Tag Archives: 50mm

Tricky Fifty

The nifty fifty. The classic 50mm lens of photography. The stuff of magic. The lens that can do it all. The fastest lens in your arsenal…and possibly the cheapest as well.

This lens has been proven in street photography and photojournalism. Classic photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa and even the more modern Steve McCurry have been known to use this lens during much of their career.

But how does this lens fair in landscape photography? What does it take to capture landscape photos with the 50mm?

I mentioned briefly in one of my posts this particular landscape photographer who shot with film and most of his fantastic shots were made by the 50mm lens. Study his shots very closely before you continue.

Here’s one of the biggest, if not THE biggest problem faced by a landscape photographer: how to create the illusion of depth. A photograph is basically two-dimensional so how do you make it look 3D?

The issue is that the 50mm is a normal lens. It is a close approximation to how the human eye sees things. We perceive depth because we have two eyes but our cameras can only use one lens to record a photograph. Try closing one of your eyes and notice how everything looks flat. That’s how a camera sees a landscape: flat and boring. This flatness worsens as you increase your focal length. A 200mm lens for example will bring your foreground closer to your background, an effect we call lens compression. I have covered this effect in detail in my one of my old posts. And that’s why a landscape photographer would usually prefer a wide-angle lens. A 35mm lens is sometimes good enough but others want to go much wider with 24mm. Shooting with 17mm or even 14mm is quite common as all-manual third-party prime lenses are getting relatively cheap. All this, for the sake of depth; to create that separation between the foreground and the background. That 50mm just isn’t good enough.

So how do you separate the foreground from the background? You may not have much choice really. You’re lucky if your intended foreground is far enough from your background. You can try moving closer assuming that your foreground will still fit in the frame. This is actually very difficult in practice because the 50mm is quite tight. You normally will have to stand back which makes a flat scene even flatter. Bottom line is, you really can’t use this technique except in very special cases.

Next problem: depth of field. N00bs like to use the fast 50mm because it gives them that nice bokeh that they have always been longing for. It is precisely because of this very shallow DoF that landscape photography with a 50mm becomes a nightmare. At f8, the hyperfocal distance is about 35 feet which means anything from 17 feet to infinity should look sharp. Now 17 feet is quite far for a foreground. Remember our first problem with background separation? If you move closer, your foreground will be out of focus. If you step back, the scene becomes flat. Lose-lose situation. So you stop down to f11. At this aperture the hyperfocal distance is 25 feet. Still not close enough. So you stop down further to f16 just to get that foreground and background in sharp focus. But then at this aperture everything will start looking blurry because, you guessed it, diffraction starts to kick in. You will have to sacrifice sharpness with depth of field. Can you feel the frustration now?

So how do you create depth if you can’t separate the foreground from the background without getting one of them out of focus? Well there are other tools that you can use.

Use lead-in lines: http://www.slusarczyk.net/winter/0008.php. The dead tree leads you deep into the scene.

Use frames: http://www.slusarczyk.net/autumn/0150.php. See how the branches frame the main subject which is the flowing creek.

Use contrast and shadows: http://www.slusarczyk.net/autumn/0009.php. Here, the almost-black trees provide a reference point for the brighter leaves in the background. It also uses a different kind of lead-in line by using the base of the tree trunks to form a curve. Here’s another example of shadows and contrast: http://www.slusarczyk.net/winterII/0099.php. See how the silhouette of the trees become a reference point. It creates the illusion that the brighter mountains are farther. The farther the mountain, the brighter they become. Very clever.

Ok enough of the limitations. Let’s discuss where in landscape photography a 50mm might be useful.

It is easier to isolate your subject with a tighter lens. The 50mm is very good at this that is why it is a common lens for portraiture. It simplifies your composition. Simple is good.

You can use a circular polarising filter (CPL) without the fear of having your sky look uneven. Ultrawide lenses are really bad with CPLs. With UWA lenses, you will notice that half of your sky will have perfect blue but the other half is just dull and lifeless.

Your 50mm lens is perfect for panoramic stitching. Shoot in portrait orientation and take 4 to 5 shots sweeping across the scene and stitch for a nice 1×3 panoramic shot. If you shoot with a wide angle lens, you will capture a huge part of the foreground which will not blend easily when stitching. It will also make your final photo look distorted. A 50mm though will be perfect.

