Having been making photos continuously for the better part of a decade or more, if you had to ask me what one single photographic skill that I ‘ve learnt that is most important in making a photo? I would say ” to think inside the frame.” What I mean has two parts: the first is the easy part and that is to be able to envisage the photo in your mind’s eye before you press the trigger. To be able to put up an imaginary frame in the vista in front of you and pick the correct lens for the job, or more often is the case that I already have armed myself with a fixed focal lens, say a 35mm lens and I literally scan the scene for possible 35mm images. Most of the time I also have a second camera on me with a telephoto so I have even more options available readily. I am not a big fan of zoom lenses, but a zoom lens would certainly further increase your composition options, but will decrease your creative play with depth of field.
I said that this is the easy first part, because strangely enough to learn this skill didn’t require me to learn actively, it was a fairly rapid passive process. It started with my first first fixed 35mm fixed focal lens (it could’ve easily being a 50mm lens), it was a rather weak and inexpensive Kodak point and shoot, I loved the camera so much that I stucked with it for many months. And during this time my mind became accustomed to seeing in 35mm field of view and was able to accurately predict the results. I would recommend anyone that asks, to try it themselves, I think it is the first step to good composition and training for the mind.
That was the first step, the second step is much harder and require lots of reading, practicing, research and examining other people’s photos. In other words it requires thinking! This is the thinking part of “think inside the frame.” Once you have acquire the innate ability to form the frame in your mind, it then becomes important for your mind to assess if that is a good photo opportunity or not. To know you must know the basics of composition, how to break these rules, which lens, filter, flash or some other tool is required for the job, what are the effects you can use in post-processing to enchance the scene, have you seen examples of such or such photo in the past, will a shift in camera position improve the scene and what are the contrasts in the scene, is the scene beyond your camera’s dynamic and tonal range, what depth of field & shutter speed do you need? All these factors must go through your mind continuously as you search the scene inside the frame in your mind’s eye.
There is no quick way to acquire this second skill quickly but it is made a little easier after learning the first skill (at least you have minimized a variable). How I learnt was from reading from different sources a lot, learning the workflow for processing photos and critically examine other people’s photos objectively and not just to say this is nice, learn to read the photos you see and be able to understand why a photo looks good or bad. It will only come with lots of hard work.
This process of learning reminds me of reading x-rays. I am a veterinarian during my non-photography and non-sleeping moments and in the beginning of my veterinary career, with much less experience under my belt as I do now, when I took x-rays, I often zoom into the problem at hand, will it be a fracture or a cancer, and this can lead to missing the bigger picture. After over a decade of practice, when I pick up a x-ray, I see the bigger picture, is the film exposed well, if not what will be limitations on contrast of the radiograph, was there any problems with the processing fluids, is the animal straight, did the settings for the exposure adequate, is there other factors that will effect the contrast of the x-ray, was the required part of the animal in the frame, aside from the obvious main problem at hand is there anything else wrong, I’ll make a mental note of even normal anatomy. Do you see the parallels with photography?
I mean to talk about the dimension differences when it comes to compositional framing and printing, on a most basic level film comes in either square or rectangular formats, rectangular formats are divided into many different proportions. On another basic level is the physical size of the film and in the modern era, the size of the sensor. Everyone has a preference and I am no different, my favorite is the square format, in the past there have been smaller square formats like those taken with the Robot cameras but nowadays, square format is ubiquitously considered to be the 6×6 format, this is a medium format size and with good lenses and fine grain film will result in a very high quality and enlargeable print. This is my film format of choice because I think it has the most flexible framing and cropping opportunities. When framing your photos with 6×6 you don’t have to stick to the tried and true compositional rules of thirds, you can still apply this rule but you’ll find that many of your photos can be centered. In rectangular formats having the subject dead center is often a taboo because it leads to a static photo, that tends to be uncomfortable for viewing with the elements in the wider edge wasted. But if you apply this to a square format, its different, even though it still lends itself to be more static having the subject in the center, there is now a symmetry with the natural square frame the keeps the photo comfortable for viewing. This means that you have more compositional flexibility overall. With square format you can crop the edges for portrait or landscape arrangements as necessary and still retain a large enough negative for printing, with minimal loss in quality. It is also logical that with square format a single photo can take advantage of the whole image circle projected by the lens and this just seems right to me. The only bad thing I can think of, is the lack of square format option for digital cameras, there are some lower resolution medium format digital backs that are square but these are expensive and nowadays a little out dated.
