It’s in the bag

Probably the question I am most asked is some variation on, “What lens should I use?” While I’m happy to answer questions, this one always makes me cringe because the implicit question is, “Which lenses can I leave behind?”

What many photographers fail to realize is that the “proper” lens is determined by the photographer, not by the scene. While there’s often a general consensus on the primary composition at a location, that pretty much just means the first composition everyone sees. But those are just the compositions I want to avoid, and you should too if your goal is to capture  something unique (as I suggest it should be).

One of the things I emphasize in my photo workshops and lectures is the role of sacrifice in landscape photography. I’m not talking about risking your life, but I am talking about a willingness to experience a little discomfort and inconvenience to get a unique shot. That means venturing out in miserable weather, rising well before the sun, and (gulp) skipping dinner. And yes, it even means lugging a little heavier camera bag than you might prefer.

I pretty much carry everything with me when I shoot, regardless of the burden or inconvenience, because experience has taught me that best way to guarantee I’ll need a lens is to not pack it. On the other hand, I realize some people have physical limitations that sometimes requires equipment compromise, and many photographers aren’t as hardcore as I am (some are more hardcore). But the lens you choose is part of the creative process that defines you as a photographer; it’s a personal decision that I’m happy to assist, but reluctant to dictate.

So the next time you find yourself wondering what lenses to leave out, rather than asking someone else to make the lens choice for you, try researching and asking questions that will help you understand the location better, then pack your bag with that information in mind. Don’t get me wrong: I’m totally fine being asked for help deciding which lenses to leave behind, I just think the ultimate decision should be based on your creative instincts.

The above image is from a backpack trip in the Twenty Lakes Basin, just north and east of Yosemite. In addition to a backpack filled with food and gear, I also carried my 1DS body, my three primary lenses, and a tripod. I was a little cranky about shlepping all this gear up and down 11,000+ foot mountain passes, but not nearly as cranky as I’d have been if I hadn’t been able to make the compositional decisions I’m accustomed to. For this shot I rose before sunrise and trekked to this spot on an unnamed lake I’d scouted the previous afternoon. My original plan was to try some telephoto shots of the first light on North Peak, but when I saw the skimming light of the day’s first rays illuminating this patch of wildflowers, I quickly switched to a wide angle lens and dropped low to to fill the foreground with wildflowers.

Whenever I consider leaving something behind, I remember moments like this. I’m not suggesting that you lug Hermione’s purse to every shoot; just try to remember that the images will last far longer than the discomfort.

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