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Glass act-choosing the right lens

In all my years as a professional photographer the question most asked by beginner photographers,(and sometimes even old soaks like me too), is:

“What lens did you use?” for  a particular photo. Also I get asked “which is the best lens for my camera?”

This question always takes me back to my first camera as a young lad- the family Kodak Brownie box camera with it’s fixed lens. No choices available although I did experiment, (rather unsuccessfully),with sticking a magnifying glass over the lens for close ups. You simply used your legs to get further away from or closer to the subject!
Self portrait of me with Miranda and ‘nifty fifty’ back in the early 1970’s. Photograph by John Robertson.

The question became more relevant when I saved up for my first interchangeable lens single lens reflex camera- a Zenit E made in the former USSR. In truth there wasn’t really a choice then either as like many amateur photographers I couldn’t afford anything other than the ‘standard lens’ which came with the camera. A ‘nifty fifty’, or in the case of the Zenit a 58mm Helios. That lens taught me the importance of knowing your lenses and camera and the ‘fifty’ is still one of my favourite lenses to this day.
You can achieve an awful lot though with this one lens, which is just as well as it was all I had for a year or so before switching to the ‘Miranda’ camera.
The two re-enactors were both photographed on a Sigma F1.4  ‘standard lens’ and my advice is to try and afford the fastest aperture ‘fifty’ that you can as that gives a lovely fall-off effect to the background on close in portraits.

Life in the 17th century-a Sealed Knot re-enactor. Photo by John Robertson for The Guardian.
‘Seventeenth century’ bookbinder. Photo by John Robertson.


These days there is so much more choice for photographers – in fact a bewildering choice for those just starting in photography. The zoom lens is now the norm. For many years I got by with just a 28mm, a 50mm and a 100mm lens plus a 300mm for sports or news jobs.
Computer designed zoom lenses these days match those early primes for quality and allow a lot more flexibility and speed when out making images.
Rather than a ‘nifty fifty’ many camera bodies are supplied with a ‘kit’ zoom lens and often the performance of these can be surprisingly good. There is usually a trade-off on the cheaper ones however. Kit lenses often lack a constant fixed maximum aperture and instead have a variable aperture. So an F3.5 to F4.5 eighteen to thirty-five millimetre lens for instance will lose a stop of light at the longer end of the zoom. A constant maximum aperture lens will probably be better corrected for aberrations and distortion too.

Long lens image of a rally car at speed. Photo by John Robertson.

What lenses you choose is obviously very much about what type of photography you do.

As I’m primarily an editorial photographer it’s equally obvious that I need lenses to cover pretty much every eventuality!
For the photos of rally driver Simon de Banke in his Ford Focus rally car I clearly needed a long lens and in this case it was the Sigma 120-300mm EX DG HSM f2.8 zoom lens. A great choice as it’s sharp, focusses quickly and kept me far enough away from those rocks being thrown up behind the car wheels. I even took some on the Sigma 150-600 S zoom lens. This long zoom lens would also be great for wildlife photographers with it’s long reach.

Racing car shot on the Sigma 150-600 S. Photo by John Robertson.

Your choice of camera will also affect your lens choices. An APS-C crop factor camera like my little Fuji X-Pro for instance will require different focal length lenses to those for a full frame camera.
I have for instance a 12mm lens which I use with mine. It sounds REALLY wide, but with the 1.5x crop factor it effectively becomes an 18mm lens.
Telephoto lenses gain a useful extra reach with this crop factor and a 300mm for instance would become effectively a 450mm lens. Something to bear in mind when choosing lenses. For the purposes of this article I shall refer to full frame lens sizes, so you need to make adjustments if you shoot on an APS-C or other crop factor camera.

The Waitrose garden at Leckford, Hampshire, photographed this week with 12mm lens on the Fuji X-Pro. Photo by John Robertson.


Personally my second choice after a 50mm would always be a wide angle or wide angle zoom. Why is this? Simply because much of my work involves people and the telephoto range above around 100mm tends to make for a detachment from the subject in my opinion. Environmental portraits are what I’m talking about here. Used correctly a wide angle lens can make the viewer feel more involved in the scenes you photograph. So for those I much prefer something around the 35mm mark. For closer in portraits like the two re-enactors above a 75, 85, 90 or even a 100mm lens would be my choice after the ‘fifty’.
A zoom like the 28-70 is ideal to cover this range, particularly if it has a constant aperture.  A caveat to using a wide angle to short telephoto zoom is that it will nearly always be bigger and weigh more than a prime lens of the equivalent focal length. It does save frequent lens changes though and carrying more lenses in your bag. Add up the cost of a 28mm, a 50mm and an 85mm lens and you will see why the zoom costs quite a bit, especially if it is a constant aperture lens.

