Category Archives: Photo Tips

Better Street Photography: Five Ways to Up Your Game

better street photography

I’ve always loved street photography.  It’s easy, it’s fun, and it has a colorful history.  But if you want better street photography, what do you do?  Here are five tips I’ve found to be most useful when it comes to taking better street photos.

Five Tips for Better Street Photography

Forget the Rules

better street photography

When you research street photography, you’ll find a lot of opinions on the subject.  Some people even label these opinions as rules.  Truth is, no one has really codified what street photography is or isn’t, in any concrete terms.  Or if they have, I call BS and say you should forget about it.  If you want a working definition, consider it “capturing the essence of humanity – directly or indirectly – in an urban environment”.  Use whatever gear you want (DSLR, point and shoot, iPhone), and take whatever approach you want.

Experiment (…with lenses)

better street photography

Okay, you should just experiment in general, but for DSLR users out there, try different lens setups.  Better street photography is arrived at by not only finding your voice or style, but by finding your tools as well.  A lot of people will vehemently oppose any lens with a focal length outside the 24-28 mm range, while others may extend that to 24-50.  Some even recommend longer lenses.  Each one has its pros and cons, but suffice to say that if you don’t have brass cajones, and shy away from getting up close and personal with your subjects, you may want to work at 50 mm or longer in terms of lenses.  

That being said, my personal favorite would the be 35, 42, or 50 mm focal lengths.  Why?  The 35 mm mark is a great place to start if you like getting lots of stuff into your frame.  Street photography is as much about the environment as the people in it.  One shapes the other, and vice versa.  Around 40 or 42mm, you begin to see images that mimic scenes as they are perceived by the human eye, which can be a very powerful effect.  Of course, the 50 mm focal length gives you a little more distance, but may help in grabbing subjects you don’t necessarily feel right in approaching.

Take Your Time

better street photography

When you’re trying walking all over town trying to get interesting shots of people in an urban environment, you can easily feel out of place and unwelcome.  Everyone else is doing their thing – hurrying to jobs or hurrying home, working or engaging in recreation.  I find myself hurrying to take photos and move along as quickly as possible, caught up in the flow of my environment.  But that isn’t always good.  If you want better street photography, go against the flow and take your time.  Don’t rush, taking in the sights and sounds and be aware of everyone around you.

Sometimes, in sketchy neighborhoods, time can be of the essence.  When safety is an issue (and it may be depending on time of day and location), you can always double back or walk around the block to get back to your shot.

Candid Shots Rule

better street photography

This instance of the word “rule” is a verb, not a noun.  It’s an opinion of mine – and there are other people out there who might agree – that candid shots are better than non-candid ones.  This doesn’t mean you have to be a creep about it, but you should never be afraid or feel bad about taking a photo of someone unawares, so long as it is lawful.  Most people would rather see someone doing what they do with a natural look on their face, than someone posing with an awkward grin or smile.

Recommended Gear

better street photography

Are there certain pieces of photo gear that can lead to better street photography?  Perhaps, but what that gear is, largely depends on your preferences.  Choose bags and cameras and lenses that work with you.  Eschew a backpack for a messenger bag or a holster-style camera bag.  Consider using a smaller, more discrete camera body.  And use a lens you feel comfortable using, or have the most fun using.

Turning Photos into Art

turning photos into art

There’s never been a better time to turn your photos into art with alternative prints.  With the boom of mobile photography, and dropping DSLR prices – as well as the constantly-improving technology of cheap point and shoot cameras – just about any device can land you with a photo worthy of printing.  Of course you could go the easy route and order some 4×6 prints from Walgreens, or break out an all-in-one photo printer for some super 8×10 prints.  But what if you want something a little different?  Check out these options for turning photos into art.

Turning Photos into Art:  3 Ideas for Alternative Prints

There are now many ways to share your photos.  I won’t recommend you put photos on tee shirts or coffee mugs, but you can definitely go that route if you don’t think it’s tacky.

Cardboard Prints

Where to find them:  http://www.staticpixels.com/

turning photos into art

At the time of this article, the website is down for maintenance, but Static Pixels allows photographs to be printed onto corrugated cardboard.  Color accuracy is decent, and the texture of the cardboard gives the photos a grainy appearance.  Sizes range from 5x to 20×20 inches, and prices from $25 to $89, respectively.  Sound steep?  That $25 lands you four prints, so you can save a little money if you go the small route.

