Lens selection - Is it dictated by our choice or our environment?

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Hi all,

I've just been reading Jack Dykinga's new book and in the section discussing lens choice he mentions that when photographing in the American Southwest, with it's huge open vistas, his lens choices usually end up being in the wide-angle range, whereas photographers he's talked to who work in mountain or forested regions seem to use the normal to longer focal lengths more often. He comments that ". . our vision seems to be shaped by the land." This seems to hold true for me too. Living in Australia with the vast expanses of the outback, the huge panoramic skies and the long deserted coastlines, I have a tendancy to use wider angle lenses. Panoramic photography, 6x17 in particular, is also very popular here with landscape photographers.

What I'm wondering is, does the environment in which we shoot (live) dictate our lens choice more than we think?

I'm interested in comments from others who shoot mainly in a certain type of enviornment, forests, deserts, mountains, - do you think this influences your lens selection or is it more the way you "see" that influences your choice?

Are we divided into "wide angle" shooters and "long lens" shooters by choice or by environment?

Interested in your comments ; -)

Kind regards

Peter Brown

-- Peter L Brown (photo_illustration@bigpond.com), December 17, 2001


Peter, I would have to say neither. I think it's the individuals "vision" that may dictate which lens lengths best accomplish it. I love photographing shining oily steel on a working steam engine. For that I naturally gravitate towards a 210 or 240 on 4X5. But when I'm in the ancient bristlecone forest, or Death Valley, the 90 comes out. This should be a fun thread. Thanks for asking. J

-- Jim Galli (jimgalli@lnett.com), December 17, 2001.

Peter: I think the question you have raised has more to do with your own style and what you are trying to say in your photographs. Unfortunately, a lot of people on this board get all caught up in lenses and technique, and seem less interested in the personal viewpoint, and trying to capture what their soul feels and tries to communicate. Many landscape photographers use slightly long lenses, but seem to focus more on wide angles. I would put myself in this arena...like my old college classmate, Dave Muench. As an escapee from the world of advertising photography, now interested in landscape work, I tend to focus more on the 75mm and 90mm lenes and use the 150, 210 and 270 also. Perhaps the answer is your own style and what you want to portray. I like the wide angles. I have a theory of using wide panoramas and using forground objects to get that feeling of having stuff in the forground that makes you want to touch, smell, see and feel the atmosphere you are trying to capture. I am also familiar with the 6X17 format, having photographed for the Eastman Kodak Coloramas, from a helicopter over Colorado and the Rocky Mountain west. I guess my answer to your question....is,..it depends upon your own personal style and what message you are trying to convey to your viewers. Many landscape photographers shoot from a comfortable distance with the camera positioned at the comfortable height of the maximum extention of the particular tripod they are using. Can't remember the last time I saw a shooter using a camera, inverted, with the tripod center column upside down, and the camera close to the ground with a good wide angle lens, capturing a leaf, or some lichen up close in the forground. Pitty! It's kind of like the old days when the Rollei was popular and everything was jokingly shot with the camera at 'belly-button' height and viewpoint. Best of luck. Richard Boulware - Denver.

-- Richard Boulware (boulware-den@att.net), December 17, 2001.

Look at Clyde Bucher's work in the everglades, right down in the sand in the swamp tide lapping at the tripod head, a 90mm in front of 80 square inches of emulsion. Of course people shoot from all angles, And you dont have to invert the tripod head , just munt it on a clamp and put that on the leg or mount the head on a board and put that on the ground, and get out that split field close up filter from your old 35mm experiments. The fresh look for large format has to do more thatn just imitate what we did with 35mm, Of course wide is where the large negs soar with detail and tones. So is long lense photography fun with large format to forshorten. The vision is what your eye is comfortable with, and as a photographer you amy see with a 85 or 105 mm in 35 and it is comfortable, But then you have to stretch. I remember a photog years ago, being published in one of the popular glossy mags about his "Power Pictures" where he opened the shutter and then posed scenes in the dark on fields an hills like passion plays and exposed each scene with a simple flash and when the 10 or 20 scenes were all on one sheet of film he closed the shutter. That ws reall y out there stuff. But multiple exposure is juat the thing of every day for the architecturel photog who does the day the daun and the interior lights all on one sheet with different exposures to get one final image and puts all that collection of time into one shot. Who does Duane Michaels like pics on large format to capture the spirt's journey? The point is that the arge fomats is THE MOST VERSITILE and all techniques can be used without excuse. After all its just a piece of film and your imagination. Does anone do wildlife with large format today? and why not???