Having started with my favorite format, I will move on to your other options, but first I’ll like to talk about size of the film and in the case of a digital sensor, both the size and pixel density. The size of the film you should use is mostly dependent of your end output of the image you capture, the larger the print the larger the film the better. There are other factors like larger film/sensors allow for more cropping options, but it is obviously best to do the framing properly in the first place so you don’t have to crop. Other factors include, the size, cost, weight of the cameras that produce the respective size images, larger formats will be less flexible and slow to use and quiet bulky and usually very slow to setup, so even if you want the best quality photo possible you may still be limited by these other factors depend on your subject matter. For ultimate quality there is still nothing better than large format with film sizes 4×5 and up, these large setups will result in the best quality photos you can make, medium format is a compromise but will result in better portability and then there is the 135 format where its relatively cheap and in this age of better and better sensors you can get medium format like quality from a relatively light professional DSLR. 135 format is also the most flexible to use and carry around but the quality of 135 equipment is wide ranging from plastic lenses to professional lenses, it can be a minefield of poor quality lenses and cameras out there. Size isn’t always better with 135 format there are compact point and shoots that make amazing photos especially on film. Going back to my initial point, there is no point carry a large format camera or a professional 22MP DSLR if you never print the photos out large, for most people in this age of social apps, the most common output is online on the computer monitor and in this situation you don’t need anything better than 6 megapixels, with most cameras nowadays at 10 megapixels, even the rich amateurs amongst us should think twice about upgrading.
The most common format is 35mm and we are all used to using it, but do note that with cameras with cropped sensors there is flexibility within this format and cameras like the micro four third system are more square compared to regular full frame 35mm with a 4×3 proportion (so using these cameras will result in slightly different compositions that can be refreshing). But we should be talking about proportions as I have already talked about size, so lets convert 135mm film to its more simple proportions and that is 24x36mm or 6×9, this is a relatively wide format and is particularly flexible and hence it has become the standard format. This is also the reason why 35mm (slightly wide standard lenses) lends itself to this format. 6×9 allows for landscapes to portraits and hence arise these common labels for shoot 135 film vertically and horizontally. For most people, it is the only format choice. In medium format half frame, 645 and 6×9 are very similar in style. 6×9 & 6×8 formats are also very close to the dimensions to the printed page with its obvious advantages of no wastage in published texts.
Then there is the panoramic formats like 6×10, 5×10, 6×12 or Hasselblad/Fujifilm X-pan format or even the dopey APS panorama format, these are specialized formats and very inflexible. they lend themselves to horizontal landscapes, but this is only true because our visions are naturally horizontally wide. These can be used vertically for surprising shots that need the viewer to explore by moving his or her head up and down. Some say that if these formats are overused these formats can be a little boring, highlight the strength of the 6×9 format. I suspect that it isn’t the fault of these formats but the fault of the photographer not using these longer formats creatively. Most photographers shoot very stereo typical panorama shots of the horizon, no wonder this format appears more boring than it really is. But there is always a little magic and surprising to see panoramas and it is an important trump card in an photographer’s arsenal, used creatively it reflects our natural vision the most. 135 digital photos can easily be adapted to take panoramas as well making this format even more flexible if not more clumsy to using compared with a panoramic camera. In a pinch Tilt-shift 35mm lenses can be made to take short panoramas as well.
There are even more extreme formats with some Lomo cameras, their lenses’s quality leave a lot to be desired but some of the format options are intriguing. So next time you consider upgrading your camera, think about getting a camera in another format, it will broaden your photography horizons!
When you already have a selection of fast and slow lenses or just considering either buying a more expensive fast or a relatively more economical slower lens of a given focal length, what factors do you have to consider? Its more complicated than you think, but I will walk you through all the factors involved in your decision, both as to which lens to buy and which lens to take out and use.
