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Saturday, 28 July 2007


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Ah, so every now and again, I hear something that makes me go "Oh, that's why I do that!"

I've noticed that, when using a zoom lens, I'll tend to immediately upon mounting (or turning it on) go to one of the two ends and then *maybe* adjust if I need to. That way I actually force the lens to have a field of view to compose with.

But I'm sure if you went through my EXIF tags on digital photos, you'll find that I'm shooting at one end or the other most of the time.

Mike, isn't having a "prejudice" against zoom lenses sort of like having a prejudice against sports photography, fast-breaking news and photojournalism? Or not? Thanks.

You really should read the essay--I think it answers your question.


I don't understand this one at all. The compositions that I choose have nothing to do with the lenses that are available. The lens focal length is chosen to fill the frame AFTER the composition is fixed, (otherwise I could just shoot everything with a 28mm and crop in the darkroom). Using a zoom just keeps me from having to carry half-a-dozen primes in my gadget bag.

"You really should read the essay--I think it answers your question."

I think I've been chided :), and I did read your article.

On a practical level, in the case of of a professional fast zoom lens, you can think of it as having available a couple, or a few prime lenses, without having to change lenses. My Nikon 17-55/2.8 is like having a 24 and an 85mm lens, at least the way I use it.

Insofar as lenses are tools, there are situations where certain tools excel, like a carpenter using a circular saw to rip a 2x4. You could use a hand saw, but the results might be disappointing, and if you had an aversion to power saws, you might develop an aversion to ripping 2x4s, or so it seems.

When I started photography the SLRs came with a 50mm. After a while of playing around I then decided to save up my money and buy a short telephoto, a 135mm f2.8. After a while wanting a different look I then bought a 35mm. This was the classic lens combination at the time. You looked at a scene and you instantly knew what angle of view you wanted. It was n't a case of standing in one spot fiddling around with a zoom till you get something. It was a case of making creative decisions. Do I use the tele because I want to isolate the subject? Do I use the tele to compress the scene? Do I use the wide for creating space or a dramatic view point? This making pictures. Zooms encourage people to just take pictures. Its huge difference.

I will have to agree with wilhelm here. I don't buy that using a zoom will somehow negatively effect your ability to "see" or compose. When in a photo taking mood, i see the rectangle (or unfortunately less often the square) I want, then demand the camera record it. I don't think of the lens, I think of the composition. I understand that limiting your choices such as with a particular lens can often force an elegant or unexpected result, but there are plenty of other variables that can produce this. Eschewing zooms entirely is more limiting than liberating. (people don't say eschew enough anymore either.) The Lazy Aussie

I like my primes - got about five of them & use three on a regular basis - but you'll have to pry my EF-S 17-55 f/2.8 IS out of my cold, dead, hands. On second thought, just bury me with it.

I have read a lot of your articles at T.O.P. during the last couple of years, and to me – as a reader who don`t know you personally – it seems as if you are very ambivalent about a lot of issues (perhaps more about the less important ones, and less about the really important stuff!), and at the same time you have strong opinions about a lot of things. There is nothing wrong about that. Actually, I consider your ambivalent attitude as a sign of strength for a writer, because when you simplify an issue and exaggerate a point, the opposite view is often quite visible just behind your own strong statements. This activates the brain of your reader.
I am sure you are aware of this, and some times calculate the (provocative) outcome of certain statements, or enjoy the unpredictability of a controversial point of view, which perhaps is not entirely your own, but will provoke some thinking and gut reaction.

Prime contra zoom? I don`t know exactly HOW important that is. I like prime lenses, and enjoy reading your articles about the issue, or about certain old or present prime lenses. And I think you`re right when you talk about the pedagogical value of using primes.
I also don´t know exactly which prime lenses that are available for your camera. You say that you use your zoom lens now. And from your articles, I know that you have dreamt about a compact 24 mm f/2 (35 or 40 mm on your camera?), perhaps in combination with a 50 mm (80 mm on your camera?).
Is it absolutely impossible to find a compromise solution to this concept (with the camera you have), or is this prime lens combo nothing more than nostalgic feelings, that has little to do with Mike Johnston and his photographic environment & opportunities in July 2007.
My simple question is: why do you actually prefer that zoom lens as your main lens today?
Of course the question does not imply that you SHOULD use prime lenses, and not the zoom lens, since you are such a strong advocate of prime lenses. I`m just curious.