Instant Film Prints

Where to find them:  Fuji/Impossible Project/Photojojo.com

There are several options available for those looking to do instant photo prints from digital files.  All of the options are essentially the same, but with their own little quirks.

turning photos into art

On the smallest end of the spectrum, you have the Fuji Instax Share SP-1, which uses Fuji Instax Mini instant film (the cheapest and the most readily-available of all instant films).  You can buy it on Amazon for as little as $230.

turning photos into art

If you want slightly larger prints, you can check out the Instant Photo Lab from the Impossible Project – the dudes from NYC who make film that works in old Polaroid cameras.  Turning your photos into art this way, you’ll get prints larger than the Fuji Instax Mini, but at about twice the cost (for the prints).  Head over to Photojojo.com to snag one of these for yourself, at about $300 a pop.

Sticker Prints

Where to find them:  a mercurial place known only as “the internet”

turning photos into art

Here’s how this works.  You buy the paper and print photos on it (or order transparent stickers from a photo-printing site) and then you slap it on whatever you want.  This can be pretty cool when turning photos into art gets boring, and you want to turn everyday objects into art.  Need ideas?  Ceramic dinner plates, skateboard decks, wood surfaces…just about anything flat might work.  Two things to keep in mind here:  if you print stickers yourself, some will only work with Laser Printers.  Research this before you try it.  Also, don’t eat food off of plates you’ve adhered stickers to.  It just isn’t safe.

So…go ahead and give them a whirl.  Taking the photo and simply saving it for later – or uploading it to an image-sharing website like Flickr, Facebook, or 500px – doesn’t have to be the final step.  Turning photos into art doesn’t have to be curtailed to these three methods, either.  Go wild!  Experiment!  There’s always room to expand and improve.

On Personal Photography

personal photography example

With more and more people getting into photography – through dedicated cameras, or the blasted iPhone – it seems like everything worthwhile has been done before.  So if you want to stand out from everyone else (or just try something new to get those creative juices flowing again), do your own thing – and you can start by making your photography a little more personal.

5 Tips for More Personal Photography

 

1. Photograph the Bad Stuff personal photography example

It ain’t all sunshine and rainbows.  Hopefully.  While I don’t wish anything bad on anyone, having faults is what makes us human…so find your faults – vices, character flaws, deficiencies, imperfections, obsessions – and photograph the daylights out of them.

Get more cerebral and take photographs with  motifs you think about often – or highlight a universal truth.  It doesn’t have to be straightforward.  Here’s a picture of plants that is equal parts life and death:

personal photography example

 

2. Photograph what You See

This tip might sound simple.  It is simple!  There’s nothing more personal than what’s going on in your life right now.  Does that in and of itself offer better subject matter?  No, but it can help you form a narrative of your own experiences.

personal photography example

While this might make for some interesting portraits, you can go another route too – and photograph yourself with the people you already photograph.  Whether they are casual acquaintances, or a model you’re working with, these shots are equal parts portrait, self portrait, and documentary – a fine recipe indeed for more personal photography.

personal photography example

 

3. Think about Perspective

Tip Number Three is a little more challenging.  Don’t just think about your position to your subjects, but your view of them as well.  Your relationship with them.  The distance (or lack thereof) between the two of you.  A good photograph will put your audience in your shoes.  

personal photography example personal photography example

Don’t be afraid to experiment with crops and focus and everything else under the sun.  There’s no right way to use a camera, just like there’s no right way to use any other creative instrument (slap guitar, anyone?).

4. Take Snapshots of Your Life

A lot like Tip 2, but a gateway tip to more personal photography.  Here I can offer you some concrete examples of photography projects guaranteed to shake up your body of work.

First, the Apartment Project – take photos of the places you live.  Obviously a little-long term, but well worth it in the end, if you move around a lot.  But you don’t just have to take a humdrum portrait of yourself standing outside of your place.  No, go all in and photograph the things that happen in your apartment, or life.  A home is more than a roof over your head.  It’s a daily scene many people can recognize, and comfortable enough for you to try anything in.

personal photography example personal photography examplepersonal photography example

5. Take up Personal Projects

When I was younger, I had all kinds of ideas for projects, but most of them sucked because I was always reaching too far afield for interesting subjects.  Truth be told, the more interesting stuff is usually right under your nose…and much easier to get to.

