Taming The Infinite Zoom Lens

My first experience of a zoom lens was on my Nikon Coolpix P300, the first “proper” camera I bought, back in 2011.

But I shot thousands of photographs with it without touching the zoom rocker, just using it at the widest 24mm setting.

I know now that 24mm is pretty wide, but back then it was just normal to me.

I noticed that some of the images I made – especially when very close – seem to distort lines more than they appeared to my naked eye, but again, I just accepted this was part of the look of the photographs with this camera and didn’t much question it.

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Ironically, it was once I was starting to take pictures of other cameras I’d bought and was selling on again, that I realised how wide the Coolpix’s lens was.

I couldn’t get a picture of the usually fairly straight edges of a camera without them appearing greatly distorted, and as if they were about to be sucked into a fierce black hole.

I had to zoom in with the camera (probably to around 50mm equivalent) to be able to make images that looked “normal” for the purposes of showing what the object I was photographing looked like to prospective buyers.

Still, with most compact cameras I’ve had – film and digital – I’ve generally avoided zooming and used their lenses at their widest.

Not many are as wide as the P300 – usually somewhere between 32 and 38mm – so any distortion is far less noticeable.

With SLRs and DSLRs, I tried to avoid zooms altogether, mostly favouring 50, 55 and 58mm prime lenses, with a handful of 135mm, two or three 35mm, plus a few in between these focal lengths here and there.

What put me off zooms to a great degree was seeing how others used them.

Now, to be fair, I wasn’t observing master photographers at work here.

It was more often a tourist or an enthusiastic parent at a kid’s birthday, who would stand with feet rooted to the spot and simply point and zoom their camera to get whatever they wanted in the frame, then shoot.

I thought this approach was terribly lazy, plus it deeply unsettled some need within me for control, or at least knowledge.

What if, on just one day trip or birthday party you had taken pictures at 26, 33, 49, 78, 109 and 203mm, a crazy array of focal lengths?

Is it only me that gets freaked out over this wildly reckless inconsistency?

Plus, I’m no pixel peeper, but a number of friends and relatives have sent me images taken zoomed in on their camera or phone and they’ve been of such poor quality and resolution as to be unusable.

What I loved with prime lenses is I got to know what the world looked like at 55mm or 135mm.

I would know where I needed to stand to get the composition I wanted, and moved into place instinctively to get the shot.

The distortion (or lack of) was the same, my pictures had a familiarity and a consistency that allowed me to build and grow as a photographer.

I’ve never been a portrait photographer, but I know with my choices of prime lenses my subjects wouldn’t look like they had an undernourished horse’s face in one picture and a rotund grinning Buddha’s in the next.

In time I realised that there was another way to use zoom lenses, and especially with an SLR/DSLR where the major focal lengths are usually marked on the barrel.

I could take something like the rather excellent 35-105mm Pentax-A lens and use it all day long at 35mm, then another day at 80mm consistently, and then a third excursion at 105mm.

And the results were as good at all three focal lengths.

I only really have one zoom these days that I use, and in contrast to my earlier days, it’s the lens that’s on my DSLR far more often than any other.

The Pentax-F 35-70mm is pretty much my ideal lens.

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At 35mm it’s wide enough to take in a whole scene from a distance, without having to walk 100 yards backwards.

And at the other end, 70mm, with the additional “macro” scale on the barrel, it’s up close and intimate enough for the kind of shots of flowers, feathers, crumbling gravestones and rusting door handles I so often favour.

In other words, I see it simply as two prime lenses in one – the 35mm and the 70mm.

I rarely use anything else in between, and actually in this sense it reminds me of those early film cameras with twin lenses that pre-dated zooms, like the Canon Sure Shot Tele, Ricoh TF-900, and Minolta AF-Tele Super with their wide and tele lens combos.

Most of the time I use the 70mm end, and it’s become the focal length I’m most used to on a DSLR.

If I come across a scene that is more landscape than close up, I just switch the lens to 35mm with a flick of the wrist, and take the shot, then go back to the default 70mm.

