Prime Numbers -Why I Love Fixed Focal Lengths

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Taken on my Nikon D3300 with the 35mm f1.8 DX lens.

Zoom lenses are one of the more developed areas of modern photography, covering ultra wide angle to extreme telephoto and with increasing capability. They provide convenience and less compromise with each new version. This is to be applauded, more quality glass is always a good thing. I’m not without zoom lenses myself; I have the Canon 17-40L and 70-200 L F4 in my collection. However, my most favoured lenses have become primes. It all started with the Canon nifty fifty, that plastic, noisy lens that just happens to be good quality and at the bottom of their price range. Auto focus was loud to begin with, but stray sand got into the barrel to the point where it sounded like a robot with arthritis. So I began to manual focus it and I loved it. Prior to this, I often shot the Sigma 10-20 on my 20D and my style at that time was decidedly wide angle. That 50mm lens changed my style, for the better.

Shorn of bending perspective to my will, with results that don’t often look good to my eye a decade later, I was now shooting in a more standard way. Of course, that 50mm lens was 80mm in APS-C money, but I was now looking at potential images differently. More abstract, wooed by the fast aperture. More often stark, black and white to go with it. Primes made me change drastically from stock landscapes and long exposures, and 10 years later, had a bigger influence on my style. My next prime love was the Helios 44M. With a screwmount adapter for EOS, I was able to make use of a lens I’d idly collected when I went through a phase of buying cheap film SLRs. Wow, what a creative spark it ignited. On one trip with it I re-imagined a leaf as the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury and the light between two tree trunks as the Hot Gates from Spartan mythology. I was thinking more about the final image, because I had one focal length and that was anything but a limitation.

Fast forward to this year and I bought the Fuji with its 35mm equivalent focal length. I also bought the Sony RX with its 24-70. It’s not that I’m zoom averse, but I just prefer the tactility of primes when manually focused. The reason I have so many different options is because I’d rather shoot with something designed for that purpose, more often. The Sony is perfect for my work bag, but unlikely to be my choice if going out specifically to photograph. This also ties in with my recent posts about smartphones and the fully manual Canon I wish existed; disparate notions, but both speak to my preferred approach to photography. That is, work within confines to boost creative thought and shoot manually as much as possible, so the act of taking the photo is all part of the experience. A good prime ties-in both of those ideals pretty well.

 

Thanks for reading. Matt.

Fuji – the monochrome shooter’s colour camera.

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What is it that makes monochrome photography so alluring? The street masters shooting Leica? The chance to see the world in a way our eyes cannot? Or is it simply because capturing light and shade is so darn aesthetic it’s almost impossible to not love it? For me personally, it’s definitely the latter two reasons. I don’t practice street often and I certainly don’t have the confidence to take candid portraits more or less against the subject’s will, but that’s just me; power to those who create the compelling images I could not. My Huawei phone has a black and white sensor, which feels liberating – not having to shoot colour and desaturate afterwards. I definitely make regular use of Monochrome because of that feature.

My Fuji X100F has the Acros film simulation, with colour filter options and whilst it is not a B&W sensor, the camera has been engineered to capture light and shade in a most beguiling way. I find it difficult to shoot in colour with this camera, because the pull of Acros is so strong. The contrast, the dynamic range. Even with grain effect set to weak these are lovely images. I’ll attempt the odd street shot, I’ll point it at daytime clouds. I’ll find quiet nooks with beams of light, just for the heck of it. It’s just the perfect digital camera for mono photography.

However, colour is useful. Colour can inspire emotions just as well as black and white. More upbeat, vibrant emotions. A sunset in mono would be wasteful of all that natural splendour. A tropical sea would be rendered in fifty shades of grey with none of the Moana charm. So with Velvia and Astia film simulations, Fuji cameras offer colours that really pop. Colours perfect for the occasion. I prefer Velvia, as it is saturated but retains the clinical look of monochrome. Astia smooths in the way the film might, which would be nice to try on a misty Autumnal morning no doubt. In Velvia, I have a camera setting that pulls me from mono, but in essence, offers everything I enjoy about black and white. The tonality is there, the contrast. The rich, hard to quantify appeal is there. Some people would call it micro contrast, perhaps. Whatever it is, between Velvia and Acros I have found the camera that inspires the creativity in me as much as my old EOS 20D with Sigma 10-20 did a decade ago.

Cheers, Matt.