Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Lenses for travel photography - Part I (Lens Classes)

Cutaway of Zoom Telephoto LensThis week is the start of my seven part series about lenses for travel photography. The series is primarily meant for SLR and DSLR camera users who can attach a variety of lenses to their cameras to support their creativity and suit the needs of their photographic opportunities.

The series will include:
Wide Angle photo of the Golden Gate BridgeThere are four basic classes of lenses, defined by their angle of view: wide angle, standard, telephoto, macro. In addition to these general lens types, photographers use other terms such as super wide angle, fisheye, super telephoto, normal, close-up, micro, and others. These are either sub-categories or synonyms of these four basic types.

To understand these classes of lenses and their purpose, you’ve got to understand the term, angle of view. Angle of view, also known as field of view, is the area of a scene that a lens covers or sees.

I will avoid the difficult to understand geometric definition and use the following example. If the photographer stands in the middle of a circle, the angle of view is the size of the arc of the circle which the photographer can view through the lens.

The “angle of view” is mostly determined by the focal length of the lens. A wide-angle lens (short focal length) includes more of the scene than a standard (standard focal length) or telephoto (long focal length) lens. In the DSLR world, we also must remember that the “effective” focal length of a lens depends on the sensor size. This dependency is called the “Multiplier Effect” or “Crop Effect.” For a full explanation of this “Effect” see my article, The DSLR Multiplier Myth Exposed.

Wide Angle Lenses:

What do you do when you’re inside and you just can’t get more than 10’-20’ from your subject, when your back is literally against a wall? What do you do when you’re in an old European city, with narrow streets and you want to photograph a large building?

Answer: You put a wide angle (short focal length) lens on your SLR or DSLR camera to get a wide field of view.

Hearst Castle LibraryWhile touring the interior of the Hearst Castle in California, I put on a wide angle zoom lens to take photographs of the spectacular rooms in the Castle. The photograph on the left used a lens with a focal length of 10mm. You can see it enabled me to capture almost three fourths of the library. With a longer focal length lens, I could not have shown the details and breadth of the room.

City Theater of Bruges, BelgiumWhile touring the Medieval city of Bruges, Belgium at night, I could not have captured the full front of the City Theater, shown in the photograph on the right, without using a wide angle lens. The streets are narrow in this old city. A standard lens would have, at best, only captured the central section of the front of the building.

I have found wide angle lenses and/or wide angle zoom lenses essential for many cityscapes.

Standard Lenses:

Standard lenses were the ones normally supplied with SLR cameras in the past, and typically had a focal length of 50mm to 55mm. They have generally been considered good general purpose lenses having an angle of view close to the human eye. With the advent of DSLRs the idea of a standard lens initially became almost obsolete as DSLRs different size sensors, all smaller than the frame size of a 35mm SLR camera, which altered the effective length of the lenses used. For example, a 50mm lens on a Nikon DSLR with a DX size sensor has the field of view of a 75mm lens, which would not be considered a standard lens.

Therefore, we need to define a standard lens as having an “angle of view” similar to the human eye, specific to the particular camera to which it is attached.

Telephoto Lenses:

Surfers off Hookipa Beach, MauiThese are the lenses which allow you to capture distant subjects and enable you to see them up-close, from afar, or closer objects magnified which enable you to see otherwise hidden details. These lenses have long focal lengths, usually defined as having a focal length of 85mm or more.

The photograph of surfers off Hookipa Beach at Maui, above, was taken with a lens having a focal length of 400mm. Without a powerful telephoto lens, the surfers would have been little more than specks in the photo.

Notre Dame de ParisTelephoto lenses allow you to capture details which you might otherwise miss. I used a 200mm focal length lens to capture the details of the gargoyle on Notre Dame de Paris in the photograph on the right.

While telephoto lenses are a staple of wildlife photographers, they are also invaluable tools for photography in cities too.

Macro lenses:

Macro lenses permit photographers to get as close as a few inches from the subject of the photograph, unlike other types of lenses. Many true macro lenses will produce life-sized images (1:1 ratio) on film or sensors, permitting photographers to capture tiny details of small and tiny subjects which other lenses will not capture.

Note the detail in the macro photograph below of an orchid. You can actually see the small droplets of water on the flower’s petals. It’s almost impossible to capture the detail seen in the photo without a macro lens, with its close-focus, and life-size capture abilities.



Herb said...

As usual Ned you describe different facets of photography so clearly. I'm looking forward to the whole series.


Charlene said...

Ned, what macro lens or lenses did you use for the orchid photographs?

Ned S. Levi said...

Hi Charlene. I used the AF-S VR Micro-NIKKOR
105mm f/2.8G IF-ED for all the photos published in the new Parkside Orchid gallery.

I also used the Nikon R1C1 Wireless Close-Up Speedlight System for fill light in most of the photos in the gallery. (Speedlight is the Nikon brand for their electronic flash units.)

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