-- ED (zeke@idirect.com), December 17, 2001.

Here in Utah a lot of us photograph with wide angle lenses because we moonlight doing portraits of the Polygamous families... '80,000 Polygs can't be wrong'!

Actually, most I know are guided more by their money situation, what lens they got initially & what lenses were used by their 'photographic heroes'. Some of the choice matures as we learn & progress & realize we tend to use certain lenses more than others. We get rid of or quit using some lenses & favor others, at times changing directions with a new lens purchase. We grow out of a lens due to quality needs or vision changes or a change of format or film.

I think the hardest thing with this is to realize what lenses actually help you further your vision rather than forcing it to fit what the popular (or affordable) lens of the moment is.

How we 'see' is dictated at times by what lens we have with us and what we are familiar with. If we learn from our images we eventually tailor lenses in our kit to fit our vision and refine it on the ground glass. Many who carry a number of lenses never learn to use any of them effectively and end up copying more images than they ever see on their own. Those who are forced to live with one or a few lenses seem to be able to push the vision a bit an get more out of limited glass selection. Not always in either case, but often enough to be noticed with many photographers. Dykinga and others have specific lenses they like and use often. If you ask it may be surprising to learn just how they came by the decision to use or keep one over another. Some may be where they shoot, but their idea of composition and vision pushes the choice of 'where' more than the choice of glass.

-- Dan Smith (shooter@brigham.net), December 17, 2001.

Good comment on the lenses, Concentrate on a lense for a while to get to know it and how you can frame and how it expresses. Don't jump around so you don't learn a lense, I f you have more thatn two the just take one out for a session and use it and learn that lense. You will understand hoew to use the lense. Use a wide for portraits and lanscsape and interiors. Use a long for the same and then after you learn each mix it up. Sort of like the gym. No strain no gain.

-- ED (zeke@idirect.com), December 17, 2001.

Thanks for your responses so far, but I think I should clarify my question a bit.

I have over thirty years experience in professional photography, so I am not actually asking which lens I should use, but rather I was just interested in whether other LF landscape photographers find that they have chosen their lenses more for the environment in which they photograph or whether it's because they visualise (see) more as a "wide angle" person or as a "telephoto" person and have therefore chosen their lenses for that reason?

As an example I have a friend in Switzerland who seems to use longer lenses more often than the wides. Is his choice dictated by his environment - mountains, forests or is it just because he "sees" as a long focus person? I'm sure he'll tell us - ;-)

Does shooting with a longer lens in the forest/mountains help to create that close, enclosed feeling we feel when walking through this type of terrain - is that why we instinctively reach for a long lens instead of a wide? Do many of you who shoot in the forests and mountainous regions, use wideangles more often than longer lenses?

I, on the other hand shoot more often with wides, to capture the vast landscape of the outback and the uninterrupted views of the blue skies. I occasionally use longer lenses but the majority of my shots would be with wideangles. I like long lens shots also, but they just do not seem to work quite as well in that type of environment. So is my choice of lens dictated by the environment in which I shoot? I would think so. My longest lens is 210 mm, my shortest 65mm .

I look forward to more intersting comments in this philosophical discussion .

Kind regards

Peter Brown

-- Peter L Brown (photo_illustration@bigpond.com), December 17, 2001.

Hi again Peter. I live in oceans of sage brush! I get bored/ frustrated with foregrounds of sagebrush that go on forever before I get to the subject. I have a fabulous 75 for the 4X5 that seldom gets used, and I bought a 159 for the 8X10 and never took a picture with it. For that reason I suppose I do lean more toward mids and longs, and that is a "where I live" thing. As far as matching the way I see, NO, just the opposite. What drew me into photography is what the lense can see that I can't! I have relatively poor eyesight. Sometimes I sit and marvel at what my lens saw. Details from upper right to lower left. All focused at the same time. Again, thanks. J

-- Jim Galli (jimgalli@lnett.com), December 17, 2001.

