"Normal normal normal normal normal Chameleon..."*
By Carl Weese
Back in February, here at TOP, Mike Johnston wrote something about normal lenses that really got my attention. Here’s the quote:
"The slightly long 50mm has two salient visual properties in my opinion (to give credit where credit is due, I think I heard both ideas articulated first by John Kennerdell, a writer/photographer of travel guides for Asia). First, it has a certain 'chameleon' property. That is, it can be made to mimic a slightly telephoto 'look' and also a slightly wide-angle look, depending on how the photographer 'sees' in any certain situation. Assuming you've learned how to mentally organize pictures as wide-angle compositions and as short-tele compositions, this chameleon property can be endlessly intriguing. Second—and this is impossible to prove—it may be true that, with a 50mm, you get a lower percentage of 'acceptable' compositions but a higher percentage of true 'hits'—pictures that are really outstanding—than you do when you're using 'easier' focal lengths."
When I read this my main reaction was, "well, of course," at least to the first part. I'd never really thought it out, much less articulated it, but the whole notion sat well with my experience as a photographer. So when a Pentax 31mm Limited lens showed up at my studio for testing, I decided to try a little experiment. On the APS-C sensor that Pentax uses, the 31mm is a normal focal length. It's actually more normal than the 50mm on 35mm film because it is closer to the diagonal measurement of the format. The experiment would be to use nothing but the 31mm Limited for a while.
First, a few disclaimers. To anyone who has come to photography in the past decade or so, the idea of using a single lens that doesn't zoom may seem strange. But I grew up on "prime" (fixed focal length) lenses. Back in the '70s, for a time I did all my personal work with a Leica M4 and 35mm Summilux. In the mid-'80s, right after there was a quantum leap in the quality of color negative films, I worked on a large project shooting with nothing but a Hasselblad and 50mm Distagon, making 15-inch RA color prints. I've made countless field trips carrying nothing but an 8x10 Deardorff and 240mm Apo-Sironar. The main thing that would be unusual for me in this experiment would be the use of a normal lens instead of medium-wide lenses.
Next disclaimer—I cheated. When I made day trips, I really carried nothing but a camera with the 31mm. But on a couple of longer overnight trips where I expected lots of time for shooting, I did throw a bag full of additional lenses in the car. My reasoning was that experiments are all well and good, but if I ran into a wonderful subject in perfect light, hundreds of miles from home, and it just had to be done with a different lens, I'd feel pretty dumb to have followed my experiment out the window. The funny thing is, this never happened. Once I’d gotten my head into the thought process that, "this is the lens I’m using and I’ll see how things work," I never once had the urge to scramble back to the car and retrieve another focal length. Final disclaimer, I did a commercial shoot while this was going on, and didn’t even think about applying the experiment to a set of illustrations for a revised edition of a lawn care book. I did most of the shooting with an Olympus E1 and 14–54, using every bit of the zoom’s range (roughly equivalent to 28–108 for 35mm). For the cover set, I switched to a K10D for the larger, 10MP file size, and used a 70mm DA Limited because the shot needed some perspective compression and selective focus.
So much for disclaimers; what did I learn from the experiment? Look at these two pictures, made a few seconds apart:
The whole notion of a chameleon lens wasn't consciously in my mind here, I was just studying a subject and made two pictures where my visual goals were very different. However it does seem to me than the first one looks more wide than normal, while the second looks more short-tele than normal.
I'm not so sure about the second part of Mike's notion, that a normal lens may deliver a low percentage of acceptable shots but a higher percentage of winners. Jury's out on that, but if you'd like a more in-depth look at the results of my experiment, pop on over to my Working Pictures blog [link below], click the archive button for June, scroll down to the entry for the 9th, then work your way forward (up) through the blog. Everything posted from June 9 through July 11 was shot with the 31mm Limited on a K10D.
I enjoyed the experiment, and recommend it highly. One thing I learned is that, nice as it is, the 31mm is a bit too long for me. My ideal lens for this format would be a digital-specific 24mm f/2 (or faster) lens with the fit and finish--and the robust manual focus ring—of the 31mm Limited. Throw in bokeh similar to a 35mm M-Summicron and I might leave the bag of other lenses home permanently.
If this idea appeals but you don't have a normal lens, just get out some gaffer tape and disable the zoom ring on the lens you have. Restricting technical options to foster improved aesthetic results is nothing new. Think of a poet who writes a cycle of Shakespearian sonnets instead of a ramble of blank verse. Try it; you might like it.
*...With apologies to Boy George....
Featured Comment by Ignacio Soler: "I did this same experiment back in the days of film and shot for an entire week with just my 50mm. I have never looked back. It's funny, but far from being constrained by having only one focal length, I felt free. Once my mind was freed from having to chose focal length for every shot, I got more creative and enjoyed shooting a lot more. Today I use a 28mm on my 20D."