Digital imaging has transformed photography in many ways, mostly for the better, as far as I am concerned. One downside of digital is that photo-educators, like me, are nurturing a generation of photographers who have never used film nor developed photos in a darkroom. The next generation will, by and large, have missed the magical experience of watching an image come up in the developer. That moment was what hooked me (and thousands of other photographers like me) on the magic of photography. I recently came to appreciate other downsides of digital imaging.
Another downside to digital comes when photographers go straight to digital without working in analog (film.) They miss out on the discipline that film teaches. Not having your erroneous compositions stare you in the face, like they do on film, often leads to a laziness exemplified by the phrase, “Oh, I will fix it in Photoshop.” Such errors in composition are even more egregious when viewed on slide film. The growing dependence on Photoshop rather than compositional skills is one downside to digital imaging, but not the one I am thinking of today.
With the arrival of auto-focus technology, which predated digital imaging, zoom lenses became the dominant lens technology, as compared to fixed focal length lenses. The explosion in the number of photographers due to the democratizing nature of digital technology cemented the dominance of zoom lenses. That is too bad, because zoom lenses have spurred another kind of laziness among photographers. Many photographers depend on the changing focal lengths of their lenses to “fix” their compositions when they should be changing their own positions to improve their photographic compositions.
Before the onslaught of zoom lenses, photographers worked ONLY with fixed focal length lenses, which were also often called prime lenses. These came in set focal lengths, varying from wide angle to telephoto. When I started photographing, fixed lenses were essentially the only choice and zoom lenses were just coming on the scene. Motion picture cameras were among the first to use zoom lenses, though many filmmakers preferred the fixed folk length lenses. At the time they assumed, largely correctly, that the zooms were not as sharp, offered less control of the point of focus and did not have as large a maximum aperture, as compared to single focal length lenses.
Today’s zoom lenses, which cover ever-more fantastic ranges of focal lengths, are generally closer in sharpness to fixed lenses. To appreciate the dramatic shift in focal lengths consider that one of the earliest zoom lenses, which was heralded as revolutionary at the time, went from 43 to 86 mm, a whopping zoom factor of two. Needless to say, since then, the technology has vastly expanded the options for zoom lenses.
That improving technology has sadly discouraged many photographers from using the best zoom of all, their feet. While changing focal lengths with a zoom may give the viewer a slight feeling of being closer, bring the camera physically closer to the subject does that so much better.
Most people still think that more “bases” are covered with a zoom lens and it is hard to argue. Still, a fabulous (and simple) learning exercise for any photographer is to put a fixed focal length lens on their camera and force themselves to walk in and out to change compositions. A variation of this is to take a zoom lens, tape it so the zoom CANNOT be changed and then practice photographing with one fixed focal length. It is a great learning exercise that challenges any photographer to expand their thinking.
Unlike Digital SLRs, the vast majority of lenses for medium and large format cameras are fixed focal lengths. That may be a result of technological challenges of lens manufacturing, lack of market demand or both. The result photographically is that most medium and large format photographers use a smaller set of fixed length lenses. They usually know those lenses better and can get more interesting imagery out of them.
All things being equal, fixed lenses are a bit sharper than zoom lenses, though that difference is fading. Most fixed or prime lenses are better in low light because they usually have larger maximum aperture, allowing in more light. They are usually better value for your money because they have fewer issues with distortion, tend to be sharper at the larger apertures, offer more control over the point of focus because the larger maximum aperture enables them to put more things out of focus. They similarly can create more interesting out of focus backgrounds when used at the largest apertures. Fixed lenses are also almost always smaller and lighter.
The choice of zoom vs. fixed lenses is a personal one, but certain subject matter call out for one type or another. Documentary work in low light argues for a fixed focal length lens. The larger maximum apertures of fixed lenses work especially well with still life imagery. Travel and landscape work may argue more for the portability and large depth of field that comes with a zoom lens. Portraits, with a strong focus on the subject’s eyes, may argue for a fixed lens. I could go on.
Frankly, it takes more will power as a photographer to forego a zoom and stick with one focal length lens. On the other hand, the photographer who practices that discipline will be rewarded with better imagery, which requires less post-production work.
I am as guilty as any photographer of being overly dependent on my zoom lenses. I currently enjoy the benefit of lenses covering the 35mm equivalent focal length of 24 to 120 mm and 140 to 600mm in two lenses. It certainly is convenient. No question there.
Still, I suspect I was actually a more disciplined photographer a decade ago, when I was shooting color slides (the ultimate composition discipliner) with just three fixed focal length lenses, a 21mm, a 45mm and a 90mm. Those few focal lengths forced me to move around while photographing. They also enabled me to work in lower light with shallower depth of field. Maybe it is time for me to get back into that discipline with a fixed focal length lens or two.