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Sunday, 24 February 2008


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I have to admit that although I shoot almost exclusively with a 50mm I got it wrong and voted for 85mm.

I was right. I voted 50mm.


A few days ago I read "The Case Against Zooms" on the essays page. I am one of those guys who prefers to carry around 4 lenses instead of a zoom, and loved this line in that essay: "A zoom is a crutch to aid visualization, but, ironically, it is an impediment to learning how to visualize." I always believed that using one lens at a time would teach me how to crop in the frame and pay attention to what was going on outside of and around the subject I was photographing. I wonder how many people who guessed 50mm (I did) prefer fixed lenses, and how many who guessed incorrectly use mainly zooms?

Hmmm. I seem to remember that you also used this picture in your piece on the best 50s ever made. That should have given it away for people with mental trunks.

How many of the 35mm guesses can we put down to being used only to the aps sensor size?

Because that's my excuse and I'm sticking to it.

"...it's much more difficult for people to make many kinds of distinctions when they only evidence they have to go on is the visual evidence in pictures. "

For example last week I was commenting to a student on the nice grain in a print from a 35mm Delta 3200 (as I thought, and a film I've used quite a bit of) neg - turns out it was underexposed XP2, somewhat different grain structure according to conventional wisdom but I convinced myself I was looking at D3200...with nice crisp grain.

Mike, this photo is cropped about 10% on the horizontal. Was there any other cropping done to it.
Probably one of the things that threw me off at first.
At this cropping we're in the 60mm range or so.

No, no cropping whatsoever. I almost never cropped 35mm (I felt it just made my work look inconsistent) and almost always printed the "blackline" created by the frame edge, as was done here. What you see is absolutely the full frame.

Mike J.

I got it right, but then that's what I shoot with :))

I got it wrong, and now I want to know why I was wrong. So, Mike, from an educational point of view, I think it would be appropriate that you point to us the elements in your photo that might have lead us to the correct answer.

I got it right.

I shoot almost exclusively zooms for move of my photos right now, but I'm a prime user at heart.

Mike, I'm sorry--wrong again--the image I picked to check it was cropped in scanning.

I got it right. I used to use primes when I shot film, not now with digital I use zooms. Focal length essentially changes the perspective look of a picture. It's exaggerated with wide angle lenses and flattened with teles.

"...from an educational point of view..."

I think the point may be that it isn't particularly educational, but merely trivia; important to photo-geeks and no one else. All the technical info about focal length, and how it relates to format size, magnification, angle of view, etc... is readily available on the web and in books. It's importance in creating photographs is directly related to how important cropping in-camera is to the photographer (very important to some, less so to others), and of no importance in viewing photographs.

Perspective is controlled by distance to subject. Focal length changes the angle of view.

"I wonder how many people who guessed 50mm (I did) prefer fixed lenses, and how many who guessed incorrectly use mainly zooms?"

Well, I guessed right. I based the guess on the perspective. It looked like 50mm.

And I use zooms almost exclusively.

The majority of my successful photos are framed right (for me). Where I didn't get the frame right, it's not because of the zoom, but because of me. The majority of _the crops_ happened because I didn't think and included something that I didn't want in the photo. I could have moved closer, but I didn't think of that, either. BTW, you can move closer with a zoom, too. :-)

This is not fair : you said yourself a few months ago that the 50mm "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."

So, how did you want us to find out, if we didn't know what the photographer actually 'saw'?

I guessed right by imagining where I'd have to be standing to get the perspective shown, and relying on experience to pick a lens that would give me the same crop or coverage.

I wonder, though, if that's even a valid analytical method, or how I would have done with a less familiar focal length, subject, or perspective? For example, A dog's eye view of the same scene with the same lens might have been a lot tougher for me to deconstruct.