I’ve always liked people watching, and one day on my long commute, a spark when off in my brain:  I should photograph people on public transit.

Boom.  The Transit Project was born.

personal photography example

One night while walking home, I realized just how alien I felt in my own neighborhood.  I didn’t just feel out of place, but almost forsaken by my neighbors, who were tight-lipped and elusive.  What was a photographer to do?  I decided to take a portrait of that neighborhood, showing human residue, but not too many people.  Welcome to Parkville, folks.

personal photography example

Don’t know what your personal project should be?  Don’t sweat it.  The hardest part about photography is figuring out what to shoot.  But you can start with individual photos you want to take.

Maybe it’s a place, or a person in a certain light.  When I was a kid, I always knew I was halfway home from my babysitters when I saw a sign for a local park.

personal photography example

When I think about home, and the town I grew up in, I invariably come back to this sign.  Sometimes beautiful and other times forlorn, but ultimately a very personal memento.

So there you have it:  five tips for more personal photography.  Some of it might seem like common sense.  It probably is, in a way, once you go through it.  But for those looking to amp up their photos, I hope this helps…even if it’s in a small way.

 

How to Take Portraits Well

take portraits well sample image

Portraiture can be a doozy when you pick up your first camera.  Even after several years taking portraits, good photographers can still struggle to take portraits well.  These are lessons that I have learned, and tips that will help you close the gap.

Take Portraits Well:  Tried and True Tips

take portraits well sample image

1. Practice.

Portraiture is like any other kind of photography in one respect:  practice makes perfect.  Or, as one of my school teachers once told me, perfect practice makes perfect.  In this case, though, making a few mistakes along the way isn’t going to ruin you.  The photographic community doesn’t let our mistakes slide, and it will be vocal when it sees something amiss.  So practice, and practice often.  Ask your friends to sit for you.  Ask your family members.  Don’t substitute your pets, and don’t try strangers right away.  The easiest place to start is with people you know, who you are comfortable with.

take portraits well sample image

2. Work slowly.

The pros have speed.  But when you’re first starting out, it helps to tell yourself that you have all the time in the world.  Take care to pose, and take more time with your compositions.  Speak up when you want something in particular, and don’t be afraid to show your subjects what you want in a pose.  To take portraits well, you have to identify with your subject.  Put yourself in their shoes.  Slowly disarm them, and cut through the barriers.  Eventually you will reach an “ah-ha” moment.

take portraits well sample image

3. Don’t be afraid of models.

Professional models can be intimidating.  As a beginner, you can gain a lot of experience working with them.  A model who also takes photographs is a goldmine of information, creative savvy, and recommendations.  They also tend to know poses that work, and this can boost your confidence when you first start out.  It can also lead you to consider which poses you like and which poses you don’t like.

take portraits well sample image

4. The self-portrait is a great tool.

Here it is important to clarify.  Self-portraits are not selfies.  Don’t use bathroom mirrors, and don’t hold the camera at arms length.  Use a tripod, or a steady surface.  If you don’t have a camera remote, use the timed shutter function.  In either case, pose yourself, and be ruthless in your critique when you look at the image.  It can take a while until you nail it, but this kind of practice will help you take portraits well.

take portraits well sample image

5. Look for portraits.

As time goes by and you think about poses, looks, and body language, as well as facial features, you will start to see portraits everywhere.  This can help you move into other kinds of portraiture, like street photography and environmental portraiture.  It can enhance documentary-style portraits by helping you see that perfect moment as it happens.  And it will help you cultivate a discerning eye in terms of what passes for a portrait and what doesn’t.

There ya go – five tips that have proven indispensable time and time again.

Matte Effect in Photoshop: Five Easy Steps!

featured

Want to do a matte effect in Photoshop?  You aren’t alone.  A lot of photographers and hacks use this technique to instantly improve good or otherwise-terrible photos.  In fact, whenever you have a photo, this effect seems to make it better.

(All joking aside, the matte effect in Photoshop is overused by portrait photographers the world over, from 500 px and flickr to “we heart it” and pinterest.  It seems the only ones who haven’t caught on yet are the good folks at 4chan.)

matte effect in photoshop example

Our sample image.

How to make a Matte Effect in Photoshop

Step 1:  Select curves.

matte effect in photoshop example

Drag your mouse to the top of the screen and click on image>adjustments>curves.

