I like to consider myself an open minded sort of person. I have strong opinions and passsions but they are flexible for the most part. Regular exercise and pursuit of things that are outside of my norm is something I really like to do — even when I find out that my norm is still my preference. What’s that have to do with the 50mm field of view? Funny you should ask… Everything.
You may have picked up my strong bias towards a 50mm lens on 35mm format medium. It’s not as if I’ve never used anything else. I’ve used everything else imaginable but that was for a specific purpose, intent, or effect. I’ve written many times about a few thoughts on this 50mm obsession. The meat of it has to do with how I like pictures to feel in terms of perspective, composition, proximity to subject, compositional flexibility and things along those lines. I’ve had enough practice where I can make a 50mm feel wide or feel more like a short tele. Within reason you can do that with most lenses that don’t scream crazy telephoto or fun-house wide. I know this, it just happens that 50mm sits on a boarder I find the most flexible with where I like to stand in relation to a human subject. Where do I like to stand? Pretty friggin close relative to where I see most photographers stand.
This post might turn out to be on the long side. it’s not at all about 50mm lenses or any specific focal length. In fact it’s not really about gear at all. It’s about biases and paradigms that all of us develop and how hard they are to escape from. It’s about constraints, accidents, and discovery. At it’s heart this post is about blowing away things you thought you knew and how tiny little things creep in to your head and sit there forever strangely influencing how you work. Please take this far far more as a parable than any specific gear related recommendation. Think of it as how you might put yourself in a different set of circumstances where you may discover something new or re-think long held beliefs in a productive way.
A few weeks ago I acquired a brand spanking new Nikon Df. I love shooting with this camera for a thousand reasons. It’s worth every penny I spent. One of the camera’s unique features shared with no other digital Nikon that’s full-frame is the ability to mount, meter, and conveniently use pre-AI lenses. For all of you non-Nikon shooters think really old glass that’s been made since 1959 in the Nikon F lens mount.
This was a feature that I looked at as a gimmick. Cool but not influencial supporting any real need or desire. I happen to have quite a few really old Nikon primes that would be a bit of fun to use again. Any of the glass I care about I have in more modern mounts both manual focus and AF that are better in terms of optics. Let’s just say it was for fun not a make or break feature having to do with my purchase decision. I would have bought the Df without that feature and don’t look at my pre-AI old single coated glass collection as any sort of real asset.
Fast-forward — I mounted a old 28mm Nikkor for the hell of it, took a few test shots of StupidCrap™ and put the camera away with that lens mounted. I to used it a couple of weeks ago durning a lighting workshop, a photo-walk, general shooting around the studio, and other here and there stuff. Not due to any specific intent but more out of laziness and the fact that none of those circumstances were real work. I didn’t really care what I made. None of it were projects or opportunities I considered making any sort of photograph I needed, wanted, or would use for anything but blog fodder or studio promotion. Guess what happened in my extended use of that little 28mm. I discovered something new I believed had been put to bed long ago.
Of course I own and use a bunch of wide angle lenses. Typically for some sort of pedantic reason such as a need to encompass a subject in the frame with space constraints. In other cases it’s for effect rather than my go-to lens choice as a default. I’ve written that during my X100S use that I grew to be comfortable with a 35mm field of view. Truth told, I still feel that it’s a less flexible 50mm for my use. In most cases I find myself shooting real work I rather have a 50mm mounted. When it comes to normal to wide-ish lenses my universe was a 50mm as a flexible workhorse, a 35mm as sort of a consolation prize that looks about the same just less flexible in terms of how I use it, 24mm for general wide kind of effect or need, wider than 24 on occasion for fun-house fun or practicality or the really odd occasion I wanted things all spread out looking. What about 28mm it’s not listed anywhere in there. Hmmmm, strange. Why not?
I’ll give you the re-tracing of history in a moment but before I do let me bottom line the deal on the 28mm focal length given what I shoot, where I like to stand, and how I like my pictures to look. I love the the 28mm feild of view on an FX camera. Love it, love it, love it. This is my wide. It’s not a compromised normal like a 35mm from my perspective. It’s not a crazy effect I would only use on occasion. This is it. This is the focal length I need in my kit paired with my first love — the 50mm. I can play this lens like I can a 50mm in terms of how natural it feels and how I can manipulate subjects to conform to my every whim. Not to look like my 50mm but look completely different in a natural way given the way I see the world. How could I have missed this? How am I discovering this so so far down the road?
