Tips from Townsend #4 - Choosing the Right Lens

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In our latest installment of ‘Tips from Townsend’ ('The Photographic Instruction Book by Townsend T Stith', Sears Roebuck & Company, 1903), our hero, Townsend T, discusses the 3 primary types of lenses – wide angle, portrait, and telephoto, which at the turn of the last century was a concept that was for the average shooter of the day as mysterious as the basics of digital imaging were a decade ago.


Wide-angle lenses were already understood as being important tools for photographing tall buildings, interiors, and taking pictures in tight quarters despite the fact  wide angle lenses took photographs in which ‘the perspective of the view so taken appears exaggerated and displeasing to the eye’, i.e., they distort things.

 In a rather odd take on ‘portrait’ lenses, the author maintains portrait lenses ‘are intended for Portrait work only and they are of little use for any other class of work’. (Tell that to anybody who’s had a 30-year romance with Nikon’s original 105/2.5 – an absolute honey of a portrait / short telephoto lens).

 As for telephotos, they were best used for ‘photographing distant mountain scenery, vessels far out at sea and various animals for the study of naturalists, (and) pictures of which it would be impossible to obtain at close range’.

Choosing the Right Lens

The Wide Angle Lens is very similar in form and the same in principle as that of the Rapid Rectilinear; the chief difference being that the lens combinations are mounted closer together and the curvature greater in the same focal length of lens.

It must not be understood that because one is the possessor of a wide angle lens he will be able to obtain the angle desired on any size of plate he may wish to use. A wide angle lens is so called because its angular capacity is large in proportion to its focal length. But if we have a lens of, say, six inches focus, with an angular capacity of 100 degrees and a 4x5 plate be used, it will readily be seen that we do not utilize the full capacity of the lens, and hence only a comparatively narrow angle of view is obtained. In Fig. 18 the lines ab and cd indicate the angular capacity of the lens. A 4x5 plate being used, the base line, or 5 inch side, H K represents the angle obtained, which is less than half the capacity of the lens.

 A wide angle lens is intended for use in con-fined positions, and for photographing high buildings in narrow thoroughfares, for interiors of small rooms, and for similar work, it is almost indispensable. A disadvantage attaches to its use, however, in the fact that the perspective of the view so taken appears exaggerated and dis-

pleasing to the eye ; but since there is no means of taking many subjects except by the aid of such a lens, this alteration in the appearance of the perspective must be accepted.

The Portrait Lens. — A Portrait Lens may be considered one of the crowning successes of the photographic optician. Although invented a number of years ago, no photographer's outfit of the present day would be considered complete without one. They are specially designed for very short exposure and are from four to six times as quick working as the ordinary rapid rectilinear lens. They cover a very small plate in proportion to their focal length and consequently possess a narrow angle. The image produced is very soft and pleasing to the eye and the most artistic results in portraiture are produced with them. The lenses of the back combination are separated by an air space which, together with their extremely large apertures, produce the fine soft effect. Lenses of this type are intended for Portrait work only and they are of little use for any other class of work.

 The Tele-Photo is a distinct type of lens of which a brief description is given on account of its distinction from the other lenses and its usefulness in the production of long-distance views. It is composed of two individual combinations; a collective or positive combination and a dispersive or negative combination. The office of the collective lens is to collect as many as possible of the rays of light which are reflected from the object to be photographed, and to focus them within the radius of the dispersive combination, which projects an enlarged image upon the plate. In this manner a large image of a distinct object may be obtained with a comparatively very short bellows draw. They are very useful in photographing distant mountain scenery, vessels far out at sea and various animals for the study of naturalists, pictures of which it would be impossible to obtain at close range.

A few years after this book was published moving pictures became the rage, and with moving pictures came movie stars, and with movie stars came paparazzi, and with paparazzi came long telephoto lenses, and faster than you can ask 'Ready for your close-up Ms. Gish', telephoto lenses became all the rage.

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Fascinating reading, and there's still a lot of truth in what he said.