What The Lens You Choose Reveals About How You See The World

Working on another post about why I enjoy using telephoto lenses (say, 70mm-135mm), I came round to thinking more widely about how the lens we choose at any one time reflects – and is influenced by – what’s going on in the rest of our lives.

For me, one reason for using telephotos is they escalate and amplify those feelings of immersion I love about photography.

They allow me to fall in (love) even more deeply.

When your outlook is forced to zoom in closer, and cut more from the frame, you can’t help but feel more engaged and more focused on what remains – the subject you’ve chosen to aim your lens at.

For me, perhaps, it’s at times like these I need that grounding and immersion, if other parts of life feel out of control or particularly challenging.

So I reach for a lens that will give me that extra narrowing of vision.

Most of the time, I avoid using really wide lenses (say wider than 28mm) as I find there’s just too much to consider in the frame.

It often overloads my eyes and my brain, like there’s far more information and too many decisions to process. Which is a feeling I find very uncomfortable and stressful in life in general.

How about you? How does the lens you choose (its focal length, but perhaps any other features) reflect how you’re feeling about the rest of your life?

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 “What The Lens You Choose Reveals About How You See The World”

  1. Interesting thoughts Dan, I confess I had not looked at it that way at all. For the first thirty years of my photography the lens was a 50mm because that is all I had. Then the first couple of digital cameras had zoom lenses, the length of which I have no idea. Followed by the one and only DSLR I have ever owned, a Canon EOS 1100D, That came with two lenses, an 18-55 and an 85-300 I think. Since beginning to shoot film again my lens collection has grown a little. My 28-85 zoom is the favourite, but I am finding myself using the 80-200 and the 300 a little more now. I mostly shoot landscape, and my eye seems to be changing as I learn from others and see more opportunities when I am out. Whether it says anything about my state of mind I am not sure, as I find looking for the perfect shot a wonderful distraction regardless of the subject matter!

    1. Thanks Steve, I’m always pleased when a comment says “I had not looked at it this way before” or words to that effect. I like to inspire fresh thinking!

      When you use a zoom like the 80-200mm for example, do you look for something interesting, then zoom to fill the frame for each shot, or do you fix the zoom at a certain focal length, then seek out the compositions that work for that?

      I agree that usually any photography is a “wonderful distraction”, I just think I lean more towards close ups, with telephotos, and a narrower depth of field, when I need to escape from the world more completely, more deeply.

      1. Thanks Dan! Again, we all find joy in different things. If I use the 80-200 I generally look for an interesting composition, and then use the zoom to frame it nicely. My 300mm is a prime lens so in that case it is looking for compositions that suit, perhaps to crop later. It is a great lens for birds and wildlife, which I don’t do so much of.

      2. This reminds me, I bought a 200mm Takumar not all that long ago, and haven’t used it much. It equates to a 300mm field of view with my APS-C DSLRs. One for the brighter light of the summer though I think, with its slow maximum aperture.

  2. Interesting observation, Dan. Definitely resonates with me. My favorite lens is the 50mm. Framed often close to the scene. And later cropped to a square, removing distractions even further. It‘s all about focusing on the subject and creating a balanced frame. That makes my happy. Not only the final image, but the process as a whole.

    BTW: Love your blog and the topics you cover. Very inspiring – like this post.

    1. Thanks Markus. Do you always shoot in square format? Or just crop when you feel it might work better for a particular composition? I like shooting square from time to time but nearly always with a camera that has 1:1 aspect ratio as an option, so I can see exactly what I’m including in the frame.

    1. Exactly, and for me it’s easier to have less in the frame if I’m closer to the subject, and often using a shallow depth of field to isolate it further.

  3. Some technical insight: the telephoto lenses enable us to see up close what is far away without having to make the journey – or frighten off the subject. The view they present is pretty much the same as if we were nearer. Not so with wide-angle lenses. There is a certain ‘normal’ field of vision which in 35mm standard is presented by approximately 50mm focal length – for one eye. The panoramic aspect of our stereoscopic vision puts a limit on wide-angle viewing of about 35mm focal length, maybe 28mm if you have good peripheral vision. Wider than that and the scene, even if the lens corrects angular distortion, looks unnatural to our brains. We can no longer process it as ‘normal’ and so it becomes ‘artistic’ whether we mean it to or not. (The distance compression of telephoto is not as difficult to mentally process as the limited depth-of-field usually cancels it out.)
    And that was more than you wanted to know, courtesy of an engineer who also studied psychology. Sorry about that.

