What lens should I use?

Gary Hart Photography: Half Dome at Sunset, Olmsted Point, Yosemite

Half Dome at Sunset, Olmsted Point, Yosemite
Sony a6000
Tamron 150-600 (Canon-mount with Metabones IV adapter)
4 seconds
ISO 400

Inexperienced photographers tend to approach every scene with the idea that there’s one “best” shot, and that other photographers already know what that shot is. This might explain why there’s no better way to meet other photographers than to set up a tripod (I’ve learned that this even works on the shoulder of a busy highway with no obvious view). It might also explain why the most frequent question asked in my workshops is probably, “What lens should I use?”

The question usually comes as we’re unloading from the cars and assembling our gear for the walk to our shooting site. I don’t mind the question (I swear), but my answer rarely satisfies. That’s because I’ve done this long enough to know that their real question is, “What lenses can I leave in the car?” If only photography were that easy.

Your lens choice is part of your composition process. In other words, by limiting the lenses you carry, you’re also limiting your creative options. If adding an extra lens or two is the difference between going out or staying put, by all means, jettison the extra lenses and get out there. But here’s a photographic truth: The surest way to ensure that you’ll want a lens is to leave it behind.

I will acknowledge the most landscapes have an “obvious” shot—the first thing people see when they walk up—that everyone shoots. While many photographers are satisfied with the obvious shot, I wouldn’t be much of a workshop leader if I allowed my students to settle for the shot that everyone else takes.

While there’s nothing wrong with taking the obvious shot, it should be your starting point, never your goal. Your goal should be to find something unique, and the greater the focal range at your disposal, the greater your opportunity for a unique capture.

All this is to explain why, regardless of the scene, at the very least I carry lenses to cover the focal range spanning 20-200mm (full frame). For me that’s three lenses: the Sony/Zeiss 16-35 f4, the Sony/Zeiss 24-70 f4, and the Sony 70-200 f4. For practical reasons (to minimize bulk and weight and enhance my range and mobility), I might leave behind my specialty lenses (an ultra-telephoto, macro, and fast prime). But it’s a rare scene that, given enough time, I can’t find something for each of my three primary lenses.

Gary Hart Photography: Sunset Fire, Olmsted Point, Yosemite

Sunset Fire, Olmsted Point, Yosemite

Generally (and incorrectly) labeled a “wide angle location,” Yosemite has lots of spectacular views that can overwhelm the first time visitor. It’s natural to want to capture everything with one click, and these wide Yosemite images don’t disappoint. But with familiarity comes recognition and appreciation of details easily overlooked in the big picture. The longer you spend looking at Half Dome or El Capitan (or Yosemite Falls, or Bridalveil Fall, or …), the more work you can find for your telephoto lens.

At Olmsted Point, the obvious subject is Half Dome, but the composition possibilities here, from wide to tight, are endless.

In my October Eastern Sierra workshop I got my group to Olmsted Point with plenty of time for everyone to familiarize themselves with the scene. Moving around to check on the group, I reminded each person not to get so committed to one lens that they ignore the other options. (I find that merely carrying a variety of lenses often isn’t enough—using the full assortment is a habit to be cultivated.)

I don’t think there’s a better illustration of why it’s important carry a range of lenses than that evening’s shoot. I found myself switching not only between lenses, but between bodies, with my wide lenses on the full frame Sony a7R II, and my Tamron 150-600 on the Sony a6000 (with its 1.5 crop sensor) .

I started with the wider scene, because the composition had so many variables that required a lot more work to get just right. But once the color overhead started to fade, I switched to the a6000 and 150-600 team and zoomed tight on Half Dome, working through a number of long and ultra-long compositions.

Sunset hues, especially in the direction of the sun, usually outlast photographers. As the sky darkened beyond my eyes’ ability to register the color, all I needed to do was dial up the exposure to see that the color was still there. I finally stopped not because I’d run out of shots, but because the light was  leaving and I don’t like the group scrambling down Olmsted’s granite in the dark.

In retrospect, I can’t help marvel at the difference between these two images of Half Dome captured just a few minutes apart, and the opportunities I’d have missed if I’d have lightened my bag.

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2 Comments on “What lens should I use?

  1. For the uneducated, you would not pick that these 2 shots were taken from the same point. If ever a reason for carrying all your lenses was needed, this is it in a nutshell. I mightn’t get such extreme examples but these just reinforced why I carry my camera bag everywhere 🙂

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