Doing the math

Gary Hart Photography: Autumn Snow, El Capitan, Yosemite

Autumn Snow, El Capitan, Yosemite
Sony a7R II
Sony/Zeiss 16-35 f4
1/160 second
ISO 800

A few days ago Sony asked me to write a couple of small pieces on “my favorite landscape lenses.” Hmmm. My answer?

My favorite lens is the lens that allows me to do what I need to do at that moment. In fact, to avoid biasing my creativity, I consciously avoid approaching a scene with a preconceived notion of the lens to use.

What I mean is, when I charge into a scene too committed to a lens, I miss things. And “favorite” tends to become a self-fulfilling label that inhibits creativity and growth. Rather than picking a favorite, I’m all about keeping my mind open and maximizing options.

I went on to say:

Because the focal range I want to cover whenever I’m photographing landscapes is 20-200mm, the three lenses I never leave home without are my Sony/Zeiss 16-35 f4, Sony/Zeiss 24-70 f4, and Sony 70-200 f4.

I have other, “specialty” lenses that I bring out when I have a particular objective in mind. For example, my Tamron 150-600 when I’m after a moonrise or moonset, or my Rokinon 24mm f1.4 when the Milky Way is my target. And even though I have a bag that will handle all of these (plus three bodies, thank you very much Sony mirrorless), I need to weigh the value of lugging lenses I probably won’t use against inhibited mobility in the field.

Ruminating on this favorite lens thing kindled my curiosity about which lenses I really do favor—so I did the math. (Okay, I let Lightroom Filters do the math.) Of the 10,395 times I clicked my shutter in 2015, here’s the breakdown:

Primary lenses (always in my bag)

  • Sony/Zeiss 16-35mm f4: 3064
  • Sony/Zeiss 24-70mm f4: 3529
  • Sony 70-200mm f4: 1566

Specialty lenses

  • Rokinon 24mm f1.4 (night only): 189
  • Zeiss Distagon 28mm f2* (night only): 161
  • Tamron 150-600mm* (mostly moon and extreme close focus): 1886
*Canon Mount with Metabones IV adapter

There are a lot of qualifiers for these numbers—for example, the total may be skewed a bit for the 24-70 as it is the lens I use most for lightning photography, and when my Lightning Trigger is attached and an active storm is nearby, it can go through hundreds of fames in a relatively short time (even when I’m not seeing lightning). Also, since getting the Tamron 150-600, I sometimes used that lens as a substitute for the 70-200, something I virtually never did with Canon and my 100-400 (which I didn’t particularly like). And I haven’t used the Zeiss since getting the Rokinon, so I really could lump those two together.

What does all this mean? I don’t know, except that I have a fairly even distribution between wide, midrange, and telephoto. That’s encouraging, because I never want to feel like I’m too locked into a single lens. But two things in particular stand out for me: the high number of 16-35 images, and the low number of 70-200 images.

The 16-35 number is significant only in comparison to my Canon 17-40 and 16-35 numbers from previous years, which were much lower (especially for the 17-40). Wide angle clicks went up quite a bit when I replaced my Canon 17-40 (which I was never thrilled with) with the Canon 16-35 f2.8 (which I liked a lot more). But I don’t think they were as high as they are with my Sony/Zeiss 16-35, which is probably a reflection of how pleased I am with the quality of those images, combined with that lens’s compactness. The jury is out on whether it signals a transition in my style, but it’ll be worth monitoring.

The most telling statistic to me is how few 70-200 images I took. I really like the lens, so it’s not a quality thing. And as I said earlier, some of that is an indication of how much I enjoyed shooting with the big Tamron, but that’s not the entire answer. My Canon 70-200 f4 was one of my favorite lenses, and I always enjoyed using it to isolate aspects of a scene, and maybe I’m not doing that so much since my switch to Sony. So here’s a goal for 2016: Don’t forget the 70-200. Stay tuned….

About this image

This is another image from my recent Yosemite snow day. It’s just another example of how much I enjoy photographing Yosemite when its seasons are changing—either snow with autumn leaves, or snow with spring dogwood and waterfalls.

On this chilly, wet morning, during one of the breaks when the clouds lifted enough to expose Yosemite’s icons, I was at a spot above the Merced River with a nice view of El Capitan. I like this spot for the dogwood tree I can align with El Capitan, and because it’s not particularly well known. I found it about ten years ago while wandering the bank of the Merced River looking for views (something I encourage anyone who wants to get serious about photographing Yosemite to do).

I tried a few different things here, starting with closer compositions using my 70-200 and 24-70 to highlight the snow on the leaves with El Capitan in the background. I eventually landed on this wide angle view that used the snow-dusted dogwood tree to balance a more prominent El Capitan. Because the opening is narrow here, I struggled with how to handle the tree on the left. I eventually decided, rather than featuring it or eliminating it, to just let its textured trunk frame the scene’s left side.

Sharpness throughout the frame was essential. With the trunk less than three feet away, the depth of field benefit of shooting at 16mm was a life-saver, giving me front-to-back sharpness at my preferred f11 (the best balance of DOF, lens sharpness, and minimimal diffraction)—as long as I focused about five feet away. Focus handled, my next concern was the breeze jiggling the leaves. At ISO 100, my shutter speed in the overcast, shaded light was 1/20 second; increasing my ISO to 800 allowed a much more manageable 1/160 second. Click.

Workshop schedule

Yosemite in transition

Click an image for a closer look, and a slide show. Refresh the screen to reorder the display.

9 Comments on “Doing the math

  1. I think at least some of us have a tendency at times to take photos with the lens we have mounted on the camera, rather than taking the time to evaluate if that is the right lens and changing lenses if appropriate. Am I taking this photo because it’s the right composition, or because it’s easy?

    This is especially true of zoom lenses when shooting at their limits. For example, if you find that you have a 24-70mm zoom installed and are composing a photo at either 24mm or 70mm, a legitimate question is whether you really should be changing to a wider or longer lens.

  2. Nice blog. Clears up a lot of confusion at least for me. I agree with Jeff as I tend to stick with the lens mounted on my camera most of the time. A question. Can you use the Rokinon with the Sony without the metabones adapter?

    • Thanks, Iqbal. Yes, my Rokinon is a Sony FE mount. There’s absolutely no communication between the lens and camera, so everything is controlled on the lens (f-stop, focus). And there’s no lens info in the EXIF data.

      • Hi Gary – I just re-read this particular blog post more carefully than I did the other day on FB. I have terrible retention so it is best for me to read and reread things. I have only the two lenses at the present time (and am redoubling my intentions to acquire a wide that which I have always wanted but finances get in the way 🙂
        Nevertheless even with the two lenses, I ALWAYS try to dilute any preconceived notions about a new scene, for sure….and if it is a familiar scene, c’est tout! I STILL try to suppress any ideas abut which lens….In fact the familiar ones are the ones that compel me, even MORE to stay ope-minded.

        This is just a wonderful scene, Gary. I have always been so moved by your images moved in so many ways. What an inspiration. And for what it is worth, I like to use tree trunks and natural things too, to act/serve as a frame on the left or right. I always felt that this method really brings in still more of a “total” scene.

        OK I have blabbed long enough as is my usual habit. So will let you go sir. Thank You So Very Much for your inspiration and generosity.

        Take Care Sir

  3. The photos are breathtaking. I can only imagine taking one photo of this magnitude in my lifetime. Yosemite is amazing anywhere in the park and your pictures capture it’s beauty so very well.

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