Strangely, by applying these restrictions on how I use the 35-70mm zoom, it’s opened up its possibilities, and the enjoyment I have in using it.

I don’t walk about in a haze of indecision over which focal length to use for any one shot, or fret over ensuring I’ve zoomed to exactly 30 or 50 or 60mm, or worry that I’ve made one shot at 37mm and the next at 54mm.

I just don’t use that infinitely adjustable range, and think of it as a great 70mm close up lens, with a handy option for 35mm landscape shots if and when the opportunity arises (which I would estimate is only perhaps one shot in 50).

This experience has made me curious about other zoom lenses.

Are there more I could invest in to use at their widest, longest, or a fixed point in between that could offer a better (and cheaper!) option than the equivalent prime lens of that focal length?

Especially with later, lighter, more plastic lenses, where the weight inherent in earlier manual and older AF lenses is an inhibiting factor (that A series 35-105mm comes to mind again, great as it is, it weighs over 600g, the F series 35-70mm is about a third of the weight and size).

How about you? How do you use a zoom lens? Which are your favourites (either in a fixed lens camera, or an interchangeable lens)?

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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23 thoughts on “Taming The Infinite Zoom Lens”

  1. I’m not a zoom person. Like you, the wild inconsistency and not knowing exactly what focal length was used between shots drives me mad. Plus, primes just massively outperform zooms optically, and they certainly handle far better. On point-and-shoots, I definitely prefer the two focal length designs over zooms. At the end of the day, I tend to use primes in the 28-135mm range. Any wider than 28mm is too wide for me, and anything above 135mm is too long. Ninety-five percent of the time I’m using a nifty fifty.

    1. To be honest, if I was given a 70mm prime that focused as close as the 35-70 F zoom, gave as good results, and was as light and compact, I would use it, and forget about the occasional use of the 35mm end. But I suspect such a lens would also be many times more expensive than the £20 my zoom cost!

      Like you, with film probably 85% of all photos I took were with a 50/55/58mm lens, 10% 135mm, and the rest split between a handful of other focal lengths.

  2. For the average person, the whole point of a zoom is to let you photograph from where you stand/sit. For photographers, doing that is lazy.

    I like a good 35-70, too. I use it as a 35, a 50, and a 70. One thing with zoom P&S cameras is I have NO IDEA how far in I’ve zoomed. I want to know!

    1. Agreed, there are very few P&S that tell you, film or digital. It’s infuriating! There are a few Ricohs (digital) that do this, and not only tell you, but let you set up a step zoom, so each press of the zoom rocker takes you to the next focal length – 24, 28, 35, 50 and 72mm I think it is on the GX100. Fantastic!

      I remember an old Pentax P&S the predated the Espio/IQZoom range, called the Zoom 70X and they did this too. It was actually one of the first posts I wrote here on 35hunter.

      https://35hunter.blog/2015/12/31/competent-companion/

      I guess the average person taking photos with these kinds of cameras neither knows nor cares about focal length, they just want a nice picture.

      1. I’ll have to look for a Zoom 70x!!

        I set up my Canon S95 so the outer ring clicks through 28, 35, 50, 85 and 105mm. I *never* zoom with the rocker anymore, I always click to just the focal length I want.

      2. Well done Canon for including such a useful setting! Surely there are many photographers who like to know the focal length they’re using, especially if they use a compact as a back up or second camera to one with an interchangeable lens where you can see.

  3. Reading your blog has opened up my mind a little to zoom lenses, which I never liked. In my early days of photography they were always the worst lenses in any manufacturer’s line, but improving rapidly. More recently I think of them as the first feature to break on any camera so equipped. I can see how they can be useful in certain situations though, and I’m very glad my Panasonic has a step-zoom feature so I know the approximate focal length I’m shooting at. Mine usually stays at 50mm.

    1. I think you’re right Jon, early zooms were largely pretty horrible in terms of size and bulk and image quality. eBay is littered with them! Later zooms can be far more impressive, and I’ve used a few from Pentax and a couple from Tokina that have given very decent results.

