Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Why you may be using your kit lens incorrectly.

I have been preaching about this from the very beginning, using primes lenses is the best way to learn about composition and the nuances of different focal lengths.  It boggles my mind when I see salesmen push cameras without a prime lens. Canon and Nikon have one of the best and affordable 50mm primes on the market. These plastic fantastics can be purchased for as little as $100 and in my opinion is one of the best investments a photographer can make besides purchasing a flash.  

The first lens I would recommend for the Sony Alpha line - the 50mm f1.8.
It's cheap, it's plastic and it resolves well. 

So you now own a kit lens with your beautiful new camera. A typical kit lens covers focal lengths anywhere from 12mm to 55mm and unfortunately has a variable aperture.  A kit lens at the wide end will always have a wider aperture than at the long end. This essentially means you will have less light gathering capabilities as you zoom the lens in.  I can't explain why this happens (from a lens construction standpoint), but all I can recommend is to be mindful of this as you shoot in low-light situations.  The kit lens that came with my OMD E-M5 was a 12-50mm with an aperture range of f3.5/6.3.  So the widest aperture at 12mm is f3.5 and the aperture starts to close down as you zoom in to 50mm (at 50mm the widest aperture is f6.3).

Sam Fu demonstrating a perfectly executed sumo deadlift - shot with my
12-40mm @ 17mm (35mm full frame equivalent)

Despite what many say about kit glass I think they are optically pretty good.  They typically will not touch the quality of a prime lens, but they are extremely flexible and can provide several artistic options. So what's the big deal about using a kit lens as a new photographer? Well, I think it promotes bad habits.  In my opinion, a zoom lens is not tool that will "walk" back and forth for you until you get the composition you want. No, I think a zoom lens is a collection of prime lenses, primarily a 12mm, a 35mm and a 50mm (if we're using my kit glass as a reference; this is equivalent to a 24mm, 70mm and a 100mm on a full frame camera due to the m43 crop factor). The way the lens will portray an image at the aforementioned focal lengths is inherently different from one another. From my experience, the wide end tend to create a neat barrel effect that may distort the look of subjects especially people when up close. 12mm is not a focal length I tend to use when photographing people because of said reasons.  Below is a list of the general characteristics of each focal length at their extreme ends.

An extreme example of wide angle lens properties.  Taken with the Rokinon Fish Eye lens

  • Mild to extreme barrel effect. 
  • You will not have as much shallow depth of field. More will be in focus and you need to get in closer to your subject to get that blurry background look (commonly referred to as BOKEH).
  • Creates that push pull effect.  When you are shooting close, the lens "pulls" your subject into the frame making them look larger, but "pushes" the background away making it look distant from the subject.
  • Creates a more dramatic or exaggerated perspective
  • Lines tend to converge, lean or slant if it is not completely horizontal
Shot at 12mm @ f5.6 - Notice how distorted Mickey looks and how distant Megaman appears
  • Has the least amount of distortion/barreling effect.  This focal length, in my opinion, yields a more flattering look for portraits.
  • Compresses or flattens the background of the subject making it seem closer than it really is.
  • Easier to isolate the subject and create that blurry background look. 
  • Typically does not exaggerate the perspective and is for the most part the same field of view of as our eyes (some would argue that the 35mm offers this field of view, but I will leave that for you to decide)
Shot at 40mm @ f5.6 - The distance between Mickey and Megaman have not changed, but
he appears much closer due to the compression at 40mm. 

My parting advice to new photographers, for what it's worth, is to be deliberate about your composition and the look you want.  If not confined to a limited amount of space, select your focal length and use your feet to back in or out for framing purposes.  Understand that each focal length yields a slight different look, so use it to your advantage. When I was first given a zoom lens, the best advice given to me was to spend a day shooting at one focal length and compare you images from each day.  

Based off of my personal taste, here are some recommendations for taking a better picture:
  • When photographing people or groups keep your focal length to a minimum of 35mm, unless you don't have any other options.  
  • When doing wide angle landscape shots, try to keep your camera as close to perpendicular to your subject as possible. This will prevent even a fisheye from looking distorted (I still haven't mastered this).
  • If you want to get in close to your subject's face, use the longest focal length on the zoom and I guarantee they won't hate you
  • If you do use a wide angle lens to photograph someone, get in close to anything but their face.  
  • If you want to isolate your subject from the background, use the longest focal length.
  • If you want to give more context to your photo, use a short focal length as more will be focus.
I could have easily just taken this at 12mm, but I set this to a 35mm equivalent and stepped back 
Getting in close to the gun and not the face - Burt's Desert Eagle. 

Once you have mastered these rules, break them right away =). These rules are meant to be broken.  Some of the most interesting shots I have seen have been from artists who steer away from general accepted photography principles and created a convention of their own. Whether you use your kit lens "correctly" or "incorrectly", the important thing is you are out there taking pictures. 

So say we all,

Just a couple more examples of a wide angle lens...

...versus a long lens both taken at the exact same position in the room

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