Zoom or Prime – an intro to focal length (and why you should care about it)

One of the questions I get asked most is what camera and what lens to buy. I don’t like telling people what they should or shouldn’t get because equipment choices are BIG decisions with a lot of pros and cons to weigh. I think that a lot of people get tripped up with all of the options. They don’t know what the different lenses are good for and they don’t know which ones they need. I can’t tell you what lenses you need. Only you can decide that. What I can do is try to give you a little bit of insight into what the differences are between lenses and help you try to understand which ones you might like best.

So lets start at the beginning. There are two main kinds of lenses. Prime lenses (also known as fixed focal length lenses) and zoom lenses. Your camera kit lens was probably a zoom and probably had a range of somewhere around 18-55. That’s pretty standard. A focal length of around 50mm is said to be the most similar to the way that our eyes perceive the world. Anything from 21mm-35mm is commonly known as “wide angle”, anything from 35mm-70mm is said to be “normal”, and from 70-135 is “telephoto”. A lot of kit lenses try to give you everything in one lens, all the way from wide angle to telephoto. The drawback to these lenses is often that they suffer in their aperture capabilities, opening even less when you are zoomed in (remember I said that your kit lens probably doesn’t go any wider than 3.5, well if you zoom in to its longest focal length that number will probably change to 5.6!) They make lenses that zoom and have wide apertures but those are usually very expensive AND very big, bulky and heavy. Take Canon’s f2.8 24-70 lens. That bad boy is over $1000! It is easier to make lenses with wider apertures that are fixed or prime lenses, so you can usually find those with much more reasonable price tags. The trick is you might end up needing a whole camera bag full of lenses to add up to one zoom lens and there went your savings.

So which is the “right way” to shoot? Zoom or prime? It’s one of the most commonly debated topics in photography and you will find people on either side fiercely defending their position. But which do I use? Primes if you must know. One of the little “bonuses” of prime lenses is that they often give you just a little bit more sharpness and open up just a little wider than your zoom lens. I also prefer to “zoom with my feet” moving closer and further from my subject to get the look that I want.

One of the common misconceptions among new photographers about zoom lenses is that the point of them is that you don’t have to get closer to your subject to make it bigger in the frame. What these new photographers are failing to realize is that the focal length has a HUGE impact on the look of your image. To help illustrate this point here are 3 images of my son. All taken with his head filling approximately the same proportion of the image.

The first image was shot with a 24mm lens. See how animated it is? The wide angle shows tons of the background plus makes the play mat look fun and exciting and very 3 dimensional. I love photographing babies with wide angle lenses because of the sense of whimsy they lend to the shots.

photography lessons on Permanent Riot by Katy Regnier photography

Next up is the 50mm lens. I was further from the subject (to get him to fill the same amount of the frame) and you can see that the image has started to flatten out a bit.

photography lessons on Permanent Riot by Katy Regnier photography

Here it is again, this time with an 85mm lens. Telephoto lenses compress space, making everything appear closer together and flatter. See how much closer he appears to the china cabinet in the background compared to the first shot?

photography lessons on Permanent Riot by Katy Regnier photography

Just to give you an idea of the change in distance between me and my son during this series, here is the 24mm lens again at the same distance as the 85mm shot.

photography lessons on Permanent Riot by Katy Regnier photography

Each of these lenses has their place. You obviously couldn’t get close up shots of your kid’s soccer game with a wide angle lens, and you probably wouldn’t want to photograph your mother with one at a close range either (wide angles tend to exaggerate features, making people look “cartoonish”). There is no catch-all one perfect lens. It’s important to realize the difference that the focal length is going to have on your final image. If you are using a zoom lens it’s easy to fall into the trap of using your zoom to determine how much of the frame the subject is going to fill. I could have stood in one spot and taken both of the last two shots without even switching my lens. But what I would have missed by doing so is the fun and whimsical nature of the first shot, something I could only achieve by moving MYSELF closer and not by zooming. Take a second to play with your lenses (whether they be zoom or prime) and really notice the effect that a different lens has on the mood of your images. Only once you’ve really started to notice those differences can you start to decide which ones best fit your style.

