In this post, I’m going to divide photographers into two broad classes based on their experience. One one side, there are the experts, which, as a rough and not at all original guideline, I’ll define as those with more than 10,000 hours of practicing their craft. One the other side, there are people who have only been seriously making images for a few years. I’ll call them beginners. However, many of those folks who fall into that category would probably bristle at that description, so I’m also calling them non-experts. I apologize for the clumsy language, and hope that you can see what I’m trying to get at.
On the Internet, aspiring photographers seem to use zoom lenses for the most part. Leaving out people with cellphones and simple point-and-shoot cameras, when I encounter people in the field, those who appear to be beginners (I judge by the way they hold their cameras, and by whether they seem to have a sense of working a shot) tend to gravitate towards zooms. This might be because kit lenses are usually zoom lenses; or is it the other way around: kit lenses are zoom lenses because that’s what non-experts want? Advice on Internet for a is heavily biased in favor of zooms for those who aren’t accomplished photographers.
Into this sea of agreement, I wade, displaying a banner that reads, “Primes for beginners, at least for those who want to improve their skills.”
When it comes right down to it, photography is about three things: where to stand, where to point the camera, and when to trip the shutter. Let me put lens focal length choice and framing into “where to point the camera.” When I see beginners using zooms, I see them standing in one spot, putting the camera to their eyes, fiddling with the zoom ring (or buttons (ugh)), and tripping the shutter. Where they stand is where they were when they were when they decided to make the picture. They’ve taken the first of the three decisions above off the table.
Photographers who are getting started on the learning curve who are using primes tend not to have their feet frozen in one spot. If they’ve got any sense of framing, they can’t stay rooted with a prime; they’ve got to move around. When they’re moving around, they have lots of options that someone twisting a zoom ring doesn’t have. They can change the perspective, correct mergers, introduce new foreground elements, and all manner of things that, if well chosen, can improve the quality of the result. It’s not that zoom lens users couldn’t do that just as well, but I don’t see that happening as much; the freedom to choose your focal length seamlessly seems to turn into a crutch to rely on.
Pros use zooms all the time, right? And pros, get their 10,000 hours in pretty quickly, so most of the pros you see plying their craft at events must, by my definition, be experts. What’s different about that?
Sure, people doing event photography often need the ability to instantaneously change focal length. One way to do that is to have a bunch of cameras (or at least two). Another, more desirable, and much less likely strategy is to have an assistant to hand you cameras and change lenses. The third, which can be used in conjunction with the first, is to use zoom lenses. However, I don’t see pros using a zoom lens as a substitute for moving around.
Here’s a big difference. Pros set the focal length of the lens, and then raise the camera to their eye. They know what focal length they need for the shot they’re trying to get; they don’t put the camera to their eye and hunt around for the right focal length (they might tweak it a little, but usually not). With the camera to their eye, they move their feet rather than the zoom ring. They don’t try to do both at once.
I propose that non-experts look at the way they use zoom lenses. Set focal length and work the shot, or work the focal length and trip the shutter? If the former, continue to use your zoom. If the latter, consider spending some time with a prime or two (or apply gaffer tape to your zoom ring).