Step 2:  Adjust curves.

matte effect in photoshop example

Make a midpoint in the middle of your curve by clicking the mouse one (1) time.  Now bring the bottom of the curve up juuuuuuust a little.

Step 3:  Select levels.

matte effect in photoshop example

Drag your mouse to the top of the screen and click on image>adjustments>levels.

Step 4:  Adjust levels.

matte effect in photoshop example

Click and drag the upper left tab to the right.  Click and drag the lower left tab to the right.  Click and drag the lower right tab to the left.  (Basically, drag all three toward the center.  Do not touch the top right tab.)

Step 5:  Save that sh!t.

matte effect in photoshop example

Save and done.

Congratulations.  You now win at Photoshop and life.  You are now the next Terry Richardson/Annie Liebowitz/whoever.  The time and money you have sunk into photography – and the personal sacrifices you have made – are totally going to pay off when the editors of Sports Illustrated/Vogue/American Wedding see your amazing photographs and want to hire you at a six digit income.

matte effect in photoshop example

Comparison image – left side is original, right side is with matte effect.

Now go online and research the latest camera that can do everything for you so you don’t have to learn real technique.

Harder is Better: Honing Your Photography Skills

5127326290_0d831fbcb0_z

With the wealth of new and improved technology out there making our photographic processes easier and quicker, it can be convenient to rely heavily (if not completely) on the technology, and less on actual photography skills.  But making things harder on yourself short-term, can make you a more adaptive photographer in the long run.

Improve Your
Photography Skills

4532981487_8a2cb1c9d7_z

1. Lose the Auto Focus

When I was in college, I got cold-called by a photo editor at a local newspaper.  The guy wanted me to shoot for him, so I went to his office to see what was what.  What followed was a long conversation about my work, and my techniques.  I ended up having to pass on the opportunity, but not after hearing an anecdote about how sports photographers used to practice focusing before the days of auto focus.

The photographers would go to an intersection with their cameras and no film, wait for a green light, and then try to focus on cars as they moved through the intersection.  The idea was to focus on a car as quickly as possible.  Once you had it in focus, you kept in focus as it moved through the intersection.  Then you did the same thing to the next car.  And the next.  And the next.

I know it sounds a bit boring, but life was simpler then, before the internet forums and the War of the Megapixels.

At any rate, I walked away with that story, and I count it as one of the most important things I’ve learned from another photographer.  I’ve had my share of auto focus lenses, but I still prefer manual focus, because it makes me better in the long run.  It’s also cheaper, and a little more fun that just pushing a button and letting the camera do it for me.

Some photographers might need the AF – sports photographers and wildlife photographers and gear heads.  But you can get tack sharp focus 99.9% of the time if you just practice.

4532978617_2e224515dd_z

2. Break Rules

The Rule of Thirds, the Rule of Odds, the Golden Rule, Ja Rule.  There are too many “rules” to photography.  They are more like guidelines, and even though there is some sense to them, you can and should break them at times.  Do a little experimentation of your own.  Try an even number of subjects.  Center subjects in the frame.  Use the “wrong lens” for certain subjects.  Don’t be afraid to crop…drastically, if need be.

4647970339_ef1b1ee1a3_z

3. Improvise

A skilled photographer will improvise, but forcing yourself to improvise now can drastically improve your photography skills.  Eschew Photoshop for a few minutes and think about effects you could replicate with simple household objects.  A piece of mesh screening can become a star filter, and a plastic soda bottle can soften your photos.  A friend of mine once showed me how to use a milk carton as a flash diffuser when we found ourselves in a pinch, and I have substituted any number of flat, stable surfaces for my tripod to get more creative angles.

5127326290_0d831fbcb0_z

4.  Forget the Zoom

I know some people need a zoom lens.  I get that.  If you’re one of them, keep it.  But if you aren’t photographing a ravenous lion on the African plains, or shooting a Nascar Race or a football player about to make the next touchdown, just forget it.  Invest in a fixed lens, and run with it – literally.  Of course it’s not going to be as easy as a zoom, because you’re going to have to move.  You may have to close a distance, or find a way to get some more of it between you and your subject.  But in doing that you’re inevitably going to find some angles and views in their that you might not have considered with that convenient zoom.  You might even have to engage more with your subject – not only improving your photography skills, but your people skills as well!

