Classic Questions on Photography: Which Lens?

Every photographer, whenever they start or dip their toes in the proverbial waters, starts wondering about their gear, their work, and how to do things.  And, in search of answers to questions – we start asking them.  One of the classic questions is “What camera should I buy?”  Another similar one is “What lens to get?”  There are more (of course), but these are two of the most commonly asked questions I’ve had proposed to me (and that I’ve proposed myself in the past.  The answer though, is a bit more problematic, because there are qualifiers to everything.  More often than not, the answers start with the inevitable “It depends…”  The reason is – it does!

For lenses, the “depends” factor relates to what you want to shoot because your subject matter will define the focal range that is best suited to your purposes.  Here are some general rules of thumb to follow:

  • Wide Angle Lenses

Wide angle lenses (in my opinion), are best suited to a few specific styles and subject matter.  I’ve found that the wide angle of view is best suited to subjects like landscapes and architecture.  Wide angles allow you to capture a greater sense of scale, where clouds, skylines, building lines, and other scenes like this.  In general, the focal lengths that I would put in this category range from the low end of 10mm up to around 35mm.

  • Portrait Lenses

These are the lenses that are really best suited for portrait work.  Take someone’s picture with a wide angle lens, and the proportions can be very unflattering.  Alternatively, taking portrait pictures with a zoom lens requires to to be pretty far away, which makes for less interaction.  I like to really catch the details of people’s eyes, and be able to interact, so certain lenses work better for this.  The ones that I like for portrait work range in focal length anywhere from 50-200mm.  The 50mm (or nifty fifty) is the classic portrait lens, and when you shoot portraiture with one of these on a low aperture (f2.8 or lower), the results can be very appealing with some nice bokeh yet your subject is tack sharp.  You can probably go up to about a 200mm lens, before you are just too far away (for my taste).  Ironically, as you go up to the higher range of zooms, the higher focal range will compress things which can be more flattering, but you do so at the expense of being able to interact

  • Zoom Lenses

The zoom lens is probably the most obvious lens type and function.  Zooms are intended to take photos from further away than you normally would be able.  This makes them ideal for things like wildlife, sporting events, and things of that nature.  While preferences may vary, for me I would define zooms as anything above the 300mm level.

So, those are my general categories for lenses.  So, when you ask me what lens you should buy, I’ll ask what you want to shoot.  From that, these guidelines can help answer the lens question in better detail.  So, there’s my answer to the question of “Which Lens?”…what do you think?  Like it?  Make sense?  What are your categories?  Got any favorites?  Sound off in the comments, and share your own thoughts on the question of “Which lens”.  Until tomorrow, keep those lenses open and Happy Shooting!


P.S.  Tomorrow, the Guest Blogger series is back and we’re going across the pond – literally!  So, be sure to tune in to Kevin Mullins, a wedding photographer from the UK.  He’s got some great stuff to share so be sure to tune in then.

Tuesday Top Five Nuggets

In lieu of a software review, today instead just a couple news nuggets for you.

  • First up, the finalists of the $500 giveaway have been determined.  These six finalists are being considered to win a pretty impressive package of stuff including a Thinktank Photo Multimedia Bag System and a complete set of the Topaz Labs Photoshop Bundle.  View the finalists gallery here.
  • Next up, a recommendation:  Even if you aren’t a subscriber to the Rangefinder Magazine (although you should be), you can read the current issue online here, (it’s a PDF download) which includes in the most recent issue an interview of none other than David Hobby, founder and author of the world-famous Strobist blog.
  • From Scott over at one of my favorite daily reads (Weekly Photo TIps), there is a new PBS series starting this week on National Parks.  I am definitely setting the DVR for this series!
  • As a longtime fan of DIY-projects, this one on making a tripod for your P&S (or iPhone) out of a paperclip was just too cool to leave out of the list.
  • And finally, for those that just insist on getting a photo fix regularly, visit former contest winner John Dunne’s blog, My Chi to see a great dilemma as he is torn between a color and a black and white version of a sunrise scene on the Promenade (psst….I like the black and white version!)…

Well, that’s it for today, be sure to stop back tomorrow for another dose of inspiration as we hit the midway point of the week (a.k.a. hump day)!  Happy shooting and we’ll see you then…

Hardware Review: XRite Colorimeter

Eventually you knew it was coming – the subject of color management.  Now before you mosey along, or your eyes glaze over, rest assured, this is not going to be the typical discussion of color management.  I am not going to talk about LAB color vs CMYK, vs RGB, or anything like that.  And even though the term “colorimeter” may sound like something Marvin the Martian was going to use to destroy Earth in the classic Bugs Bunny cartoon (that was the Illudium Q-36 Explosive Space Modulator), there is nothing overly scientific in today’s post.

