A few thoughts on SLR lens choice Long or wide?

Brad AKA "Orangecicle" on ADVrider wrote to me a while back:

"Anthony, I've read your "Way out West" ride-report with great interest. I'm a former newspaper photographer from way back -- in the days of Nikon FM2s and manual focus. I later went to law school and left journalism behind. Some years ago I picked up a camera again -- a D100. That recently died, and I bought a Canon 60D with the 18-135 kit lens. 

I want to add to my lenses, but things are so expensive these days. My photojournalism buddy wants me to buy a 70-200mm f2.8, but that's too expensive. I'm considering a straight Canon 200mm f2.8 L, but I'm also interested in the superwides (Tokina 11-16mm, Tokina 12-24mm, Canon 10-22mm).

Any thoughts on what lens you would purchase first? Basically, I enjoy the type of work that you do - I ride my KTM Adventure and photograph my little part of the world. 
Years ago I had a Nikon 20mm F2.8 and really loved that lens, but you get the obvious distortion of subjects on the sides of those superwides. So, I'm really torn on what to do.

By the way, I bought and downloaded your first Motojournalism book. Really enjoyed it. Thanks for any thoughts. Keep up the good work.
- Brad

I understand the dilemma! It's a big investment to build your kit of lenses, and there's no easy answer because there are so many possibilities and so many ways to use a given lens.

I'm sure you know you're going to get a very different style of photography from a long lens than from a wide-angle, so it depends on what type of image you're partial to; the expansive view, deep focus and exaggerated angles of the wide-angle, or the isolation and shallow focus of the long lens. 
Put simply; a telephoto acts like a telescope, a wide-angle acts like the peep-hole in a front door.

Ontario enduro rides
A wide-angle takes everything in, but you need to get CLOSE!

A telephoto lens can pick out a distant object and isolate it against a background.

Wide lenses are actually pretty good these days, they are able to keep lines very straight, though you do get that exaggerated stretching toward the edges.
 I find that's not noticeable unless you get something with a "known" proportion right on the edge of the frame, a wheel or somebody's face for example. Personally, I don't mind the distortion.

I don't use my ultra-wide 11-16mm 2.8 Tokina too often, but having a fast, wide lens in tight situations is amazing, inside airplanes, trains, buildings. I was able to fit a large part of the Spruce Goose in one shot, and I was able to shoot handheld inside a Mayan ruin at Palenque.

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Howard Hughes' Spruce Goose - Larger than a Boeing 747 in all dimensions.

It's awkward to generalize what subject a type of lens is intended for, if you think creatively you can use any lens in any situation.
But I will say action shots of motorcycles and other sports, portraits, and wildlife tend to be better shot with a telephoto.
Wide angle lenses lend themselves to shooting landscapes, city scenes, and architecture.

Let's look at a few examples of wide angle and telephoto shots:

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A wide angle lens exaggerates angles to make this imposing image of Panama City.

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A telephoto lens reaches high up into a San Francisco office building to reveal detail.

Used inside a church in Baja Mexico, a wide angle captures the impressive structure in a single shot that would be impossible with a longer lens.

Used from high above the telephoto condenses the rush of a San Salvador street scene to highlight the chaos.

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A telephoto used for portraits isolates the subject against the background. It also keeps you at a distance from your subject - this may be an advantage or a disadvantage depending on the situation.

A portrait with a wide-angle lens will show the subject in relation to the environment. This requires that you be close to the subject when you shoot the photo.

My 11mm wide-angle Tokina shows every detail from the rocks underfoot to the distant peaks at Abraham Lake, Alberta Canda.

A telephoto lens enlarges the sun and picks out the moored boats in the distance at San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua.

I think the real solution to your dilemma is to rent a wide-angle and a telephoto for a weekend each and head out on your bike! You'll quickly discover which style you prefer!

Most good camera retailers will have a rental department, and there's always www.lensrentals.com.

Let me know what you pick!

1 Response to "A few thoughts on SLR lens choice Long or wide?"

  1. John Frederick Says:

    Great shots to show examples of lens usage. Composition and subject advice was also very thoughtful. Thanks for the lens suggestions. Renting may solve the budget issues.

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