I think my choice of lenses has gone in cycles. For a while about two years ago I couldn't get wide enough lenses. I used my 90 almost exclusively and longed for a 65mm. For a period this past year I found myself always reaching for the 305mm on the 4x5 and when frustrated that it wasn't long enough grabbed the 250mm on the 6x6 system. I have moderated again to using the whole bag when appropriate. I think it has to do with changing ideas about what you are trying to express. I am sure some people lock into a "wide angele only" mode.

-- Dave Schneider (dschneider@arjaynet.com), December 17, 2001.

Interesting question. Since moving to New York City, I've tended toward wider lenses in all formats, because spaces indoors and out are so cramped. If I go to someplace less densely packed, though, I often become more selective and turn back to longer lenses.

A friend of mine who is working out on the Eastern tip of Long Island, New York, tells me he finds himself using panoramic formats a good deal, because the coastline is a feature of nearly every picture he makes, whether it be landscape, seascape, architectural, or portrait.

To the person who asked about wildlife photography with LF: it's not a promising prospect. Long enough lenses just don't exist, and imagine dealing with 4000mm of bellows and three or four tripods on an 8x10" camera to match the angle of view of an already cumbersome 600mm lens on a 35mm camera. I did once see some sort of really big military optic (maybe 2000mm telephoto) adapted to a 4x5" Graflex SLR--what a monster!

-- David Goldfarb (dgoldfarb@barnard.edu), December 18, 2001.

I think it has a little to do with both, because sometimes I control the lens and sometimes it will control me. I only shoot 210 with the 4x5 because that's the only lens I own for it, but when I rented a 65 I was trying to find as many places I could shoot with it before it had to be returned. I know that with 35mm gear, I have specific lenses that I like to use for certain subjects but find that a specific shot may not work with the traditional lens that I normally choose. Or sometimes I just try a different lens to mix things up a bit. Working for a daily paper, photos can start to look old pretty quick if they are all shot the same way all the time...

-- Jason J. (janikphoto@yahoo.com), December 18, 2001.


Interesting thread. Thanks for starting it.

I met Jack Dykinga while shooting in Redwoods NP several years ago. Our paths crossed several times over the three or four days I was in the area, and at one point the topic of lens selection came up briefly. I mentioned that my widest lens was a 75mm and it was by far my least used focal length. He seemed a little surprised. I never really thought of it so much as a geaographic influence as a matter of personal style. But, Jack Dykinga probably knows a lot more large format photographers than I do, so perhaps he has indeed spotted a trend.

WRT my own personal preferences (I suppose I should start by saying that I live in the Pacific NW), I generally prefer lenses in the slightly wide (110mm) to slightly long (240mm) range. I do carry lenses from 75mm - 450mm (currently - I've used lenses as long as 720mm in the past), and tend to favor the longer lenses (300mm and 450mm) more than the ultrawides. Although I do use the 75mm some and a 90mm quite often, the 110mm is my favorite wide angle by far. For whatever reason, I just don't see the world as wide as some others and the 110mm is the widest lens I REALLY feel comfortable using. I only go wider when there is some physical limitation that won't allow me to get everything I want in the frame with the 110.

I actually shoot quite a bit in the SW, but I cut my large format teeth here in the Pacific NW. So, maybe by the time I started shooting in the SW, I had already developed my personal anti-wide angle bias. I can tell you that my same lens preferences carry over when I travel. At this point, I think my personal style and preferences are pretty ingrained. So, I shoot what I'm comfortable with, no matter where I happen to be. BTW, I'm not saying I don't like the wide and ultrawide work of others - some of it is absolutely stunning, it's just not what I feel comfortable shooting. I know it works well for others, just not for me (and I did try to force myself to use the 75mm more several years ago, but I just wasn't getting the kind of results I was looking for).