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Zoom or Prime – an intro to focal length (and why you should care about it)

More on aperture (your new best friend)

Hopefully you already read the last post (how your camera works) and saw the very very brief introduction to aperture (aka f-stops). This is going to be one of the most important pieces in the puzzle for you to learn how to take pictures that look “professional” so I thought it would be good to start here. I always think it’s best to learn about one feature of your camera or aspect of photography at a time so that you can really get a hang of it before you move on. Once you nail this one you’ll be well on your way to taking much better pictures so get ready to impress yourself with your mad photo skills 🙂

I’m sure you’ve all seen a picture where the subject (let’s just say it’s a baby because as a mom I’d say 90% of my pictures are probably of my babies) is in focus. You can very clearly see the little eyes and mouth peering out at you from the image, but the background is out of focus. That’s the result of something called depth of field, and depth of field is a result of a few things but mainly the distance you are from your subject and your aperture. If more of the image is out of focus we say it has a shallower depth of field. More in focus it’s got a longer depth of field.

I already mentioned that the depth of field has to do with your aperture and that the smaller the number (which if you remember means BIGGER opening and more light coming in) the more potential there is for the background of your image to be out of focus, which is what a lot of you are probably going for.  Lucky for us this actually works to our advantage. Generally we want to have a fast shutter speed (to keep those little hands and feet in focus and not turn them into a blurry mess) and a wider aperture will not only let us get that “out of focus background” effect we want (which by the way photographers refer to as “bokeh”) but it will also allow us to crank up our shutter speed a little and have a better chance of stopping the motion of our little ones. The other main factor is how far you are from your subject, and how far that subject is from the background you want to be out of focus. generally speaking you want to be closer to your subject than your subject is to the background in order to get the greatest amount of blur. If you are shooting a baby on a couch for instance, chances are the back of the couch is still going to be in focus when you take your picture UNLESS YOU ARE VERY VERY CLOSE TO THE BABY. If your lens is closer to the baby than the baby is to the back of the couch, bingo. Out of focus background. The smaller your f-stop the more blur, and the more you’ll get that fabulous bokeh.

Let’s just take a look at a few photos to illustrate the point. Both of these were shot with a 50mm lens. Both at f 2.8 and 1/50th of a second. In the first one I’m much further than from the baby than she is from the back of the couch and you can see the texture of the couch.

In the second shot I moved closer (this is not a feature of zooming or cropping, I actually moved myself) and now not only is the back of the couch out of focus but so is a little bit of the blanket in the foreground. Same settings, totally different effect.

Want to learn to use your aperture settings to get exactly the look you’re going for? Try setting your camera to the AV mode (aperture priority) and changing your f-stop to see what difference it has on your pictures. Then try moving closer to and further from your subject and see what that does. After playing with it for a while I’m sure you’ll start to be able to visualize what the effect will be before you even snap the shutter. One last word of warning. When you first start playing with wider apertures you may be frustrated by more “out of focus” shots. This is because when using a shallow depth of field it’s absolutely critical that you have your focus locked in on your subject. When shooting people I always suggest focusing on the eyes. If the eyes are in focus your mind will perceive everything else to be in focus as well, even if it’s not. It’s a neat trick 🙂

More on aperture (your new best friend)

How your camera works…

Ok so you’ve agonized over the decision, read reviews, questioned your friends and family and you finally went out and bought that dream SLR you’ve had your eyes on.  You rip open the box, pick it up, and you realize you have no idea how it works.  Yes, if you push the shutter button (provided it’s got a battery and memory card in it) it will probably take a picture.  But do you have any idea how that picture is going to come out?  How can you make that picture look like the one that you meant for this new and fancy camera to take?

