The most important learning curve in your Photography — your Lens

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Fidicinstrasse ,with Water Tower Berlin 2019, Sean P. Durham

You’ve read about people who freak out about the best lens, the coolest lens and the absolutely must buy lens. They can make you feel like the little bag of photo-glass that you carry around with you doesn’t cut the mustard anymore.

It’s a sad fact that there is a lot of bad advice about a lot of things on the internet these days. One of them being photography, how to take photos and everything connected to equipment in photography.

There is also good advice out there on the net, but you need to learn about photography to be able to separate the chaff from the wheat.

The lenses that you have are just great, it really is up to you to figure out how to get the best from those one, two, three lenses that you have. Honestly, you can push a lens to the limits and find out what it’s real value is if you hang on to it. Then work through the first stages of getting to know how it reacts in certain light and how good it is at different depths of field.

Effects of Depth of Field

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Photo by 🇨🇭 Claudio Schwarz | @purzlbaum on Unsplash

The photo left gives you an example of a narrow depth of field.

Depth of field in a lens is about being able to broaden the range of focus into the subject you are photographing. Think of the depth as having a starting point where the camera lens is pointed and the depth of field spreads away from your focal-point into the composition, or envelopes more of the object. The result is that the viewer of the final photograph will have more information to look at and ponder when considering the photograph.

And there are good reasons to consider taking your shot with a tighter DoF.

If you are outside, the weather is fine and bright, you can expect to set up your camera to take depth of field shots as you please. The enemy is low-light situations. Why? Because low light means that you must adjust the F-Stop down to open the aperture enough to allow a lot more light into the camera, this means a slower shutter speed — the clunk-cer-click sound you can hear when you take a photo.

  1. F 1.8 and slow shutter speed 1/60 will mean that your depth of field is tightly focused. But the aperture is wide open, and the amount of light that enters the camera is increased. You must counter camera shake against the possibility of blur in this instance.
  2. F 11 and a shutter speed of 1/500 is a good place to start to see better depth of field where you capture more information. Mostly for outdoors, or interiors with good photo lighting set-up.
  3. Fast shutter speed will increase the ability for a sharper, crisper finish to a photograph because there is less time for light to invade the camera sensor and over-expose.
  4. Learn to make judgements about the light source and its intensity, the time of year, clouds, dusk and dawn situations. All of these are the factors that you must combine into your Depth of field/ focus thinking.
  5. Don’t follow rules. Find out what does work and try and take photos in impossible situations of light, then see why it did or didn’t work. If you learn in this way, you will be able to read about technical aspects of photography with a foreknowledge of the scheme of the essential things to know.
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Photo by Brandon Mattingly on Unsplash

The type of lens that you are using will also determine how close you can and can’t stand to the subject. Closer means less depth of field is possible, farther away from the subject allows you to play with the depth of field.

An example would be to test the distance to an object with a 50mm lens, then a 85mm lens. The 85mm needs more distance from the object in order to get a better focus. Both lenses are suitable for similar compositions, such as portrait or street photography.

A landscape photographer will often want to get as much of the scene into focus as possible. This means working with an aperture set at around F 22 if possible. At F 16 there’s still a lot of depth of field, but it will be limited to a relatively smaller space in a large area that might spread across miles of land.

A portrait photo or a close up street shot is a matter of personal of choice, but if you want to throw the background out of focus and keep the depth of field tight enough to only focus on the subjects body and a certain amount of head depth, so you can also see the detail around the ears, you will need to think about a low F-stop number being a good choice. F1,8 will mean that your lens will keep a nice DoF from the tip of the nose to the eyes and cheek bones, and the plane of the face. You will notice that the ears are already becoming a bit fuzzy, and undefined. nevertheless, you will finish with a good portrait if that’s the personal choice.

In portrait photography it’s likely that you’ll end up experimenting with lighting, flash, speed-lights, strobes, and house lamps that with a suitably powerful bulb in it will raise the value of the light-source, enough to be able to plan a deeper focus into the subject’s body and face.

Think about the type of portrait where two or three people are standing or sitting together, it’ll look a bit boring if they all sit exactly the same distance from the camera lens just to get the depth of field right.

People mill around and the photographer must be quick in deciding about holding them in a composition for just a moment, adjusting the camera accordingly and taking a shot.

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Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

You must have a strong intention when taking photos, know what you want. Knowledge of lenses and how they function is number one in your learning process, keep testing things out, make tons of mistakes and ask lots of questions about why you made a mess of a shot — believe me, you’ll gather so much knowledge about how flexible your 50mm kit lens is, that you won’t ever want to sell it, or abandon it for some super lens you saw advertised, it’ll become your tool of the year.

I have three favourite lenses. 50mm, 85mm, and a 18–55mm lens which I bought dead cheap on ebay.

I’ve learned a lot from these three lenses, especially the mega-cheap 18–55mm Canon lens. I can only use it on my crop-sensor camera, which is a Rebel, but it has a quality about it that gives you a professional looking shot with a special finish to the colours that can make you gasp. And to gasp and feel the joy, is what taking photos is all about.

I’m not too keen on big tele-lenses, I live in a city and have little need of long distance shots. When I go out and do street-photography I like to switch between the 50mm, 35mm or the 85mm. The 85mm allows me to stand back a little more and avoid disturbing people too much, when I have my Bruce Gilden head on, I’ll use the 50mm lens and get in close enough to wake people up with my presence, that I might get a strong reaction — normally good for festivals or in places where people are having fun.

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Photo by Boxed Water Is Better on Unsplash

Getting a grip on how your lens reacts to different lighting is a matter of practice and time.

Photography is a wonderful learning experience that requires patience, when you make a mistake you are learning, big time, take risks with your settings and find out if it works or not.

Get away from the “P” setting immediately — that’s for technophobes and lazy thinkers. Work with your camera set on “M”, and find out what’s best for you, and what happens with different combinations.


Don’t be afraid to delete crappy shots from your camera. If you don’t, you might find that when you are post-processing you are tempted to spend time trying to save a lost cause of a photo, an absolute waste of your time, go out and take the shot again and get it right with your new knowledge.

Be open to experiments. Use the lens that your gut tells you will give you better results than what the guy on YouTube told you.

Learn from using photoshop. When we post process photos, we are thinking more deeply about what we have done. It’s at times like these that we can find out that Photoshop has a pretty cool hack to correct our mistakes. Use the hack once, understand it and then promise yourself that you’ll make sure the next shot doesn’t have the same mistake in it.

Use Processing software for the minimal adjustments — everything else should be happening during the photo shoot. PS and Lightroom are great, but they are no more than a modern version of the darkroom. Beyond that, they are image manipulation with no end to the possibilities. If you can imagine it, Photoshop can show you the way to get it. I love it.

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Berlin Notes — Writing about the Creative Art of Living

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