5037289988_e337125b11_z

5. Look at and Critique Your Images

As photographers, we sometimes concentrate too heavily on cranking material out, and don’t spend enough time actually judging our own work.  And not judging in our favor, folks.  We need to be ruthless in this.  Some photos will have sentimental value, even though they suck from many standpoints.  That’s fine, but don’t lie to yourself.  Similarly, don’t be fooled by constant technical nitpicking.  Study your images long and hard.  Decide what you like and what you don’t, what works and what doesn’t.  Photography skills aside, you should take the images that you want to see in the world, not the images the world wants to see from you.  Don’t go to online forums.  They suck, they’re pointless, and usually filled with people who want clinical, sterilized, soulless photos.  Talk to friends, and photographers you know in real life.  Ask your significant other or family members what they like, which elements of the photo appeal to them, or what about the photo (if anything) captures their attention.

Don’t be satisfied with basic answers about why the photo is good.  The purpose of critiquing your work is to have it torn apart.  Be aggressive when you judge your own work, and encourage others to be honest about what they don’t like or what you could do better.

So…five tips to improve your photography skills.  Of course, following these tips would mean making the process harder on yourself.  I think you’re up to it, because I’ve been there and done it myself.  It is good for your skills, and it is good for your photography.  It may not be for everyone, but following even a few of these tips will lend something to your skills as a photographer.

How to Shoot Environmental Portraits

environmental portrait sample

The classic portrait has been done to death.  Forget about capturing simple portraits for now, and follow these easy tips to start shooting environmental portraits today.

Environmental Portraits 101

Environmental portraits are very similar to classic portraits in their end goal of capturing an individual’s character.  However, the environmental portrait often includes the subjects daily surroundings as a way of highlighting or emphasizing that character.

Some online tutorials will tell you to follow certain technical considerations – only use a wide lens, or only shoot with a wide depth of field.  Of course, that’s not really accurate.  You can crank out good environmental portraits with just about any camera settings, as long as your approach is right.

So what do I mean by approach?  Environmental portraits should include things that communicate something about the subject, besides the subject itself.  Objects, lighting, physical environment – these things will help you pull off a successful environmental portrait.  But don’t just focus on any of these:  select items or situations that speak about the person you’re photographing.

environmental portrait sample

Kit sits on a bed in West Texas, an empty beer bottle in the foreground.  Kit is one of my closest friend, and he’s borderline alcoholic.  Kit was depressed a lot, so I shot with the aim of getting a murky feel to the photograph, including the bottle to emphasize the role of alcohol in his life, looming behind his back. 

Feel for Your Subject

Perhaps the easiest way to take a better environmental portrait, is to actually care about your subject.  What do they fear?  What do they struggle with?  Is there a tragedy or contention in their life?  While happy, sugary, feel-good portraits are great, people tend to care more about a serious issue, and whether we want to admit it or not, we’ve all got skeletons in our closets.

environmental portrait sample

Alex and Tom playing poker.  When I lived in Pennsylvania, I’d go up to a cabin with Alex and Tom and play poker.  This is a good example of not having to use a wide depth of field – the chips, cards, beer, and cigarette are all relatively in focus.  At first glance one can see exactly what kind of people Alex and Tom are.  

Join Your Subject

Another often-shunned approach, “going native” or joining your subject in his or her environment can help you speak worlds about who they are as a person.  Don’t just take a portrait – have a bona fide experience.

environmental portrait sample

My little brother Jesse plays video games on his bed.  Always the gamer, my little brother didn’t want to be photographed in a formal setting, so I caught him in his natural environment with a controller in his hands.  Again, I used a relatively low aperture and just made sure my key points of focus – his face and the controller – were clearly shown.

Get Familiar with Your Subject

Sometimes we miss the things that are closest to us, and the best subjects are sometimes right under our noses.  Things that are commonplace but indicative to someone’s true character are a godsend for environmental portraiture, and you shouldn’t be afraid to close the distance – both literally and figuratively.

environmental portrait sample

Beth photographs herself.  Here you can see me breaking a couple of rules, using a low depth of field and not even having the tripod or camera in the foreground even remotely in focus.  For me, it worked.  Most people looking at this photo can tell what is going on.  

Distance your Subject

Conversely, you can take a mental step back from people you are close to, in your approach to take better environmental portraits.  The more time we spend with people, and the longer we know them, the more we tend to gloss over their appearance and character.  Stop and think about who they are and what makes them tick.

