Choosing a Focal Length and How Primes Can Improve Your Photography

Choosing a Focal Length and How Primes Can Improve Your Photography

Every photographer has a comfort zone. These consist of focal lengths that you can just pick up and already know exactly where to stand to frame your shot – as if you are able to see in that particular field of view. Working outside of your comfort zone can be a challenge for even the best shooters. In the past, I’ve struggled with wider focal lengths. I’ll admit that I use the compression effect and bokeh that is easily obtained with a long lens as a crutch for many simple compositions.

My goal over the past decade has been to push past any mental barriers and hone my skills as a professional with lenses that offer a new perspective – one that rewards storytelling. This is where a service like BorrowLenses.com is extremely useful. I decided to experiment with focal lengths I felt I rarely use.

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Discovering Your True Favorite Focal Lengths

Open up any random photographer’s bag and you’re likely to find the standard set of zooms. For full frame shooters, this typically consist of a 16-35mm, a 24-70mm, and a 70-200mm. These three lenses are commonly referred to as the “holy trinity” because they make up the backbone of what you would typically need to capture most genres and scenes without much compromise. While a zoom lens can get the job done, things get exciting when you flirt with the idea of introducing a specialty, ultra-sharp, ultra-fast prime to your kit.

About two years ago I decided I would add a wider angle prime to my bag that was, at the time, populated by a Sigma 50mm f/1.4 Art, an 85mm f/1.4 Art, and a Canon 135mm f/2L. Choosing which lens to go with can be overwhelming. For users of Lightroom (or a program similar to it),  there is an option to organize images by their metadata. This is a great way to figure out how you like to shoot and with which gear most often. I isolated my results to show only particular subjects and, among those, only ones shot with a 16-35mm or a 24-70mm. A large percentage of shots taken with these two lenses were shot at the 24mm and 35mm lengths on either lens.

Because I already owned a fast 50mm prime lens, I decided to get something much wider: a Canon 24mm f/1.4L. I envisioned stellar overhead dance floor shots at a wedding with beautiful background falloff and isolated subjects, as well as dramatic environmental portraits. This is certainly something this lens is suited for. But it didn’t reflect my real world use. After several months of using the lens on an almost routine basis to gain my comfort levels working with it, I decided that it wasn’t as useful as I had originally imagined. I learned quickly just how rarely I wanted to shoot such dramatically wide portraits. I wasn’t getting much use out of the lens. Don’t get buyer’s remorse like I did – definitely rent before you dive into a whole new field of view like that!

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Working with a Prime Lens vs a Zoom Lens

I felt like I made a mistake but was still interested in the experiment. So I rented a Canon 35mm f/1.4L II for a jam-packed weekend at Summit Motorsports Park. I shoot drag racing and event coverage for the NMCA as my main gig and this event would give me a chance to really run gear through its paces. Not only do I cover the story on the track and in the pits, but I need to get crew reactions to their drivers’ victories at the end, as well as winner’s circle shenanigans. Away from the track action, I’m having to line up photo shoots on cars for magazine features. Plus, throughout the day, I need to take portraits of drivers and crew members for our “Spotlight” showcase. What made this particular race different was that I was booked to shoot engagement photos for two drivers that met at the track the previous year. Race weekends are a tsunami of variety that puts a lot of demands on me and my gear.

Challenging myself to use the 35mm lens as much as I possibly could during the race, my goal was to see if it could pick up the slack where I felt my 24mm had fallen short. I really needed it to excel in my general shooting around the track and especially in the harshly-lit low light winner’s circle photos that would bookend the race weekend. This meant I would be leaning on the image quality and reliability of the autofocus in a fast-paced shooting environment but, most importantly, I needed to see how the 35mm focal length worked for me and if it would open up new, unique creative results.

Things got interesting when I was walking around with the lens for the first couple days through the pits. This was an area that I was particularly curious about because I really didn’t see things in the 35mm focal length yet. But it wasn’t long before I would move to exactly where I needed to be for a shot I was envisioning. This is the thing with prime lenses that takes getting use to: you have to zoom with your body, not the lens. To get closer to the action means getting physically closer and not just optically.