This post was not meant to discourage anyone from using the 50mm in landscape photography. As a matter of fact, the examples I provided here showed us that with the right subject and solid technique, the results can be amazing. You will have to think twice though before you decide to bring that lens on your next trip. It can be a good challenge to see what you can do with it.

Good luck!

Advertisements

Being One With Your Camera

I have written several topics in the past that have stirred more than just a bit of (heated) discussions in photography forums. Zoom vs prime, JPG vs RAW, manual mode vs auto, this brand vs that brand … the list goes on. Nobody wins. The reason was quite simple: I had my own choices and they had theirs.

And this brings me to the topic of being one with your camera. There are lots of cameras and lenses to choose from. The most important thing is that you should use the combination that will give you the most potential. The equipment should not get in the way of photography. It should do as you wanted it to do. There is no perfect camera or lens though so it is very important that you are truly familiar with your gear. Just because it’s the best in terms of specification does not mean it will work for you.

Let me give you an example and I have posted about this in the past. I dared to compare my full frame Nikon D700 and my not-so-famous Pentax K5 in this post. My choice wasn’t about the perceived superiority of the D700 because it is full frame and has hundreds of lenses to choose from but the fact that the K5 did exactly as I would have expected in a landscape camera. There is no point in arguing about image quality or some other magical ingredient of a particular camera when you are constantly wrestling with it. The camera should work for you. Not you working hard on your camera.

Allow me to give a more specific example of why familiarity with the equipment is very important. I have been doing a bit of street photography lately. Admittedly, this area of photography is something that I am not experienced with but I’m trying really hard to make sense of it. My camera of choice is my Olympus E-M5 because it is small which means I can bring it with me every day to work. When I have spare time during lunch break I go out and shoot. I use aperture priority mode — again, a deliberate choice. I refuse to use the macho manual mode unless necessary. I set the E-M5 to its native ISO 200 and set my aperture to f5.6. Why these settings you may ask. When I’m out shooting on the streets during lunch break the range of light intensity can only vary by 4 stops at most. Under very bright sunlight, the meter reading would give me a shutter speed of 1/2000s which is well within the limit of the E-M5’s max speed of 1/4000s. When the subject is under the shadows of buildings the recommended aperture is usually f4 but since I’m at f5.6 then my shutter speed would drop to 1/125s which is still a very comfortable speed for handheld shots and fast enough to capture the movement of people walking about. Notice that we have not really discussed the equipment yet. I have basically provided a starting point from which adjustments can take place. These settings are ideal when the light is good. It will change significantly even with just a simple cloud cover. When the sun is covered by clouds f4 will not be enough when the subject is under the shade. If I stay at f5.6 my shutter speed could drop to 1/60s or even less. I have two choices: open up to f4 or bump up the ISO to maintain a comfortable shutter speed. With my E-M5, this is very easy. I have customised my buttons in such a way that I could change my ISO without even looking at my camera. Press a button and one turn to the right brings me to ISO 400 all with one hand. I also know that two clicks counterclockwise with the front dial would bring me to f4. Now coming out from a shady area into the open with the sun still covered by clouds I know that I can safely compensate the exposure by +1EV without blowing up the highlights by turning the rear dial twice to the right. I can do all of these without the need to look at my camera’s LCD. I can concentrate on looking at potential targets instead of fumbling with my equipment.

The whole point of the above example is that by knowing your exposure values and by familiarising yourself with your camera you can become a more effective photographer. Just to provide some sort of example on why the wrong choice of camera could become problematic in the same situation: I try to avoid using my Nikon D700 in street photography for several reasons. Firstly, the D700’s exposure compensation is stupidly in reverse. Going left is positive and going right is negative — exactly the opposite of what a sane camera should be. You can reverse this behaviour in the menu but then that reverses everything which means if I turn the front dial counterclockwise the aperture closes instead of opening up. Not only that. Changing the ISO requires that I use both hands! When changing modes, you have 50/50 chances of getting it right because there is no mode dial but a button that needs to be pushed and a front dial that needs to be turned. So if you are in M mode and you want to go to A mode you will have to press a button and you won’t have any idea whether to turn the front dial left or right to get to your target mode. Going back from A to M is the same crap. If you miss the turn it means you will have to turn twice in the opposite direction to get to your intended mode. I have owned my D700 for more than three years now but I still have not mastered this very simple thing. It has always been a constant hit-or-miss that really annoys me.