Well, there you have it folks!  Hopefully these tips will be of some use to you, and get you shooting soon.

Photography Projects: New Year Resolutions

photography projects new year resolutions image

It’s New Years Eve!   WOOOOOOOOOO!  But while we get ready to ring in the new year, it’s the perfect time to consider photo-related New Year Resolutions in the form of….photography projects!

Ten Photography Projects for the New Year

1.  Standard 365 Project

We’ve all heard about it and most of us have tried it.  Take a picture of anything, but take one a day for 365 days.  Surprisingly hard for some of us and seemingly easy for others, this is your standard year-long photography project.

photography projects new year resolutions image

2.  Meals, Food

For all the foodies out there, this one is fairly easy.  Just photograph a meal or a food item once a day, or once a week for something special.

3.  News/Media

Take photos of headlines, new images, and other information that constitutes “news”.  You can even incorporate personal news – Facebook and Twitter messages, emails, and texts.  Make a time capsule of important information over the year.

photography projects new year resolutions image

4.  Self Portraits

A photo a day…will probably show how you age.  But don’t let that stop you.  Plenty of artists have used the self portrait as a means to study themselves, and while other photographers have done this, it shouldn’t stop you from following suite.

5.  Manual Progress

Want to ensure you become a better photographer over the coming year?  Limit yourself to one exposure per day.  If the exposure isn’t right, keep it anyway.  The next day take another photograph, again limiting yourself to one exposure.

photography projects new year resolutions image

6.  Commute Photography

Do you spend an hour or more commuting every day?  Take a photo along the way and record your commute for a year.

7.  Multi Media

Combine more than one form of media:  use text, images, and sound to create new photographic experiences.

photography projects new year resolutions image

8.  Talk to Strangers

Talk to one stranger every day, with the aim of taking a photograph of that stranger.  Go a little further if you want and record your conversations.  Talk about anything.

photography projects new year resolutions image

9.  Signs!

Photograph signs, advertisements, posters, and warnings.  Anything written is your friend.  This photography project won’t just speak about what you see, but what you think and feel in response.

10.  Weekly/Monthly Collage

Take one photo per day, and every week blend or stitch the photos together to make one composite.  at the end of every month, print your composites and physically join them together.  At the end of the year you will have twelve collages detailing your life in 2014.

So there ya go, folks!  Ten ideas you can use, modify, combine, or ignore!  Good luck and keep shooting!

How to Take Better Portraits

better portraits image

While portraits might seem easy, getting the best results can be difficult at time.  Follow these tips to get better portraits, instantly!

Take Better Portraits in Five Easy Steps

better portraits image

1. Get close!

One of the easiest ways to take better portraits, is simply to close some distance.  I don’t recommend a zoom lens, but getting up close and personal with your subject.  This will enhance the dynamic between you and your subject, while also offering shots full of background details, and maybe even a little distortion.  These shots also convey a sense of immediacy or intimacy to your audience, with your subjects so close to the viewer.

better portraits image

2. Go big.

With aperture, that is.  Use depth of field to make sure key areas of focus are tack sharp, and other parts of the image are murkier.  You can use a lens designed for this – something with a low f/stop of 2.8 or lower, or you can edit in post-processing to achieve the look artificially.  Either way, it won’t make a terrible photo good, but it will make good portraits better portraits.

better portraits image

3. Capture the action.

Nothing adds more to the power of a portrait than a little action.  Blur movement or freeze it, and capture any kind of action.  Okay, so your subject isn’t an athlete.  Photograph them doing something they do every day.

better portraits image

4. Lose the head.

Want to be a little more creative?  Start losing the head (or face) from your portraits.  Shoot from the neck down, or obscure the face of your subject.  Just because you aren’t showing the face, doesn’t mean you aren’t conveying the character of your subject.  And leaving things unseen can also add a sense of mystery.

better portraits image

5. Experiment!

Never follow all the “rules” of photography.  The best way to take better portraits is simply to experiment with all the techniques you can think of.  Experiment with homemade filters, multiple exposures or stacked negatives, odd angles, and strange lighting setups.

Better portraits are easily obtainable when you start adding some of these techniques to your arsenal.  But don’t just follow my advice:  try everything you can think off and use what works for you.

Which Prime Lens is Right for You?

prime lens sample

I never get tired of recommending prime lenses.  Why?  Because image quality is so much better with them.  And while some people will label zoom lenses ‘convenient’, you can just as easily move closer or farther back with your feet.

