One Lens

Deliberately restricted to only a 50mm lens

We photographers often lug around so much stuff it ends up getting in our way and hampering our creativity. Let me recommend occasionally challenging ourselves to try a minimalist approach. Start with sometimes only going out with one lens and one camera body. One lens? Are you serious?

Yes. Some interesting things can happen if you really go with it. You learn to see in new ways.

Which lens?

Does it matter what lens you use? I don’t know. But probably not. The exercise is about discipline and mental training. Don’t take a 14-400 mm lens (does such a thing exist?) to make sure all your options are covered.

Just pick a good lens. When is the last time you used that 50mm prime? Yeah. Mine is usually not even in my camera bag. That is one reason it is a good one to choose for this exercise. For many of us, our lowly, unappreciated 50mm may be our sharpest lens. Just because it doesn’t cost a lot doesn’t mean it’s not good. These lenses are usually excellent.

The image with this post was taken on a “50mm-only” hike. I’m sure I would have framed the scene a little different if I had my normal zoom, but this made me think. And I like it. πŸ™‚

The lens is not the key, though. If you have a telephoto eye then a 70-200mm might be the answer. Better yet, maybe a fixed 105mm if you have one.

Limit yourself

Limit yourself?? That seems absurd. After all, as creatives we do everything we can to remove limits. To envision new things. To create.

Much good art happens as a result of exploring the limits of a medium. If we walk around festooned with multiple camera bodies and several lenses we definitely are not about limits. We’ve got everything covered. We are confident we can always get any shot we see, right from where we are standing. That is, if we can get the tripod set up and figure out which lens to use and get it installed in time before the moment is gone.

But if we limit our self to one lens a different mindset happens. If you’re really in the game you quickly learn to visualize the field of view the lens sees. Now we start to reframe the composition process. We work to the limits of the lens we have instead of picking the one we want to use at the moment. Now we begin to be drawn to scenes appropriate for what we have. Eric Kim says “By limiting your field of view, you are forced to capture reality into your limited frame in an interesting and novel way.”

Limitations can actually be very creative and enabling. The composition isn’t right from here, move. Yes, actually use your feet as a composition tool. Can’t take that shot because it requires a super telephoto? Don’t bother with it. Find a better shot that works with what you have. You quickly adapt to screening out the “not applicable” things and zeroing in on things that will work. It can be quite freeing and creative.

Get out of your comfort zone

One of the benefits of the exercise is that it gets you out of your comfort zone. Things that get you out of your comfort zone are usually useful. They may be uncomfortable (hence the name), but they can help us to see and perceive better. As artists I believe we owe it to ourselves to push the limits and try new things.

One very uncomfortable question is “what if?” What if I used a wide angle instead of a telephoto? What if I used a long exposure instead of freezing the action? What if I got down low and shot up to this subject? I’ve only got a 50mm lens, how can I creatively capture this subject? These kinds of explorations help us to break habits of always approaching shots a predetermined way. Consciously forcing ourselves to look at things differently is very healthy.

See with new eyes

This is what this is all about. Seeing with new eyes is part of what is required to be creative. We have to put things in perspective – usually a new perspective. Walk around it to see another side. Take a different viewpoint. Change the lighting. Change our approach to capturing images. As artists we owe it to ourselves and our viewers to bring something dynamic and interesting to our images. I believe we have to always be looking for new paths, new insights.

Stretching ourselves is always good, if we learn from it. Just like stretching and flexibility exercises are good for our bodies. They keep us fit and slow down the effects of aging. Creative exercises to stretch our mind and vision is at least as beneficial. Our bodies will age regardless but our minds can be sharp until the day we die.

But a challenge here is to learn from it. We get stretched by things that happen to us but we tend to shrug them off and try to get back to normal ASAP. But it is useful to ask what can we learn and change in our lives? It is healthy to force ourselves to stretch.

In the same way, an exercise like restricting yourself to one lens is a mental exercise, creativity training. It can stretch us and help us get new insight on our vision. And you will appreciate not carrying so much stuff. That in itself is freeing.


Flowing green shapes and lines

For many people, one of the fundamentals of the craft of photography has been pre-visualization. This simply means that before exposing the image you have worked out the exposure and what mood and effect you want to capture and how you plan to process it.

I’m going to push back on this idea. My premise is that pre-visualization is no longer as important as it was in film days.