Another important thing is choice of focal length. My favourite is 35mm in full frame or 24mm in APS-C or 17mm in m43. With this focal length I know exactly how my subject fits in the frame without even looking at the viewfinder. A lot of photographers recommend the 50mm full frame normal lens because they say it’s has the same field of view as the human eye. I can’t relate to this. For me, normal means 35mm. I find that 50mm is too tight and more suited to portraiture instead of daily walkabout type of shooting. I really like this focal length because it allows me to shoot people, architecture and landscape.

My point is, don’t just follow what you read in forums. Find your own thing.

Understanding Your Lens (Part 2)

This is the second installment of the Understanding Your Lens series of tutorials. If you have not read the  first part I suggest that you go through it otherwise this lesson will be a bit tricky to comprehend.

Part one discussed the effects of varying focal lengths in terms of lens compression; how a wide angle lens seem to make  the background more distant while a telephoto lens brings the background closer. This is a very important concept in understanding this next topic which is crop factor.

Technically, crop factor is not a feature of the lens but of the camera sensor. You are probably familiar with the different digital sensor formats. We have the full frame sensor which has the same size as a 35mm film frame, the APS-C sensor which is approximately 2/3 the size of a full frame and the 4/3rds format which is 1/2 the full frame size.

Full frame cameras include the Nikon D700/D800 and the Canon 5D series and most high end versions from both manufacturers. Sony also has full frame cameras, the A800 and A900. APS-C sensor cameras are the most common. Examples are the Nikon D300/D7000/D5000, Canon 7D/60D/600D, Sony A77/A65/A55 and Pentax K5/K30/K7. Then we have the 4/3rds format like the Olympus E-5/E-P3/OM-D and the Panasonic G/GF series.

Different sensor sizes generally require different types of lenses. In the case of Nikon we have FX for full frame and DX for APS-C. With Canon, EF lenses are for full frame and EF-S are for APS-C. A full frame lens will work with an APS-C sensor but not the other way around (although there are still exceptions).

A common source of confusion is in what photographers call the lens zoom factor. You have probably heard of a normal 50mm full frame lens becoming a mid telephoto (75mm) when attached to an APS-C sensor camera or why you should get a 35mm lens instead if you want a “normal” lens because your camera uses a crop sensor or how a 200mm lens magically becomes a 300mm.

What exactly is this zoom factor?

Zoom is used incorrectly in this context. The lens actually remains the same. A 50mm is still a 50mm no matter which type of sensor it is attached to. What this means is that the effects of lens compression does NOT change. The perceived distance between the foreground and the background remains the same for the same focal length. There is no zoom at all.

Let’s use the same (crappy) shot that I took in part one. This is a full frame shot of Thomas the tank engine:

Image

If the same scene is captured by the same focal length at the same distance to subject by a crop sensor camera, this is how it will look like:

Image

At first sight, it seems that you have magically zoomed in. Well not really. Have a closer look at the perceived distance between Thomas and the house. It is exactly the same. The same amount of lens compression is taking place. The “zoom” is purely an illusion. A fake zoom produced by the smaller sensor’s tighter field of view. The “zoom” is a side effect of the cropped sensor.

So again, zoom factor is a misnomer.

A common follow up question is, so which one is better, a full frame or a crop sensor camera?

There are advantages to using a crop sensor camera:

1. Lenses are sharpest at the center and gradually become softer around the edges. Crop sensors utliize only the center of the lens thus producing generally sharper images compared to full frame cameras.

2. Lenses designed for crop sensors are smaller because they only have to cover a smaller image circle.

3. For the same field of view and aperture, crop sensor lenses/cameras have greater depth of field. This is a huge advantage for landscape, low light and macro photography where focus is very important. For example, while a full frame camera might require f5.6 at ISO 6400 to shoot a concert while keeping all the band members in focus, a micro 4/3rds camera can shoot the same scene at f2.8 ISO 1600 thus producing much cleaner images. In macro photography, full frame cameras will stop down to f16 or f22 but a micro 4/3rds can shoot at f8 or f11 respectively for the same depth of field therefore gaining two stops of light advantage.

Of course there are disadvantages for using crop sensor lenses as well. If shallow depth of field is your thing, full frame is the way to go. Full frame cameras also offer bigger, brighter view finders which to me is very very important. Bigger sensors generally produce cleaner images at the same resolution because of the larger sensel dot pitch.