Finding Your Ideal Prime Lens

For every application, there’s a great prime lens waiting to help you get those shots.  But different prime lenses are good for different things – just like different focal lengths on your zoom lens are good for different things.  But how do you know what to choose?  Here are some common lenses and what they are usually used for.

prime lens sample

A pipe shot in the ghost town of Centralia, using a Sigma 20 mm f/1.8 lens and a Nikon D60.

Ultrawide Lenses and Fisheyes

The ultrawide and fisheye primes are good, but relatively niche.  At such an extremely short focal range (e.g. 8 mm) loss in image quality is more visible between different focal lengths in a zoom lens.  However, prime lenses in this category are usually just as expensive as zoom lenses, and if there are any aperture advantages, you usually wind up paying more.  The fisheye is relatively played-out, and few people will ever use it more than a few times.  If you really are considering an ultrawide, don’t go below 20 mm on a cropped sensor.  In my experience, this was the final safe focal length without getting too much distortion.  Use these lenses for extremely closeup perspectives, and some architecture, though beware of “key-stoning” and other undesirable effects.

prime lens sample

Friends photographed in San Diego with a Soligor 24 mm f/2.5 lens on a Pentax ME Super.  

prime lens sample

My buddy Kit building a canoe, taken with a Sigma 30 mm f/1.4 on a Nikon D2Xs.

Wide Angle Lenses

My favorite lenses, these lenses are used predominantly with architecture and landscapes, though street photographers use them a lot too.  I swear by wide angle lenses for environmental portraits.  On old 35 mm cameras and full frame digital bodies, the focal length is 24, 28, or 30 mm essentially.  On a cropped sensor camera, this number is anywhere between 16 and 20 mm.  These lenses almost always offer better image quality than zoom lenses and sometimes you have the added benefit of a larger aperture, though this feature can be costlier in some wide angle lenses.

prime lens sample

Dead plant in winter, from a Nikon 50 mm f/1.8 E Series lens on a Nikon D60.

prime lens sample

A portrait of my friend Alex, taken with the exact same setup described above.

Normal Lenses

Called “normal” lenses because they are considered to accurately represent the normal field of view of a human eye, these lenses are very common as standards among many photographers.  They range from the relatively wide-open 35 and 40 mm lenses to the famous 50 mm and even up to 60 mm lenses on film and full frame.  On cropped sensors, equivalent focal lengths would range between 24 and 40 mm.  These lenses are excellent for many applications; portraits are easily done, especially for those desiring some background in the shot.  Prime lenses in this category are usually very easy for manufacturers to make, and as a result, they usually cost less and offer better maximum apertures (anywhere between f/1.2 to f/2.8 or f/3.5, usually).

prime lens sample

Cafe shot from Philadelphia, taken with a Tamron 90 mm f/2.5 on a Pentax ME Super.  

Short Telephoto

Here you can find lenses with common focal lengths of 80, 90, 105, and maybe 150 mm, or around 50 – 100 mm on a cropped sensor.  These lenses are great for portraits, and lightly-distanced work.  They usually have suitable apertures for the work required, and being prime lenses, this aperture is usually fairly large in comparison to that of a comparable zoom lens.  Being unable to zoom, these lenses are not for everyone, and can even make some kinds of photography more challenging, like sports and wildlife photography.  One area where these lenses really shine, though, is in macro photography.

prime lens sample

Photo of a bee, shot with a Sigma 300 mm f/2.8 on a Nikon D60.  

Long Telephoto

Prime lenses of very long focal length are usually pretty hard to come by.  They are out there, though, and on a 35 mm sensor or negative, these lenses are usually 180, 200, 250, 300, or 400 mm.  Cropped sensor cameras would have the same field of view by mounting a lens somewhere around 120-250 mm.  I have yet to see a prime lens longer than that, though I’m sure they exist.  This lens is good for long distances, and is usually less costly than a zoom with better image quality, but requiring the photographer to close any distance needed.

In conclusion, people, feel free to experiment with those primes you feel are best for you.  I have always stuck by my wide angle lenses for portraits, even though some people tell me it’s wrong.  Remember too, that most primes are harder to break, with less moving instruments inside.  Because of this, they are also cheaper to repair should something happen to them.  With all this in mind, find what’s right for you and keep on shooting!

« Older Entries