The Zoom Lens Advantage.
"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
"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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.