My Optical Words To Live By

I have used just about every type of lens in my work, from super wides to fisheyes and PCs to mirrors. I have worked with super teles that focused “like buttah” to clunkers that when in AF mode chattered like hyperactive squirrels. While some lens choices are always dictated by the shot at hand, I thought I’d share some advice about lenses based on my experience with both testing lenses for this and other magazines and using lenses on the job. I am sure you have your own hard-won tenets on lens selection, but here are mine:
1) Find your personal point of view and get a fixed focal length lens that matches it. I grew up in photography with one main lens, a 28mm f/2, and either through habit or disposition always felt it matched how I see photographically. I always liked that I could focus fairly close and get a deep depth of field without making things look cartoonish or having to shove my camera right into the subject’s face. It is also a great street lens. That’s mine, what’s yours? Find it and get a “fixed” close to it and you’ll be a happier photographer for it.

2) Keep the zoom ratio reasonable. Yes, I know that optics have improved considerably so the high zoom ratio quality myth is somewhat dispelled, but the reason I like to keep the ratio at 1:3 at the highest is because I see entirely differently when shooting with a wide or tele lens, and that holds true when using a wide or tele-zoom as well. Frankly, having a 1:5 or greater ratio confuses me; I like to plant my focal length flag and stick to it. If you’re a free-ranger that’s great, but I sure am not.

3) Keep the aperture constant. I don’t care if it’s f/2 or f/4, if I am using a zoom in marginal light I don’t want to have to shift ISO when zooming just to compensate for the fact that I lose a stop or more when I do. This really comes to the fore in digicam design where the latest cameras have high ISO and long-range zoom capability but jump to f/5.6 maximum aperture (or narrower!) as soon as you leave wide-angle home base. I call it ironic engineering.

4) Watch out for creeps. Zoom creep means every time I raise the camera to my eye I am looking through the longest focal length setting, not great when I want to shoot spontaneously. Gravity is gravity, but any lens I work with can’t just slide every time I hang the camera on my shoulder.

5) Cut the chatter. It’s bothersome enough that AF might be futilely searching for a target, but to have that futility vocalized is even more irritating. And chattery lenses are a real bummer when shooting video with a high-res D-SLR.

6) And finally a wish: develop an algorithm to deal with Chromatic Aberration (CA). Digital is wondrous but can be cruel to lenses that have more than usual CA. We have built-in fixes for noise, why not for CA?

All this brings us to our focus this issue, if you will, on lenses. We have reviews of some great glass and a very informative article on why you might, or might not, want to stick with pro-quality glass for your work. The lens you mount on your camera determines, at least for the time you use it, just how you relate to the visual world. It’s more than just angle of view—it has a lot to do with your point of view as well.