The Lens Addiction

In recent years, the kit zoom lenses of many camera makers have gotten really good. The 16-50mm f/3.5-6.3 VR DX on a Nikon Z50 does about as good a job in the 24-75mm effective as one could expect, while the 24-70mm f/4 S that comes with many Nikon Z6/Z7 kits is exceptional at what it does. Plus I’ve seen two or three other kit lenses from other camera makers that really make their cameras shine, too.

So what more do you need?

If I could transport you back to 1970 with those kit lenses fitted on a film SLR, you’d probably say “nothing.”

As Sontag and others have said, things move on, and so do the best photographers. 

By that I mean that the classic 35mm, 50mm, 70mm perspectives—all served by those kit zoom lenses—are pretty old school now. Well established and over-used. Most things (and people) you might point those lenses at have had plenty of time reflecting in said glass, and thus photos of them start looking the same when everyone uses the same lens(es) to photograph them. Even the wider Muench/Rowell/ landscapes start to look the same once you begin using the near, middle, far idea. Not too many nears exist for the far that’s distinctive, and middles are even more scarce. Thus, once Muench did the full set of US National Parks, all most of the rest could do with that idea is copy that, and thus, his image ideas.

What usually starts the lens buying addiction is one of two things: (1) attempting to duplicate the work of others; or (2) attempting to distinguish your work from others. 

Here’s a quick question to drive that home: what focal length do you use for astrophotography of the Milky Way? 

Answer: (1) 14mm; (2) something else.

I’m old enough to remember the full frame fisheye rush. Someone decided to use one to photograph a mountain biker rushing by up close, and then that became the go-to lens as every active-sport photographer piled on. Oh, and don’t forget to throw in some Rear Sync flash.

I still work with a few pro photographers. While a lot of that just involves dealing with technical issues, from time to time I find myself saying to someone who you’d all probably think of as at the pinnacle of imaging “uh, you need to find a new way to make your images sing.” That usually leads to a discussion of what I call compositional stagnation, how they got there, and how they’ll break out of it. At some point, there’s usually a discussion about perspective and lens use. As in “you’re always using the same lens and perspective, so your photos are starting to look the same.” The same thing often comes up with my workshop students, too, who probably could have done similar images at a really good zoo. Getting someone to stop taking long telephoto headshot photos of lions is more difficult than you think. 

I’ve triggered far too many B&H shopping sprees with my compositional challenges over the years. I’m reluctant to do so again, so a few words in counterpoint...

Many think by buying something new (lens) they’ll take new images. For a short period of time, that might be true. If all you’ve been using before was a 24-85mm zoom and I force you to use a 14mm or 300mm prime for a day, I’m pretty sure your photos will look different. For awhile. Until you once again standardize how you’re using the new lens. 

Lenses are an important part of a compositional construct. Focal length, position, height, and light are some of the key tools we use to create an image that’s ours. Literally, in the case of a studio photographer, who starts with a large, empty room and then positions themself and other things in it. Think Joe MacNalley, for instance. First, he finds interesting rooms. Then he finds interesting people to put in the room. Then he has them do interesting things. And finally he lights everything like a compulsive Speedlight addict. 

However, lenses aren’t necessarily the most important part of a compositional construct. I’m not sure Joe deviates a lot in the focal lengths he uses for his creations, for instance. Some of the deviation you do see seems to be driven mostly by showing off the new Nikon lens he was given access to, not his own compositional first choice.

Which brings me to how you’re using lenses. Are they a crutch to get something that looks different? How long will that crutch last?

One argument I hear all the time about lenses comes with bird photography, of all things. The common complaint there is “I need a longer focal length.” It doesn’t matter what focal length they already have ;~). What would probably make their photography more distinguished, though, is a movable bird blind. Most of the best bird photography I’ve seen has all centered around some kind of blind, not how big the lens was. Sure, collecting reference photos of as many species as possible in the wild is of interest to many (my species list in interesting bird images is well over 100 at this point, and I’m not a bird photographer), but the photos in my library that I’d point to as my best bird photos are all about what the bird is doing, and were taken with whatever lens I had at the time. 

Aside: I’m probably going to prove myself wrong ;~). I’ve just started an experiment with a ridiculous focal length (more than you’re ever going to buy). Just watch. I’ll probably disprove my thesis by proving I needed the ridiculous focal length all along. Darn that scientific method.

Thing is, as you try to figure out your photography, you’ll almost certainly start down the lens acquisition addiction path (LAAP, a specific genetic mutation of GAS [gear acquisition syndrome]). 

Once LAAP sets in, it is typically fatal. 

Fatal to your photography. Fatal to your back. Fatal to your bank account. Fatal to your marriage. 

I’ve been contemplating my historical LAAP recently. That’s because after nearly 50 years of using the F-mount, I’m now pretty much a Z-mount user these days. A clear-headed look in my gear closet found that I had numerous lenses that weren’t getting any use, but which I had at some point decided I needed. As box after box left the office for a second life somewhere else, I eventually got down to less than a half dozen F-mount lenses for which there is no Z-mount equivalent. Really only three of those are getting any use. Because I’ve been reviewing and cross comparing all the Z-mount lenses, my business has accumulated two dozen of these, but in looking at the way I photograph (and what), I really only need four or five of those personally. Which means that my gear closet really ought to be two bodies and eight lenses.

Which is leading me to question whether I really need even all eight of those lenses. Maybe. As I type this I’m off on another trip and I’m only carrying three lenses. My PJ backpack, ready at moment’s notice, is also a three-lenser. On safari I tend to be a two-lens user these days. That’s eight ;~). For three very different types of photography. What I’m spending more time on these days than lens choice is where I’m positioned and how I interact with the subject. What’s in the frame and why. What the light is and how am I exposing for it.

It’s the holiday buying season we’ve just entered. LAAP is about to hit its yearly peak. No doubt there will be tempting lens offers coming, ones that might “fill” some perceived gap in your needs. So, some questions to ask yourself as you contemplate that “Purchase” button (or hand your credit card to your local dealer):

  • How many lenses do you own?
  • Are you using all the lenses you own?
  • Does a lens you own fail you in any way?
  • Does a new lens correct that failure?
  • How often would you use the new lens you buy?
  • For what would you use a new lens that you buy, and would that obsolete another lens you have?
  • How do/did you get by without the newly coveted lens?
  • Are you actually going to carry this new lens with you? How often?
  • What photograph would you not obtain if you didn’t have the new lens? Why?

There’s that common phrase “the best camera is the one you have with you.” Repeating all over the Internet, the title of a book, guaranteed to give you a zillion results if you search for it.

Yet it’s funny how no one ever seems to have suggested that “the best lens is the one you have with you.” Yes, that’s just as true. 

I’d even go so far as to say “the best lens is the one mounted on your camera.” Why? Because great images are temporal. The peak moment comes and goes in a fraction of a second. You usually don’t have time to take a lens off the camera, get another out of your pack, and put it on the camera. Maybe landscape photographers can do that, but even there light can be fleeting and a moment missed. Most sports photographers carry two cameras with different lenses so that they can just drop one and pick up the other in the heat of battle. It’s pretty funny to watch, particularly as the camera/lens they’re “dropping” is usually a big pro body with a 400mm+ exotic on it. 

So, my final point: don’t buy that new lens unless it’s going to be on your camera body at the right moment.

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