180131 Lenses - matthew piers robertson • photography writing creative toronto

Over on The Online Photographer, Mike Johnston has put forward a couple of ideas on lenses that I haven't seen before. One is about creating a "nested" two-lens kit, and the other is a different way to think about zooms. Both are worth reading.

Two-lens kits are a fairly common idea, typically shown as complimenting primes (35/85) or zooms that cover a broader range (70-200 with a 16-35 or 24-70 on the wide end). Sometimes I've advocated getting the cheap kit zoom lens to go with a good prime, reasoning that the zoom covers the everything-else need while the prime would do most of the 'good' photography. Nothing too unusual so far.

The 'nested' two-lens kit is the opposite of how I'd recommend zoom+prime. Here the zoom is expected to do the heavy lifting, while the prime is the small, light, fun lens whose focal length falls within the range of the zoom. 

To some extent it seems like this idea is playing to the zoom's weakness, given that it's still hard to make a zoom lens as good as a prime. Consequently, it consumes most of the budget. I'm still not sure what I think of this – whether or not I'd recommend it to someone – but it's actually exactly what I've just done with my Fujifilm lenses.

Of course, me being me, I've actually put together four lenses, but they're a pair of nested kits. One is the 18-55mm zoom with the 50/2WR, which is my day-to-day set. The other is the 55-200 and 80mm Macro, which is my wildlife and nature set. It's a conceptual divide, but I'm more likely to use those as prime+zoom sets than I am to use both zooms together, or both primes. I'm rarely wanting to go from 18 to 200mm with a single subject, and while I might want to get better close focusing than the 50mm provides, I'm unlikely to carry the 80mm when it's not going to be my main lens.

The nested concept does break down for me in that the zooms aren't better than the primes, and in the 80mm Macro's case, isn't smaller than the zoom either. And I might have a hard time thinking of the zooms as the primary instead of the backup, but I'll try, and see how it goes.

The second idea might help me with that, because it's a different way of thinking of zooms: as prime lenses with adjustable framing. I usually treat them as a pair of prime lenses, one at each end of the range, but conceptually this bothers me. After all, if I'm always at the ends of the range, aren't I really saying that I want something wider/longer but am constrained by my equipment? The two photos here were both taken at 55mm, but is that because it was the best choice, or just because it was where my ability to make creative choices ran out?

Zooms are typically best in the middle of their range, so it makes a certain sense to think of that as their starting point, rather than whichever part of the range makes them physically shortest. So my 18-55 standard zoom is really a standard prime, 30~35mm actual, that lets me go wider or longer when needed. The 55-200 becomes a slightly-long portrait lens, somewhere between a 105 and 135mm actual (150~180 equivalent) focal length.

There are practical difficulties with this, and in fact the 200mm end of my long zoom really is a hard limit that I wish I could go past much of the time. Photographing flying things will do that. But it's something I'm going to try. It will be good to do the mental and physical exercise of starting in the middle of the range, and get away from the habit of slamming the lens from one end to the other.

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