Ansel did

Yes, Ansel Adams was a big proponent of pre-visualization. He said β€œthe term [pre]visualization refers to the entire emotional-mental process of creating a photograph, and as such, is one of the most important concepts in photography”.

I think he got a little carried away here. He is veering into mystical/religious experience. The reality is that, because of the technology of the time, he had to pre-visualize carefully to get good results.

Think about it, he was shooting film – no immediate preview. He was shooting black & white – he used strong filters to change the tonal arrangement, and he had to anticipate the result mostly based on experience. Negatives had to be developed and this introduced ranges of contrast choices that couldn’t be seen until after the fact. And then there was reciprocity failure that required compensation for long exposures – something those of us shooting digital don’t even know about. His negatives had to be fairly low contrast to try to capture as much information as possible so he could spend hours in the darkroom creating a final print. He generally exposed pretty conservatively to make sure he got something to work with.

All this made it critical to him to plan out exposures and filter sets and contrast ranges as much as possible without actually being able to see the result. Everything had to be carefully done to capture a decent negative for processing back in the darkroom. Hence, a strong need for “pre-visualization”.

Ansel and some of his associates even developed the famous “zone system” as part of pre-visualization. It divided the world into an 11 stop range from black to white. In normal practice, they pre-planned where the significant tones would end up after development and printing. This was part of the process of trying to make a useful negative at capture time.

Fast forward

We live is a very different world. Shooting digital, we can see a preview image and its histogram immediately. We know what we captured.

And our modern digital sensors are incredible pieces of technology. Despite what Moose Peterson famously says in some of his videos, we can capture a dynamic range of about 14 stops, with a “useful” range of around 8 stops. That is a game changer. And if that is not enough it has never been easier to use high dynamic range (HDR) to capture about as much as you could want.

For those of us still doing black & white – I love b&w and do it a lot – it is the best time in history to practice this. Very few people actually shoot in b&w, e.g. have their cameras physically modified to remove the Bayer color filter. Instead we capture full color images and use the fantastic post processing capabilities we have on our computers to do the conversion and tone mapping. But we don’t have to pre-visualize the tone effects we will get because we can non-destructively play with a wide range of effects to work out what we like. And we see in real time what we are getting. Ansel would have killed for this.

Post pre-visualization

John Paul Caponigro has said “Digital allows us to get away from pre-visualization and get back to visualization.” What does it mean? How can it be?

My take on this is that we are much freer now to let our creativity run wild. Unlike previous generations of photographers we have immediate viewing of our images and non-destructive editing for post-processing. Every frame can be a different ISO speed. It doesn’t cost much or usually take much time to shoot a bracket of images to make sure we get a good original.

And now, instead of huddling in the dark smelling strong chemicals, we can sit at our computer with a nice glass of wine and interpret an image however we want. The range of options is staggering. There are far fewer limits now. It’s a good time to be a photographer!

This plays directly to the imaging style I love. In the field I can be in the moment. As long as I am making good captures I don’t have to have worked out in detail exactly what I am going to do with each image. I am free to treat the processing as an almost completely separate creative act. The raw image can be modified in ways Ansel never dreamed of.

If you can get to the Luminous Landscape web site Alain Briot has a good discussion of this topic.

Getting a good capture

Pre-visualization is much less important now as long as we capture as much data as possible. Get a well formed histogram. Expose to the right where possible to avoid noise. Use appropriate technique for sharpness and detail.

Capturing good images is still an art form. It is just my personal values, but pointing your camera at a scene and saying you will crop a good image out of it later and “Photoshop out” clutter is sloppy thinking and lazy. I believe I should decide what the subject is and create the best composition when I am taking the picture.

Being an artist includes being a good craftsman.

Wonders of post processing tools

Pre-visualization is not as important because of the wonders that can be done now in post. I do not agree with the philosophy that “if it doesn’t work in color make it black & white”. But it is true that the decision does not have to be make up front. That is the point. I can make an artistic decision later when I determine the look I want for the image. I did not have to put a red filter on the lens or carefully place the tones on a zone scale. That can all be done in post processing. It’s great!

Darkroom work was sort of the dirty little secret of photographers way back. They would labor for many hours to coerce a good print out of a negative. We might still spend hours post processing, but we are probably playing with alternate looks and having a lot of fun with the image.

