Saturday, May 30, 2015

Primes vs Zooms and Why I Use Both

As with most things on the internet, there is a cyclical buzz that runs round and round about prime lenses vs zoom lenses.   Everyone seems to want to discuss which one is better.  If you know me at all you know that I do not subscribe to which one is better overall, but to which one is the best tool for the current job at hand.

I do realize that not everyone has the luxury of being able to own full compliments of both types of lenses.  You may need to make a choice between the 2 or have a combination of both types.

Let’s look at the characteristics of each lens and why you may find one type an advantage over the other. These are not meant to be all inclusive or an end all be all. The examples are used to make a point and not be comprehensive.


With few exceptions, primes have the benefit of having fast apertures.  The potential benefit to you is that you have a larger degree of subject isolation from the background as well as the ability to get faster shutter speeds or use lower ISO values.  This is good news if you are shooting in poor light and need to keep your shutter speeds high for hand holding or capturing fast moving action.  These apertures commonly run between f/0.85 and f/2.8.

Handheld, no image stabilization
ISO 800, 1/50, f/2
Image Quality
Historically, primes have had an image quality advantage.  This is because they tend to be less complex to build.  Also, compromises don’t need to be made for the glass elements to cover a range of focal lengths - they just need to be good at one focal length.

sharp, clean for portraits and shallow depth of field
ISO 200, 1/125, f/2.8
Physical Size
Without the complexity of zoom rings and additional glass elements to cover multiple focal lengths, the size of the lenses can be downright small.  All this is really dependent on the max aperture size and the size of the sensor that needs to be covered.  Even with that, primes still have the potential to be small and light.

The big negative to primes, in my opinion - and it is not THAT big, is the fact that if you need another focal lengths, you need to change lenses.  This can provides a bigger risk of introducing dirt on the sensor and the possibility of a missed shot while changing lenses.

It can also be a struggle for those not used to using them to remember to “zoom with their feet” and not rely on the zoom ring of a zoom lens.

Prices can range from bargain basement sub $100 to $10,000 for some prime lenses, depending on focal length and maker.  The more common focal lengths tend to be less expensive, while the more exotic or specialized focal lengths go to the expensive side.  The big thing to remember here is that since the prime lenses can be less expensive and very sharp, which you don’t always find in a bargain prices zoom lens.


The majority of fast zoom lenses run with a fixed aperture in the f/2.8 range.  There are some that have variable apertures like f/2.8-4.  There are some zoom lenses that have faster aperture ranges, but those are not common.  For most people’s shooting needs, they could comfortably use an f/2.8 lens and get the exposure and isolation that they need.  The only times that a faster aperture would be more beneficial is extreme low light and when you need a faster shutter speed to freeze action and f/2.8 isn’t going to cut it with an acceptable ISO value.

Image Quality
Long gone are the days when primes were far superior to zoom lenses.  Technology and experience have shown that many professionals have entrusted their businesses to zoom lenses.  Unless you are looking at 100% crops, pixel peeping you are not really going to see a difference.
Image quality also tends to suffer somewhat on zooms teh wider range of focal lengths it has - again, more compromises to cover the various focal ranges can cause compromised IQ.  It can come in the form of overall sharpness, edge sharpness pincushion or barrel distortion.

Physical Size
Zooms can tend to be quite bigger, and depending on their construction, may increase in length as they are zoomed out to longer focal lengths.  The front element needs to be big enough to cover the widest and longest lengths - and the faster the aperture, the bigger the glass needs to be.
This image below shows the difference in lenses. The one to the left is a variable aperture f/4-5.6 and the one to the right is a constant f/2.8.

Here is the real benefit of a zoom.  Have a 24-70mm and need 24mm, you got it.  Need to get to 50mm, just twist the zoom ring and you are there.  Have to shoot in dusty or wet conditions?  Danger to dirt or water getting to the sensor is greatly reduced because you don’t need to swap out lenses.

The convenience of the zoom takes us from the image immediately below and then to the second one after that with the twist of the wrist. Could have missed shot 2 if I had to swap from a wide to telephoto prime.

ISO 200, 1/200, F/2.8 @ 86mm

ISO 200, 1/320, f/2.8 @ 200mm
Just like primes, the prices can range from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars for all the same reasons.

From Left To Right
12mm f/1.8, 45mm f/1.8, 12-40mm f/2.8

2 primes and a pancake zoom(not extended)

My Bottom Line

Repeating my statement from the beginning of the article, use the right tool for the job.  Sometimes zooms are best, other times primes are….or perhaps there is a need for both.  The more experience you have shooting, cultivating a style and determining what you like to shoot and how you like to shoot it will help you get the to the right decision of which choice in lens is right for you.

I use both primes and zooms because I shoot a wide variety of subjects and need the versatility of both types of lenses.  It is really that plain and simple.  Nothing fancy or philosophical about the whole thing.