I got it right because it simply looked like a 50mm to me. I cannot explain why. I will chalk it up to over 40 years of experience with lenses, but I don't think I could teach someone to identify the lens (except at the extremes). I used fixed focal length lenses for the first 30 or more years I was in photography and zooms 90% of the time for the last 10 years. I don't think one or the other makes you compose better. There are clearly advantages to zooms. And as far as IQ - I dare anyone to try and identify the print taken with a zoom vs a fixed lens. To me now, the main advantage to fixed lenses is their often wider aperatures. Fixed lenses may be sharper or better in some other respects, but in the real world with mostly hand held shots, I can't see a difference, nor can my pixel peeping friends.


Thousand word limit exceeded. Move along, nothing to say here. (tongue firmly in cheek)

I often visit "no captions needed" and am always reminded of the person who "needs no introduction" or the old "it goes without saying..."

This post is much longer than I intended, somebody stop me, please..........

Yess! But then again a 50 is my favorite lens and I am familiar with its characteristics shooting on an overcast day with flat lighting, as in the case here. What I was looking at was the relation of objects farther than and nearer to the plane of focus (compressed = telephoto, opened up = wide angle), the relative lack of distortion, the middling field of view. If Mike had asked his original question though (40 or 50), I might not have been able to answer correctly.

Ben Marks

I "knew" it was 50mm based on reading this blog for a long time, but I voted 85mm just in case you were being tricky. :)

I'm quite a begginer in photography, I don't even have a DSLR (yet), but I knew it's a 50mm lens. I like to read a lot about photography, and Mr. Alain Briot has an excelent tutorial on focal lengths and on how the human eye sees and understands them. (www.beautiful-landscape.com)

I use both zooms and primes, but I prefer primes. I chose correctly. To me, it was obvious based on the perspective. This scene could have been framed with a number of different lenses, but the perspective would be quite different had it been made with a 28mm or 85mm lens.

Now, if we had to look at a image and choose between a 24mm, 28mm, or 35mm lens or maybe a 85mm, 105mm and 135mm, now that would be interesting.

I wasn't sure if 50 or 85 and voted for 85 since it looked kinda compressed to me. But of course, the car in the foreground looks much bigger than the ones behind.

However, found that hard to tell and I think the result of the survey shows just that. Because I bet everyone who took part decided between 50 and either 35 or 85. So it seems reasonable that about 50% voted for 50.

Most of the time I always shoot with something 50ish, zoom or not. If zoom, then I use it as focal-length-selector, i.e. I set the focal length before I raise the camera to my eye. Nothing more distracting than zooming while composing - for me.

Still I have to throw in that I really get tired of the snotty undertone with which some studiously emphasize their preference for primes. Don't get me wrong, I love primes, but a zoom can be very handy at times. And we should be glad that there are zooms that already rival the quality of primes, so one has got a really convenient alternative for some demanding tasks. Imho this mostly applies to professional assignments, but I also have usage for a zoom for my personal delight. When I am in a certain mood and go for a walk where I know that I won't do much street but more scenic, a zoom is great.

I have to admit that I would choose a fast 40mm if I had to live with one lens for the rest of my days. And I have no reseveration to take exactly this for a whole trip, since I feel that I can do everything relevant with a 40 (though there would be more fun with more focal lenghts - zoom or not). But it is time that we get rid of the old wives' tale that one could zoom with the feet, or that focal length changes perspective, so it would not be elegant to use a zoom in order to change composition. Some prime snobs repeat it everytime there is a chance. But what a crap! It is the other side around: if I see a composition, but have to use my feet in order to fill my frame with it, the composition is gone. Never noticed? Moving the camera changes perspective! You can only zoom by changing the focal length.

By the way, I think that if 50mm had been the shortest or the longest choice, rather than in the middle, fewer would have chosen it...

I voted 85... the tricky thing about this test was that as you've written about, Mike, 50mm can mimic telephoto and wide angle.

In response to an above post here, I guessed wrong even though I shoot primarily with fixed lenses.

