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The Long & Short of it
Go to extremes to add impact to your pictures
Copy and photographs by Allan Weitz
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Many people purchasing their first DSLR opt for the 'kit' lens, usually for reasons of convenience and price-point. After all, a lens that goes from 28-or-so millimeters to 100-or-so millimeters is usually enough to cover basics. If you are toting a DSLR with an APS-C sensor this translates to a 17 to 55-ish lens. For photographing your average landscape, portrait, or your kids traumatizing the neighbor's cat, the kit lens does a fine job.

© Allan Weitz

Unfortunately, the limitations of the average kit lens become apparent when you are out using it on that hard-earned vacation. Suddenly, 28mm isn't wide enough and the 'tele' end of the zoom range poops-out way too fast when you're trying to shoot lions and tigers and bears (oh my!). If this scenario rings a bell, read on.

For wide-angle shooting, 28mm is merely the starting point for serious ultra-wide imaging. The first stop past a 28mm is about 24mm, while noticeably wider than a 28, is still not quite a cigar. For full-frame 35s, true ultra-wide lenses range from 20mm to 14mm. If you are shooting with a DSLR containing an APS-C sensor (1.5x or 1.6x magnification factor) you are looking at lenses in the 10 to 12mm range, which depending on the camera you are using, replicates the angle-of-view of an 18mm lens on a full-frame 35mm camera.

There are yet wider lenses, but they tend to be fisheyes, which are a whole other animal. The exception to this rule is Nikon's 10.5mm/2.8 AF CX Fisheye, which is made specifically for use with Nikon DSLRs. This relatively inexpensive fisheye fills the frame with a 180-degree view of whatever lies before it along with all of the curved lines inherent in fisheye pictures.

The neat part is that you can open Nikon NEF (RAW) files captured with this lens in Nikon's Capture software, and with little effort on your part, electronically correct the 'fisheye' effect to create ultra-wide rectilinear images with an angle-of-view far wider than existing 'conventional' optics. Who says digital isn't cool?

Most optics in the 20 to 14mm range are rectilinear in design, which means if you are working on a tripod with a level camera, parallel lines remain parallel. There are dramatic shifts of perspective, but the parallel lines do not go totally gonzo as they do with a fisheye. Assuming you're not juiced on Starbucks, ultra-wides also allow you to shoot hand-held at longer-than-normal shutter-speed times thanks to their wider angles-of-view. Just keep an eye on the horizon line and you're good to go. Whether you shoot hand-held or on a tripod, you might want to install a grid-screen in your camera. A shoe-mounted bubble level won't hurt either. You'll thank me for these tips - trust me.

If there's one word that can describe pictures taken with ultra-wide optics it would have to be 'dramatic'. A can of tomato juice shot dead-on with an ultra-wide from 9-inches away looks monumental. Move the can back two feet and the picture becomes... well... a boring picture of a can of tomato juice. When photographing landscapes the same rule applies. If you want a strong, dynamic image, it helps to have something strong in the foreground. The rules of composition really come into play when your lens captures wider fields-of-view.

Most OEM and third-party lens manufacturer's offer 20, 18, and 14mm fixed focal-length optics, most all with a maximum aperture of f2.8. For those using APS-C DSLRs you have a choice of zooms in the 10-22mm and 12-24mm range, most of which have maximum apertures in the 3.5 to 4.5 range. Chances are we will be seeing faster zooms and fixed focal-length ultra-wides in the not-so-distant future.

With the exception of 14mm lenses and fisheyes, most all ultra-wides accept filters. If you plan on shooting landscapes a circular Polarizer is highly recommended (you'll thank me for this tip too!). If you routinely make use of filters, you should keep in mind ultra-wide lenses, especially when used for digital imaging, push the limits of edge resolution. It's the nature of the beast. That said; try not to cut corners price-wise when purchasing filters for any ultra-wide lens. The differences between an OK filter and better quality filter will most likely show up in edge-quality of the pictures you hang on your wall.

Editor's note -- Don't ever try shooting a close-up portrait of a loved one with an ultra-wide.

Long Lenses
Just as ultra-wide lenses seemingly expand the space between objects in your pictures, longer focal-length lenses compress perspective and reduce the elements of your pictures to two-dimensional layers on top of layers. This effect becomes noticeable at about 200mm, really noticeable at about 300mm, and really noticeable at about 500mm. The results can be quite effective.

© Allan Weitz
More-so than ultra-wides, you have lots of choices when it comes to picking and choosing among longer focal-length lenses. If you have deep pockets and a pack mule at your disposal (long /wide-aperture lenses tend to be big and heavy), a 600/2.8 lens can be a blast to shoot with. For those of more modest means (and no pack mule), there are many long lenses available in the f4 to f/5.6 range (variable f-stop and fixed) that can be easily worn or carried for extended jaunts. If sporting events or low-light birding are your forte, go for the wider f-stops (and hire a mule). For the rest of us smaller, or variable f-stops should do the job.

