Sometimes Bigger Isn't Always Better, It's Just Bigger

Lenses are like shoes, or even better, cars for some people. We can’t define the line where utility ends and accumulation begins; though our spouses often try to define it for us. Sure, the camera companies don’t make life easy; there seems to be a new lens introduced monthly. Canon dangles a carrot on a regular basis for the wildlife photographer’s dream lens (EF 400 f/2.8L IS II) that rarely seems to find its way on to store shelves. When it does, we lurch like a rabid feral animal at its first meal in days. Wildlife photographers in particular are special beasts that feed on bigger glass. As we stare at our ever-growing collection of optics, the question begs, which one will come out of the bag and why?

Copyright Joshua Holko, 2011.

Often, the reasons are an interesting study in human psychology. When shooting in a workshop setting, group dynamics often come in to play; each person looking around to see what lens everyone else is shooting with and either pulling out the same lens, or a notch up longer for ego sake. But bigger isn’t always better, its just bigger.

There is nothing wrong with a long lens. Focal lengths from 300mm to 600mm are great for situations where focusing in on the subject is key to the frame. Sometimes background distractions are easily obscured with a longer focal length by virtue of physics and their shallow depth of field capabilities. (A great primer on depth of field can be found on Luminous Landscapes In the case of the dirty penguin shot by my friend, and phenomenal photographer Joshua Holko, the dirty details matter. It’s bath time for this little fellow.

In many instances, a long lens is the only ‘safe’ solution. This is often the case when shooting certain types of wildlife. Mammals like giraffes tend to have a wide safety zone where no man shall enter. Predators or prey in environments where humans don’t frequent also don’t tend to allow us to get close enough with that 50mm f1.4 prime we love. Getting closer to fill the frame is simply not an option, so out comes the bazooka.

The biggest downside to shooting with a burly 500mm f4 isn’t the weight, or the limitation in movement; it’s simply that it often forces us to ignore the bigger picture. Sometimes, when every one else is reaching for the big guns, we should instead look around and see what the entire scene in front of us has to offer. I think the photo below drives this point home very well. On his recent trip to Antarctica, Andy Biggs focused on using lenses that don’t find enough time in his hands. Shot with his 24-70mm f2.8, this photo of a penguin tells a story that only a wider perspective can tell.

Copyright Andy Biggs, 2011. |  Nikon D3, 24-70mm f2.8, shot at f6.3, ISO 800

Lens selection plays an important role in the photographic process. But ultimately, the lens itself is simply a tool. Understanding which lens to use when and why is important. Having a vision and knowing how to use the tools is more important than simply being able to say that you own them.