Living Wide

Practical Philosophies



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Living Wide
Learning to live without the telephoto zoom. Just how far can you go without the crutch of a long lens? It could be you're thinking about this the wrong way, and maybe that telephoto is what holds you back in the art of photography.

It's been my mantra for a few decades now, to get closer and shoot wider. The best way to improve your photographer is to get closer to the subject. That doesn't mean every situation calls for a 24mm lens, there are times when packing a 70-200mm is simply sensible. I always have one in the kit when on location for a commission, even though it gets mounted on the camera maybe twice in a week.

For the last 6 months I've been travelling without one at all. And it's rather a lovely feeling leaving behind the heavy glass and packing light. With just a pair of primes, 50mm and a 24mm, I've been enjoying the travel and photography in countries like Bhutan, Nepal, Thailand, Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia. I can count on one hand the times I've looked at a scene and thought, "This would look nice with the telephoto.".

Going Without

For many photographers telephoto is the definition of their comfort zone, somewhere they can retreat to and be a little bit lazy. It sounds innocent enough, and perhaps even a little seductive. To my mind it's one of the saddest things to observe, watching a talented individual step away from their potential and retreat to the telephoto. It's like watching a champion athlete giving up their career, because you know from that moment on they will never be any better than their past. The future is bleak.

Sounds a touch dramatic perhaps, but it's an honest frustration. By taking the lazy option of a telephoto you put a massive barrier between you and your subject, and a conceptual wall between you and your very best. You're accepting something very average under the guise of comfort.

There are two reasons why I believe this to be so. Firstly is my mantra of "Get Closer". Standing back with a telephoto will never reveal the full story, it crops out too much context and relevant information. Composition with a telephoto lens is a minimalist pursuit, with no room to move on your subject and next to no ability to bring in detail from the environment. It's a magnifying glass not a paint brush, a tool of detail rather than stories.

Wide is Wonderful

The second reason is the quality of image itself. Fast prime lenses deliver the opportunity to shoot with very shallow depth of field, which is a luxurious tool for creative composition. The faster the lens the more luxury you have to play with. Most times when people buy a telephoto they are going for flexibility rather than quality, meaning an 18-200mm zoom instead of a set of prime lenses. Instead of shooting at f/2 and delving into the velvety seduction of shallow focus compositions they are forever banished into the mediocrity of f/4 and above.

Shooting with primes is often seen as a hardship, or even a form of punishment. Nothing could be further from my reality of course, as prime lenses grant me freedom rather than a prison. I am free to contemplate my scene, my subjects and my composition without the encumbrance of where along the zoom range to start working. Reducing my kit to just two lenses, the 24mm and 50mm, I reduce an entire variable to a binary split - I just pick one or the other.

Keep It Simple

Liberation is what arises from lens simplicity. No zoom, no telephoto, no half measures, no permutations and no worries. Life is simple when your lenses are simple. I compose with a 24mm most of the time, and drop into the 50mm when I can't get close enough. My creative mind is fully attentive to the subject before me, and not worrying about the gear. I keep it simple with aperture selection too.Landscapes get an f/8 setting and pretty much everything else gets f/2 for shallow focus work.

My mind is free. Free to immerse in the subject and delve into the process of expression. Free to observe nuances in the light. Free to pause and engage with a subject. Free to experiment with the artistic nature of photography. Prime lenses allow me to focus on the "primary subject", a technique that helps me to shoot my best work in a wide range of circumstances.

Packing fewer lenses, scrapping the telephoto and skipping on a zoom means my mind is free to be creative. Photography is art after all.


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Just The Facts

You can checkout a range of photo essays from my recent trips in SE Asia, shot with the combination of 24mm/50mm prime lenses. Note that for cameras with an APS-C sized sensor the equivalent of 24mm is an 18mm lens, and 50mm is served with a 35mm lens.

Rangoon / Myanmar

Himalayas / Nepal

Festivals / Bhutan

Mekong River / Laos

Smoking Sadus / Kathmandu
This feature was last updated on Monday 20th January 2014

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Feature written by / Ewen on Google

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  Myanmar  Practical Philosophies  Wide angle  telephoto  prime  lens

Practical Philosophies

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