Our NYC store will close Sunday, September 27th at 4:00 PM in observance of the Sukkot Holiday, and will reopen on Wednesday, October 7th 9:00 AM.

The Zoom Lens Advantage.
By Rick Sammon

"I'll never use a zoom lens." That's what some of my professional photographer friends said when I first got into photography back in the mid-1970s. Back then, zoom lenses did not compare in sharpness to fixed focal length lenses. What's more, the zoom lenses of yesteryear were slow and heavy.

"I never leave home without my zoom lenses." That's what many of my pro shooter friends now say. Here's why.

Perhaps the biggest reason zoom lenses are so popular today is that they offer photographers tremendous versatility. For example, I shoot about 90 percent of my assignments with a Canon 16-35mm zoom on one camera body, and a Canon 28-70mm zoom on another body. This two-lens setup lets me quickly and easily compose, shoot and get out of the way, which is important in the type of assignments I do often, namely photographing people in distant lands. For some wildlife, sports and some portrait sessions, I use a Canon 100-400mm zoom, sometimes with a Canon 1.4x teleconverter. And, of course, I pack a macro lens.

Zoom lenses make the process of taking a picture more creative, because you can compose and crop a scene in camera and experiment with different compositions.

Many of today's zoom lenses rival the sharpness of fixed-focal length lenses. Note that as the sharpness of the zoom lens increases, so does the price – usually.

But one could argue that the sharpest zoom lens on the planet is not necessary to get a super-sharp print. For example, with the sharpening tools in programs like Adobe Photoshop, and sharpening Plug-ins such as nik Sharpener Pro!, soft images can be transformed into sharper images to some extent with a few clicks of a mouse. Still, it's best to start with the best quality image.

As far as speed goes, many manufacturers offer fast (f/2.8) zoom lenses - a feat unheard of back when I started shooting. With a fast zoom lens, you can use a faster shutter speed, which means you can handhold exposures in relatively low light situations.

If you are new to photography, a fast lens usually has a maximum aperture/f-stop of f/2.8 or wider, meaning a lower number, such as f/2 or even f/1.8. Slow lenses have a maximum aperture of f/4, f/5.6 or even f/8, as is the case with some inexpensive, very long telephoto lenses.

Even slower zoom lenses are increasing in popularity. That's due, in part, to advancements in 35mm film technology. In the 1970s, fast slide and negative film offering an ISO 400 setting was grainy and muddy from a professional standpoint. Today, even the ISO 800 color print films and ISO 400 slide films produce very acceptable images – as do the fast ISO settings on digital cameras. If the grain bothers you, it can be reduced in Photoshop by going into Channels and applying the Gaussian Blur in the Blue channel.
One note on grain here. Photographers like David Hamilton, known for portraits of women, actually uses grain to take out some of the reality of his pictures. So, grain can be a good thing.

Fast focusing
In many situations, an auto-focus zoom lens can focus faster than you can. And if your camera has focus tracking or continuous auto-focusing, you can get a sharp picture of a subject even if it is moving toward you. By the way, many of my pro friends, who also said they would never use an auto-focus camera, are now shooting with them. I'm glad to see that we pros are so open-minded.

I remember my first zoom. It was heavy and bulky. Today's zoom lenses are relatively compact and lightweight. Because they take up less space in my camera bag, I can pack more accessories.

Zoom range
Today's zoom lenses offer just about any zoom range you want, from 16-35mm on the short side to 100-400mm on the long side. What's more, the zoom range has been extended to a point unimaginable even a few years ago. I'm referring to Sigma's 50-500mm lens and Tamron's 28-300mm lens. As the late Frank Zappa would say, "Wowie Zowie."

One note here on wide-angle zooms, such as the Canon 16-35mm zoom I use. They were late bloomers, so to speak – because getting sharp optics in the wide-angle range was a challenge. Today, many of these wide-angle zooms are super sharp. For example, one picture I took with my 16-35mm zoom was enlarged from the 35mm film frame to 30 x 60 feet for the Kodak Colorama in New York's Times Square. Now that's sharp.

Zoom lenses make taking pictures more fun. Take it from me, a photographer who likes to have fun when he is shooting. Go out there and have some fun framing your scenes with a zoom lens!

P.S. We can’t have a lesson on the advantages of something without mentioning the disadvantages, if you want to call them that. So, zoom lenses can be heavy. They can also have a smaller maximum aperture than a fixed focus length lens, which makes the scene in the viewfinder look darker and requires you to use a slower shutter speed than you would when using a faster lens. That said, I, and most of my photographer friends, use zoom lenses.

Zoom lenses let you compose and shoot quickly. While I was taking this environmental portrait of the Embera Woman, a little girl ran into the scene and quickly began to climb the log ladder in the background. I quickly zoomed my 28-70mm lens in from 70mm to 28mm, recomposed my scene, and shot. I was able to see the little girl running into the scene in my viewfinder because I shoot with both eyes open. Hence, I can see what is happening outside of the scene in the viewfinder. Sports photographers often use this technique – so they can anticipate the action. The “both eyes open” technique takes some time to get used to, but with it you will catch some images you would have missed otherwise.

I like to travel light, especially when shooting in rugged conditions. The less gear, the less I have to worry about. I shot this picture of an Embera man navigating through the rapids of the Rio Chagres in Panama with my 16-35 mm lens set to about 24 mm. I used a small aperture for good depth-of-field.

I feel one of the keys to successful people photography is the ability to work fast – get in and out as quickly as possible. Zoom lenses help me do that – I can compose my scene, . . and then shoot and scoot. For this shot of a Kuna Yala woman making a mola, I used my 16-35 mm lens set to about 20 mm. The background was not distracting, so I did not try to blur it with a lower setting.


Zoom lenses are fun to use. They let you compose and shoot quickly. When I’m shooting, I always have my 16-35mm and 28-70mm zoom lenses handy. For this shot, taken in Panama at an Embera village, I used my 16-35mm set to 16mm. I used a small aperture to get almost everything in focus.

Today’s zoom lenses rival the sharpness of fixed-focal length lenses. For this picture of a lone palm tree, taken 50 feet from the runway at the El Porvenir airport, in Kuna Yala, Panama, I used my 16-35mm zoom set to 35mm.




Although it’s a bit heavy, I usually pack my 100-400mm lens for what I call “portraits of strangers.” I photographed this Embera woman in Panama with my 100-400mm lens set to 200mm. I used an aperture of f/4.5 to blur the distracting background.