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7 Tips to Help When You’re Stuck with Only a Prime Lens

As a photographer you must have flip-flopped back and forth between prime and zoom lenses. “Should I choose a prime today, or a zoom for its advantages?” If you have not done this for a purchase, you must at least have read the numerous articles which weigh the pros and cons of each. But what about when you are stuck with a lens that is not ideal for an event? For the sake of discussion and for this learning opportunity, let’s choose the 50mm prime lens, which is one of the most popular and affordable primes, and is made for every camera body known to man.

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If something comes up that is unexpected, that’s a good thing! Not ideal if you don’t have a long enough zoom or wide enough lens, BUT it could be worse. What if you didn’t even have your camera at all? So stay upbeat and realize with some ingenuity you can overcome the confines of being stuck with a prime lens.

As a personal note: This tutorial was inspired by a real event in Guatemala. I had chosen my 50mm for a walk-around lens as it is light, and I wasn’t expecting much as I went out to get a cup of coffee. Well, with a caffeine buzz I climbed a hill, and at the top an ancient Mayan ritual of sacrifice was being conducted for the dead. Maintaining cultural sensitivity I knew that it would be totally inappropriate to get my lens in their face. It was pertinent to maintain my distance for respect.

1. Use shallow depth of field

Prime lenses are known for being sharp, especially when you close down your f-stop. Yet when you are confined, or have limitations about how close you can get, or how agressive you can come across as a photographer, using your lens creatively is important. Thus, you may sacrifice some sharpness, add a little chromatic aberration (CA), etc., but you will also get a different style of shot from a lens that inherently has focal length limitations. Go for bokeh.

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2. Panorama for wider angles

Use panorama techniques to combine images later in post-processing. If you can’t get a wide angle view, make one. Yes the feeling of the final composition will not be exactly the same as a true wide angle, as your foreground and background compression will be greater, but you will be able to give a cinematic effect. Combining images is an easy way to encompass more into your scene when you are limited by your focal length.

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These two images were combined to show the whole event of the shaman and the fire along with the family members.

3. Shoot with the intention of cropping

Be conscious that cropping is available to you in post-processing. Don’t worry if a hand creeps into your frame, or there is a plastic bottle in the corner. If you consciously shoot for a crop to be performed later you can zoom-in on something specific. This again gives you flexibility and diversity. If you combine this with a shallow depth of field (suggestion number one) you will find that you can achieve a telephoto effect.

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This image was shot for a crop, so cutting off the top of the head is not a problem if you know you will crop in closer in post-processing.

4. B-roll footage

Get photos of activities, reactions, or environmental surroundings which will add to the narrative of the event. If you can’t get any closer, and you have pushed your boundaries of being discreet, then look up, down, and turn around. In film (movies), these are generally called B-roll shots, which helps to transition from one camera angle to another, while also telling the story.

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The smoke rising up, into the sun, amongst the trees, gives a feeling of the environment around the ceremony.

5. Frame your subject with something in the foreground

Use a leaf, a stone or even another person to cut into the frame, which will both highlight your subject, by leading your eye to what you want the viewer to look at, and it will also create layers in the photograph. Layers add a sense of style and depth to your photography. Trying to use different techniques to create different perspective styles will really improve the overall quality of the group of photos you finally decide to keep.

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The gravestone, then the grandmother, and finally the fire give layers to the photograph.

6. Use both horizontal and vertical photographs

Again this is about creating diversity in a final product. So turn the camera sideways and you definitely have a different style going for you. Some people get stuck in horizontal mode, or in vertical mode. This is a great opportunity to make a change of pace. When your eye sees a photo it follows a pattern, generally starting in the top left corner then moving, left to right (just as you read) looking for areas of light, contrast, lines, color and patterns. A vertical photo will automatically create a different reading experience to the photo. Or why not crop them into a square even?

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A simple vertical photo changes the pattern during your final composition. Think both horizontally and vertically.

7. Just enjoy the event

See the event not only through your camera, but also with your own eyes. Experience the event, and it will not only give you great memories, but will allow you to feel the mood as well. Understanding the event will give you insight into what out-of-the-box shot may really highlight the event.

Summary

The general idea is to work with what you have, don’t lament what you left at home. If you do, you might just start lugging around simply too much gear to enjoy yourself. Think of how to diversify your perspectives. By confining yourself (in this instance, when confines are placed upon you) there is great opportunity to use your most advantageous feature… your creative brain!

For most people, photography is a hobby turned passion, and enjoying photography should really be priority one. Photography is always a game of tradeoffs, which can be simply exemplified by the basic lesson of the exposure triangle. By gaining one thing you lose another. So begin gaining something even when you are stuck with just a prime lens.

Maybe we could say, you are challenged to be better at what you love!

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Branson Quenzer

Branson Quenzer has chased bygone eras in a vastly changing Chinese landscape for over a decade. He has a Master’s Degree in Economics, whereby he uses a paradigm of seeing the world through a system of interlinking processes and changes, to explore photography and the world. Please visit his website to see more or contact him through Facebook.