Lens Options: Convenience, Necessity, And Inspiration

Whenever I need a visual shot in the arm I take my camera to somewhere I've never been, or switch lenses, or both. As this issue is weighted toward the exploration of optics, I'll focus here on the changing lenses part of the equation.

All of us have a favorite lens, the one that best expresses our vision, and that delivers the crisp images we require. Sometimes that lens is chosen for convenience, such as a zoom when we wander about on a hike or when exploring a new city. The ability to work with a number of focal lengths within one lens allows for compositional options not available with a fixed focal length lens. Zoom lenses today are lighter and better corrected than any time in the past, with wide ranges delivering better images than ever before. Many photographers will take an extended trip with only one lens--their favorite zoom--a practice unheard of in the past, when lugging a big bag of lenses was a sign of honor, and need.

Other times it's a matter of necessity, such as using a fast, wide maximum aperture lens when working in low light. By playing with ISO, either by swapping film or changing the settings on a digital camera, a fast lens allows us to make handheld shots in low light without flash. For those who have shot only zooms with maximum apertures of f/3.5 or narrower, working with an f/1.8 lens can be a revelation. Naturally, a zoom with an f/1.8 maximum aperture would be one heavy glass, so here it's often a matter of using a fixed focal length lens, a fair tradeoff for all that light-gathering ability.

Sometimes the range of the zoom or the fixed focal length chosen is determined by the subject matter at hand. Sports or nature photographers certainly will not benefit from a wide angle view--telephoto is how they get their shots. For street photographers or those doing events where they can get up close and personal a wise choice is wide.

All these are very practical considerations, but there's also a part of photography that should be less pragmatic and more challenging and inspirational. That's when swapping out the lens you normally choose for another point of view comes into play. In a recent workshop venue when students had a chance to loan out any lens in the workshop's equipment room, one student chose a rectilinear fisheye, which she had never shot with, or indeed ever looked through in her viewfinder before. At first she seemed uncomfortable with it, but soon was lost in a world she had never seen, and began using it to make images she previously could not have imagined. Another chose a very long telephoto, and at first felt cramped by its tunnel vision, but soon got into stacking and isolating subjects in a way that he never attempted before.

The point is that lens choice can be more than a practical one, and that challenging yourself to see in a different way can both lead to new types of images for you and open your eyes to a whole new way of seeing. One of the main reasons we respond to SLR photography is that we can occasionally refresh our vision by swapping out lenses, and break the conventions we had established with one lens, or a fixed, integral lens on a point-and-shoot camera. Especially when we get into the super wides and teles we can also see in ways that our unaided eyes cannot, which is one of the true joys of making images.

The answer to the old question: "What one lens would you choose if you had to choose one when stranded on the proverbial desert isle?" says a lot about the way you see and what type of images you like to shoot. It also might tell you what direction to go when choosing your next lens--which might be exactly the opposite from your answer.

(By the way, mine would be a 24mm f/2. What's yours?)