Your camera can’t read your mind.  It doesn’t know what kind of picture you want to take.  So chances are it’s going to play it safe.  It’s going to try to get all of the picture in focus (so that your subject is in focus) and it’s going to shoot for an even and predictable exposure (because that’s what its little camera computer brain is programmed to do).  In order to take the kind of picture that YOU want to take (and not the one your camera wants to take) you’re going to have to learn a little bit about how your camera and photography in general work.  I know it sounds daunting but it’s really not that bad and we’ll take it slowly.  Promise 🙂

First things first, exposure.  Exposure is the result of three elements all working together: shutter speed, aperture, and iso.  I’m going to explain them all very briefly and we’ll come back to each one later in a separate post (because goodness knows that all there is to learn about exposure could fill a book… or several… and does)

First up is shutter speed.  This is the one you are most likely to already know a little something about.  Shutter speed is simple.  It is the length of time that your camera’s shutter is open for when you’re taking the picture.  Take a picture at a fast shutter speed and it will “freeze” the action.  Take a picture at a slow shutter speed and chances are it will be blurry.  A quick and dirty rule of thumb is that if you are trying to take a picture handheld (aka you’re not using a tripod) the ABSOLUTE slowest shutter speed you should ever use is 1/the focal length of your lens.  I know we haven’t gotten to focal length yet but say you’re using a 50mm lens.  You couldn’t take a steady picture slower than at 1/50th of a second.  I promise we’ll get into it more later but for now just stay above 1/60th an everything will be groovy 🙂

Next up is aperture.  This one is a little trickier but you probably know more about it than you think.  When your camera’s shutter opens it doesn’t always open the same amount.  The amount that it opens controls the amount of light that comes into the camera at one time, so the bigger the opening the more light, smaller opening less light.  The increments of aperture are f-stops.  It would be nice if the bigger the f-stop number the more light but it’s actually the opposite.  Bigger number = smaller opening = less light.  Lenses that open wide (less than f 2.0) cost more and are generally pretty desirable pieces of equipment.  Your”kit lens” that came with your camera probably doesn’t open any wider than f 3.5 which is why I always recommend getting another lens with a wider aperture.  Canon makes a great “thrifty fifty” 50mm lens that goes to f 1.8, but equipment suggestions are for another day 🙂  There’s one more catch about aperture that I haven’t mentioned yet and that is what the change in aperture does to the picture besides controlling the amount of light.  Aperture is one of the major contributors to something called “depth of field” which is (to put it very simply) the range of distance in front and behind your subject that is in focus.  The wider your lens is open the more opportunity there is for the background and foreground of your shot to be out of focus.  This isn’t a bad thing.  This is how photographers get that great separation between their background and subject and make everything else look “fuzzy”.  It’s something that takes practice to control (and needs way more explanation than I’m giving right now) but for the moment just keep in mind that it’s one more variable when to consider when choosing the perfect exposure.

Last but not least is ISO.  On your digital camera this variable may be controlled way down in the depths of your menu.. somewhere you’d never look… or it may be easy to get to.  It depends on your specific model.  Check with your manual if you’re not sure.  ISO is the digital equivalent of film speed from the olden days.  You used to have to choose how fast your film was and shoot an entire roll of the same speed.  Lucky us digital shooters we can change our ISO every shot if we want.  The ISO controls how sensitive your camera is to light.  The higher the ISO number the more sensitive it will be, so a picture shot outside may be shot at ISO 100, but once you go inside you may need to bump it up to more like 800.  This will allow you to keep your same settings (shutter speed and f-stop) for a shot without it being much to dim due to the reduced light situation indoors.  This is one setting you most likely cannot change while in “green square” auto mode on your camera.  But we don’t want you using that anyways 🙂

Ok are you worn out yet?  I’m worn out just from typing so I can’t imagine how you must be feeling after reading all this.  My suggestion is to just try to master one of these variables at a time by playing with your camera’s AV and TV settings.  AV is “aperture value” and allows you to choose your aperture while the camera will pick the right shutter speed for a good exposure.  TV is “time value” and will allow you to choose your shutter speed while the camera chooses an appropriate aperture.  Both are great tools for the beginning photographer while you learn how to set exposure.  Once you’re good and practiced with these settings we’ll get into a little bit more detail about each of the variables and how you can use them to your advantage.

And just because I hate to have you read all of this text without at least one photo, here’s a favorite of my little ones.  I’m going to try to put up new photos with each post and give you some the exposure info so you can get an idea of how each of them was shot.  This was at 1/125th, f 2.8, ISO 1600 in natural light:
photography lessons on Permanent Riot by Katy Regnier photography

How your camera works…