      But still, I generally zooms at a fixed length, and a 35-70mm zoom is not really worth using at 35 or 50mm when you have a prime that’s more compact, is faster and clearly performs better. My 35-70mm is almost exclusively used as a 70mm with a brilliant close focus capability. It will do just fine until I’ve saved up £700+ for a Pentax-FA 77mm f/1.8 Limited (ie never!)!

  4. You’re fixating on numbers, and you know that’s bad. Would you care if your prime lens was 58mm instead of the ‘standard’ 50mm (for 135 cameras)? No? Then why does it matter if the zoom focal length is 37mm instead of 35? Most of the time we never even see those numbers; it’s whatever makes the composition.
    It is not always practical to change position to make that composition either. That is what zoom lenses are for. I would say they are more useful at the telephoto end than the wide one, as when you’re shooting wide you’re up close anyway and a couple steps forward or back is all the change you need. Not so much so if you’re trying to fix on a bird in a tree.
    As you know I do a lot of shooting with the extreme 60X zoom on my Nikon P610. At full extension it’s like 1440mm on a 135 camera, and is a but difficult to manage both in terms of finding the subject if it moves and holding steady to take the picture. I have in fact just taken a picture of a bird which shows the end of its tail as it flitted away when I pushed the button. On the other hand there is no way to walk up close to a warbler and take its portrait at 35mm focal length. By the same token a fixed telephoto limits you in distant framing and in finding the subject. Thus the zoom is a good lens for this purpose: spot at wider focal length, zoom in to fill the frame.
    It is, as usual, a matter of picking the right equipment for the type of work you do. Interestingly you shoot wide most of the time and I shoot tele most of the time.

    1. It’s interesting how much more I learned about photography by trying different types of photography. Landscapes/cityscape, wildlife, street, portraiture, studio, actons/sports, still life, etc. all require changes in perspective-both optical and in thought.

      1. Absolutely. For me it’s always been finding that balance between enough experimentation that I feel like I’m evolving, but so much that I’m overwhelmed and never really come close to mastering any particular style or approach.

    2. Marc, yes absolutely, we each need to choose the lens(es) that serve our particular needs best. I rarely use anything longer than the 70mm end (105mm field of view on an APS-C DSLR) of this Pentax zoom these days (the only longer option I have, my lovely Jupiter-37A 135/3.5, has been gathering dust for too long), but I completely understand how you need a long zoom for shooting wildlife you’re never going to get anywhere near.

      This reminds me of an article I read years ago about how to get the best bird shots. The photographer essentially said start with your zoom at the longest, take a shot, then walk a few steps closer, zoom in a bit, take a shot, and so on, until you got so close the bird was startled or had flown anyway. At whatever point you get to, you will still have a previous photograph to fall back on, rather than trying to creep every closer to get one perfect shot and the bird flying and you ending up with none. This completely make sense to me for this type of photography, it’s a very practical approach.

      Oh and re the numbers, yes it’s not so much the exact number, but the consistency. I’ve used Helios 44 58mm f/2 lenses extensively – both on film, on an APS-C DSLR (crop factor 1.5x) where it gives an 87mm field of view, and on my Lumix GF1 (crop factor 2x) where it equates to 116mm field of view. I’m comfortable with it on any of these cameras, once I’ve got used to it again. I just wouldn’t want to use a zoom at a different focal length every shot, and never get used to seeing how that particular lens sees, how much is in the frame and how much isn’t, and so on. Just too many variables!

  5. You may quickly relieve yourself of the frustration by realising that for “tourist or an enthusiastic parent at a kid’s birthday” the only aim is to document the activity. I don’t think there is any interest in photography beyond that goal. The photographer bought the DSLR with kit zoom because they wanted better photos, “like yours”.

    I have no snobbery when it comes to zoom versus prime. I use what I need to get the photographs I want. When shooting wildlife, I think the picture must remain stationary or risk spooking the wildlife. Photographing fast-moving birds, e.g. warblers that fly between brush and tree branches far and near, with a super-telephoto prime (e.g. 600mm) would be frustrating. I’d need arms like “Popeye the sailor-man” along with a diet of spinach to use that lens. Far more practical to use a 200-600mm zoom (or perhaps 400-1000mm) to get the job done.

