September 25, 2005 / Fall 2005 / Photo Quest / Photography

Photo Quest – Lens Choices

Written by Bill Hankins

Check out the latest single lens reflex cameras – either film or digital – in your local photo store and most, if they come with a lens, give you a small zoom – such as 18- 55mm or 28-90mm. Manufacturers are banking on the consumer wanting the variety of the zoom. Gone for the most part is the standard 50mm lens, the one that most duplicates our own vision. With these new zooms comes the challenge of how to use the varied focal lengths effectively.

To illustrate the use of these focal lengths in a typical classroom setting, I visited Rob Davenport’s science class at Platte County High School in Platte City, Mo. The students were testing the weight-bearing strength of their recently built Popsicle stick towers. Very simply, I was trying to tell a classroom story while using a variety of lenses to show what can be done at your school for your yearbook coverage.

The ‘normal’ lens

Much can be said about the “good ole” standard 50mm lens. Despite giving clean perspective, little edge distortion, and having the advantage of the fast F/1.8 or so aperture opening, few cameras come with the 50mm lens anymore. What the new small zooms allow in versatility in focal length, they give up in their aperture opening (F/3.5-4.5 or greater), hindering their use in low-light situations.

Note this picture shot with a 50mm lens. It has nice, clean lines with no distortion; this shot just demanded that the shooter get a few feet closer to the action. Also, the F/2.8 opening allowed a faster 1/125 shutter speed in low light.

wide angle and telephoto

In photojournalism, you often need to shoot close-up detail shots to isolate a part of the story. Of course, you can always move in closer, but note in these examples how the wide-angle and telephoto lenses change the perspective – and the power of the photos. The image of the stu- dent sketching details of her Popsicle stick tower was shot using 100mm focal length. Notice how it isolated details of her drawing, which was framed by the tower itself.

In the second photo, a 24mm wide-angle focal length was used to move in close to one of the towers, but also showed the projects of the rest of the class.

Tight Spots

Wide-angle lenses are any focal length less than 50mm. Although they are helpful lenses, wide-angles can be misused or not used effectively. In the first photo, I wanted an overall shot of the class as they prepared to test the weight-bearing load of their towers. My 17mm lens allowed me to step back a bit, focus on the main students and set the scene with the rest of the class. However, without cropping tight later, the picture would have had a lot of ceiling and foreground, which would distract from the action.

The second shot was not possible without nearly lying on the floor and using a wide-angle lens. The 24mm allowed both the boy’s face, the tower and the weighted bucket to be seen – telling a major part of the story.

Crop tight

Since faces help to tell the story, use the 200mm focal length to
isolate facial expressions. Also, when you cannot get yourself
close to the subject without intruding, the 200 length allows you to play up the action and crop unwanted areas that do not contribute. Note how the 200 helps blur the background in these pictures.

Wise lens choices

Be smart with your lens choice. I most often use a wide-angle as my standard lens because it is so versatile when I am using my camera to tell a story. However, as you can see by the examples in this story, when you move into one of the classrooms at your school, you will find plenty of opportunities to use a variety of focal length lenses. Despite their lack of wide apertures, those small zoom lenses do provide variety in focal length. Use them wisely.

However, do not be so caught up in changing lenses or your shooting position that you miss shots. As the three-shot example shows, once you have coupled the right focal length with the right shooting position – be patient. Wait for the action to happen and then fire away.

Finally, it should be noted that some photographers have defined their style of shooting by the lenses they use. Some hardly touch a telephoto lens because when they cover a story, they want to be up close and personal with their subjects, at times even putting their own lives in danger.

For those of you starting out on your own photo quest, keep in mind that your lenses are tools to help you be a better communicator. These examples may help to show that there is never just one way to shoot a story. Solid decision-making when it comes to choosing what lens to use can ensure that you get the story you are after.

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Bill Hankins

Bill Hankins taught scholastic photojournalism for 26 years, advised student publications for 29 years, and instructed more than 1,600 photojournalists, mostly at Oak Park High School in Kansas City. Before retiring, Hankins received the Missouri Journalism Teacher of the Year Award, the Pioneer Award from the NSPA, the Certificate of Merit from the Dow Jones Newspaper Fund and a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2002 from the JEA.