So let me summarize everything:

1. There is no such thing as zoom factor. It does not exist. It is purely an illusion.

2. A 50mm lens is a 50mm lens no matter which camera it is attached to. The same lens compression is produced. The perceived distance between foreground and background remains the same.

3. Full frame and crop sensor cameras have their own advantages and disadvantages. What matters is whether you understand the implications and whether you can fully utilize those in your photography.

Understanding Your Lens (Part 1)

As promised, I will start this series of tutorials on understanding how lenses work.

This first tutorial is a direct follow up to my previous post on why zoom lenses are better than prime lenses in real life photography. Here I will discuss how to creatively use a zoom lens to change perspective. I decided to tackle this technique first because most beginners do not understand this. I bet even those who claim to shoot with only prime lenses are ignorant about the concept and that is why they quickly dismiss the importance of cheap zoom lenses while boasting the superiority of their f1.2 prime.

In this lesson I will be using my Pentax K5 and my only lens, a Sigma 17-70, which you can get brand new for about $300. For the price, it’s totally worth it. My subject is Thomas the Tank Engine because the rain here in Brisbane is not allowing me to capture proper landscape shots. At any rate, the examples should give you an idea of how we might apply the concepts in real world shooting.

Without further ado, allow me to demonstrate the effects of varying focal lengths and how they affect composition.

Let’s have a look at how a nifty-fifty (50mm) lens might render a scene. Since I am using a camera with APS-C (crop) sensor, I will have to use a focal length of 35mm. This focal length is how your eyes would normally perceive the scenery. It’s what tells you that a particular spot and angle have the potential of creating a nice photograph. This is the perspective that your eyes send to your brain. Here’s the shot:


Apologies for the crappy shot but that is not the point. We could translate this to a real landscape scenario though. A typical theme goes something like this: Assume that Thomas is a huge rock that you have chosen as your foreground and the toy house is a mountain. With a 50mm lens, all you can do now is step foreward, back, left and right to properly position the foreground against the background. The problem here is that given the distance between the rock and the mountain there is not much you can do to change their relative sizes. In the example above, Thomas and the house look like they are of the same size. This makes the shot confusing because the viewer can’t concentrate on one subject. The relative significance of the background house is equivalent to the foreground Thomas. Boring and downright bad. If you only brought your nifty-fifty in this location, you are better off going home than waste your time and disk space.

Cheap zoom lens to the rescue. Supposing that the mountain isn’t really that good. It’s summer so it looks pale and generally uninteresting. However, the foreground rock has got some vibrant green mosses growing and some flowers. Naturally, you would want the foreground to dominate the frame while making sure that the background isn’t distracting. What does a photographer with a zoom lens got to do? Shoot WIDE. Here’s the same scene shot at 17mm:


Not quite a huge rock with flowers but you get the point. Let’s analyze this for a bit. For starters, I did NOT move the subjects at all but just changed the focal length and distance to foreground. Notice that in this shot, the size of Thomas relative to the FRAME, is almost the same as the first shot. But look at what happened to the background. The toy house now seems a lot farther and smaller. The exaggerated perspective created by the wide angle lens makes the foreground appear so much larger than it really is thus shifting the compositional balance to the front. This is the technique used by majority of landscape photographers where they prefer to use ultrawide lenses (12mm or wider) to create this wild perspective that hits you right in the face.

Before I continue, I would like to point out that the use of ultrawide lenses is easily abused by beginners. N00bs think that ultrawides allow them to include everything in the frame. BAD! Had I done that in my example, the frame would now have included pillows, TV, PS3 and cabinets…stuff that distract from the main subject. The main purpose of ultrawides is to allow you to approach your subject.

Back on topic. Now supposing that the situation is the opposite. The mountain is very beautiful. It’s showing wonderful autumn colors. The rock on the foreground however, is just ordinary but significant enough to be used to anchor the composition. The problem is that the mountain is far and a lake is in between your chosen foreground. There’s no way you can approach the mountain without walking several miles. You need to take the shot before the mist fades away. What can you do?

Lens compression to the rescue! Here’s the same setup shot at 70mm:


Again without rearranging the subjects I have managed to bring the background house “closer” and relatively bigger than my foreground. The size of Thomas relative to the FRAME has remained approximately the same and yet the house has now occupied the entire background. The roof has even disappeared from the frame. This is the effect of lens compression. It brings the background closer to the front and larger in the frame. The composition now has made the background significant.

