I don’t believe anyone serious about photography should be a generalist. If you’re a beginner, it just slows down your progress by many multiples of time. And if you’re advanced, it tends to shave the corners off your portfolio. Well-rounded can also be, well, boring.
So, if you’re just starting to get serious about being a specialist, perhaps you’re wondering which lens is going to get you that specific look. This is where I can help. The usual trip to the camera store is largely unhelpful because you’re looking at equipment, not imagery. And one person’s idea of a great portrait or landscape differs among shooters. Here we’ll look at actual images and I’ll break it down so you can make some real world decisions, based on your own tastes. This, to me, is the best way to choose a lens.
I’m specifically choosing images here that have a kind of extremism to them — where the lens really helps make this shot unique and probably can’t be achieved to this level without it.
The Crazy Close Portrait
Lee Jeffries’ photos bring you right up to the subject. Platon will often do similar types of portraits in the studio, or Bruce Gilden out on the street. In all cases, these guys are getting right up close to their subjects. But from a lens standpoint, you would do this with a 24mm f/1.4 on a full frame camera, getting right up to your subject. Most 50mm lenses are going to require you to step back a bit, and you’d have to crop your image to fill the frame like this. These guys need every pixel to pull out that incredible detail and the wider angle lens pulls that middle of the image toward you even harder, making it feel like you are nose-to-nose with the subject. The f/1.4 aperture allows you to get a shallower depth of field — look at her shoulder and the romantic way it fades up into the darkness of her hair. The wide open lens also allows for more light in low light environments for this low key look with tons of detail.
The Sick Wide Street Shot
A lot of images out there that seem to pull the viewer in are ones that provide a unique sense of the scale of a city. It tells a big story about cityscapes and the dwellers within them. It takes a lot of patience and framing an environment just right, as so much is included in the frame that it can be distracting if you don’t make some decisions. But when it hits right, it’s pretty high drama. But how wide do you need to go? Really wide. I tried this shot above with a 35mm and it looked like this:
Not bad, but I switched to my 10–24mm f/4 to truly capture the entirety of the environment, adding significant drama and perspective to the image. On my Fujifilm, that lens becomes, roughly, a 16–35mm lens. Which is nearly identical to the range of my Tamron 15–30mm f/2.8 that I would have used for this, if I were shooting with my Nikon. That range is the ideal super wide angle lens length for walking the streets, getting those epic street shots. With the zoom, you can easily get to a more traditional 35mm, when needed, too. Most street photogs out there are running around with some version of this wide angle zoom.
The Painterly Portrait
Shooting through windows and using the reflections to abstract-ify the image a bit is one of my favorite ways to do portraits, too. It’s a beautiful effect and many Instagrammers do it to build a beautiful portfolio of portraits. For this, you want a pure portrait lens with a very wide open aperture to really throw everything except the face out of focus. Both the reflections and the background become cloudy goodness when you shoot this shallow and the person’s face floats and blends into it beautifully. Here, most likely, this is the Fujifilm 56mm f/1.2. That translates to an 85mm on a full frame 35mm camera. So, if I were on my Nikon, I’d use my Zeiss 85mm f/1.4. A good 105mm lens could do this, too. Here’s a similar style portrait I did of my sister with the Fujifilm 56mm f/1.2:
Hope that’s helpful. I can continue to post more specific lens choices, based on imagery, if you like. Feel free to post questions in the comments, or send me images that you’re wondering about.