I get nervous when I hear teachers spouting platitudes, especially when they are expressed in the imperative. Do this. Do that. And I get really nervous when I hear my students repeating them. Platitudes are easy to remember. They simplify things. But they do not, generally speaking, teach. They do not change the way we think, only the way we act. And that’s a problem because prescriptively changing our behaviour without thinking leads to the same kind of thoughtless and unintentional behaviour that the platitude was initially spouted to prevent.
Let me give you an example that’s been chafing me in all the wrong places:
Zoom with your feet (hereafter referred to as ZWYF because that makes it sound more sinister).
On first glance ZWYF sounds great. The kernel of truth that got wrapped up in this silly edict is this: for the love of St. Ansel, move your damn feet. Get close physically! Not bad advice much of the time. Less applicable however when you’re photographing lions. Personal safety aside, there’s a downside that’s worse than getting horribly maimed: your photographs might not get any better. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a HUGE fan of getting close. But, with apologies to Robert Capa, getting close is not a magical “make it better” formula.
You see, ZWYF tries to solve one problem, namely the need for people who only shoot with prime lenses to feel smug, but it introduces another. Moving your position relative to a subject is not remotely the same thing as changing your focal length. Focal lengths behave differently and, here’s the important part, they change the relationships of elements to each other in a way that is different than moving the camera itself.
“Understanding this will make you a better photographer than just blindly following a platitude, which is really just a rule dressed in drag, disguised as wisdom.”
In other words, you can’t ZWYF. It’s not possible. You can zoom. You can move your feet. They aren’t the same thing and they don’t accomplish the same visual results as each other. When I photograph the only thing that matters to me is making the photograph the way it’s begging me to be made. And I don’t know that until I move around, usually dodging and weaving, in and out, like a punch-drunk (just drunk?) boxer. I am constantly moving my position as well as tweaking my focal length, watching as I do that how the elements appear to move around relative to each other and to the frame itself. Sometimes I move closer but pull my focal length much wider, increasing the size of the foreground element. Sometimes I back up but rack the lens out to a longer focal length, pushing the foreground and background closer while also keeping it all in frame. I move. I zoom. It’s a dance and there’s a lot of improvising.
Understanding this will make you a better photographer than just blindly following a platitude, which is really just a rule dressed in drag, disguised as wisdom. And y’all know how I feel about rules. This is one of the reasons I like zoom lenses so much. I know, primes are really sexy. They’re pure, or so I’m told. And I know people who love, and make astonishing work with, their prime lenses. They embrace that constraint. But it’s really important to me to control the elements in my frame and the way they relate -spatially and conceptually – to each other. Follow the rule or don’t. Use primes or zooms. The only thing that matters to me is making stronger, more intentional photographs, and I’ll do whatever I need to with my feet, or my zoom lens, to do that.
For the Love of the Photograph,
PS – Want more like this? I send these articles out every two weeks to photographers around the world who want to improve their craft and explore their creativity and I’d love to include you. Tell me where to send it and I’ll send you a copy of my best-selling eBook Make Better Photographs, as well bi-weekly articles, first-glimpse monographs of my new work, and very occasional news of resources to help you keep moving forward in this craft we love.
“Each and every one of your emails inspire and motivate me to want to jump right out of my chair away from my computer and shoot for the love of it . Thank you David.” – Millie Brown
Hey, love this. Still learning to use zoom lenses while also moving around ha
Thanks for this. I can’t, for the life of me, comprehend how people can get by without a zoom lens. Like you, I’m constantly moving around, tweaking my focal length, to get the right balance between perspective and composition. It is simply impossible with a prime, and if you have time to change between innumerable prime lenses, you’re probably not shooting anything worthwhile – real life will move on without you.
Moreover, “sharpness” is irrelevant – many of the most influential photos of all time are technically quite poor – out of focus, etc…, to say nothing about how much better even basic kit gear is than what St Ansel would have humped around in the backcountry. What matters is they captured a moment that captured the essence of a feeling, a generation, etc… That comes from a variety of places, all of which are behind the camera.