Whatever this style is that I have developed, it has locked me into large format for the rest of my shooting days. I've dabbled with 6x7 rigid body roll film cameras a couple of times (once with a rangefinder and once with an SLR) in hopes that it would cut down on my film and processing costs and allow me to be more productive. Nope! With my preferences for near normal to long focal length lenses, I didn't realize how much my shooting style depended on movements. Even though I prefer longer lenses, I still like to include some foreground interest in my compositions. And this means tilt (or swing) on just about every image I make. When I tried the same thing with a 6x7 rigid body camera, even with the proportinally shorter lenses (say 135mm or 150mm instead of 210mm or 240mm), I could not get enough depth of field even at f32 to keep everything in the frame sharp. Rather than adapt my style to match the equipment, both times I ended up selling the medium format gear and going back to my view cameras. So, if I ever try shooting roll film again, it will have to be with a camera capable of movements.

I also have dabbled with panoramic formats (4x10 and 6x17) over the years. And, while many who shoot in these formats prefer the widest lens they can get, I personally do not. When I was shooting 4x10, I had a 115mm Grandagon-N that covered the format, but like my 75mm on 4x5, it was my least used lens - by far. I greatly preferred the 165mm and 210mm focal lengths. On 6x17 my favorite focal length is 120mm. I'm thinking about trying 4x10 again as I really like the 2.5: aspect ratio and the big transparencies. I haven't shot 4x10 in over five years, so I'm wondering if my focal length preferences have changed any. I kind of doubt it. My 4x5 preferences haven't. But the reason I'm thinking about trying 4x10 again is for the inspiration of trying something different. So, I might just slap my 110mm SS XL on it and see what happens.

One final note on wide angle vs. long lens shooters. What about David Muench? He shoots with longer lenses occasionally, but his signature style revolves around wide and ultrawide lenses. For years, it seemed like 90% of his images (at least the ones I saw published) were shot with a 75mm Super Angulon. If you look at some of his newer books, you'll notice he uses the 47mm SA XL a LOT. I know he grew up in Califorina and did a lot of hiking in the Sierra with his parents as a child. Of course, he's been a large format photographer longer than I've been alive, and has photographed extensively all over the American West. His father was famous for shooting Monument Valley in color, and David shoots a lot in the SW these days. But, I've also seen some older David Meunch coffee table books on Washington (Olympic NP, for example). So, did geography influence his focal length preferences, or did his preference for wide angle landscapes lead him to seek out subjects that lend themselves to wide angle use? Sort of a chicken and egg kind of question. Personally, I think David Muench and Jack Dykinga are talented enough guys that you could give them one lens of ANY focal length, drop them anywhere on the planet, and they would still create wonderful images.


-- Kerry Thalmann (largeformat@thalmann.com), December 18, 2001.

Very well said Kerry.


-- Kevin Kolosky (kjkolosky@kjkolosky.com), December 18, 2001.

I suspect this is different for each photographer, but my lens choices seem determined by where I want to stand. Simple as that. The right lens is the one that shows what I want from where I feel like putting the camera. It's always a "short" lens. The first time I went out to the broad expanses of the American west I expected to need a shift up to longer focal lengths, but that didn't happen. On a recent project I found that physical obstacles kept me from standing exactly where I wanted (where I would have used a 240mm on my 8x10) so I had to use a 165 and a 360 to compensate. Someone else might automatically stand where a 420 would frame things r

-- Carl Weese (cweese@earthlink.net), December 18, 2001.

I think that my choices of lenses in the past is perhaps less "artistic" and more common place than many artists will acknowlege. It goes like this: If I'm the general manager of a football team I will draft a player based either on need as in "I need a quarterback" or the "best available athelete" so you take the great linebacker even if you don't really need one at that moment.

For camera gear that I use in my business I mostly draft (buy) for need. But for large format equipment which remains my toy; I buy what presents itself, since that's usually a much better value.

I used to look at photo magazines where a photographer would be profiled and the details of each image recorded (Nikkor 300 f9 M, f45 @ 1/4 second with 4x5 Portra 100 NC) and I'd alwasy think that this published photographer was rich and had every lens they wanted. Well when I'd look at the six or seven shots in the piece I'd realize that this smuck was just like me. He owned two or three lenses and he used them.

