Monday, October 02, 2006

The standard lens

Love it or hate it the standard prime lens has a very special role to play in photography - yes I think even today with all those superb quality zoom lenses out there.

The standard lens has a focal length about the same as the diagonal measurement of the film with which it is used. The angle of view with this lens-film size combination is roughly the same at a given distance as the angle that the human eye sees clearly. For a 35mm film camera (or a full frame DSLR), the 50mm lens is considered standard.

The standard lens used to sold with cameras and it was certainly the most used before the advent of cheaper consumer zoom lenses.

Four key things combine to differentiate the standard lens from all other lenses:
  • standard lenses are prime (fixed focal length),
  • they are usually extremely sharp,
  • they have a wide maximum aperture (f1.4 ), which means you can achieve shallow depth of field and handhold in extremely low light
  • they show minimal distortion and provide a 'natural' looking perspective, close to the way the human eye sees
Many of the great masters and world's best photographers used their standard lens extensively. One of the most famous is Henri Cartier Bresson. He shot more than 50% of his work using a standard lens on his famous Leica. Other photographers who worked a lot with the standard lens include, Helmut Newton, Robert Doisneau, David Bailey, Ralph Gibson and the list goes on...

The standard lens is great for street photography and works well for certain styles of portraiture and even fashion. Many of the Hasselblad masters made extensive use of their 80mm standard lens.

So don't forget that little lens in your bag. As it's a prime lens it will force you to move around your subject thinking hard about compositions rather than zooming in and out. I often think that when it comes to creative photography you've got to 'move it or lose it' ie keep looking for fresh points of view or lose a certain amount of your creative vision. Working with the standard lens forces you to work creatively. I think it was Ernst Haas who said something like the following about using his standard lens, "I do have a wide angle. I just step backwards."

I often find when it comes to communicating with people I want to photoraph on the street that shooting with the standard lens works well because it's not intimidating like a huge telephoto zoom, it allows you to work at a comfortable distance - the wide angle is very in your face ie requires you being sometimes uncomfortably close to the subject, while a telephoto zoom sometimes puts too much distance between you and the subject.

Go on give it a try. It worked for HCB.

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