First and foremost is the cost factor, fast lenses are invariably more expensive than their slower lens counterparts. For example a Canon EF 24/2.8 is more than 4x cheaper than the corresponding Canon EF 24/1.4 L lens. So if you can’t afford it, well no amount of reading is going to help you, you had better buy more lottery tickets or go and work harder. I do have some practical advice though, for wide-angle lenses wider than 24mm it is generally not worth the expense of the faster lens, for one thing you are not going to benefit much from the better out of focus bokeh of a larger aperture, let it put it to you even more succinctly, “what are you going to do? put the camera 12 inches in front of someone’s face so you can get better bokeh?” The depth of field of wide-angle lenses are much deeper and I find myself stopping down my Canon EF 24/1.4 II lens to get as much depth of field as possible, as well as sharpness. Lenses are usually sharper stopped down 2-3 stops and if you want as much resolution as possible you’ll have to step hard on the brakes of your fast lens anyway. As usual, the slower lens will generally have better performance at smaller apertures, faster lenses have bigger and more complicated lens elements and lens element arrangement and it is more difficult to control things like distortion, vignetting, chromatic aberration and uniform sharpness across the field; a prime example is the infamous Zeiss ZM 21/4.5 lens for Leica M-mount, stopped down to f/8 or f/11 and it is probably the best performing 21mm lens for 135 format cameras ever made, it is compact, light and cost 10x less than the Leica 21/1.4 asph lens. This Leica lens’ performance improves all the way to f/8 or f/11 but at these smaller apertures the Zeiss 21/4.5 will still out perform it. Sure the Leica is three and a half stop faster, but how often are you going to handhold a wide-angle photo in low light situations or put the lens up a foot in front of someone’s face to take advantage of a better bokeh? Certainly not with a wide-angle lens, unless you want an unflattering clown size nose on your subject! So unless you really need a fast wide-angle lens for a specific purpose, I’ll say you can probably save quite a lot of money, by buying slower F/4 or greater wide-angle lenses and using a tripod in low light situations.
The existence of these fast wide angles are a relatively recent invention and it is arguably to accommodate the existence of crop sensor bodies. So take pricey Leica 24/1.4 asph example, on the 1.3x crop body of the Leica M8 it works out to be 31.5mm, so you’ll have a handy 31.5/1.4 lens for the short-lived Leica M8. You’ll be better serve to buy a full frame Leica M9 and the Leica 35/1.4 asph lens. Not only does this lens have better performance, it is more compact as well.
I have already elucidated other factors in picking a fast or slow lens in the above paragraph. Faster lenses tend to be bulkier & heavier than their slower brethren. Slower lenses tend to perform better (or in rare cases the same) as their faster brethren at slower apertures. The faster lens does have a trump card up its sleeves and that is you can throw subjects in the foreground or background further out of focus with the result of a more abstract and creamy blur. This ability to isolate your subject is crucial in many sorts of photos and increases your creative options.
So to answer the question which lens, the fast or the slow one, that I take out to use today: it depends on what sort of photos I intend to take. For examples: If it’s a bright sunny day out side I may select my slower but lighter to carry and better performing lens. If its dark and I am using film and limited with my ISO, I would bring my trusty fast lens and live with the burden. Here is a more complicated example: If it’s a bright sunny day and I absolute must have an abstract bokeh for a certain shot to isolate the subject, I would bring my fast lens and bring a ND filter to decrease the light reaching my sensor/film to maintain a reasonable shutter speed. If I am not so fit, and I am going on a hike, I may choose to bring my Canon EF 24-105/4 instead of my heavier Canon 24-70/2.8 lens.
You get my drift? I pick the right tool for the job. It’s not arbitrary, it’s an intelligent decision based on what I intend to photograph.
To answer the question of which lens to buy, fast or slow, it depends on your budget, buy both if you can afford to. Now that you understand that there is a niche for both lens types in different sorts of photographic conditions, you can be justified owning both. In the last example of choosing between a Canon 24-105/4 lens or the faster and better Canon 24-70/2.8 lens, I would pick the latter lens if I can afford either and can only pick only one. The logic here is with the latter lens you’ll have the option of stopping down the lens if you need to, the performance whilst stopped down may not be as good as the slower lens, but it would be a better compromise then losing the creativity of owning a faster lens (There are other considerations in picking between these two lenses but that is for another article, for another day.) If you can’t afford the fast lens, needless to say, you have no choice anyhow.
There is often debate on many forums about the topic of lens contrast. In this modern age of lenses, the fidelity of lens contrast is getting higher and higher. The reason for this increase contrast is better control of flare. This flare is caused by stray light that doesn’t come from the reflected light from the objects in the scene and hence doesn’t contribute to the photographic details of the photo. This light from high angle of incidence enter the lens through the front element and bounce around inside the lens barrel and cause reflections on the internal elements and some will reach the sensor or film and exposure the film/sensor in a random but uniform way. This stray light causes the photograph to become lighter in color and tone overall, especially obvious in the dark areas of the photo. Obviously there is a cost to this flare, it veils the midtones and light tones and the dark tones, as a result there is some lost in details or dynamic range all areas. This loss in detail is less apparent in the light areas.