Another perspective on this – I have some friends who say a prime lens enhances their creativity by limiting their options, but to me it is exactly the opposite. The world is as it is, full of innumerable stories, and if you only have one focal length, you will only be able to appropriately capture a small fraction of those stories with your fixed perspective/composition balance. No doubt you can make great photos with 35, 50, or 90mm, but you’re missing the limitless photos that are “begging” to be made everywhere in between. To me, limiting yourself to specific focal lengths is simply an (unconscious) admission that you are really quite unskilled – if you were more skilled, you would be able to process the endless options and extract worthwhile photos with whatever combination of factors are the most appropriate. Only a zoom lens could allow you to do that.
I also feel like the shallow depth of field afforded by primes is, more often than not, a gimmick. Once in a while I’ll soften the background, but always keep enough there as a compositional element. It takes little skill, and even less soul, to blur everything out.
None of this is to say I’m some sort of master – unimaginably far from it, in fact. But that doesn’t make it untrue. I don’t eat enough vegetables either, but that doesn’t make it wrong to say we should all eat more.
Ha ha, great article, im guilty of saying this myself on so many occasions, when I’ve just gone and bought a sigma 24-35 zoom lens 🙂
I was in my local camera store discussing some options with the salesperson, who happened to also be a (part time?) freelance news photographer. He said, just move in there! Get close! Zoom with your feet! (he actually did say that phrase). Which, of course, ignores reality. You cannot always get close to the stage (at least, not without pissing off audience members and running afoul of security who tosses you out on your ass, I imagine), nor close to whatever (e.g., photographing a bicycle race, or a marathon). And to your point, David, sometimes you need to really limit the field of view or create a different effect with compression or decompression or whatever your vision calls for.
Thank you for writing this. I feel vindicated.
(Any time I returned to that camera store, I always avoided that salesperson, sometimes quite deliberately and evidently. He was kind of a jerk. I don’t think he works there anymore.)
This post has given me permission to come out and say it – I use zooms and I’m proud!
No posts for a while – you are missed 🙂
Love the perspective in the photograph above, especially with the sun coming over her shoulder!
Good point, but I disagree with some of this. The “platitudes” are extremely good starters for people to focus. Soon enough people will understand what’s behind the “platitude” and move on. “Capture what you see, not what you want to see” is a platitude of dimensions but it helped me get over my creative block. I stuck to it for a while, and I find it very good advice for young photographers with the same block that I had. Soon enough the move past it, and I see this as a pedagogical tool to help people move forward.
But the point of lens range is very valid.
I’d have to agree with this. I get the purpose behind this post (which to me, is don’t get hung up on the “rules”, because there are none, and don’t be a prick).
But, I can honestly say that learning how to work with a single focal length and move my feet instead of relying on the zoom opened up a world of possibilities for me as a photographer.
I think this was the case for me, because it taught me two things:
1) How to move through a scene
2) Reduce the number of technical things to focus on so I can actually see what is in front of me.
By removing the zoom, I had much less to think about while trying to line up the shot. And when I forced myself to move around with a wide angle, I had to interact with people around me differently.
That being said, it’s horses for courses. Once you grasp how focal lengths affect the image, zooms can be SUPER powerful tools. In fact, if I’m just shooting travel work, I’d gladly slap a zoom on my camera for the versatility. I can set the zoom at a certain focal length for a specific look for a specific shot.
But I’m not sure I would have been aware of this fact had I not really worked with a single focal length for a time in the first place.
Maybe others have learned the same by keeping a zoom on their camera. It’s really up to the individual. But I think the tendency as photographers can be to get hung up on the means and lose sight of the end.
Especially when it comes to gear.