"My simple question is: why do you actually prefer that zoom lens as your main lens today? Of course the question does not imply that you SHOULD use prime lenses, and not the zoom lens, since you are such a strong advocate of prime lenses. I`m just curious."

Interesting question, and I got a chuckle out of your perceptive message--thanks.

I think I use the zoom I have just because it came with the camera. A photographer I was talking to last time I was looking for a DSLR talked me into buying his rig (he is a Canon photographer who just wanted to try the then-new 7D, ending up with a love-hate thing for it). He made me a very good offer and I bought the camera, lens, flash, and 5 extra batteries. I sold the flash right away because I just don't like flash.

As I recall, I meant to get a different lens when I bought the camera. I did go so far as to buy a Sigma 30mm f/1.4 for the camera, but oddly enough I didn't like it very much--the colors seemed less rich, and there was much more color fringing than the zoom had. It was as if the traditional roles of zoom vs. prime had been reversed--the prime had more compromises and the zoom had fewer. This is the opposite of what I was used to from the '70s and '80s, when zooms were always almost-but-not-quite as good as prime lenses, and almost always entailed settling for less if you were picky.

I've certainly been angst-ridden and obsessive about equipment over the years, but my feeling when I got the 7D was sort of fatalistic and resigned. I don't like "Wunderplastik" cameras with lots of buttons and lots of automation, and I never cared for digital cameras as objects and user experiences as much as I cared for film cameras. So I suppose my attitude was that I was just going to have to put up with the DSLR, learn how to use it and and forget about trying to optimize it or make it perfect, because it was so inherently imperfect for me.

And it's been an interesting experience "getting to grips" with the 28-75mm (42-112mm-e). It's not the focal length range I've historically been most comfortable with, and, especially in the beginning, I was always coming up against the wide end, that is, frustrated that it didn't go wider. But I've actually found some usefulness in the long end (to my surprise) and have even taken a few pictures I like at the full tele setting, which I wouldn't have guessed would happen. This particular zoom is also just a very good lens, optically speaking. I've been consistently impressed with it. I don't know how it relates to other zooms of the current era, but if it's characteristic then zooms have really come a long way.

(By the way, has anybody seen the latest issue of POP Photography? Check out the "SQF" charts for the Olympus kit lens for the 410/510, and the charts for the Leica Tri-Elmar. Does POP basically give them both the same grades? I just glanced at the issue in the bookstore last night.)

Overall I can't help the feeling that digital isn't...real. I mean, that I'm sort of slumming, or being distracted by it from my "real" work. I don't feel very connected to it the way I felt connected to Tri-X and fiber prints. This is certainly not borne out by the results; if anything, I'm a better photographer in digital, and the 7D has given me a wealth of really good shots, as good as anything I've ever done. But I still feel like I'm playing at it, like it's not for me or that I don't have to be serious about it.

Another aspect of digital that makes me fatalistic is that it interrupts my longstanding habits where trading and trying cameras is concerned. For a number of years, I'd buy a camera, use it for a while, then sell it again, for a small loss or sometimes even a small profit, and in that way I became very familiar with lots and lots of cameras over the years. With digital you can't do that. The depreciation is fierce, and keeping a camera for just a few months can result in a big loss of hundreds and hundreds of dollars. My first digital camera went from $700 to flat zero--I mean, it is worth absolutely nothing. So a digital camera is NOT a friendly purchase like, say, a used Leica used to be.

I don't know if I'm really getting to the heart of your question about why the zoom, except that maybe I'm just...putting up with it, in the same way that I tied the trunk of my ancient Toyota shut with baling wire for two years when I lived in Vermont rather than getting it fixed. It was just that way, so I just put up with it. If I ever get truly excited about a digital camera, maybe I'll be more careful about choosing a lens for it.


I agree with the article.