No magic bullet, review from another person should make the decision for you.  Reviews are helpful in giving you information about the things you might care about like focus speed, focus ring throw, and image rendering before a purchase is made.  The rest is up to your personal requirements.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Composition and You! A Guide For Giving Your Photos More

While understanding exposure and depth of field are all valuable pieces of knowledge, where do you go once you have gotten down the basics?  You might be thinking, why are my images not “popping”?  Maybe you also are wondering why you might like one image of a similar subject over another.

One of the things that you might not be considering is your composition.

“If you want to be a better photographer, stand in front of more interesting stuff.”
--Jim Richardson

Before we get into compositional rules, think about the quote above.  If you want your images to be interesting, the subject has got to have some interest as well.  We all want to take better photographs of our family and one way of doing that is to go out and learn about other types of photography.  I’ve been able to make my portrait and wedding photography better by shooting street photography. Put them in front of interesting things!

How do we do justice to the great subjects we have in front of us?  Use and on occasion, break the guidelines you’ll see here.  I’ve heard it said before that in order to know how and when to break the guidelines, you need to know what the guidelines are in the first place.

Through out this post, I will not use the term “rules” unless it is to relate of simplify a premise.  I consider photography art and as such one should be able to express it without boundaries.  I consider what we will discuss together in the information below just another technique in the toolbox and not a requirement.

Compositional Framing Guidelines
These guidelines are to help you place the subject of your image into a pleasing location, which is 99% of the time not directly in the middle.

Guideline of Thirds

Also known as the “rule of thirds”, this is a basic grid that breaks up the viewfinder into three equal parts both vertically and horizontally.  You can place the focal point of the image at one of the intersecting sets of lines.  

Golden Triangle
This is a good guideline to help when you have diagonal elements in your composition.
Imagine drawing a diagonal line from one corner of your frame to the other, then draw another perpendicular line from the opposite corner of your long line into the longer line.  The perpendicular would be 90 degrees to the longer line.  This can provide for a more dynamic composition.

Fibonacci Spiral

If you want to be numbed by a lot of math, feel free to look up the history the Fibonacci Spiral, but for our purposes just know that it has been used in art for hundreds of years.  It is also known as the golden mean or golden ratio.  
You would, as a basic use, put the smallest part of the spiral over the main subject of interest and then align the other aspects of the composition flow out from the spiral.  For example, if doing a full face portrait, you’d want one eye in the middle of the spiral and then allow the rest of the face fall into the outward spiral.

Some people consider the guideline of thirds and the golden triangle to be a more simplistic versions of the Fibonacci Spiral.

Things To Try
Now that we have discussed some guidelines that will help you situate your subjects into the frame, let’s look at some other things you can try.  Some are offshoots or benefits you’ll start seeing from the use of the guidelines above.  Others are just ways of being more pleasing to the people viewing them.

You can get into a bad habit of standing straight up and shooting everything from that perspective.  While this might work for some subjects, or for portraits of adults it is something that doesn’t “pop” because it is something we see all the time.
When shooting a portrait of a child, get down to their level and shoot that way instead of always shooting down on them.
When shooting everyday subjects, adding a different angle makes people see ordinary things in a different way, and by doing that it gives them a renewed interest.  For example, if shooting street photography, almost everyone shoots from street level.  What about shooting from a second floor or from an even higher elevated position!

Leave Space
If someone or something is looking in a specific direction or a vehicle is moving in a direction, you would not want to crop the frame off right in front of the subject.  By giving space, we see where the object is moving.  We lose the claustrophobic feel of a portrait and wonder what they are looking at and not worry that they are boxed in.

Fill The Frame
Jay Maisel once said that if the subject is there, you are responsible to make sure that the edges of the frame don’t detract from the image.  That is paraphrased, but essentially, if you have a great portrait but the edges of the frame are filled with items that don’t make sense to the person move in tighter.

Odd/Even Numbers
People tend to like odd numbers of items in their images.  If you have the choice of shooting some animals, and their are 2 or 3, pick the one with the 3.

Putting subjects in an imaginary triangle gives the viewer something other than a straight line gives more interest and looks less common.

Simplify The Scene
This could be used hand in hand with the fill the frame.  If you find yourself looking at a scene and there just seems to be too much going on, find a way to simplify the subject matter that is there.  Sometimes that means there are too many people to make for a harmonious composition, but not enough to create a pattern that might be pleasing to look at.  This is the “less is more” concept.

Leading Lines
Viewers tend to follow lines in photographs, so if there is a chance use parts of the image to lead the viewers eyes to the subject, you should use that to your advantage.

Framing Subjects
Placing a frame around a subject may give it some additional pop.

Sense of Place/Relevance
While getting a portrait done of someone as a cowboy might be exciting, doing the portrait in a studio setting may not give the image the kind of relevance you had hoped for.  Now take that same person with the same cowboy theme and place them in an outdoor setting with horses or on a farm and the portrait goes to a whole new level.
Taking a still life image of a sea shell in studio can be quite nice, how much more would you love it if it had a sense of place and you took the shot on the beach with the sand and the water.