I agree completely, but again, the core takeaway here is that moving your feet and changing your focal length are not the same thing. Prime lenses are great and I’m all in favour of getting students familiar with fewer focal lengths rather than more of them initially, but however we do it it should be based on a clear understanding of what moving our feet does, what changing our focal length does, and what possibilities are possible with the combination of the two. Thanks for weighing in!
It seems in making my point…I forgot to make my point!
You’re absolutely right. They are not the same thing and that certainly is the takeaway. I got hung up on that last paragraph, because I can’t stand the “only primes are real photography” mindset some have.
What I was trying to add (and failed at!), was the benefits of following platitudes Geir mentioned re: ZWYF. There’s something to be said for rote “wax on, wax off” style learning. I’m not sure I would have really grasped the difference between perspective change and focal length change without just doing it.
But, people learn differently!
You’re right. Try as I might, I just can’t get my feet to work the zoom. My hands are much more effective. ?
Seriously though, this was another poignant post David. Thank you for keeping us all inspired. The most important aspect to me is the emotion, regardless of the technical aspects. Am I moved in some way by the image? Does it provoke thoughtful contemplation? Does it make me laugh? All these variations are some of the many more significant aspects of image making, for me.
I love this post, David, and to “ZWYF” I would like to add the “Gear Doesn’t Matter” platitude which people like to repeat ad nauseum with no real understanding of the original point of the expression.
Thanks, Tim. I should say, as someone who has been accused of spouting my own platitudes that I’ve often been misunderstood to say gear doesn’t matter. Ask someone trying to photograph a flying bird or a pro athlete with a short, slow lens, or an astrophotographer wrestling with a 10-year old camera with zero low-light ability, or even someone like me who is downsizing so much of his gear because the heavier stuff was getting in the way and we’ll all tell you it matters. But there are some things that matter more. Context is everything in discussions like these and we who teach will always get trapped by our words while trying to make a point. 🙂
Indeed, context is everything. And to be clear, I wasn’t taking a shot at you. I was thinking of “that guy in the forums” who uses it as a quick retort with no sense of nuance or context. As a prof of mine used to say, whether something is true or not can sometimes depend on why you are asking…
Spot on. Also, I don’t understand why it is recommended that people who are new to photography work with a normal prime lens first and avoid a zoom lens because somehow it will make them ‘lazy’. If anything, a zoom lens will help them understand how to use a number of different focal lengths and to control perspective at both the wide and telephoto end.
Great rant! I laughed a lot. 🙂
With a practically zero budget for photography in the last few years, I have been limited to the two lenses I got several years ago, the 18-55mm kit lens I got with my Rebel T1i, and the 50mm 1.8. So I use the prime lens not to be smug but because it allows in more light.
But great point! Even with my 50mm I know I need to try more perspectives with each subject I shoot. I need to sketch more. (I just read Visual Toolbox lesson 25 about sketching.)
Love your rants, sermons, wisdom, or whatever you/we choose to call them! I especially appreciate this post, as it clarifies points that I have come to realize over the last couple years as I’ve spent more time on photography. Sometimes the voices and info out “there” can be confusing and/or misleading. So, thanks for always sharing your thoughts and experiences 🙂
Gotta’ say I totally love zoom lenses also, for the endless possibilities they allow. Love the image above, moving your feet allowed you the wonderful,sunburst. ?
It doesn’t sound like we disagree at all, Eric, only that you have chosen a different constraint, though I share a similar need and the best choice has often been one small zoom lens not 2-3 primes. My point remains only that zooming (changing focal lengths) is not the same thing as moving with your feet.
I think perhaps you misunderstood me, Stephane. Ultimately what I’m saying is that swapping lenses and moving your position are not the same thing, and that the combination of both creates results that one alone can not do. You seem to be saying the same thing.
point taken, David?
David, being a big fan of your work makes it hard for me to challenge your writings and it’s actually the first time I do not agree with you.
After reading your post I have to contradict you when you write, that
Different focal lengths do not change the relationship of things to each other, apart from wideangle distortion on closeups and telephoto pincushion distortion.