When you take an image you have several variables that contribute to basic composition: the location from where you shoot, the focal length of the lens, and the framing of the subject. When you limit one of the variables, it makes you more sensitive to the other variables.

Shooting location is the most important thing in making dynamic compositions. People tend to be lazy - at times even the best pros. A zoom lens "rewards" a person with the ability to frame the subject from nearly any location. However, not all locations are equal. Some are much better than others.

The reality is that the prime "rewards" the user with the requirement that they move around to compose their image. It gets them into the mindset of moving around and being more active in seeking out interesting viewpoints.

thanks for your reply.
You say that “Overall I can`t help the feeling that digital isn`t...real.” But at the same time the “7D has given me a wealth of really good shots, as good as anything I`ve ever done. But I still feel like I'm playing at it, like it's not for me or that I don't have to be serious about it.”

This reminds me of the first time I used a Mac, back in 1988. I was working for six years in a Norwegian litterary magazine. I instantly realized that it was much better to write on the Mac than on a typewriter. As with digital cameras, the editing possibilites were very convenient, and I felt free to try out different ways to say things much easier than with an electric or manual typewriter. Still, the feeling was that this “isn`t...real”.

I think this is a generational thing. I am born in 1962, and I guess most people born after 1980 in the wealthier part of the world does not share that feeling.

So, I`m tempted to ask you a second question: When you compare publishing your articles at T.O.P. and in the printed Black & White Photography, does the first feel less “real” than the latter?

"I`m tempted to ask you a second question: When you compare publishing your articles at T.O.P. and in the printed Black & White Photography, does the first feel less “real” than the latter?"

Actually, no, because blogging suits me so well. I have a very friendly relationship with the folks at B&WP, and they let me say pretty much anything I wish to say, but the blog is just that much more relaxed, which I like.

Ironically, however, OTHER people feel that way about print vs. the web. Many people feel that print is just more "serious" and that it's protected by gatekeepers, whereas the web is wild and woolly and anything goes. There have been several cases where I've asked companies for product samples and was turned down based on my web credentials, but accepted when my editor asked for the print magazine.

It's somewhat similar to the way it is with print media in galleries. Everybody agrees that inkjet prints can now be as good and as permanent as traditional prints, but still, few buyers are buying them, and those that do want them at much reduced prices compared to darkroom prints.

Also, despite being born in 1957, I've always been very clear about the following: I would not be a writer if it hadn't been for the Macintosh. It set me free.


(and anybody who cares to read this blog now - a couple of days is a very long time in the blogging world!),

all this has a lot to do with “fixing” something in time and space, versus a more provisional way of working, and the digital world encourage the latter. Which is liberating, but perhaps also one of the aspects of digital that creates that unreal feeling about it.
If, for instance, you play a digital instrument, say a high quality sampled piano, and use Logic Pro, the professional digital recording studio for Mac computers, you can sit down and just improvise, fooling around for an hour or two, like with a real piano, without doing any recording. But then, lets say you realize that in the last ten minutes or so, you got into something really good or interesting. Hey, hey... but it`s all lost!

But no. You can go back and find it. Everything you played during those two hours has been recorded. And then you can separate those ten minutes, edit your work, change a couple of notes, altering the way you hit the keyboard on that G note, delete notes, and add a few ones by playing on top of what you did, etc, etc.

All this blurs the line between rehearsal and recording, playing and working, and even if you released the music, let´s say on a CD, you could allways go back ten years later and change the whole thing as much as you wish – the same way as you can change a digital photography file considerably, even after having an exibition. People like Ansel Adams made new print versions of his older stuff late in life, as you know. With digital, this will probably be the norm, since it is so easy to do it; since the digital “negative” (often a RAW file) is just a starting point, and since you can make more radical changes than with a film negative . A contemporary photographer, now in his thirties, will probably have a different taste when he is in his sixties, and make new versions of his old work.

I wonder how Winogrand, but even more how Eugene Smith would have dealt with this. And I guess it explains why buyers in the art market hesitate to pay much for a digital print. It`s just one, out of hundred different potential versions. And it is much more likely that some of these potential versions will be made, then in the film era.