    I shoot mostly with my Fujifilm X-T2 with an XF16-55mmF2.8 R LM WR lens. I think it’s the optimal lens for a weekend balloon ride over the finger lakes of New York or hiking the waterfall trails of Watkins Glenn or any situation where zooming with my feet is impractical. A prime lens would have been too limiting on the narrow trails with the wall of rock on one side and a steep drop into fast-moving water on the other.

    My other favourite Fujifilm lens is the Fujinon XF100-400mmF4.5-5.6 R LM OIS WR. It’s light compared to DSLR lenses in the same focal range.

    1. Yes, there has to be that pay off between convenience and lightweight versus image quality. For most of us these days a decent zoom gives good enough image quality, with all the weight and portability benefits.

      Although I have perhaps been a bit dismissive of using a DSLR (or mirrorless) as a glorified point and shoot in the past, I’m starting to see the benefits – a still relatively simple shooting experience, with better quality results!

  6. I’m usually more of a primes person myself.
    And I don’t like that wide distortion, either.
    The one zoom that I really like is the DA 16-45mm by Pentax. At the widest setting, the distortion really isn’t that bad – in fact it feels less than the distortion on their 21mm prime! Too bad mine is developing some issues because of poor build quality (it was the first APS-C lens they ever released, I think they’ve come a long way since…)
    But the colors and contrast on that zoom lens are something quite remarkable, I think. Not necessarily the most natural, but I like them. The main reason I bought that lens was that it was much cheaper than any god quality prime under 24mm, but I haven’t regretted it – in fact I quite like it.
    24mm on APS-C (36mm equivalent on 35mm film) feel pretty natural to me. 50/55mm (75-83mm equiv) is my sweet spot, I really like the short telephoto effect and the subject isolation. In that context, the 18-55 lenses should cover all bases for 95% of my needs – the problem is that those are usually slow (f/3.5-5.6) and while they have the necessary sharpness, the pictures to me look… uninspiring. And it’s all about inspiration… so primes it is, for me, most of the time.

    1. I’ve never tried the DA 16-45mm. One to look out for perhaps… I have had the kit 18-55 zoom in the past, and it was better than I expected but I had enough other lenses (mostly primes) that covered similar bases at least as well, and were faster, like you mentioned.

      1. In your case, like in mine, I think the main advantage of the DA 16-45 is not in its use for “photowalks” but for family pictures. f/4 from wide to the long end is fast enough, I think, for most family picture occasions, so I hardly ever have to use a flash. But if you already have a good solution for your family pictures, it might not be essential, other than for the fact that you can probably buy one and sell it for the same price, basically being able to just try it and see how you like it… but I do think you’d like the strong, bold colors and contrast. It’s not quite as strong and bold as lenses like the SMC-M 28mm f/3.5, but it’s got more contrast, I think, than the DA 35 2.4, for example.

  7. I had previously used the zoom lenses for sport events or at the zoo… when i was just starting out i tried it on the streets but never felt comfortable doing it. This sniper type lazy shooting on streets with zoom is not my thing and it makes me cringe when i still see people posting pictures of people that they took from 50,60 meters away…
    The only person for me who mastered the zoom in outdoor photography is Saul Leiter.
    Cheers!

    1. Yes I think that “sniper” shooting is just too easy. The longer the lens, the easier it is!

      I know a photographer who mostly used (and still does I believe) a 28mm Ricoh (film camera) for street work, you have to get really close with that, and it requires a courage I’m never likely to have!

  8. In my Sony R1 I used to shot at the equivalent 24mm and 120 mm, it was very nice with the first to suck the world into the photograph, and with the later to make a detail intimate. So it is rather a choice of inclusion or exclusion. I love zoom lenses, but for affordability I end with primes : )

    1. That’s pretty extreme ends, very different to each other. I really like how you’ve described the two though. And both appeal to me, and I have used.

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