Love the Lens You’re With

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Objects in mirror are crazier than they appear.

Objects in mirror are crazier than they appear.

I’m about to get a song stuck in your head.

“If you can’t be with the lens you love (honey), love the lens you’re with.” I’m paraphrasing, of course.

(If you’re not sure which song I’m talking about, a kind YouTube patron posted it here.)

Steve wrote a recent article about first-party vs. third-party lenses which garnered a lot of commentary and feedback. In the article Steve poses a well-articulated argument on his opinion about purchasing the highest quality lenses you can afford.

Most of us have a lens wish-list a mile long, and an income that doesn’t support the frequent purchase of lenses that cost a thousand dollars and more. So what do you do when you only have a small selection of lenses, or even just a single lens?

You make the most that you possibly can of that lens. Remember, friends, high-end cameras and whizzbang lenses HELP your photography, but it is first and ALWAYS the person wielding the camera, not the camera or lens itself, that creates quality photographs.

How To Make the Most of Your Lens

Clean it. It pretty much goes without saying that you can’t take a good picture with a dirty lens. I never leave home without my LensPEN Lens Cleaning System. You can also take your lens to a local camera shop for professional cleaning, or you can buy a simple lens cleaning kit like this one from Zeikos. Really all you need is a microfiber cloth, some rubbing alcohol, some swabs, and a dust blower.

Calibrate it. There are two things to consider when calibrating your lens. First, make sure what your eyes are seeing through the viewfinder is aligned with what the lens is seeing. To do this, make sure your dipotric adjustment is focused for your vision. Second, make sure that your auto-focus is functioning properly. The Datacolor SpyderLensCal Lens Calibration System (and other similar products) helps you determine if your camera is front-focusing or back-focusing. Most current digital SLR’s have microfocus adjustment capabilities which will allow you to save adjustments for each lens that you own. (A review of the SpyderLensCal, and step-by-step instructions for how to perform microfocus adjustments, will be posted soon).

Learn its limits. Every lens has its boundaries – areas in which it performs well, and areas in which it performs poorly. Most lenses perform best at, or within a stop or two above, the stated aperture range. For example, I know that my (old!) Canon EF 75-300mm f/4-5.6 III performs best at its minimum zoom at around f/5.6, and at its maximum zoom at about f/8.0. It really stinks (I mean REALLY stinks) in hand-held shots in any light level below bright sunlight. There is no image stabilization whatsoever, and the aperture range is very slow. So if I happen to use it, it’s almost always with a tripod. I also know that my 50mm f/1.4 works very, very well at extremely high ISO’s (with less noise than you’d expect). So I don’t hesitate to crank it right up when I’m shooting indoors in mood-lit surroundings. The only way to learn your lens’ limits is to shoot, shoot, shoot. Analyze the results from every photographic scenario you can think of, and you’ll learn your lens’ personality.

Go towards the light. Pretty much every lens performs at its best in bright light. Dim lighting can tend to confuse auto-focus, and slower lenses (such as, typically, your kit lens) are happiest in the sunlight. Experiment with adding more light to your photographs – use lamps, reflectors, position your subjects near windows, anything to bring more light into the shot.

Jimmy Mak's - Portland, Oregon

Experiment with post-processing. Get artistic! Just because a photograph doesn’t look all that great straight out of the camera doesn’t mean that it’s without merit. Take, for instance, the photograph above. It was taken back in 2007, with my Canon Digital Rebel XTi (which has since been replaced by the Rebel T1i) and the kit lens it came with. Obviously, that lens wasn’t very fast, and Jimmy Mak’s in Portland, Oregon, discourages the use of flash. So rather than just give up and put my camera away, I shot as best I could, only wanting to capture the moment. The SOOC shot was blurry, of course. But with some judicious post-processing, I came up with an image that recalled the mood and atmosphere that I experienced in that moment.

Rent it. Renting a lens is far and away less expensive than buying a lens. If you find yourself with a photographic opportunity that really requires a specific lens, there are any number of lens rental services available on-line. I personally use and recommend Pro Photo Rental for those of you who own a Canon, Nikon, or Olympus DSLR.

Above all, DON’T stop shooting. Don’t think to yourself, “If only I had that 70-200mm f/2.8L, THEN I could take some really great pictures!” You CAN take fantastic pictures no matter what camera or lens you possess. Just get back to basics, refresh your education on composition, exposure, and the various photography “rules”, and keep practicing. Then, when you CAN afford the lens of your dreams, you’ll have the skills and knowledge to wield it effectively.

Photo credits (all): Tiffany Joyce

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  • Steve Russell

    Great article, Tiffany. There is another method to use for dioptric adjustment I learned during the John Shaw seminar I attended last month and it works great for me. What we actually see when we look through the view finder isn’t the subject we’re photographing but the reflection of the subject coming from the mirror in the camera. That’s why you can set the dioptric adjustment once and it works for all distances.

    Remove the lens from your camera and look through the view finder. You should see something on the mirror. They’re small squares on mine. Turn the dioptric adjustment dial until the small squares are in focus for you. Especially if they weren’t in focus when you started, replace the lens and see if the subject looks more in focus for you once the camaera/lens has completed the auto focus. Also, as Tiffany pointed out in the article about this subject that she linked to in this article, re-check the dioptric adjustment from time to time.

  • Jim

    Thanks for the boost, it seems as I get older (I am 71) taking pictures gets harder, I use my timer and a tripod for all my shooting, shaky hands due to meds. But lately it seems like my pictures a sort of fuzzy, I will try some of the things you mentioned and hope for better pictures. Thanks again for being here.