Tele-converters are another way to extend the range of your lens arsenal without having to add additional weight and bulk to your camera bag. Many owners of 70-200mm zooms and similar lenses often carry 1.4x or 2x tele-converters to capture the occasional rhino stampede without having to stop at the chiropractor on the way home. You should be aware however, that tele-extenders work best with faster lenses as opposed to smaller-aperture lenses due to the inherent loss of 1 to 2 stops of light. An f2.8 lens with a 2x converter effectively becomes an f5.6 lens, while an f5.6 lens effectively becomes an f11 lens. Since most AF systems start to fizzle at about f8, choose your lens system carefully.

When deciding upon the best long lens for your particular needs, you should seriously consider a lens that contains Image Stabilization (IS), which is an option with many longer lenses, zoom or fixed. Lenses equipped with IS technology allow you to hand-hold your camera at shutter-speeds 2 to 3 times slower than you normally can minus the weight and expense of faster glass. According to the math you can hand-hold an f/5.6 IS lens as steady as a non-IS f2.8 lens of the same focal-length. IS lenses cost more, but you'll be more likely to take home sharper pictures when shooting under low-light conditions.

If you are currently shooting with a DSLR with a 1.5x or 1.6x magnification factor (Nikon, Canon Rebel/XT/20D/30D, Fuji, Sony Alpha, Pentax, etc) you're way ahead of the game as a 200mm lens effectively becomes a 300-320mm lens, a 300mm lens becomes a 450-480mm, and a 500mm effectively becomes a 750-800mm lens. Have a nice day. And make sure you pack a sturdy tripod!

The Long & Short of It
As I've noted, ultra-wide lenses and ultra-long lenses affect the look and feel of your photographs in dramatically different ways. Ultra-wide lenses produce dramatic, 'deep' images that rely heavily on subject placement within the frame, while long telephoto lenses depend on the compositional qualities of the various flattened shapes and colors within the image and how they play off each other.

To illustrate the differences between these extremes, I have chosen a few scenarios. The photographs of Parisian houseboats on the Seine River are a good example. The closer image was taken with a 15mm lens on a full-frame SLR. The image is a montage of triangular shapes and forms that create an environmental portrait of these colorful barges. The bows of the boats, receding from the camera position, draw you into the frame.

© Allan Weitz

© Allan Weitz

The same boats photographed from across the river with a 300mm lens have a totally different feel about them. The great expanse of 'depth' in the wide view is gone, replaced by a flatter, poster-like feel. The trees in the background appear to be growing alongside the boats when in fact they are on the far side of the bridge. The compressed reflections on the water become painterly. The only 'constant' between the two images is the early morning mist.

The photograph of an approaching storm off the coast of Miami makes good use of the attributes of Nikon's 12-24/4G AF-S DX zoom on a Fuji S2. By crouching low, I was able to capture the texture of the sand below the rippling waves as well as the black clouds of the approaching storm. A circular Polarizer eliminated sunlight reflections from the water surface (the sun was over my shoulder), intensified the emerald color of the water, and separated the texture of the gathering clouds from the blue of the sky.

© Allan Weitz

© Allan Weitz

As a contrast, late afternoon light falling upon boaters enjoying a lazy summer day on an upstate New York river touts the optical qualities of a 500mm lens on a full-frame SLR. The distance factors between the various elements within the photograph are all but nil. The barn and farmhouse in the background are about a mile beyond the cabin cruiser, yet if Aunt Bea stepped out on to the porch with a tray of lemonade and cookies, you'd think the skipper would be close enough to hear her calling and head back to the dock.

Amusement parks are always fun no matter what lens you choose. The roller coaster photograph was taken with a 15mm lens on a (very well secured) full-frame SLR. The purpose of this photo, taken for a magazine article about roller coasters, was to illustrate the view from the coaster as the cars spin upside down.

The other photo was taken with a 300mm lens. Here, a seaside amusement park is compressed into a collage of colors, shapes, and patterns.

© Allan Weitz

© Allan Weitz

If you are a medium-format shooter, you too can join the party. Most all 645 camera manufacturers offer 35/3.5 rectilinear ultra-wides, which replicate the look and feel of a 20mm lens on a full-frame 35, or a 14mm on an APS-C DSLR. Most 6x6 and 6x7 cameras from Mamiya, Hasselblad, Pentax, and Rollei, offer 50mm wide angle lenses, which are slightly less dramatic than a 35mm on a 645-format camera.

An absolute classic among medium-format wide-angle shooters is Hasselblad's 905 SWC Super Wide, which features a 38/4.5 Zeiss Biogon lens that delivers awesome wide-angle views with zero distortion. The Super Wide is compatible with Hasselblad film backs as well as a number of high-resolution digital backs.

For long shooting, depending on the model of your camera, lenses of up to 600mm and beyond. Most 645 cameras unfortunately top out at about 300 to 400mm. For more lens options for your particular camera visit the B&H website.

View the wide selection of lenses on the B&H website.

Please email feedback on this article, or suggestions for future topics, to emailfeedback@bhphotovideo.com.