Zooms, Primes, and the Creative Process

Something I’ve been thinking about lately is the difference in my own photography when using different camera systems and lenses, and whether or not the tools I’m using have a considerable impact on the photographs I make. I shoot mostly digital, and some large format (4x5) film. I’ve realized that my thought process on composition drastically changes when I have the 4x5. There are many obvious reasons for the difference. For example, you can’t really carry a 4x5 field camera around to search for compositions. Because of that, much of my large format work is well planned and contemplated. Whereas a lot of my digital images are somewhat reactive to the conditions I’m presented with.

Another big factor is the glass used for each system. In LF, there are only prime lenses (afaik). This forces me to decide on focal length ahead of time, then really work the scene with that focal length in mind. I tend to stick to the ‘normal’ focal range of 150mm on the 4x5. With my digital kits I’m almost always using zooms and often will stick with a wide or telephoto perspective. I recently got into the Fuji system with the X-T3 and I’m considering getting a couple of primes for it to experiment with limiting my focal length options to see what kind of effect the lens itself has on my photographs and the thought process I go through to make them. I’m curious if my digital images would begin to resemble the photographic style of my large format work. I don’t dislike one or the other, but I do feel I sometimes have a better connection with a scene when shooting LF and it makes me wonder how much the focal length limitation has an effect on that.

I’m also curious if anyone else here has ever questioned this in their own work as well. If so, have you experimented? What conclusions did you come to?

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I don’t have a very good view finder on my camera and the camera is really too heavy to walk around looking for compositions with the lcd screens. My solution is to do all my seeing and framing with the iPhone. Once it’s to my satisfaction I arrange the big camera to what I saw with the cell camera.

I find the biggest difference between primes and zooms is one of convenience. That is, I can’t walk closer to make the desired composition so I use the zoom. In reality I never shoot at higher than 70mm so the zoom is used for minor adjustments.

So, in answer to your question, I don’t find using the zoom gives me snapshot images. I do see your point of view and can see how a zoom could lead to less mindful images.

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@Igor_Doncov I actually use the same composing techniques as you for my large format work. Once I’ve decided on a subject and which lens suits the scene, I use my phone set at the appropriate focal length to figure out exactly where I want to set up my camera. It’s not exactly a precise view, but it helps in determining the best camera placement hefore I go through the trouble of setting it up.

The convenience of zooms is undeniable, especially when physical limitations are a factor. They are also useful when photographing a subject that is less accessible due to terrain features, etc. For that I’ll always have them in my kit. Even if I decide to use more primes in my digital work to aid in composing a scene, I think I will always keep a telephoto zoom for those subjects that require a longer reach or tighter/more compressed composition. At those longer focal lengths, having the zoom becomes much more beneficial, if not a requirement.

It would be a fun exercise to see your LF and non LF work side by side to see the difference. I’ve never used a 4x5 but I can imagine that my work would differ too.

You can see lits of examples of my work on my website link in my profile . I wonder if other people would notice the differences in my 4x5 and digital work, or if it’s just the feeling that I get from it. Either way, I still think it would be fun to experiment with lens limitations on the digital camera for a while. Something to consider. I also have been keeping an eye out for photographers who use more prime lenses vs zoom and try to notice a difference in composition styles.

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Hi Dustin,

I attended a Bruce Percy webinar recently and he has an interesting opinion on zoom lenses. From his perspective zooms are much harder to compose with due to the variety of focal lengths and they discourage moving with your feet.

He suggested that you stick to certain focal lengths and aspect ratios for many months at a time as it takes a while to tune into that perspective. For example shoot at 4:5 and only use 35mm. 50mm and 70mm. After several months the eye will be more refined as a result.

I haven’t gone through this exercise but he is an artist who I think has a great eye for composition.

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Nathan, that is exactly the thought that I am having on the topic. That must have been an interesting webinar. I’m not familiar with his work but I’m definitely going to be lookong into it.

I carry zooms out of convenience and to a certain extent think they make me a lazy photographer. By this I mean that I have a variety of focal lengths at my disposal if I see a scene I want to shoot. In reality though many of my images are taken at a similar focal length. 20-24mm on the wide side and 135mm (ish) on the long side. I think from using the zooms I have developed a go to style as this is what my eye/mind sees. If i had to pick up a set of primes tomorrow, I think I would be shooting the same things - just with better glass.

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I use only zooms. Moving closer to a subject doesn’t give the same results as zooming in. You don’t get a 24mm view of a subject by shooting it at 100mm and cropping down to 24mm. With a zoom you can get close and shoot at 24 or stay far and zoom in to what you saw at 24mm from 100mm.