Free your spirit

I am telling you my interpretation and what works for me. I believe we have been liberated from the detailed planning that was necessary in the film days. Now imaging is a more fluid and artistic medium. Pixels are data. Data can be processed many ways and to different degrees.

It is not uncommon for me to see something completely different in an image at post than I felt in the field. This is one of the joys of being an artist today. I am free, creativity can flow, I am not tightly constrained by what I planned at capture time.

I encourage you to not be burdened by a literal concept of pre-visualization. Do your best creative and technical work when you are capturing images and then feel free to decide how you really feel when you process them. Give yourself permission to follow your instincts and take each image where you want to go.

Filling the Frame

Frame adds energy to the composition

A unique characteristic of flat (2D) art is that it lives within a frame. That is mostly what I do right now – 2D art – so this interests me a lot. All 2D art is about how we choose to fill the frame. The process is very different between camera-based art and paint-based art


Composition is the art of filling the frame. This is one of the holy grail topics of art. Theories, opinions, and good and bad advice abounds everywhere you look.

It is easy to get inundated: rule of thirds, golden ratios, leading lines, diagonals, eye lines, visual flow through the image, contrasts, etc. All of these things are real; all are important; none make a great image. At least, not by themselves.

That is the thing, Composition “rules” are the basics that everyone needs to study, but they are not what actually makes art. Pick one for example: the golden ratio (or golden mean, or Fibonacci ratio). The principle was worked out by the ancient Greeks or earlier and is still taught today. It is still a valid principle to create pleasing constructions. An attempt to simplify it has led us to the famous and often abused “rule of thirds”. Most of us are aware of this guideline and think about it when composing a scene.

Composition rules are just a catalog of things discovered over the ages as ways to achieve good effects. They do not mean much in themselves. Following all the rules does not mean you have a good image and ”’breaking” the rules does not mean you have a bad image. I recommend you learn and follow the rules, unless you decide not to.

Regardless, the principles of composition are equally applicable to all forms of 2D art.

The frame

One of the less discussed elements of composition is the reality of the frame, the border, the edge of the image. Strange and wonderful things can happen as you create within this constraint.

I think we often just disregard it as just the fence we can’t go outside of; the crop rectangle that determines the aspect ratio of the image. While this is true, it can be more.

We need to be very aware and careful of things entering or leaving the frame. And we must consider how compositional elements like diagonals interact with the frame boundary. And extraneous bits of stuff along the edge can be very distracting. Making clever use of the frame can add energy and interest to an image.

I believe these things are more important in photography than in painting. But that’s just my opinion.

A blank canvas

We are to one of the most fundamental differences between painting and photography, which is what the artist starts with. In general, a painter selects every element for inclusion in his frame. A photographer consciously decides what to exclude from his frame.

The painter starts with a blank canvas. Nothing exists there unless he chooses to put it there. All aspects of the composition are completely controlled and deliberate. He is not constrained by the reality of the real scene, if there even was one. He has no excuse for distracting elements or poor composition.

A full canvas.

A photographer, on the other hand, has the opposite problem. When the shutter opens, everything within the field of view of the lens is immediately recorded by the sensor. The artist here has to do most of his work before recording the image.

Photography is the unique art of taking out what we don’t want. We do this by where we place ourselves, lens choice, shutter speed, and mostly, looking through the viewfinder to see what the image will look like and making adjustments. All the while tuning and enhancing the overall composition. This takes a lot of practice.

The great Jay Maisel said “You are responsible for every part of your image, even the parts you’re not interested in.”. We have to learn to really see what is in our frame and recognize and eliminate distracting parts. The natural tendency is to fix our attention on the subject and not see the bad bits. This awareness has to be learned.

It is true that we can do a lot of housekeeping in Photoshop, but a good craftsman only uses that as a last resort. It is much better to eliminate the problems up front if possible. Plus, capturing what you want saves a lot of post processing time. Just my opinion, but “no problem, I can fix that in Photoshop” is a lazy and sloppy attitude. I assume if you read this you don’t mind me expressing my opinion. πŸ™‚

The artist selects

Filling the frame is a process of selection. Painters decide what they are putting in. Photographers decide what they are taking out. Either way, the artist must become skilled in being aware of the composition and how all the elements of the image work together to support it. This is design. It is what we do.

The frame gives an image space to live in. It can support the composition. It may enhance the drama or sense of space. All in all, the frame is a very important part of the creativity of image making. Never overlook it as you are planning your art.