Camera Lens: The ‘Nifty Fifty’
Published on: July 22, 2022
In part four of this photography series, professional photographer, Ian Taylor, covers the importance of having a specific lens to capture pictures of your kids, because what you see is what you get.
By Ian Taylor
With any day-to-day creative pursuit, equipment isn’t the most important factor to consider. This is especially true for photography. There is simply no need to spend thousands of dollars to get professional results. These days, digital cameras are more or less the same; they’re computers with optics. A ten-year-old camera is more than enough for what most of us need. That said, there is one bit of your camera kit that can immediately affect your images: the lens.
Don’t get caught up in the endless cycle of buying expensive lenses. What you should consider is one ‘prime’ lens. A ‘prime’ is a fixed-focal-length lens. It doesn’t zoom. You look through it, and that’s what you get. While there are a variety of focal lengths for lenses, many photographers will recommend that you start with a 50mm, or the ‘nifty fifty’ as it’s called. For most brands, a 50mm f1.8 costs around US$125 (about ฿4,500).
A 50mm lens sees the world almost exactly as the human eye does: not wide or zoomed. By working with one focal length, you learn to automatically judge how far you need to be from the subject to get the composition you’re after; you ‘zoom with your feet’, physically changing the distance between yourself and the subject in order to best capture it.
What frustrates many people when starting out is getting results that aren’t sharply focused. While technique is key, the cheap lenses that come as a kit with consumer cameras aren’t up to the task of effectively capturing the beauty and wonder that is kids photography.
After the focal length (e.g., 50mm), there is one other number you need to pay attention to with lenses: the maximum aperture setting. Aperture is the opening in the lens that light travels through. Cheap zoom lenses are often f4.5, where ideally you need one with a larger aperture, such as f1.8.
– A smaller number means a larger aperture, and a larger number means a smaller aperture.
– An f1.8 lens zoom is ‘fast’; an f4.5 lens zoom is ‘slow’. (Tip: use this terminology at camera stores to engage with staff to ensure you’re getting the best deal from them.)
When you ‘open up’ your lens to f1.8, two things happen. Firstly, you force a higher shutter speed. Many kids only stop moving when they are asleep, so you need to ‘freeze’ them with high shutter speeds (for example, 1/500 of a second).
The other effect of a ‘wide open’ lens is the shallow ‘depth of field’ that so many professional photographers use as their go-to look (of which I am guilty as charged!) In these photos, the subject’s eyes are in focus but everything else is blurred; the distractions are gone. The result is an almost three-dimensional subject with painterly backgrounds. The shot becomes all about your subject, not the surroundings.
Another top tip is to make your camera an accessory; have a ‘walk-around lens’. Don’t worry about a bag, just throw your camera with the 50mm over your shoulder and wear it. (The 50/1.8 lens is tiny and lightweight.) With your camera within arm’s reach, you’ll be surprised at the number of photo opportunities that are hiding in plain sight.
When it comes to upping your photography game, there arguably isn’t a better inexpensive improvement you can make to your photo gear than to consider the lens you’re using. More importantly, a better lens might inspire you to get out there and shoot, and that’s the entire point of this series.
Photos courtesy of Ian Taylor Photography.
About the Author
Thailand-based Ian Taylor has been a roving family photographer since 2006. His e-book, ‘Never Say Cheese: How to Take Great Natural Photos of Your Kids’ is available at iantaylor.ca. For questions and comments, contact Ian via his website or on FB: @IanTaylorPhotography.
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