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@Eugene_Theron That is a good point about sticking to certain focal lengths in the zoom range. Come to think of it, I do that quite a bit, too. I’ll usually stick to certain FLs on each zoom lens I have. I think with the primes though, it may still force the photographer into a more thoughtful approach to composing, since the FL can’t be instantly adjusted back and forth.

@Igor_Doncov I think there may some misunderstanding here. I was referring to the thought process of composition using primes versus zooms, not so much wide angle versus telephoto.

I don’t think this is due to lens restriction but more to do with the amount of time it dedicated to make a shot. The longer you work a subject the more ‘connected’ you become with it and the more ‘contemplated’ the shot and resulting image.

However, if you look at images from photographers who shoot only LF you find that their work is more technically flawless but less creative. Their compositions are less varied in structure. That’s due to ‘planning’ a shot prior to making it I think rather than reacting to it. I just don’t understand how using more restricting tools (lenses) would result in better images other than the inherent sharpness of a lens. I guess I don’t agree with the premise that a prime lens will result in a more contemplative image than a zoom lens. I guess you’re suggesting that using zoom lenses results in snapshot images because of their ease of use. It can but that depends more on the photographer than the lens itself. Good images come from good seeing and that occurs before picking up the camera. If what you see is compromised by the restriction of the lens then I don’t understand how that can be a good thing.

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Hmm, very good points, @Igor_Doncov. Time in planning can absolutely influence a ‘connection’ with a scene. Something I should remember to consider. As far as lens restriction goes, I do agree that it is ultimately dependent on the photographer and his/her ability to compose a scene regardless of the tools used. However, the classic adage, “Limitation breeds creativity” keeps sparking my interest on the topic. This is why I sometimes wonder if all those focal lengths available instantaneously can become a distraction, rather than limiting oneself to just a single focal length. I don’t think it is a question to be solved by any means. More of a contemplation, thought experiment, or even field experiment to try for a time to see how processes may or may not change.

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Is this creativity in terms of the image or creativity in overcoming limitations? I think what you’re driving at is something like poetry, or even haiky poetry, where structure and limitations forces the author to utilize every word with utmost importance. The economy of words places greater value on each word. It’s an interesting idea. However, I would have to see how it translates to photography and the use of tools at hand. I’m thinking that a ‘poetic’ image would be perhaps a minimalistic composition with an economy of lines and shapes?

I think the greats (Weston, Adams, Strand, and Porter) from the golden age of photography continued to use LF over 35mm because of the quality of the prints that could be made, more than anything else. Adams was the best printer of the group but the least poetic in my opinion. Weston was a poet with the camera.

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I have Fuji’s 10-24mm and 55-200mm zoom lenses. I also have 23 f/2, 35 f/2, and 50 f/2 primes. I love both zooms and primes but for different things. My passion is both nature and street photography. I like both genre about equally. I use zooms for nature and primes for street.

I don’t notice a difference in optical quality between my zooms and primes. I don’t pixel peep or obsess about optical quality. The major limitation of both is human error on not focusing correctly.

I use primes for street because they are small. I am able to take better candid photos because I am not noticed. Fuji’s f/2 primes attached to X-T30 camera is small, light and unassuming. They are much better at low light then my zooms. Bokeh is much better with the primes for portraits. I also have far more ability to zoom with my feet with street and portraits.

Nature presents far less opportunity to zoom with your feet. There is always a stream or cliff in the way. For that reason I use zooms. I do use the 35mm prime some for nature but not much. Also I have never needed f/2 for a waterfall or a mountain. I hate primes for nature and I hate zooms for street and portraits.

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This begs the question of whether to stick with zooms or go prime. I honestly think the image quality would be better with primes only but think the hassle of changing lenses to suit may annoy me. Extra sensor cleaning etc

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@Igor_Doncov I was thinking along the lines of compositional creativity brought on by the exploration within the confines of a set focal length. Focal length determined by the photographer, of course, based on what he or she feels would be the best perspective for that scene. Artistic composition follows after FL is determined. Your structured poetry analogy is very much what I had in mind, and a very good comparison.

@Shawn_Grant very good points added here. If I was to experiment with a kit of primes I would likely still keep a zoom for the longer telephoto ranges as that’s typically when “zooming with your feet” becomes impractical in many cases when the landscape itself creates a physical boundary between you and the subject. And your right, different genres in photographu definitely have an influence over tool selection and preference. When I shot studio portraits I loved having just an 85mm mounted.

Yes, that is another issue with primes… changing lenses in the field can be a hassle and even risky in inclement weather. Then again, it maybjist force the photographer to scout firstn plan the shot, and mount the lens ahead of time, which all adds to even more compositional consideration and thought process. Not always practical, of course.

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Yeah I guess you could plan it all out but that’s also pretty boring sometimes. It think it’s cool to wander to new places and see what happens. Guess if you had primes only then it could limit your options

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