So you use what you have and make the image fit the glass until more glass shows up.

-- David Grandy (dgrandy@accesscable.net), December 18, 2001.


I've photographed buildings, landscapes, and streetscapes for twenty years with a variety of formats and never used anything longer than a normal lens. I agree that that choice often has to do with avoiding obstacles, a real problem with urban subjects. But recently I saw some photographs that made me rethink my approach to structures. James Abbott showed triptychs and diptychs of a soaring bridge (the Ben Franklin in Philadelphia) -- each big silver print was a section of the bridge shot with a long lens. When he put several prints together, he had the whole bridge, swooping over the viewer's head. They had an intensity and power he couldn't have gotten if he had used a wide angle and just one frame. Sometimes it helps to think outside of the box (or print borders).

-- Sandy Sorlien (sand44@mindspring.com), December 18, 2001.

I think its an interaction between the environment and the specific photographer. In my characterization, wide angles are good when one is interested in space i.e., in the third dimension that is inferred from the two dimensions of the print. Wide angles work here because they tend to emphasize the near-far relationship. However, long lenses seem better for pattern and studies of line and surface and form. I think environemnts do offer different possibilities but specific people also vary in terms of what they choose to focus on (pardon bad pun) in the environment. In other words, one environment may make space more easy to read than form. However, I think that interacts with the way the specific photographer sees.

However, I can see that if one was doing representational photography (i.e., trying to record some recognizeable aspect of a place), the environment may be a larger determining factor, although I think that is tied in with the meaning of representation and I think that is socially determined. After all, if one mentioned the Southwest, one's mental picture is of wide open vistas and therefore if you wanted a recognizeable representation of that, one would have to capture a sense of space. In contrast, if one were talking about the pattern of cracks on a cliffside with petroglyphs, that would seem to indicate a greater concern with line. However, given that these factors probably also interact (its rarely an either or) and given that the intentions of photographers eventually enter into it, I think the waters are quite hopelessly muddied. Which I guess is good since we can show each other different ways to see the same thing.

Just my thoughts. Cheers, DJ.

-- N Dhananjay (dhananjay-nayakankuppam@uiowa.edu), December 18, 2001.

"As an example I have a friend in Switzerland who seems to use longer lenses more often than the wides. Is his choice dictated by his environment -mountains, forests or is it just because he "sees" as a long focus person? I'm sure he'll tell us - ;-)"

Sure Peter, this is dictated by the environment. Slicing a clean shot in the tangle of high voltage lines that have invaded the Alps requires long lenses ;-).

More seriously, I can say from my own development that I was a wide-angle guy. The best shots that I made 25 years ago while in Australia were from a 28mm on my Nikon and polarizer. I had a view of the Hinchinbrook channel and Island, not very far from you, that was my favorite. I loved the sense of greatness and freedom and the large skies from these shots taken in the "wide open spaces". I have continued using wide angles when I passed onto LF, but I progressively sought for more intimous views, maybe because wide-angle views are somewhat limiting and convey a sense of "deja vu". In my quest for stronger, stunning images, I found that longer lenses can help step out of the beaten tracks. Still, some of my most intimous and stunning images were made with a 90mm! So, as others mentioned, the rule has to be changed for every situation! This doesn't help keep the backpack easy! ;-)

-- Paul Schilliger (pschilliger@smile.ch), December 18, 2001.

Hi Peter,

Use any lens close at hand to shoot a Christmas snowfall up there — it's bound to sell!

On a more circumspect level, as others have said, this is a very interesting thread. Not just in the findings on the discussion of lens selection dictated by subject/environment but in the collective landscape of the minds and responses subliminally exposed through the postings.

My cranial terrain is this: Don't allow the environment in which you shoot to dictate your choice of lenses: it will confine your ideas to a box and a box is far better used to carry a range of lenses. Rather, let your experience, attitude and reason dictate your course of action and choice of lenses in response to the SUGGESTION or PLEADING of the environment.

". . Our vision seems to be shaped by the land." Yes - but only to the extent of contributory influence acting on our SELF to formulate a vision.

