Getting Back to Basics, or Photography on a Shoestring, Part 2-Choosing a Lens

As in birding, I see photography as having many “levels” or approaches when it comes to gear. The type of gear used, and the amount of it depends on personal preference, subjects to be photographed and budget.  There is no “wrong” way of choosing.

Tennessee Walking Horse mare using my shoestring 50-200 lens

Tennessee Walking Horse mare using my shoestring 50-200 lens

When I decided to simplify I had a long talk with myself.  Yes, I admit it.  Most people would have said that they “Gave it a great deal of thought”or that they “Analyzed the situation”.  But I talked with myself, sometimes out loud.

I have a hour or so commute each way to my day job.  So my first step in deciding to simplify was to spend that time thinking about what it is I want to be taking photos of.  My next step was to separate out the “What I  like taking photos of” from the “What I think I would like to take photos of if I had the time and money.”  There is actually a rather large distinction between the two.

The first can be easily seen by looking through the photos you’ve taken recently.  Which ones make you smile as they tickle your memory.  Which ones have captured the scene just the way you remember it.  Which ones make you anxious to go to the same location and shoot some more.  Those are what you like taking photos of.  The later, well those are more an offshoot of equipment desire.  The conversation usually goes something like this,

“That new alpha-beta-phi 300-600mm f4 is one sharp looking lens.  It’s GXA-p1 ratings are fantastic”
“What do you need a 300-600mm lens for?”
“I don’t know, but I bet I could take some really nice photos of rock climbers with it.”
“Do you take photos of rock climbers now?”
“No, but with that lens, maybe I’ll start”
And before you know it, you’ve spent the price of a small car on the new alpha-beta-phi lens and soon learn that it is too heavy to handhold, you forgot that you lent your tripod to a friend and haven’t seen it in six months, and there are no rocks worthy of climbers within a fifty mile drive of you.

Now there is an area in between.  That is when you know that the equipment you own isn’t up to the photos you want to take.  Like the poor guy who wants to take pictures of birds and only has a 50mm prime lens.  He gives it his best.  He uses a blind, spends hours letting the birds get used to his presence.  He has even tried a 2x teleconverter.  But he knows that in order to get the shots he wants, he will have to find a way to get a different lens.

Once I had separated my reality from my fantasy I went through all of my favorite photos and looked at the focal length I had used.  And, since I also shoot for profit; royalty free and rights managed stock photos, print on demand and work for hire, I also checked the focal length of many of those images.

Having put my dreams of long lenses for birding and wide lenses for sweeping landscapes on hold I took a long look at what focal lengths I had been using.  Despite having a range of 18-300mm (not all on one lens), My most common range for people and horses was 100-200mm.  For my style of stock photos it was 30-50mm and for landscape I hadn’t gone below 20mm.

So, now I began to analyze.   I took out my lenses that covered from 20-200mm and did static tests on them all.  From there I found that I had sharp lens coverage from 50-200mm and only poor to good coverage, depending on the lens, for 20-50mm.  My immediate reaction was to find an affordable zoom to cover from 16-45mm or so.  That would give me some extra width for landscapes as well.  Well on my budget it soon became apparent that affordable and sharp in that zoom range did not was not possible.

So I had another talk with myself and decided that I needed a sharp lens more than I needed a lens for landscapes that I only thought about taking.  So I turned to primes.  Well even then I still had some choices to make.  Based on my most used focal lengths I decided on a 35mm.  The next decision however again took some data mining.  I needed to know my most used aperture.  The faster the lens, the more expensive.  I was able to breathe a sigh of relief when I found that my most used apertures at that focal length were from f4 through f8.  My budget would survive my new lens.  The shoestring was still intact.


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Getting Back to Basics or Photography on a Shoestring, Part 1,

Photography can be done on many different financial levels.  There will always be those who spend more money on equipment than others.  There will always be those who have more time to devote to photography than others. And, there will always be those who use what they have available to get the best possible experience out of it.

Although it is often said that the eye behind the camera is the most important part of capturing an image, it cannot be denied that the right tools are also needed.  If someone wants to take photos of wild birds in flight, a  35mm lens will definitely not do the job as well as a telephoto lens will.  When the equipment is limiting what the photographer can capture than there are only three solutions.
Save to buy, borrow or steal the gear you think you need
Change what you’re photographing to match the limits of your gear
Find ways around the limitations.
This last one might not be easy, but along the way you may just find some wonderful and creative ways to make your vision come to life.

In 2011 a movie called The Big Year was released.  It was a comedy about three rival birders, each trying to see as many species of birds in the American Birding Association North American region as possible in one year’s time.  What most birders knew, and what most movie goers didn’t, was that the movie was based on a book.  And more importantly, the book was based in reality.  In 1998 three men did set out to break the record and each set out with different amounts of time, resources and knowledge.

The “underdog” Greg Miller, played by Jack Black (Miller’s name along with other actual persons portrayed in the movie, had been changed to something fictional) financed his Big Year with credit cards and loans from his family.   He also maintained a full time job, sometimes putting in 60 hour work weeks in four days before setting off on a three or four day weekend to achieve his goal.  All while his two rivals, successful business men both, had nearly unlimited funds and time to pursue the same goal.

Yet even Miller’s story of making do with what he had and borrowing to supplement it pales compared to the birder who inspired him.  In 1973 an 18 year old kid named Kenn Kaufman, using an inexpensive pair of binoculars, did a big year by hitchhiking around the country and sleeping outside with a sleeping bag and tarp.  The ultimate test of making do with what you have to create your vision.

As I thought about what I wanted to do with photography a paraphrased line from Kaufman’s book, Kingbird Highway, floated into my mind. “You have to make the effort to have the luck, and if effort contributed to luck, then a hard to reach goal  would provide the incentive for making a great effort.”

Although I have no plans to hitchhike across country, I do plan on using the equipment I have to the best of it’s and my abilities.




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