Thursday, August 13, 2009

Do Zoom Lenses Make You Lazy?

First, let me say when I photograph a wedding I rely heavily on zoom lenses. I find that too many things are happening too fast to rely on having to reposition myself for shots or on changing my lens to a different prime. Also, I don't want to have to do a bunch of post-wedding image cropping when the lens I was using was too wide for the shot.

When it comes to my wedding photography, I have made a conscious decision that it is more important to catch as much as is potentially interesting as possible than to:
  1. use a prime lens for the ultimate in optical quality (a difference professional photographers might notice but many clients wouldn't and/or don't care about), or
  2. cut my shots down to *only* the premium artistic and emotional shots and become *really* good at properly positioning myself for them knowing I have the limitations of a fixed focal length (prime) lens on my camera.
Now, I should mention that I reduce the impact of issue #1 by using Canon's very best and most expensive zoom lenses; it's not like I'm using consumer grade zoom lenses..!

Issue #2 is more interesting to me.

There is an award-winning wedding photographer in the UK (whom I've mentioned before: Jeff Ascough) who believes that "less is more" and takes an astoundingly small number of photos during a wedding, even though he's using a digital camera and could easily shoot more at no additional financial cost--it's not a financial consideration. I just checked his blog and it appears he shoots with two cameras plus four prime lenses. He seems to be a good example of someone doing #2 above.

I believe that successfully doing #2 would require some transition time...and I'm certainly not going to "experiment" on weddings for which my clients have paid me to produce the same type of work they've seen demonstrated on my wedding website using my usual wedding shooting practices!

The thing is, there are significant differences between doing fine art/street photography versus wedding photography:
  • a client *pays* you to photograph a wedding; no one (yet) has paid me to go out and do some street photography...though I'm certainly open to offers..:p
  • there are no "must have" shots when you're doing fine art/street photography; it's pretty casual and purely up to your artistic choices
  • fine art/street photography can be as slow-moving or fast-moving as the photographer desires; a wedding photographer--especially a photojournalistic-style wedding photographer like myself--has little control over the pace of events at a wedding
  • in street photography, "missed shots" can be a disappointment for a photographer, but there are always more shots to capture (it's all part of the fun); for a one-time (well, it's supposed to be...) dynamic event like a wedding, a missed shot is a "hole" in the wedding coverage that the paying client may be very disappointed about and can't get back
  • the higher optical quality of a prime lens actually makes a difference in fine art photography because the audience for fine art photography actually notices that sort of thing (they're usually very "into" photos and looking at them in terms of quality); better quality also can make a difference when making large prints, which would be more typical in fine art photography
Let me address one other issue that someone might bring up about using prime lenses for wedding photography: prime lenses typically come with larger maximum apertures making existing light photography more feasible in dark conditions versus zoom lenses. I often switch to using some primes during a wedding reception once it really gets dark. But this works well for me for two reasons:
  1. I still keep one zoom lens on a camera with a flash because sometimes flash is the best choice and I might as well have a zoom lens that covers a good range starting somewhere wide, like 24mm or 16mm.
  2. Even though there are "must have" shots at a reception, I usually have plenty of time to ready myself for them (the DJ or wedding planner usually lets me know they're about to happen); otherwise, shooting at receptions is quite casual and relatively easily covered by fixed/prime lenses on my second camera
I'd like to step out of the wedding versus fine art photography discussion for a moment and briefly discuss the use of a fixed/prime lens for my fine art/street photography versus using a zoom lens.

We went on a family vacation during which I decided to shoot some of my leftover film using my Canon film SLR (an Elan 7). I decided to use my Canon 24-105 f/4 L lens with it as a good general purpose zoom lens. I generally enjoyed shooting film as a change of pace from shooting my usual digital; it helped me practice "waiting on" good shots, which I think is becoming a lost art now with the prevalence of digital photography.

Anyway, I got the film processed and scanned to disk. I was pretty pleased with the results; though it was difficult to know whether the photos that didn't come out very well were more due to the camera or the out-of-date film I used!

Shortly after that vacation, I got a hold of some compact 35mm film cameras with high-quality, fixed focal length lenses (Leica Mini II, Yashica T4, Ricoh GR1s) because my Elan 7 with the 24-105 zoom lens wasn't very compact; plus I had to worry about it (due to the relatively high cost of the lens) when I set it down to swim in the pool or whatever...and my wife absolutely hates having to keep an eye on my camera equipment!

Well, I was pleasantly surprised by three things:
  1. the quality of the photos was as good if not better than the quality of the photos I got with the expensive Canon "L" lens attached to the relatively large Canon SLR!
  2. the fixed focal length lens forces me to be more strategic and move around more to get a shot....and because of this, I'm getting photos I like better!
  3. I forget this sometimes, but one of the reasons I like photography is being outdoors and running around (I like this much better than spending hours at a computer)! I really like the fresh air and exercise...and bonus: this too usually improves the quality of my photography...:-).
Essentially, I'm using Jeff Ascough's "less is more" strategy in my fine art/street photography with some real success. I will have more on my experiences with the compact (point & shoot) film cameras in future blog posts.
So, what about the question in my blog post title: Do Zoom Lenses Make You Lazy? Here's my current answer: zoom lenses are a "crutch".
  • They help you make fewer decisions of a strategic nature when you are photographing; they cover more so you're giving up less when using them
  • They smooth over time/place "crunches" caused by dynamic events with simultaneous photo opportunities
  • They compensate for either the inability or unwillingness to move around more physically
I think the unfortunate thing that can happen is that you use zoom lenses even when you really don't need them. This *can* lead to a certain amount of photographic laziness that really can start to erode the quality of your photography.

If you feel like your photography is getting stale and you're relying a lot on zoom lenses, try changing things up by using some fixed focal length lenses and forcing yourself to see the world in an interesting way through that one focal length. You may be pleasantly surprised by what you find...:-).

Note: If you're interested in purchasing one of these high-quality lens, point-and-shoot film cameras I refer to, take a look in B&H's Used Store; there's nothing like them that you can buy new anymore...:-(.

Michael Grace-Martin is a professional wedding, portrait, event, stock, and fine art photographer based in Upstate New York. He is also the author of this blog. All images and text are (c) Michael Grace-Martin Photography. His main website is:

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