Zoom lenses were made so you could stand in one place, point in any direction, zoom and capture the perfect composition. Right?
Well, maybe. But not for me.
Instead I see a zoom lens as a small, highly portable set of prime lenses. Here’s why, and how I use them.
For the first four years or so of shooting film, I only had one zoom. It happened to come attached to a Pentax ME Super I found cheap, and I gave the lens away almost immediately.
So my history of shooting film (and using the same vintage lenses digitally on my Sony NEX) was almost exclusively with primes.
This honed my technique of getting used to the particular field of view of a particular lens, as there was simply no way to adjust it. I like this consistency – it’s one less setting to adjust, a great help when I was starting out with film especially, with all the other adjustments you can make.
Then one day I read a review of a reputedly excellent Minolta MD Zoom 35-70mm f/3.5 Macro.
The review – and the subsequent photographs I found online – made the lens too good to ignore, despite it being a zoom.
So I bought one.
Essentially, being a bit intimidated by the range of focal lengths (though 35-70mm is modest for a zoom!), I set it to 70mm and started to experiment with the NEX.
Another factor for choosing 70mm was this was the end at which the “macro” focusing was available. I love finding the close up detail and beauty of objects.
The MD Zoom turned out to live up to its reputation, I was very impressed.
More recently I picked up a Tamron with C/Y adapter, in fact very similar in spec to the Minolta. To give it its full name, it’s the Tamron 35-70mm f/3.5 CF Macro BBAR MC.
Whilst not as great as the Minolta, it’s still pretty good, and again I stuck it on 70mm and went off to explore.
Again, not being so keen on any lens wider than 50mm, and wanting to explore the closer “macro” focusing of the lens, in effect I treat it as a 70mm prime with close focus.
Very recently I acquired a Minolta AF 35-70mm f/4 Macro. You might be noticing a pattern here.
Turns out that this lens, on my Sony a350, has blown me away. And again I’ve only used it at the 70mm end.
I found the MD Zoom very impressive, and I think this Minolta is even better. And the images in this post are straight out of the Sony Alpha, converted from RAW to JPEG, and no other post processing. I’m loving those Minolta colours!
Anyway, back to the point of this post.
Taking for example the Minolta AF 35-70mm, I see this mostly as a 70mm prime.
But I could also use it as a 35mm prime. And a 50mm prime. Or a 40mm prime, 60mm prime, or anything between. But let’s keep this simple for my argument and stick to 35, 5o and 70mm. Also because those are the three numbers marked on the barrel and easiest to set.
What I don’t do, on a photowalk, is this –
Stand in one position, look all around me, spot something interesting to photograph then point my camera and zoom in or out until it fills the frame as I wish, then take the photograph.
Before I begin the walk, I already decide what focal length I’ll use, set the lens to that, and then treat it as a prime.
By doing this I can focus on how the world looks at that focal length, with that lens. I have a consistency, a uniformity to work with.
Also there’s the distortion factor.
Put simply, the same subject, filling the frame in the same way, will look quite different when photographed at different focal lengths. This post and collage of images is a great visual demonstration.
For me personally, I don’t want a set of images from one photowalk with one lens where they’re all distorted in different ways.
I’d find this confusing and frustrating.
This is mostly down to my inexperience in using a wide range of focal lengths (my default and most used by far is a 50mm lens) but partly my desire to keep things simple and clean with photography.
If I introduce too many options, too many variables, it takes away the escapist and immersive pleasure of photography.
With digital photography lately I’m trying to simplify further too, and so by using a particular lens like the Minolta AF 35-70 always at 70mm, with the same ISO setting on the camera, and keeping all other creative options neutral, it allows me to just focus on composition, and, er, focus.
Rather than for every shot drowning in a myriad of decisions and options before I even press the shutter button.
So it becomes more like the simple and joyful experience I feel when using film cameras.
Next, I’m looking forward to going out and using this Minolta at 50mm. Given its performance at 70mm, I’m hoping it will be pretty formidable at 50mm too, and might even surpass and supplant some of my current 50mm favourites.
But for now I’ll stick with treating it as my favourite 70mm prime.
How do you use zoom lenses? Do you find most shots are at a similar focal length or do you use the full range of the zoom?
Let us know in the comments below.
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