    1. Ha, no need to apologise Marc, I always enjoy some technical insight. I knew this from experience, if I didn’t know the more scientific reasoning. My Sony Xperia has a very decent camera but it defaults to its widest focal length every time (25mm) which is far too wide for people shots, and distorts them too much, so I always automatically press the zoom until it’s 1.4x, which I assume is approx 1.4 x 15 = 35mm. It’s a good compromise between less distortion whilst maintaining a decent performance (and reasonable max aperture) from the tiny lens.

  4. To borrow a sentence from Steve Mitchell, “Interesting thoughts Dan, I confess I had not looked at it that way at all.” 🤣

    I’ve used an assortment of lenses throughout my 30+ year photography adventure. If I only consider SLR and DSLR cameras, I would say the often used focal lengths were 35mm and 50mm primes.

    I only have two lenses for my Fuji, the XF16-55mm and the XF27mm but XF27mm is the one I use the most. This is near equivalent to the 40mm field of view in the 35mm format, which is the closest to the FOV of the human eye.

    Human sight is a combination of optical physics of the eye and computational algorithms of the brain. I want to capture what I see and perhaps this is why I prefer the XF27mm. It allows me to see through the lens and frame the scene as I see it but with the camera. I think the 40mm FOV is just right for street and travel photography. Most 40mm lenses, there are not too many, are “pancake” sized lenses too. That appeals to the minimalist in me.

    1. Good to get you thinking Khurt! I know a “normal” lens between 40 and 50mm is many people’s favoured option, simply because it looks most normal to our eyes. I like the “magic” cameras can perform though, like focusing closer than our eyes can, and blurring out backgrounds. And tele lenses enhance this further.

  5. A friend looking at some of my prints said it looked like I was trying to combine the sensibility of impressionism with the aesthetics of photojournalism. She wasn’t too far off. My choice of subject matter, lighting and composition are definitely informed by my mother’s paintings and my choice of camera, lens, film and developer are still those I learned from my father 60+ years ago. And virtually all of my photographs that I like well enough to hang on our walls were taken with “normal” lenses, i.e., 50mm for 35mm camera and 75mm for MF cameras. I have good shorter and longer lenses but they just don’t work as well for me.

  6. To borrow a sentence from Steve Mitchell, “Interesting thoughts Dan, I confess I had not looked at it that way at all.” 😁

    I’ve used an assortment of lenses throughout my 30+ year photography adventure. If I only consider APS-C DSLR cameras (my film cameras usually had 50mm primes), I would say the often used focal lengths were 35mm and 50mm primes or 52mm and 75mm in full-frame. Even when I used standard zooms, I would usually choose something close to those focal lengths.

    I only have two lenses for my Fuji, the XF16-55mm and the XF27mm but the 27mm is the one I use the most. Human sight is a combination of the optical physics of the eye and the computational algorithms of the brain. I want to capture what I see, and perhaps this is why I prefer the 27mm. On an APS-C sensor, the 27mm focal length offers a FOV close to the 40mm full-frame field of view, which is the closest to the FOV of the human eye. The 27mm allows me to see through the lens and frame the scene with the camera almost the same way I see it with my eyes. I think the 40mm FOV is just right for street and travel photography, something I had started to explore before COVID. Most 40mm lenses are “pancake” sized lenses, which also appeals to the minimalist in me.

  7. Never thought about that in this way! If I choose to stop on a lens (rather focal length actually as I only have one camera, with a small zoom) it would be something near 50 mm because I like to see the image in a more or less same way than with my eyes. It is easier to imagine the composition before looking through the camera.
    However I notice that how I look to my environment is often quite oriented either to wide view (landscape) or narrow view on details. It is a little bit like if it was difficult to switch between these two modes. But I have no idea of what determine the wide vs narrow view. If I am in a beautiful natural place it could be more the wide view, it can also depend on what I saw or read before leaving, on the weather (if the weather is grey, with fog, I tend to focus more on the details, which are closer and I can see). But it has more to to on what kind of image I have in mind than with the choice of the lens!