But I will say that I didn't begin to think about lens perspective until I started to shoot with primes. I didn't even realize, for a long time, that my own 18-55 kit lens exhibits some wide angle distorting effects at the wide end.

I voted for 50mm. However I thought it could just as well have been an 85mm shot, although the likelihood is that with an 85mm attached you'd be inclined to go fpr more of a medium telephoto type shot. Unless of course you'd forgotten to bring your 50 and then walked backwards to replicate a 50 frame of view.

Well, as my lenses have a 1.5x factor, my guess of 35mm (standard equivalent of 52.5mm), I was only 2.5mm off. In the absence of clear and concise rules and descriptors, I'm declaring myself correct.

Hmm. I've been thinking lately that I'm pretty sure I can distinguish 50mm-ish (maybe 43-55mm) as a focal length pretty consistently, but not so much with other focal lengths, other than saying "tele" or "wide," and this seems to confirm that theory. I guess it just goes to show that when you shoot one focal length long enough, at the expense of others, it starts to become the frame through which you view the world.

Though that said, I think I could probably distinguish "very wide" versus "wide" and "tele" versus "very tele." What do you suppose the difference in angle of view would need to be before a change would become apparent to the untrained eye?

"This scene could have been framed with a number of different lenses, but the perspective would be quite different had it been made with a 28mm or 85mm lens."

Exactly, which is why I use zoom lenses. It's too easy to categorize people who don't endorse primes as being too lazy to "zoom with their feet", but when people use a prime they lock themselves in to one perspective. Using different focal lengths isn't a substitute for crossing the road or cropping, it's a way to fundamentally change the relationship of the foreground to a the background.

I'm glad that there are zooms that greatly exceed the quality of primes, and give me creative options that simply aren't possible otherwise.

The text didn't make it clear whether this was full frame or APS - 4/3 - 1.3x or whatever. I didn't spot the black rim that would have told me it was film, and you weren't so mannered as to include a sprocket hole or two. So I recognized the field of view just a bit tighter than I get all the time with a 35mm on an M8 (eff 46mm) and voted for 50.


Hey Mike, I got it right, but you didn't say what sensor size it was on...ok I'm kidding...


Although I shoot only with primes and use a 50mm lens 95% of the time when using a 35mm camera, I mistook the lens as an 85mm. I knew it was either a 50 or something a little longer, and I guessed it was longer as I perceived some compression in the perspective. Even knowing now that you used a 50mm, it still looks to me as if you used an 85mm. I suppose we each have our own "vision."

For the record, I saw the picture and was thinking '50mm' even before I saw what the post was about!

"The text didn't make it clear whether this was full frame or APS - 4/3 - 1.3x or whatever."

Actually it did--if you'll go back and look at the original survey question. But no worries.

Mike J.

I have found the comments to be as interesting as the "test". It seems that the meaning of the test was to point out that without prior knowledge it is very difficult to really know which equipment was used unless taken to the extreme (very wide angle, large format negatives etc..). However, on reading the comments it appears that the need to be educated about the details of our equipment and to be able to express that knowledge correctly is very important to us. (I frequently find myself doing that, especially as it is difficult to find time to photograph and much easier to take a moment and surf.) On a quick scan I did not notice any women commenting on this post. I wonder if it just isn't as important to them as us men and our toys?

I still say it was 85mm!!!

Just kidding. It was a tough call but I thought it was a trick question. It seems just ever so slightly tighter than what I think a 50mm lens looks like (obviously I'm wrong but that's why I went 85). I'm having trouble visualizing what an 85mm would look like in a similar situation. Maybe it's because I don't use an 85 much anymore and when I did it was almost always for portraits and rarely for outside.

Well, the justifications of the wrong are rarely interesting. How about a 10 question test?


The really annoying part of being wrong is that I own no zooms. 24mm/35mm/50mm/85mm/100mm

I should have nailed this one.

I voted 50mm, just because it is the most common lens on a 35 mm camera. I have never tried to figure out what the lens was used for any photograph.

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