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Most photographers have a favorite lens (you can read about mine here), maybe even two or three. But do you know how to get the best out of that lens? I’ve used lots of lenses over the years. As a result, I know that it takes time to get to know a lens, and longer still to master it. These tips will help you work your way through that process.
In his book Outliers, author Malcolm Gladwell put forward the now-famous idea that true mastery of a skill takes 10,000 hours of practice. The idea of putting in your 10,000 hours applies to photography as a whole rather than using a single lens. But there’s no doubt that by using the same lens, and no other, for an extended period of time it will help you get to know that lens really well.
You can put this idea into practice in a small way by taking just one camera and one lens out on a shoot. For example, if you have a portrait shoot then take along a short telephoto prime lens. If you’re shooting landscapes, take a wide-angle lens.
You can take it further and extend the exercise for a week, a month, or even longer. It’s up to you.
This exercise is easiest with a prime lens. If you do it with a zoom I suggest that you pick one focal length and stick to that. The idea is to get familiar with how a specific focal length behaves. You can’t do that if you are zooming from one to the other.
Part of mastering your lenses is getting to know how they each perform at various apertures. There are two things to consider here – technical performance and aesthetic quality.
No lens gives consistent image quality across its aperture range. All lenses are softer at their widest and narrowest aperture settings than the middle ones.
If you tend to use small apertures when you take photos (perhaps you are a landscape photographer) then you need to be aware of an effect called diffraction that creates a softening effect as you stop down. Yes, you get more depth of field at f/22, but photos taken at f/11 or f/16 may be sharper overall.
Test your lenses to see where the visible effects of diffraction kick in. That way you know the smallest aperture you are happy using, in relation to sharpness for each lens in your kit.
At the other end of the scale, a lens is always softer at its widest aperture. If your favorite lens is a prime then you probably open the aperture to create bokeh. As you stop down the depth of field increases, there is less bokeh, and the image gets sharper.
The key is to find the balance between bokeh and image quality. For example, I find that when I make portraits with a short telephoto lens I get the best results at f/2.8. More of the model’s face is in focus and the bokeh still has a beautiful quality. You can see the difference in the two portraits below.
The situation becomes a little more complicated with zoom lenses. This is because you have an extra variable – focal length. Not only does sharpness vary according to the aperture, but focal length has an effect too. Very few zoom lenses give equal optical quality across their entire focal length range.
When it comes to zoom lenses I prefer to think of them as several prime lenses in one. For example, when I owned a 17-40mm zoom I tended to set it to 24 or 35mm for most of my shoots (these focal lengths were conveniently marked on the barrel). At other times I would use 17mm if I wanted a real ultra wide-angle effect or 40mm. So, to me, it was four lenses in one – a 17mm, 24mm, 35mm and 40mm lens.
These photos show the difference between the 17mm and 40mm focal lengths on this lens.
This approach simplifies the task of getting to know your zoom lens because you are getting to know it at three or four focal lengths rather than across the entire range.
Regardless of whether your favorite lens is a prime or a zoom it is helpful to zoom with your feet rather than use the zoom ring (of course, if you have a prime lens you have no choice in the matter!) Zooming with your feet is an expression used to describe the process of moving physically closer to or farther away from your subject to change its size in the frame, rather than using the zoom ring on a zoom lens.
For zoom lens owners, this comes back to the earlier idea of a zoom lens being three or four prime lenses in one. For example, if you have an 18-55mm kit lens then your lens behaves very differently at different focal lengths. At 18mm it’s a wide-angle lens ideal for subjects like landscapes. At 55mm it’s a short telephoto lens that you can use for portraits.
In terms of perspective, both focal lengths are very different. You will only learn about perspective and the way it changes as you move closer to or further from your subject if you stick to using your zoom lens at a single focal length. If you use the zoom ring to change subject size, you won’t learn about perspective.
For example, with an 18-55mm lens set to 18mm, you need to get fairly close to the subject to obtain the dramatic perspective associated with wide-angle lenses.
If you are further away from the subject the perspective is much less dramatic.
We tend to think of lenses as associated with specific subjects. For example, wide-angle lenses are ideal for landscapes, and short telephoto lenses are brilliant for portraiture.
But what if you mix it up a little? What happens if you use a short telephoto for landscape photography or a wide-angle for portraiture? The idea is to take yourself out of your comfort zone and find creative ways to use your favorite lenses. Ways that perhaps hadn’t occurred to you before.
If you use a wide-angle lens for portraiture you will soon find that if you get too close to your model then it’s going to create some very unflattering effects. But what if you step back and include more of your environment? Suddenly you’re taking a very different approach than you would with a short telephoto lens. Experiments like these can add new skills and new ways of working to your repertoire.
I made this portrait with my 17-40mm zoom set to 17mm.
The final tip is to push your composition to the limit. It’s all about taking various techniques to the extreme and seeing what you can do with them.
If you have a wide-angle lens, what happens if you get as close to your subject (whatever it is) as you can? What happens if you use the widest aperture setting instead of a smaller one?
If you have a telephoto lens how can you maximize the compressed perspective that those lenses give you? What subjects can you shoot to make the most of the layered effect you can get with a longer lens?
This is a process of experimentation. Not all of your experiments will work. But when they do, just as with the previous tip, you’ll be adding new skills to your repertoire.
Here is a landscape photo that was taken with a telephoto lens.
Hopefully, these tips have given you some ideas for working with and getting to know your favorite lenses. Instead of fantasizing about the next lens you are going to buy (dreams are nice, but new lenses are expensive!) how about learning to make the most out of the ones you already own?
You may find that true creativity lays as much in pushing the lenses you already own to their limits as it does with buying new gear.
You can learn more about lenses, and how to get the most out of them, in my ebook Mastering Lenses. It also contains a buying guide to help you make wise choices when you buy your next lens!