Here are some thoughts on the lenses he uses by my friend, professional photographer Shariq Siddiqui
“In common with many photographers I really like prime lenses because they have simpler constructions and can be much sharper when compared to zoom lenses at the same focal length. My favourite lens these days is my Sigma f1.4 50mm, which is a bit of a beast to carry as prime lenses go but produces really gorgeous images.

 

It’s of course possible to ‘zoom with your feet’ when using a prime lens but the reality of being a working photographer is that lenses with a bit of zoom are more versatile. Two of my workhorses are my Nikon f/2.8 28-70mm and my Nikon f/2.8 80-200mm. I’m a big fan of older lenses with a more solid construction at the cost of advanced features such as image stabilisation. I don’t think of these zoom lenses as a way to avoid walking back and forth on the job. Instead I think of them as a useful collection of multiple focal lengths, without having to switch lenses constantly.

 

When thinking of focal lengths, in addition to the effect of sensor size and crop factor on the angle of coverage, it’s important to understand what different focal lengths are like optically. I’m primarily a people and portrait photographer, and therefore I’m very conscious of the effect that different focal lengths have on facial features. E.g. a shorter focal length can distort features, especially around the edges of the frame, while longer focal lengths can flatten features which also isn’t necessarily always desirable. The best way to get comfortable with this is to simply shoot the same subject at various focal lengths and observe the impact on proportions and scale of the subject as compared to how the naked eye perceives it.

Using focal lengths to creative effect is a very useful tool in the photographers’ arsenal.

 

For example, I shot the following image using a 23mm prime lens on a crop sensor camera. You could think of this as (almost) equivalent to 35mm on a full-frame camera, but that’s not how I think about it. This allowed me to capture an environmental portrait in a busy food market in Mumbai where the narrow passages meant I had to be very close to the subject while I still wanted to include the surroundings. I placed produce exporter Mr Iqbal Hussain more or less in the middle of the frame where the distortion caused by a wide angle lens would be minimal. I didn’t mind the bit of distortion towards the edges as I didn’t think garlic buds would complain. It would have been more pronounced on a full-frame camera especially as I’d have to be closer to the subject to achieve the same composition.”

An environmental portrait in Mumbai. Photo by Shariq Siddiqui.

Many photographers will jump straight to a telephoto zoom from the wide angle kit lens supplied with their DSLR. There are big advantages to these for sports photography. Bear in mind though that aperture matters with all lenses.

A faster maximum aperture is very useful on any photographic optics and unfortunately that not only increases the size and weight of a lens, but also the cost!

For most sports photography and also news photography a fast shutter speed will be necessary- which means a lens with a fast maximum aperture of f4 or less. For myself my 70-200mm F2.8 lens is a real workhorse lens. A telephoto lens will compress distance and make everything look closer.
This can be both a blessing and a curse- leading to the ‘detached’ feeling in your images as I mentioned earlier or moving objects ‘closer’ together like in my Cornish landscape photo taken on a 400mm lens and the vintage car image made on a 300mm lens.

Sunrise at Castledore, Cornwall. Photo by John Robertson.
A country doctor on his rounds in his vintage car. Photo by John Robertson for The Guardian.

Specialist lenses will be the choice for some photographers. If you shoot mostly architectural subjects then a tilt-shift lens will be on your list of must have lenses. Of course you can use lens correction software to correct verticals, etc to some degree. But a tilt-shift lens will allow you to take your architectural images to the next level.
A fish eye lens can work well in very tight spaces or to add impact to some subjects. Be wary of over-using this lens though. My advice is to use it carefully or it can make your photos look gimmicky.
Macro lenses are ideal for really close in work. They tend to be expensive though and sometimes you can achieve similar results with extension tubes or other accessories. A good macro lens will always give better results however.

Close up of a spider-taken with extension tube on a 105mm lens . Photograph by John Robertson.

There are lenses made for pretty much every purpose. Some of them are even made to order they are so rare or expensive to produce. The choice really is amazing now and even the old lenses I remember from my film days like the Zenit’s Helios are finding a new lease of life lately for their ‘filmic’ looks on video. There is no such thing as a ‘best lens’. Think carefully about your requirements, read lens reviews and find the best tools  to help you in your photography. Remember that the glass attached to your camera will affect the results and is a very important consideration.

John RobertsonOther articles by author

John Robertson is a Manfrotto Ambassador and freelance photographer with the UK National and International press. He also works for commercial clients and produces both editorial and commercial videos.

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