Zoom lenses have made us a little lazy.
Well, let me rephrase that. Zoom lenses have given us the option of being lazy.
But you don’t have to take it from me. Take it from Ernst Haas. He’s kind of a big deal.
The best zoom lens is your legs.” -Ernst Haas
I’d like to clarify something, though. I’m not anti-zoom lens.
Zoom lenses are awesome and super convenient. I’d much rather carry one zoom lens that covers a decent range than have 3 separate fixed-length lenses that still don’t provide the same flexibility but take up way more space in my bag.
Zoom lenses are also great for getting the precise composition you want in camera, rather than having to crop later.
This image of the Portland Head Lighthouse in Maine is basically what I would have seen with my 50mm fixed lens. It’s a throw-away photo. It’s boring and blah. But, as you can see, I can’t exactly walk closer to it or I’d be in the ocean.
So, if I wanted to shoot the lighthouse from this angle, I needed a longer lens, and my only longer lens was my 70-200mm zoom. This shot is much nicer.
The problem is that we can start to rely too much on our gear and its ability to make life easier for us. We then become a bit less mindful about our composition and tend to fall back on our camera to do some of our “legwork” for us.
For example, maybe we’ll look at a scene and think, “Oh, that’s pretty. I’ll take a photo of it.” Then we whip out our zoom lens, zoom in and out until we’re satisfied with the composition and press the shutter.
While this can be great when we’re on the go and don’t have much time to fuss with the composition, it can be harmful to you as a photographer in that you learn to make your photos by standing still.
When you are working with a fixed, or prime, lens, you’re forced to work with the inherent constraints of the lens – its length.
Why Prime Lenses Can Help Your Composition
Take, for example, my favorite lens – Canon’s 50mm f/1.8. Because it has a fixed focal length, taking a photo usually isn’t as simple as pointing my camera at my subject and snapping away (not that photography is ever that easy, anyway).
So because my lens only sees the world at 50mm, that means I usually have to move my feet to get the exact composition I’m seeking. I get closer or farther away and squat down or climb on something tall.
Whatever it is I’m doing, I’m (nearly) always having to move. Rarely do I find myself in the exact position I want to be in when I see something I want to create a photo of.
I captured this angle of the same lighthouse in Maine with my fixed 50mm lens after walking 180 degrees around the lighthouse to discover every possible view available to me from land.
This process of searching for and finding the precise location and angle of the shot we want is what pushes us as photographers and forces us to think twice about our composition.
In the End
At the end of the day, you may try this using primes and realize they aren’t for you. That’s ok. They definitely aren’t for everyone.
The biggest problem I’ve found is that you won’t always be able to get what you want, like in the top example above.
But at the very least, it’s a good idea to try it once, twice or every now and again to get your mind thinking about exactly how you’re composing your shots and relying on your zoom.
Whether you own a fixed focal-length lens, compact camera or only zoom lenses, you can still do this challenge.
Take your camera and your lens, pick only one focal length to work with and go out and shoot for 10 minutes, an hour or all day.
The focal length you choose can be anything you want – a wide angle like 25mm, a standard view of about 50mm or even a telephoto length of around 100mm.
If you are using a zoom lens or a compact camera, just remember that once you pick your chosen focal length, you can’t touch the zoom. Pretend your ability to zoom doesn’t even exist.
As you work through this challenge, you’ll probably notice how much you do have to walk around with your feet and how much you do actually rely on your zoom. But forcing yourself to move with your feet is a great exercise in learning to see more artistically.