There are two improvements in the modern lens that impact this the most, one is the modern multi-coating on the front elements that disperses the light coming from high angles and the improve absorptive properties of the inner lining of the lens barrel. This results in a high contrast and a greater dynamic range. There is talk that goes around that says that the blacks are blacker, but even though this is true in an empirical sense, a better description and a more accurate description is that the blacks appear blacker because there is less flare. If you consider it in terms of the tonal curve, for any given picture, a high contrast lens with low flare will have a wider dynamic range, which is overall a good thing. In other words: A high contrast lens will provide more tonal information than a low contrast lens.
So why are there so many advocates for low contrast, antique lenses? Why do photos look better sometimes with a low contrast lens?
The answer lies in the limited dynamic range of our sensors and the even more limited range of film. If the curve is wider you will exceed the ability for the sensor/film to capture the dynamic range of the scene. I like to think of it this way: I sometimes use HDR techniques in processing of some photos to improve the dynamic range, the HDR photo that results have too many colors & tones for the monitor to display and you have to remap the colors to shrink the dynamic range to usable levels (within the range of the color space you’re using). There exists very expensive HDR monitors that can exhibit this HDR photos in their original glory, but since these monitors are not in general circulation at the moment we have to limit the dynamic range. The same thing occurs with a low contrast lenses: you essentially are compressing the dynamic range at the level of the lens by truncating the blacks in the photos, this is obviously advantageous with film where the dynamic range of the film is very low and the end result less malleable unlike a RAW file. Traveling with this train of reason, low contrast lenses will benefit positive slide film when compared to negatives, because the dynamic range of negatives are better.
The advantage of low contrast for modern digital sensors is dependent on the scene being photographed. A low contrast scene like my photo of the bas-relief at Angkor Wat is low contrast to begin with, almost the whole scene is uniformly lit & in the shade and the use of low contrast lenses will make this scene look very flat. The bas-relief will look less 3D with less pop and this will result in less impact.
For a very sunny high contrast scenes with details hidden in the shadows and much of the scene are highlights, the scene is beyond the dynamic range of the sensor and as a result of using a low contrast lens, we compress the dynamic range at the level of the lens and when balanced with the degradation of information due to flare, we may still benefit from using a low contrast lens. So my street scene of Lhasa taken with the more nostalgic Summicron would benefit even more from a lower contrast lens.
I think that even for a medium contrast scenes, digital sensors are better off with high contrast lenses.
In the future as the dynamic range of our digital cameras improves, the need for low contrast lenses will decrease. Even in the present, with judicious use of HDR techniques this is already true. Will this make low contrast lenses obsolete one day? Yes and No. Yes for digital and forever no for film users.
Living in Hong Kong street photography is a way of life for most photographers, we have an abundance of streets if nothing else. The the local forums here in Hong Kong are packed to the rim with budding street photographers, many are exceptionally good. Everyone has their own theories and its the sort of thing that certainly doesn’t have any rules, I have found that spontaneity and rapid focusing the key to capturing good photos. Discretion, speed and stealth are all very important factors here in Hong Kong as much of the population here are very photophobic, but these skills learnt here in Hong Kong is even more effective applied anywhere else. The photo above is a piece of street life in Lhasa, Tibet. It was unfortunate how defensive the people there were to having their photos taken, but not surprising given how many cameras were hanging around the many tourists’ necks. I have tried many different types of camera gear in my street wanderings and many things work, but there is nothing quicker in the world of photography than a rangefinder with a wide-angle lens used with zone focusing at a smallish aperture like f/8 or f/11. With a digital rangefinder, like the Leica M9, M8 or Epson R-D1, I can even keep the shutter speeds up with a little touch of high ISO. With practice you can get subjects in frame without putting the camera up to the eye. The reasonably high pixel count allows you to crop a little to make a better composition. That is how the above photo was taken (but without cropping). In the past when I used mainly a digital SLR, my favorite combo for street photography was very similar, a wide-angle lens set on hyperfocal distance, zone focusing is rather difficult on DSLR lenses, their DOF scale is usually too short to be accurate enough to use. The other way that worked nicely is a little naughty, I would set a camera gear across a busy street or scene, sometimes even on a tripod with a gimbal tripod head to allow me swing the camera around quickly. Mounted on the camera is a long lens, usually 400mm and longer. After a patient wait of 15 minutes or so you become part of the landscape and people no longer notice you, its like magic, they think you are a surveyor on some official business. No one in the their right mind would be using heavy gear like that just to take photos of me, most people will think. I have taken many wonderful shots this way. It’s a little cheeky but it gets those birding lenses out, the sun is good for fungal prevention.