizes, and in two different strengths. The 3T and 4T close-ups are 52mm thread size, and the 5T and 6T are 62mm in thread size. The 3T and 5T are the weaker magnification, and the 4T and 6T are stronger. These are two element screw on filters, and are of much higher quality than those cheaper close-up sets in the +1,+2, and +4 strengths.

They are designed for zoom lenses in this range and although I wouldn't suggest it, they can be stacked. The results are very good as long as the primary lens is sharp. These filters cost about $55 for the 3T and 4T, and $65 for the 5T and 6T. This is only about $500 less than a good 105mm macro. The great thing about using these close-up lenses with say the 70-300mm, is the increased working distance from your subject, an advantage over the 105mm macro when trying to photograph moving objects like bugs or butterflies.

It still goes without saying that no matter what lens, film or camera combination you choose, if good technique isn't there, you won't get the quality results you'd hoped for no matter how much you spend. Take the time to look at your options and see if your needs justify the expense and then go from there. Oh! By the way, if you are not under any specific budget restraints, ignore everything I said and buy that 600mm f/4. Of course I'm jealous!

Subscribe to Vivid Light 
Photography by email 

































































Vivid Light Photography, monthly photography magazine online

Site search Web search

Vivid Light Photography, digital and film photography online