Only moving position changes that. There’s lots of articles with pics on the net which illustrate this.
if you photograph a scene with two different lenses from the same spot and enlarge the wideangle shot to the same size, there is no difference at all, opticaly.
just one example at the end of this post
I agree with you wholeheartedly on all the other things you state and thank you for this post.
Great post. One that I simultaneously agree and disagree with.
You’re absolutely right; when your vision is what it is, you have to use the right tool for the job, and very often, a zoom or a longer/wider prime lens is the only thing that fits the bill.
My disagreement only comes in the form of my desire to carry less and less stuff – thereby forcing myself into the ZWYF camp. And the stuff that I’m left carrying had better be small and have awesome picture quality. So very often (for me, anyhow) that means only having an X100 series around my neck and reframing with my feet. Never zooming.
You inspired me to write a blog post about this. https://ericdelophoto.com/blog/2017/3/5/cant-you-zoom-with-your-feet
Davis, that’s a very interesting remark and healthy topic for discussion. Yes, we should always be worried of “purity” and “rules”, and in the mouth of many the lower consideration for zoom is odd and strange. Of course you damn right: we should use feet AND a different fixed lens. Or use a zoom.
However, everybody has a unique experience to photography, and as long as we’re talking about personal preferences we should be open minded. I had zooms for years, Nikon and now Fuji. I had wrongfully be looking down at Leicas, but since I own X100(S)(T)(F) my vision has changed and I’m just more passionate about my taking photography process with fixed lenses than zooms.
It has to do with the small footprint, the lower weight, the lower bulk between my subject and I. It has taken over 10 years to reach this point, and I’m sure I will revert back to zooms sooner or later. But I now embrace constraints and realized that zooms, although indispensable at some occasions, made me more lazy and too comfortable. My experience here: no judgement on people with zooms or Leica or iphone or whatever.
That’s personal experience, that doesn’t mean that zooms are bad (especially smaller ones like the Fuji 18-55 and 55-200). I’m just more happy this way.
Thats a very good distinction regarding the focal length vs moving closer, I hadn’t really thought about that before. I find primes useful for their constrain; particularly in city streets where I find it can be hard to keep up with whats going on if I’m fiddling with my focal length in addition to other settings. I probably just need to practice more!
As you say primes and zooms are both just tools in the end of the day.
Prime lenses are great for carefully constucted photos, or if you have a viewpont that fits a prime you know well, or if you have no other choice.
Masters of the moment such as Cartier Bresson are held up as examples of why you don’t need a zoom to shoot whatever you come upon, but I wonder what those masters would use today. They didn’t have such tools.
I think they’d use whatever worked best for them. And that might be prime lenses. They just wouldn’t reduce our craft to such over-simplified cliches. Or maybe they would, who knows. But on the off-chance that they never return I’m trying my best to be a voice of sanity in their absence. 🙂
The ZWYF saying has been rubbing me the wrong way for many years now; there is so much more to a focal length than what you can and can not fit in your frame.
“You see, ZWYF tries to solve one problem, namely the need for people who only shoot with prime lenses to feel smug …”
I laughed a little to myself, and at myself when I read this line. I remember being that prime lens shooter, smug and kind of full of myself. And then I really started to learn the art of the photograph.
Then I learned this: “Moving your position relative to a subject is not remotely the same thing as changing your focal length. Focal lengths behave differently and, here’s the important part, they change the relationships of elements to each other in a way that is different than moving the camera itself.”
Applying this understanding has improved the quality of my images and led me to be a more conscious photographer. I feel like the importance of the effect focal length has on an image is often overlooked in the photo education and information that’s available.
Very insightful, as usual. Thoughtful conversation about our craft is important, and I appreciate the value your writing adds to the discussion.
This is not really a rant.
True, John, but I use the categories so I can find my own stuff later and while I wrote this as a less ranty piece, in my mind it was all guns blazing. 🙂