A key factor in the decision to work with a view-camera, as most on this Large Format Forum must, is the contemplative and meditative process it not only invites, but necessitates. And, although this view is upheld and reverred by many, sadly it is practiced and manifested by far too few. Look at the various threads, photographs, books & exhibitions; the evidence is overwhelming - the 'clone system' enjoys devotion and adherence on an epic scale. The same subjects, the same treatments ... over and over.

The impact and success that a particular photographer's singular vision may have had when first encountered (often a long time ago) has been replicated, mimicked and revisited ad-nauseum - the unique has evolved to cliché. We, as image makers, have been pre-programmed - conditioned - to expect to treat certain subjects in particular ways. Perhaps the most noticeable area of constriction by conditioning is in the area of portraiture where you "must never use a short lens." Our bounden duty should perhaps be to rebel against this: to use whatever tools (lenses) and skills we have to find and project our own voice; our own interpretation.

Look at the enormous collective onslaught of A.R.A.T photography (Another Rock, Another Tree). Certainly, each image is a record of a unique conjunction of time and space - the given conditions will never ever be exactly the same again - but the differences between those images are often so minimal as to be invisible to all but the photographer alone. All the fastidious application of craft in the world will not make a mediocre perception better - it will only produce a handsome artifact of a mediocre perception.

The well-trod path in the choice of subject matter and its subsequent treatment leads to the predictable - and that may be reassuring to both the artist and the viewer, but it has more to do with massaging the ego than liberating the soul.

Be prepared like a boy scout. Take your wide lenses to the desert but take a long one as well. Be prepared to capture a big sun instead of a white dot. Be prepared for heat-haze. Vary the scale and the spacial compression/expansion of the landscape so that a collection of your work develops pace. Shoot receding headlands on the Queensland coast with a 72mm on 6x17 but be prepared to compact those same headlands at sunrise with the layering of morning mist. Of course, the nature of discussing visual ideas is to express cliché's, as I am doing as a means of explaining what I see as the possibilities, but I think my point is clear.

I believe the charter of landscape, if not all, photography includes the discovery and distillation of order and beauty in the chaos of our universe. We can never be sure of when or how that order will present itself and so we can never pre-ordain what tools (lenses) will be required to communicate its impact to others. If we feel we can predict what will be required then, by definition, our results will be predictable.

Glad I got that lot off my chest ... Season's Greetings - Walter

-- Walter Glover (walterg@netaus.net.au), December 18, 2001.

Well, I thought that I'd get a mixed and interesting response and that's certainly what I got! Thanks to all of you who have contributed your thoughts, it's great to hear other photographers' "take" on the question. . . I must say I agree with many of the comments.

The way I see it, the environment plays a subtle but important role in our choice of lens selection, but ultimately it is how we wish to interpret what we "see", that dictates our choice of lens and that I suppose is what makes for the unique.

I wholeheartedly agree, we MUST step outside the square, the frame or the box and stretch our creativity to the max. I'd better start bidding on that 450mm I saw on eBay and hope for some snow up here in the tropics ;-)

Thanks for an interesting discussion.

Kind regards and best wishes for Christmas and the New Year. Peter Brown

-- Peter L Brown (photo_illustration@bigpond.com), December 18, 2001.

As others have commented, this thread is thought provoking.

I sort of rebel against the notion that "our vision is shaped by the land." Although the landscape probably has some influence, I like to think that my vision is shaped by ME! Is lens selection, not to mention composition, based on the landscape, or is it based on our visualization of that landscape? Do we take landscape photos to record what's there, or to make a personal statement?

Edward Weston had a unique ability to see AND CONVEY some neat and arresting aspect of the landscape that otherwise would have been missed. Ansel Adams had the ability to bring out the sheer majesty of the landscape. What was the purpose of his picture taking? What did he want to accomplish?

I can't help but think that, by permitting the landscape to shape our vision, we submit to a form of photographic pabulum. If photography is truly a creative medium, then we must add something of ourselves to what we photograph.

-- neil poulsen (neil.fg@att.net), December 19, 2001.

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