A couple of years back I fell into what, in retrospect, I realise is a common trap for beginner photographers.
I thought that to be a complete photographer, I needed a lens in every possible focal length, from super wide to extreme tele, so I could cover every possible photographic opportunity that arose.
This moderated a little when I found I didn’t enjoy anything wider than perhaps 24mm (too much to consider in the frame, plus too much distortion when up close) or longer than around 150mm (too much camera shake and needing to always stand three metres further away than I thought I needed to).
But still I was looking for a lens at every logical stepping stone between 24mm and 150mm.
I even made a chart and plotted what I had, then looked at which gaps I needed to fill.
I could of course have just used a decent zoom lens.
There are plenty of zoom lenses (either interchangeable or fixed in cameras) that run from 24 or 28mm up to 100mm or more.
Then I’d never need another lens again and would save a fortune on buying a prime lens for each of those common focal lengths between.
Indeed, a lens like the Pentax-A 35-105mm f/3.5 was more than adequate for my needs, and in my view punched above its weight at all focal lengths.
The trouble was, it had the size and build of a bazooka, and weighed little less (615g).
Even on a small DSLR like the Samsung GX-1S, which also weighs around 600g, the two combined was just too heavy, awkward and bulky to use for any length of time.
I also had a Pentax-A 35-70mm f/4 which was far more compact and half the weight of the 35-105mm.
But the image quality wasn’t quite as good, and it was still bulky on a DSLR compared with a prime.
Another issue was the maximum aperture of f/3.5 and f/4 respectively on these two zooms.
You just don’t have the range of control over depth of field, and in the lowly lit ancient churches I often frequent, even at maximum aperture I was using slower shutter speeds than I’d like.
So I returned to the plan of building up my prime lenses.
At one point I think I had lenses at 24, 28, 35, 50, 55, 58, 105, 120, 135 and 150mm. Most of them Asahi Takumars!
The problem, for me, with having so many lens options is much the same as having too many cameras.
The more choice you have, the more difficult it is to choose.
Combine the 10 focal length options above with even a couple of camera bodies, and you have 20 different options.
For someone who likes to try to keep things lean and simple, this is just too much, and I’d end up spending more time choosing than using.
Plus of course having so many lenses isn’t quite as flexible as I, in my naivety, initially thought.
I like to travel light when I photograph, so rarely took more than one lens, and never three or more.
So if I saw an opportunity that might be well captured with a 135mm lens, but I only had a 28mm lens on the camera, and a 50mm in my bag, it was irrelevant that I had a 135mm lens sitting at home.
In time, I realised I didn’t need lenses in 10 different focal lengths, and came to find the ones I liked most.
In fact these choices were dictated far more by my enjoyment of specific lenses rather than their focal lengths.
My four favourite lenses are all in M42 mount.
A Carl Zeiss Flektogon 35/2.4, Super-Takumar 55/1.8, Helios 44-2 58/2 and Jupiter-37A 135/3.5.
They’re all wonderful in their own way, and different enough from each other to be able to choose between them easily.
Shooting digital compacts, which I’ve moved even more towards in the last year or two, the classic 35mm focal length just makes most sense.
Aside from the Ricoh GRD III with its 28mm fixed lens, most other compacts I’ve used have zooms starting somewhere between 28 and 35mm.
So the vast majority of the time I’ll just power up the camera and use at their widest, not touching the zoom controls.
Some have the capacity to remember the zoom setting – like the Ricoh GX100 and Lumix LX3 – so I’ve set those up to stay at 35mm, and again treated them like a prime lens camera.
Because of how I’ve used zooms in the past (ie at a single focal length at a time, rather than zooming in and out every shot), it means I’ve got used to how particular focal lengths look, and how much will be captured.
Again, using only a few focal lengths, over time, this experience comes.
It would be far harder, if not impossible, to try and visualise a virtual overlay of any one of 10 different focal lengths on the scene before you, then choose the lens that best fits.
Which again shows my naivety I think in believing I needed a different lens to cover every focal length between 24 and 135mm.
These days, my default focal lengths are pretty consistent.
With the digital compacts, their zoom lenses start at 35mm give or take a mm or two, so I’m very familiar with this field of view.
With my Pentax Q, I either use the 02 Zoom lens, set to 6mm, a 35mm equivalent of approximately 34mm, so again the same as all other compacts.
Or I use the 01 Prime which is 8.5mm, a 35mm equivalent of 47mm, around the 50mm focal length I’m well used to from using SLRs with 50mm lenses.
Currently I rarely use the M42 lenses at all, having struggled to enjoy them on my only compatible body (via an adapter), the Lumix GF1.
The sensor has a 2x crop factor, which throws out the original focal lengths anyway, so this is perhaps another factor why I’ve not gelled with this set up.
Perhaps a future body will give them new life, I don’t plan for them to stay dormant for long, they’re too special for that.
In summary, I think very few of us have the breadth of photography subjects and interests that mean we need a huge range of focal lengths in our cameras.
Focusing on two or three (or even better, just one!) means we get to know and appreciate how the world looks at this focal length, and we naturally become more drawn to the compositions that work best there.
It’s just an other way of simplifying, honing down and focusing in on the type of photography we enjoy the most.
How about you? Which is your favourite focal length, and why?
Please let us know in the comments below (and don’t forget to tick the “Notify me of new comments via email” box to follow the conversation).
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