Well, that’s not entirely true – it is scientific, but I certainly will not portray to understand any of that.  Instead, I am going to show you how easy it is to calibrate your monitor using this device.  Now I am looking specifically at the one from X-Rite (I own the Gretag Macbeth version from before X-Rite bought them), but color management has become as easy as a couple of mouse-clicks these days.  So, you don’t have to know anything about color gamuts, RGB, CMYK, LAB, or anything like that to know you are getting color accurate images.  Check it out…

After installing the software from the CD, simply connect the device and start the software.  The device is the colorimeter (also known as a calibrator in some circles), and it is shaped like a computer mouse or a hockey puck.  It has a cable that connects it to your computer via USB, and is good for either CRT, LCD, or laptop displays.  Additional software components also enable you to calibrate things like projectors, scanners, and much more.  Here though, I’ll be showing you how it works with a computer monitor.

Once the puck is connected and placed on the monitor, simply go through the wizard to calibrate everything from Contrast, to Brightness, and your RGB colors.  It’s pretty straightforward…just open the display settings for your particular monitor type, and increase or decrease the values until the indicator is as close to center as you can get it.  You’ll notice that I am calibrating a Dell computer monitor, and it is a Windows-based computer, but the process is just as simple on a Mac.  (I just got my Windows notification though, so figured it’d be easier to kill 2 birds with one stone there.)

Here’s a couple of screen shots to give you an idea of the process.  The first step when launching the software is to specify your white point and monitor type (if you are calibrating a laptop, pick the LCD).  Next up, decide whether you want to go the easy route or the advanced route.  I would recommend the advanced route, as even that is very easily accomplished, and these are the screen captures I am using here:


Next up is the screen capture of the contrast display.  In the upper left, the software shows the current contrast setting compared to the desired setting.  On the left is the colorimeter.  The Brightness (or Luminance) window is pretty much the same layout, so I am not going to repeat the screen capture here.

Calibrating the Contrast
Calibrating the Contrast

Here’s a screen capture of the first stage in setting the color values for my Dell 19″ LCD.  The software readout is on the upper right, the colorimeter is on the left, and dead center is the display menu for the Dell monitor.

Calibrating the Color
Calibrating the Color

Once your contrast, brightness, and color settings are defined for the monitor you are using, the software will run through and configure the graphics card, monitor, and display output settings.

Calibrating the Color 2
Calibrating the Color 2

Once all the settings are complete, a profile is creating in your system folder.  For Windows, that is in the system32 folder.  You can give it a specific name, and set the schedule on which you will be reminded for a new profile to be built anywhere between 1-4 weeks…more on this in a minute.

Setting the Monitor Profile
Setting the Monitor Profile

As you can see, it is as straightforward and simple as can be – even on the advanced settings where I defined the color (RGB) settings.  So, why doesn’t everyone do this?  Good question!  This device cost me roughly $200, which is likely not cheap by average standards for equipment (especially that which cannot be attached to your camera!), but if you really want to get quality results, the price is minimal.  I have mine set to update every 2 weeks (my LCD display has a tendency to shift colors easily, and LCD’s in general are known for color shift especially as they get warm and cool down when turned on and off.)  The benefits are huge though as your prints will be more accurate whether you print at a lab or print at home.  In the case of the former, no color correction is needed (and if you use MPIX Pro, there is no color correction done), and in the case of the latter, you will use less ink and paper in test runs before getting the results you want.

Keep in mind that this is just the procedure using the X-Rite, and I am sure others could just as easily recommend the Spyder Pro series, or some other colorimeter.  With that in mind, if you have an inkling one way or another, feel free to share your own experiences in the comments.  Which colorimeter do you use?  Do you like it?  Not so much?  What do you like/dislike about the process?

Whether you like the X-Rite method though, or some other model – calibrating your monitor is an important part of working with a color managed work flow if you want to produce accurate and quality prints.  After all, it is still about the print.  Don’t forget to share your thoughts in the comments!  Until tomorrow, happy shooting and we’ll see you then!