The lens performed admirably when it came to drivers portraits, detail shots in the pits, and was a welcome perspective during the engagement shoot. As the weekend drew to a close and elimination rounds began, it was time for some of the emotions to start coming out with drivers and their teams after a long weekend battle. The end of the track and winner’s circle are generally dark and poorly lit by the time of final eliminations.  Being outside, there’s nowhere to really effectively bounce a flash, which means you can typically only get direct, harsh, and ugly light. It was the 35mm’s time to shine and having that fast f/1.4 aperture allowed me to get away with using ambient light while providing brilliant subject isolation. Here are some of the images I captured with it (note that these images have been scaled down and optimized for faster loading):

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Taken with the Canon 35mm f/1.4L II lens on a Canon 1D X Mark II at 1/125th of a second, f/10, and ISO 100. Learn more about how to pan at slower shutter speeds in 10 Sports Photography Gear Tips.

Taken with the Canon 35mm f/1.4L II lens on a Canon 1D X Mark II at 1/5000th of a second, f/1.4, and ISO 100.

Taken with the Canon 35mm f/1.4L II lens on a Canon 5D Mark IV at 1/2000th of a second, f/1.4, and ISO 100.

Taken with the Canon 35mm f/1.4L II lens on a Canon 1D X Mark II at 1/800th of a second, f/1.4, and ISO 100.

Taken with the Canon 35mm f/1.4L II lens on a Canon 1D X Mark II at 1/200th of a second, f/1.4, and ISO 160.

Taken with the Canon 35mm f/1.4L II lens on a Canon 1D X Mark II at 1/800th of a second, f/1.4, and ISO 100.

The Perfect Prime Lens Focal Length for Events

I really enjoyed how the 35mm allowed me to become part of the celebration, but not to the point where I was standing in the way. The focal length really allows you to invest yourself in the photos because its slightly wider than the 50mm and slightly more telephoto than a 24mm. To me, it’s just the right amount. It paired very well with my 85mm, which I mounted to a second body. For me, that’s the perfect wide-and-telephoto prime lens combination.

Personally, I feel that sharpness is at such a high level with modern lenses that you’re splitting hairs when it comes to determining how much better one lens is at out-resolving another. This lens appears to have set a new benchmark in overall optical performance for me, though – particularly in how it handles chromatic aberrations thanks to the Blue Spectrum Refractive Optics. This is important because a lot of wide angle lenses are prone to at least some residual chromatic aberrations in the form of color fringing. Color fringing is an optical problem where you’ll see a color (often purple or green) outline on your subject in areas where there are very strong contrasts – like dark leaves against an open, bright sky. While not all fringing is caused by chromatic aberration, it’s a common cause. Canon has sought to combat this with a new kind of short wavelength spectrum-diffracting lens, which you’ll find in the 35mm f/1.4L II.

Every focal length provides its own specialty. However, a fast 35mm can be used in nearly every shooting situation. After using it for nearly 15 different photo shoots, I now love what this lens adds to my images. It’s built extremely well and autofocuses quickly, accurately, and reliably on my Canon 1D X Mark II and 5D Mark IV bodies. Sometimes you have to use something for yourself before you can really see clearly. If you’re feeling stuck in a creative rut, I highly recommend experimenting with a lens you’d never dream of using regularly. You might just discover what you’ve been missing and needing in your portfolio this whole time.

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Kevin DiOssi is a nationally published photographer based out of Tampa, Florida. Since 2006, Kevin has been honored with more than 50 cover images as well as many published editorials. The National Mustang Racers Association, the National Muscle Car Association, CORE Autosport/Porsche North America, KOHR Motorsports, and the Tampa Bay Lightning hockey team are among the clients he's worked for. His publications include Hot Rod Magazine, Muscle Mustangs & Fast Fords, and Vette. He strives to blend a fun personality with professional results in his shooting style.

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