You must understand I realized this after contemplating a bunch of images shot between Friday and Tuesday of this week past. I had a clue from my random but extended use a week or two ago. This was different. I shot a pile of stuff this weekend and the days surrounding it. Yep, did another workshop with it but far far more than that. All of what I shot one way or another happened to be human subjects. I only shot the 28mm. The workshop wasn’t laziness this time, it was intentful. So were all the other sessions I had over those four days. I thought long and hard as to how this discovery took me so long driving home from Baltimore two days ago. It’s not like I’ve never shot at 28mm before. It’s been included in the zoom range of zooms I’ve owned and still own. What caused this writing-off of something that is obviously useful, enjoyable, and matches up with where I stand, how I shoot, and what I like?
Let’s rewind the clock back to the late 1970’s. During my mid-teens I started to get serious aobut how this photography thing worked. I bought a book at the local bookstore. My very first book about photography. I had a camera, I knew I loved making pictures, now I needed to understand a bit more. I forget the title of the book. I still have it somewhere around here. Saw it a few months back so I know I still have it. The book title something along the lines of A Guide To 35mm Photography. It was small, black, had 35mm frame sprocket holes printed in white all the way around it’s black plastic cover. Written in the early 70’s. The book was heavily Nikon biased as that’s what the author used. The front section was all about gear choices. This is where my anti-28mm lens bias was born. I’ve never owned a 28mm prime lens, at least not through intent or purchase with my own money. The two that I have now were free within the last couple of years. Never used them up until now. Both are pre-AI. One a 60’s style lens and one a 70’s that could be mistaken as an AI mount.
That section that went through all the different lenses and focal lengths. It had lots of great information for someone that never used any of them. The author talked about lens characteristics, how they could be used, etc. I still remember the general message about the 28mm in the then current Nikon line-up. Something like this:
Don’t bother with the 28mm. It’s too close to a 35mm that’s more useful, cheaper, and sharper. The 28mm lenses aren’t as good and not really much wider compared to the 35mm so just skip it and go right to 24mm.
There it is. That bit of advice I took at face value has influenced my selection of lenses forever more. Not in any seriously held view. I didn’t run around screaming how I hate 28mm lenses. More of a subtle way. Just a subconcious lumping together of 28mm and 35mm. Guess what — it’s not even close to what a 35mm looks like when I use it. I have 24mm lenses, 20mm lenses, 18mm lenses, I’ve even owned a 14mm lens for two decades. Starting with the longest of that group, the 24mm, it’s way way too wide for general use for what I shoot and how I shoot it. Unlike the author I lump the 35mm and 50mm together as about the same but 35mm being the “less useful, more expensive, and less good”. Can use believe that? Decades of shooting and I never bothered to explore a particular focal length seriously on a sustained basis due to an influence and a set of assumptions acquired in my mid-teens. No shit.
This expierience has completely changed what I might buy and my thoughts on a general kit. I don’t think I’m really looking for a 35mm prime any more. I’m convinced my general go-to kit will be a 28mm and a 50mm with an 85mm chucked in there on occasion. The 28mm/50mm combo is a match made in heaven for me. Maybe not for you. All of this assumes a history and a sense of what you like to shoot and how you like it to look rather than coming at it from the other way around. The only reason I now know this is I have that experience. It has nothing to do with practicality or what other people like. The seemingly insane length of time it took me to figure this out is due to other peoples likes/desires/habits/opinions/etc. Here’s anohter aside — the only reason I am any good at using the 28mm has everything to do with how I have used a 50mm really really close for decades. The problem is not what I was doing or thinking or exploring in terms of my desires it was entirely that seed of someone elses biases that I internalized and didn’t go figure out for myself.
The moral to this story is to get yourself out of those thoughts that are firmly rooted in your own set of biases. Not thoughts that are at the forefront of your mind every day, the ones that are subtle, the ones you don’t think about much. Those things where you hold no strong opinions one way or the other. Seek out things on purpose that are way outside your norm. Try to do so on a regular basis. I do. Every time you do that you may not result in some epiphany. This was the first occasion in a long while doing something outside my norm yielded a discovery so profound — at least from my perspective. An accident? All discovery is accidental. The open minded part was mounting that 28mm and using it at all for more than just a few shots on one occasion. The open mindedness is not saying “I don’t like 28mm” so much so that I would never consider shooting one at all for a sustained basis or with a particular kind of subject.