Like you are there

Lately I’ve read a lot of articles and videos talking about lenses in the context of “interesting” and “boring”. I noticed that all of the lenses in the “interesting/beautiful” category were either very wide/very long or very wide aperture, i.e. F/1.4 or wider. Ok, I get it. Lenses like that create a perspective that is different than what we see with our eyes and as a result produce a perspective that unto itself gets notice either through the separation of the subject from the environment or the huge inclusion thereof. However to me many people use lenses like those more as an effect than as a way to better tell the story.

I’m sure that you know what I’m talking about. The huge sweeping vista shot with a 17mm super wide to show the expanse of something but unfortunately doesn’t have a composition that leads your eye through the frame to anything other than the thought of “wow, that’s a big space with a lot of stuff in it”. On the other end is the super shallow depth of field image usually shot close up with an F/1.4 or so lens. Now I dig this sort of thing when it’s done well but I usually just think “Yeah, she has lovely eye lashes but she’d be prettier if her ears weren’t just fuzzy blobs.” Yes using a shallow depth of field can make your eye go straight to that one thing in focus and hold you there but making it an interesting composition is tricky. It can often just be a lazy way of not making a completely boring shot not that boring but little else. Sigh!

Another thing that I noticed about these articles/videos is their almost universal disdain for middle range zoom lenses. The F/2.8 24-70mm was treated like something that you would scrape off your shoe. Boring. Uninteresting. Mundane. Lacks magic. I would never use this lens. Blah, blah. But I got insulted. “Hey, that’s my jam that you are dissing! What the heck?” Well, not really but it does make for added drama in the post, right?

I think that I do about 90% of my work with my F/2.8 24-70mm zoom. Why? Well a number of reasons. First off, that range of focal lengths doesn’t have an obvious “look”. It’s not that wide and it’s not very long. I think of it as, “This is how the world looks standing here with both eyes open or … with just one eye open”. There isn’t a dramatic perspective but rather a realistic one. That’s what I go for. I want the viewer of my images to feel like they are standing there with out effects.

If the first thing that I notice about an image is how it’s shot: the lens, the processing, and not the moment and content then frankly I’m not gonna easily be impressed. If the first thing I notice is the great composition, the lighting, the moment … you know, the content of the art, and then afterwards realize how it was shot then I wanna buy that photog a beer. Great job dude/dude-ette!

The other main reason that I use a 24-70 a whole lot is that I photograph people in non-studio/controlled environments. I have to be at a conversational distance of 3-5 feet and anything wider or longer than that range just isn’t necessary. Don’t get me wrong. I do sometimes grab my trusty 17-35mm or my 70-200 and that does the trick. I always have my 50mm F/1.4 in my bag and that is pretty cool at times. But they are usually reserved for “problem solving” roles.

So the photo to go with this bit of babbling was shot a long time ago at the Colorado State Republican election “victory party” when the results where’s exactly going their way. It was made with my favorite lens, my old Nikon AF-D 28mm F/1.4 shot wide open. I just love the way that it looks by having a wide look at things but not having the normal “everything is in focus” feel that wide lenses bring. (Wait, you just went on and on about …)

Peter Turnley’s head, hands and feet

First off – a confession. I'm a gear head. I absolutely love
equipment but I don't have a fetish for it. I'm not a collector or one of those
people who names their tools like they are pets. Nah, but I do believe that the choices which an
artist makes in regards to their tools says something about who they are and
certainly how they work. Sometimes this even says something about how they think. Given that I almost
became a psychotherapist I do have a penchant for wondering how a person thinks. So as much as I love deconstructing an image I like to
try and deconstruct what the photographer was doing/thinking/feeling before the
exposure was made. It’s a little game of mine. One of the things that I do
often is use an EXIF reader pluging for Firefox which is my web browser of
choice.

 

EXIF is a bunch of data that is nearly universally encoded
into the files made by digital camera. It tells you what camera model, and even
the serial number, all the various settings, lens type, zoom setting and sometimes
even the focusing distance. The data can be striped out but it’s often there
when you post an image to the web. So if you are a nosy guy like me you can
take a deeper look into what is going on in the image.

 

I regularly read The Online Photographer and they have been
posting a bunch of stuff by Peter Turnley. If you don’t know about Peter and
his identical brother David Turnley they are a couple of the best
news/documentary photographers of the last 20 years. They have worked for more
big names and won more awards that I can keep track of. But I digress. TOP has
a big three part post of images that Peter took in Seville
during a holy week festival that he was teaching a workshop around. Excellent
stuff as can be expected from a guy like him. Take a gander: Peter Turnley's Faces of Semana Santa

 

So I was doing my thing looking at the images and got to
reading the EXIF data as I went. By half way through the first installment I
developed the following insight into his working method for that shoot: One camera, one lens,
one exposure setting and a lot of walking around. Specifically he was using a
Nikon D3 with a Nikon AF-S 24-70mm set to shutter priority and cloudy white
balance. Alright time to get geeky so I’m putting on my tweed jacket for this.

 

Frankly as I was going along I was waiting to see him post an image that used a
long lens to isolate the subject but no. In fact of all the images in the three
posts I don’t believe that he ever got longer than 32mm. So what he was doing
was essentially carrying a 24- 32mm zoom lens. This I’m sure freaks some out
but to me it makes sense. He will be wading through the crowd and processions
so a truly long lens will be nearly useless. Also anything wider than 24mm is
going to bring a lot of edge and foreground distortion. 28mm works wonders and
the zoom gives him a bit of flexibility. Given that one body makes things
easier to carry. I found it neat that he didn’t change his white balance. It
stayed on Cloudy the whole time. If the light got cool or warm so did the photo.

 

What I found most interesting was the use of shutter priority
exposure. This is coming from a guy who has done fully manual exposure since
the Regan administration. He kept his shutter speed to be 1/250th in
nearly every bright light shot. This seems to be a smart move by a seasoned
pro. Our light meters are surprisingly good these days and if he’s shooting
people watching and reacting to an emotional situation a 1/250th will
do a good job of keeping their movements sharp while letting the photographer
not worry about camera blur as he quickly moves about. He set his ISO to a place that let the camera select apertures between the lens maximum of f/2.8 to
around f/5.6. He was using the ISO as the key exposure setting to keep the lens pretty much open for good
subject to background separation. This is a nice trick that I think I will play
with in the future.

 

But the best lesson here is how he obviously moves about.
Considering he was using essentially a fixed, call it 26mm, lens he is tight,
wide and everywhere in between. He moves and moves and moves. His feet are his
most used photographic tool. In this era of “auto everything” and even more of “fix
it in post” this proves that getting to where the photo is and putting yourself
where things line up and the moment happens can’t be automated or processed.
Bravo maestro!