Why I Switched to Fixed Lenses

Why I Switched to Fixed Lenses
17-40mm lens
Cow and Calf Rocks Ilkley Moor, Canon 1D Mark iv, 17-40mm f/4 lens at around 31mm

My work predominantly consists of Wildlife Photography but I also enjoy shooting landscapes along with generic countryside images suitable for stock. For years I used the Canon 17-40mm f/4 USM lens for my landscape photography. The results were good but the edge softness always annoyed me – particularly in the corners where at times I felt it too unacceptable. Although I had the facility to shoot at 17mm, the fact is – I never did! Simply due to the increased edge softness I always zoomed in to at least 21mm to improve things. Working professionally and submitting to discerning picture libraries I always strived to get the most out of the lens – trying to use it at a mid-range focal length where possible and keeping the aperture around f/11 to maximise image quality.

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I shot this image on Ilkley Moor with the Canon 17-40mm. I was happy with the overall composition but the original file shows softness at the edges and particularly in the corners. Shot with a Canon 1D Mark iv.

Upgrading to a Canon 1D X Mark i showed an improvement in my images but I still felt I needed to improve the landscape quality. I toyed with the idea of the Canon 16-35mm which has an excellent reputation and would no doubt be a step up. But I also thought long and hard about switching to a fixed wide angle. A good quality fixed lens should always be sharper than a zoom – and it does make sense. I’ve certainly found it to be the case in my experience. I already had a fixed 50mm f/1.8, giving excellent performance, so I considered switching my 17-40mm zoom for a fixed wide angle. Overall image quality was a consideration but there was perhaps a more important issue related to zoom lenses. Now, zoom lenses are great for many situations; they are flexible and mean you don’t have to stop, change lens and carry on with your shoot. But what they also do is: make you lazy! This might not apply to everyone, but for me certainly, a fixed lens is a better option and it makes me a better photographer. Why? Well, with zoom lenses you can put yourself in great surroundings and change focal point to find the best images. But’s that not how it should be: the art of Landscape Photography is to search for your images… and that means moving around.! Whilst I like to think I wasn’t falling into the trap, I probably was. Essentially I was staying more in one place and adjusting my zoom, rather than thinking about the look of the image (for a given focal length) and finding the composition to suit.

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After reviewing this image I wasn’t entirely happy due to the mid-frame rock which wasn’t separated enough from the background. I couldn’t help feeling that with a fixed lens I would have been forced to search out a better viewpoint.

So, after reading many reviews, I opted for a Canon 24mm 2.8 lens. I now had two main lenses for landscape photography: the 24mm and my 50mm, along with a 100mm macro as an extra option for picking out sections of the landscape. I was itching to try the 24mm quickly so within two days of receiving it I headed out for a night shoot with my good friend Nik Goulthorp. We visited Millenium Bridge, Castleford – an excellent place for night photography that offers a number of compositions. I attached the 24mm and set to work. With this fixed lens I had to keep moving around to find the best viewpoint; there was no room to tweak the zoom. I had to find the very best spot. To be honest, it was refreshing and I felt more like a true landscape photographer.

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Wide angle image of Millenium Bridge, shot with Canon 1D X and 24mm 2.8 lens.

 

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For this low down viewpoint the 24mm was just too wide for the best composition. I switched to the standard 50mm f/1.8 which provided a tighter and stronger image. It also gives fantastic image quality.

Even during this one initial shoot with the 24mm I could feel myself working harder; thinking more. With one focal length on the camera I was forced to think about the overall composition and discover the best viewpoint. In fact, it’s taken me back to the old days when I used to shoot with a Bronica ETRS medium format camera – a beautiful piece of equipment. Back then, I would carry just two fixed lenses – a wide angle and a standard. I would then set about finding the best compositions that would work best for these lenses. Many of theses images found their way into calendars and a few Dalesman front covers too. Time will tell, but I think I will begin to work better with my new combination. I can’t wait til my next landscape shoot! Zoom lenses are not bad pieces of kit, just don’t fall into the trap of letting the lens do the work. The most important factor in creating the image is always – the photographer’s eye!!

Interested in joining me for a Photography Workshop? I’ve worked with hundreds of photographers over the years both in group workshops and on a One to One basis. Check out the range of Photography Courses  including the soon to be added Night Photography Workshops – planned for Autumn 2017!

 

 

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Night Photography West Yorkshire

In recent months I’ve been spending more time on night photography. It’s a difficult discipline, but one that can undoubtedly give very rewarding results – but you have to put the work in! This image was taken at my local haunt of St. Aidans Nature Reserve, between Leeds and Castleford. Clear skies are great for cityscapes, but when shooting wide scenes like this it’s tough to balance the exposure correctly. From experience I decided the best conditions would be partial cloud which would create movement in the sky and hopefully some colour too.

Alllerton Bywater, near Castleford, England. 5th October 2016. Disused dragline and lake at night, with moving clouds and stars, site of former opencast coal mine, now a flourisihing nature reserve.
Allerton Bywater, near Castleford, England. 5th October 2016. Disused dragline and lake at night, with moving clouds and stars, site of former opencast coal mine, now a flourishing nature reserve.