One factor that has been overlooked in this debate is the sorry state of today's prime lenses. Most were designed more than 15 years ago, when film was king. Today, because of the 1.5X crop factor of most DSLRs, wide angles become normals and superwides become wides. To get a 35mm focal length equivalent, you have to pay a premium price--as much or more than a similar zoom--for a 20mm lens that's not as sharp or as fast (in terms of maximum aperture) as an actual 35mm lens would be.

Another common problem is flare and chromatic aberation. Most primes are older designs that lack the extensive multicoating and low-dispersion glass you find in today's zooms. Full-frame digital users can't gloat either. In addition to the problems above, wide-angle primes are plagued with vignetting.

In short, as much as I would like to use small, lightweight prime lenses, my big, bulky, image-stablized zoom is so optically and mechanically superior that, at least for me, the issue has already been decided.

Mike and Paul,
    I don't know that the "generational" comment refers to age, but perhaps to when one came of age regarding photography. I was born in 1973 and grew up with computers of one sort or another since first grade, although not at the level of ubiquity of current high-school students.
    On the other hand, I started into photography in the mid-nineties, just before digital started coming onto the scene. Just about when the Canon d30 came out, I went to medium format instead. Despite having owned and currently owning a few different digital cameras, even high-end DSLR's, I can't help but feel that medium format film is more real. The counter argument might also be made; Luminous Landscape has an article written by an author in his 50's who didn't get into photography until digital became viable; I expect his take on the issue is different than mine.
    To get back to the original topic of the article, once I went into medium format, I was astonished how many of my photographs worked well in only two focal lengths: normal (50mm-e) and slightly wide (35mm-e). I really don't miss a zoom much. When I'm out backpacking, I frequently leave behind the heavier wide angle (28mm-e) and mild telephoto (80mm-e). Eighty or ninety percent of what I want to photograph can be handled with just those two lenses.

Heres a different slant on the prime issue.
emotional/historical ...
I have the aging spotmatic that was my first camera in 1972. It came endowed with the Takumar 50mmf1.4 and I was thrilled to discover that dslr pentax can use this nice lens.
Its like some of my history passed through this glass and the chance to reactivate it with a new camera gives me a tangible link to that history . Tempted to seek out some of the locations for 35 years later comparisons :)

I do enjoy reading all the comments made by more experienced photographers! I happen to belong to the past-1980 generation mentioned in one of the comments above. I grew up at the verge of the digital revolution, but for several years I shot with a manual Nikkormat + 35, 50 and 105 primes. In practical use the 105 was my favourite. When I later switched to digital, the 105 felt too long - I found myself lost somehow and I couldn't explain why. I think the article and these comments put the finger on the exactly what happened - I was used to seeing the world a certain way, but had to change that view radically with the advent of the 1.5 crop factor. And even though I belong to the new generation of photographers and even though I love my current D200 camera, digital doesn't feel as real and 'important' as film. That aside, I take much better pictures these days than I ever did. It's the same as writing letters - I love writing by hand, but I seem to write better letters on the computer.
I believe that the digital revolution - in more areas than just photography - has produced a generation of people who don't know the fundamentals, but seem to get away with it. Increased automation does the job formerly done by the experts, the craftsmen. My D200 contains 30,000 perfectly exposed scenes that it refers to in order to make sure it gets the current scene properly exposed. It's the way it goes I suppose, but I love learning the fundamentals.
Oh sorry, the post was supposed to be about primes vs zooms... but I think the same principle applies to 'perfect' zooms - they do the manual 'zooming with your feet' for you, and all you need to do is pressing the shutter. In order to compose better I've left the same 17-35 zoom on for months, and almost entirely used it at the 2 extremes, 17 and 35. I cannot escape thinking in terms of set focal lenghts!
Thank-you for very interesting reading.

Bought the 21mm Pentax prime lens to go with my new K100D for our Norway vacation. I would often leave the hotel with just the prime (leaving the stock zoom in the room) and I rarely missed it. When I did use the stock zoom - it was neat, but like what others have noted, I was always at one end of the zoom or the other. The wide angle freed me up to compose and think about composition.

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