This is the reason why I’m stuck with a general purpose lens. Since I shoot mostly landscape, I don’t really give a damn about wide apertures. Bokeh addiction is for n00bs who just got rid of their point-and-shoot. Take a look at that last shot because that was taken at f11. I could have used f5.6 to make the background disappear in a creamy blur. Ultrawides, on the other hand, have no lens compression at all. And 50mm prime? Limited and boring unless you have an endless supply of subjects to shoot with.

So let’s summarize what was covered:

1. Use a wide angle to emphasize the foreground and increase foreground to background distance.

2. Use longer focal lengths for lens compression to bring the background closer while maintaining the size of your foreground relative to the frame.

As I have said time and again, your cheap zoom lens is good enough for just about anything. I hope you find this post helpful.

Until next time.

Zoom Lens vs Prime Lens

Let me start by apologizing for I will be beating a dead horse that by the time I’m finished with this post it will be FUBAR…until someone else beat it to a pulp.

The reason I’m blogging about this is because another beginner has been victimized again by “experts” persuading n00bs to get a 50mm prime because it is a MUST HAVE lens. This beginner posted in a forum complaining about how tight his 50mm is on an APS-C sensor. Two mistakes have been committed: 1) forcing to buy a 50mm lens, and, 2) using it in a crop sensor camera.

I will say it again: Beginners will learn so much more by using a kit zoom lens than by using a fast prime lens. You can continue reading or find out how awesome your kit lens is right here.

I don’t want to start an argument about the technical advantages of prime lenses over zoom lenses but let me tell you that most of those advantages can be easily accomplished with a kit lens attached to a modern camera. That means any camera you can buy brand new now. What I would like to discuss instead is about taking real photos and not just test charts.

One of the biggest hurdles in photography is that most of the time we do not have control of subjects. You can’t tell a mountain or a tree to move for the perfect composition. All we can do is change position and/or perspective. With a prime lens, forget about changing your perspective. You just can’t. Why then would you limit your learning with a handicapped lens?

Let me expound on perspective and why a 50mm or equivalent lens is a big hindrance. The 50mm has almost the same field of view as human eyes. In other words, boring. No, I’m not saying Henri Cartier-Bresson’s shots are boring. I meant, unless you are as good as HCB, your shots will be boring. For a beginner, that means years and years of learning.

Photographers aim to let others see things that “normal” individuals would usually ignore. That’s why we shoot rusty metal for texture, silhouettes for forms and shapes, light and star trails, and so on. Stuff that ordinary humans do not normally perceive. Changing perspective is a very good technique to achieve this goal. Exaggerated views from ultrawide lenses and the effect of telephoto lens compression will immensely add to your artistic creativity. This is simply impossible with a 50mm prime.

The challenge is for the beginner to recognize the effect of varying focal lengths. It is very easy to just zoom in and out instead of stepping forward and back, a behaviour that pro prime lens users label as being lazy. I prefer to call it lens ignorance which is exacerbated if one restricts himself to a 50mm prime. In my next blog post, I promise to show you how you can maximize the use of your cheap kit lens.

I would like to end this post by addressing a nonsense argument against zoom lenses. Many prime users are quick to point out why those who prefer walkabout zoom lenses are not maximizing their SLR cameras. The argument is that SLRs were made so you could change lenses otherwise buy a point-and-shoot instead. ROFL!!!! We change lenses because the laws of physics won’t allow a sharp, distortion-free 10-500mm f1.4 full frame lens that fits in your pocket. There will always be limitations. A lens can be fast, long or light as long as you choose only two.

Use the most appropriate lens for the job. For beginners, stick to your kit zoom lenses. Stay away from prime lenses until you have decided which focal length suits you the most (hint: check the EXIF data of your shots). A zoom lens, with enough self discipline on your part, will get you there faster and let you take more interesting shots along the way.

Fantastic Landscape Photography with 50mm

It’s quite amusing to read about majority of amateur photographers, especially the new ones, who think that their normal zoom lenses are not wide enough for landscape photography. I shoot landscapes and I shoot with normal, cheap, zoom lenses. Well maybe my photos are not good enough for them to believe me 🙂

Well lucky them, because I accidentally stumbled upon the online gallery of a landscape photographer who shoots mostly (90%) with a standard 50mm (35mm frame) lens. And the best part: he shoots FILM!!!

Without further ado, let me present to you the pure awesomeness of this online gallery:

http://www.slusarczyk.net/main/

Now go, pick up your kit lens and shoot.