Much of the difficulty in night photography is technical – as well as not forgetting anything crucial (missing one piece of equipment can ruin a photo session –  I know.!). I had already scouted a good viewpoint for this image and arrived in darkness, around 7.30pm on an October’s night. First I took a test shot – this is for two reasons 1. To ensure sharp focus  and 2. To make sure the composition is how I want it. Setting the ISO at 12800 and a wide aperture of f4 I could get a ‘quick’ test shot at about 5 seconds. Focusing can be tricky – I set the focus to infinity which proved to work perfectly; my test shot was sharp. I then set my exposure for my proper image on a lower ISO for minimal noise. I chose an ISO of 400 and aperture of f8. Again using experience I estimated an exposure time of seven and a half minutes; of course you can always do the exposure maths to work it out! With the camera on my tripod and a remote release I set the exposure to bulb mode, pressed the button then timed it on my phone.

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The Importance of Being There

The Importance of Being There

It’s barely past 5.00am and I’m standing ankle deep in water next to my tripod, waiting patiently for the sun to climb above the tree-lined horizon. Already I can tell that I’ve made a good decision: the predicted early morning mist is clinging to the shallow pool and swirling in the soft breeze; the sky is largely clear but with the added touch of low cloud straight ahead. My composition is wide, to encompass the urban surroundings of this fascinating place. I’m happy with the foreground – the low sun will highlight the plants, revealing texture and form. I take a test shot before the sun rises but know the resulting image is flat; lifeless. It needs the light. The light will transform everything.

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Gradually the sun begins to break, shining through the mist and casting its warm glow upon my carefully composed scene. I continue to shoot for the next ten minutes watching minute shifts in light and shade and subtle changes to the moving mist. Quickly it becomes too bright to continue and I know that the first exposures were the best. I pack up my gear and search for different photo opportunities in stronger light.

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There are many ingredients that create a successful nature photograph but perhaps the biggest is actually ‘being there’. This does not mean simply turning up and shooting – it means a careful, considered approach to put you in the right place at the right time. With enough research you can visualise your image and arrive at the perfect hour in the best weather conditions. I often think how many nature and landscape photographs I have on file, but how many are truly good ones? It’s almost always the case that the most compelling of images are those that were carefully thought, crafted and executed. A little effort can go a long way…

Technical info: Canon 1D Mark iv; Canon 17-40mm lens at around 20mm, 1/6 second at f14, ISO 100, Cokin strong ND grad, mirror lock up, Induro Tripod

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Photographing Autumn Woodlands

Photographing Autumn Woodlands

It’s during late October and early November that I try to squeeze in an autumn woodland shoot. For my style of photography I find this time to be the best as it usually coincides with more gaps in the trees and more leaf litter on the woodland floor. This particular woodland in West Yorkshire is one that I have visited once before – back in the days of film! When visiting a relatively new location I find that it pays to keep an open mind and not be too rigid in your picture-taking.

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The majority of the afternoon consisted of overcast conditions which suited me fine – it made things much simpler and I could record wide scenes without too much contrast.

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The low light inevitably meant slow shutter speeds and this was perfect for creating movement in the water. I personally love the effect of these long shutter speeds.

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For all the images I used a polarising filter. The effect can be surprisingly striking: even in heavily overcast conditions a quick twist of the filter and the colours really leap out – with both greens and oranges becoming equally vibrant.

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This was particularly true when photographing this magnificent beech tree by the water’s edge. I kept checking the effect of the filter, rotating it a few times to make sure it was having maximum effect. Exposure wise, the meter was fairly accurate. If anything I underexposed slightly for some shots.

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As a professional photographer I often have specific markets in mind and whilst this is generally a good thing, it can stifle creativity. When I finally checked on the time I realised I’d been in the wood for nearly 2 hours. My first thought was how quickly the time had flown, but then something else gradually dawned on me. In all that time – I hadn’t really thought about the picture-taking. Sure, I’d considered the composition and all the technicalities of maximising sharpness and depth of field, but in all that time I hadn’t consciously thought about what I was photographing or why. Everything I had been doing was simply guided by instinct; intuition. All those little tweaks of position, angle; the play of light – they were all done with feel – as I strived to create something that satisfied me, and nobody else. There’s no doubt in my mind that this is when we achieve our most rewarding images.

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Now that I felt I was getting ‘under the skin’ of this special place I turned my attention towards the water and let my instincts work on creating more abstract images.

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The leaf colour by the water was stunning and I worked on some closer images using this clean backdrop.

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The leaves were barely staying still due to the light breeze so I deliberately used a slower shutter speed to create movement and much more abstract image of autumn colour.

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Another abstract but this time allowing the scum on the water to record as streaks whilst the autumn trees remained still.

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My last shots of the day were of the weir surrounded by autumn colour. By this point the light was failing and it was becoming too dull for good rendition of the colours.

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This woodland is a truly stunning location for autumn colours and I’ll be adding it to my list of Photography Workshops for 2016. More courses can be viewed at Nature Photography Courses

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