When I predominantly shot 35mm film, my default lens was a 50 or 55mm.
The world just looked right when viewed through them, plus they’re compact, can usually focus down to around half a metre, and perform very well.
Then when I began experimenting more with digital – first with my Sony NEX mirrorless, then a Sony Alpha DSLR, then a couple of Pentax K DSLRS – I became curious about other focal lengths.
My first 135mm was the lovely Carl Zeiss S (Sonnar) 135/3.5, and there soon followed two or three other 135s, and maybe 10 since then.
I loved how with a 135mm I could get a more shallow depth of field with very dreamy backgrounds that almost became more like paintings than photographs.
In a word, 135mm lenses say “isolation” to me, as in isolating interesting subjects from everything around them.
What it took a while to get used to though was having to stand around 2m away from my subject every time I composed a photograph, having got so embedded in the much closer distances required for 50/55mm.
I’ve since explored a few focal lengths either side and found 150mm and 200m too long for my tastes (and the lenses too cumbersome and difficult to steady!).
Takumars in 105 and 120mm have delighted me and continue to do so, having most of that reach of a 135 but being slightly less extreme and distant from the subject physically.
Plus, being typical Takumars, they are both very compact for 105 and 120mm lenses respectively, so don’t feel clumsy or unbalanced at all.
My latest challenge is at the other end of the scale – wide angles.
Of course using APS-C sensors, the fields of view are different to that seen when using the same lenses on a 35mm film camera.
The two lenses I’m most interested in exploring currently are, inevitably, both Takumars. An old and amazingly tiny Auto-Takumar 35/3.5 and a somewhat newer Super-Takumar 28/3.5.
On film I dabbled with 28mm and struggled to get my head around it. There were just too many elements in the scene I had to consider and try to balance!
On the DSLRs it’s easier because of the crop factor – 28mm giving an equivalent 42mm (28 x 1.5) field of view, which is said to be pretty much exactly the “normal” view.
What I’m finding challenging is not to default to the same style of photography as I make with 50/55/58 and longer lenses, ie mostly close up, isolated subjects.
Er, like the image below.
The 28mm and to a slightly lesser extent 35mm Takumars (which is equivalent 52.5mm field of view on film, bang in the middle of where I’m most experienced in that medium) encourage seeing wider, more complete scenes than 50/55mm and certainly 105mm and beyond.
In many ways, the longer the lens, the easier it is to make beautiful images, especially close up.
The shallow depths of field possible, plus the magnification of the larger focal length compared with our “normal” view, mean it’s not hard to block out anything distracting and isolate that beautiful petal/leaf/dewdrop.
So I’ve been trying to capture complete scenes as opposed to isolated close ups with the 28 and 35mm, with, so far, quite limited success!
On the plus side, I love using these lenses, especially the 28mm which is divinely smooth to use, is plenty sharp even half a stop down at f/4, and gives very pleasing (to me) colours.
I’ll continue to explore in the coming days and weeks and see what I can manage to capture.
Walking around with any camera encourages us to look at the world more closely and discovery beautiful things we might otherwise ignore and pass by. This is a crucial aspect of myself as a photographer, and of 35hunter.
Using the 28mm is giving that ethos a jolt and a fresh impetus – still hunting for beauty, but in a different way, and a more challenging, and possibly ultimately a more rewarding one.
I’ve had enough positive results with the 28mm – and certainly enjoyed the new experience enough – to consider maybe selling one or two 50/55 or 135 lenses to fund something even wider – a 24mm or even 20mm lens – down the line, and refreshing and expanding my outlook all over again.
What focal length have you found most challenging, and most rewarding?
Let us know in the comments below.
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