    1. Thanks Joel, yes I said in another reply that so many people seek this “normal” viewpoint, ie that the final image looks like what they saw with their eyes, a very direct kind of photography. Personally, I like what cameras can do that our eyes can’t. I like seeing, say, a spiderweb dappled with dew, and know that I can make it a far more striking, a possibly even “magical” image, by using a longer focal length, close focus and shallow depth of field. Creating something that no-one can see just with their naked eyes. I don’t want to just directly document what I see, I want to use the camera to create or amplify something that’s not immediately visible.

  8. Thanks for another interesting blog Dan. Guess I choose the lens that is at hand or best for what I’m trying to convey. Cranking up the OM-1 again, and I am finding the 50mm lens my workhorse as it is so versatile. There is a good reason that they were the go-to standard for decades! Great for the landscapes and nature I like to do, especially close-ups like the photo you’ve included from your telephoto. Have just done some similar shots in the garden with the 200mm this past week, so can fully understand where your coming from!

    1. Thanks Paul. Yes it can work either way, we find the compositions that fit the lens we’re using, or we fit the lens to the compositions we find. I prefer to get to know a focal length, then it becomes easier to find the best compositions, and like you and many others, for me this started with a 50mm lens on a 35mm film camera.

  9. Well… I could say that the lens I choose might reveal what kind of photography I’m about to do 🙂
    If I’m going to shoot portraits of my family or do “stealth photography” on them… a nifty 50mm (75mm equiv.) or my newly acquired 70mm Limited (105mm equiv.).
    If I’m doing street photography, which I haven’t in a while, I like a 24mm f/2.8 (36mm equiv.)
    If I’m out on a trip, or an event, or at a family outing, I’ll have either the 16-50mm (24-75mm equiv.) or the Sigma 30mm f1.4 (45mm equiv) with me, with perhaps one or two more lenses in case I want some change.
    If I’m out on a photo walk to take pictures of nature details… it’ll usually be a lens between 50-100mm because they are so easy to shoot with and so easy to pick a subject and isolate it. But I might take something wider if I’m going to a place where there’s scenery…
    Of all, I think the most rewarding focal range is 30-35mm (45-52.5mm equiv) because when you can get that to work, I think you get images that are just very pleasing to the eye while retaining background context.

    1. I think that rewarding range you talk about is something I’ve struggled with. Balancing the background elements with the main subject. Most of the time I would either open up the lens for a more shallow depth of field to blur the background, or pick a scene that has a simple or minimal background that won’t clutter the photograph.

      1. The other problem in achieving this, and you might be on the same boat as me in this, is that the short telephoto lenses are just so easy to make look good, that the normal lenses get neglected. I have 3 in the 30-35mm range, and 5 if I count the 28mm lenses, but I often have to “make myself” pick up my 30mm or one of the 35mm lenses, because I’d always rather go longer, or wider…
        When I do stick with the normal FOV for a while, I usually end up with the pictures I’m most proud of. But that’s for a style of photography that does require background context. I think for your style, where it seems like you pick a subject and really want its textures and format to shine, it might be different.

      2. Yes, it does depend on the camera/film/sensor too, as to what depth of field you get. A 50mm on a 35mm film SLR up close can give super narrow DOF, where the equivalent focal length on a digital compact with a fairly small sensor will be deeper.

        When I use my Ricoh GRD III with its fixed 28mm lens, I pretty much shoot it wide open at f/1.9 all the time. The same focal length on a 35mm camera, or to a slightly lesser extent an APS-C DSLR would give a different look (and I’m not sure there are any f/1.9 28mm lenses!).

        Same with my Q and its 47/1.9 lens, I have that wide open most of the time, but on a DSLR or SLR, an equivalently fast 50mm wide open nearly always gives too shallow a depth of field.

        I used to try and always be calculating equivalent focal lengths across different camera and lens set ups, now I’ve generally got to the point where I know what my preference is and what works best for each particular camera.

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