Forget Zoom Lens For A While – Zoom with Your Feet

You’ve got to use zoom lenses to take great photographs, right?  


If you love zoom lenses, I am not against you in any way, but merely invite you to set aside those zoom habits for a while, cross a mental bridge into a new photographic territory, and set out on photo adventure with one lens and one focal length.


Photo of “Alley Cats”, Boardwalk, Atlantic City, New Jersey by Jim Austin
Alley Cats”, Boardwalk, Atlantic City, New Jersey 35 mm focal length, f/11, ASA 500, digital capture

Here’s a recipe for beginners and pros to use, to develop expertise in framing:
1.) Choose one specific focal length (20mm, 50mm, 135mm–your choice).

2.) Practice with that focal length for an entire shoot, day, or week.

3.) Use your “foot zoom.”

A number of reasons support choosing a prime lens for walk-around, outdoor photography. I learned of these advantages only later in my photo life, after building up my muscles carrying heavy zooms over miles of rugged terrain.

All my photographs shown here were done with fast, lightweight prime lenses. A prime is a lens with just one focal length. Doesn’t packing primes limit one’s photography? Not at all–instead, it frees photographers to change their viewing stance, moving into a scene to get immersed in it.

Your mind’s eye learns to see a set perspective at one focal length since you always use the same framing relationship when you photograph with a prime lens. Your mind will follow your eyes. It’s like parking in the same spot at work–you have choices but pick the same option, so you know where you are in space without having to think at the end of the day.

Zooming with a variable focal length lens takes two hands. When you are outdoors, this extra step can distract you from being aware of what is in front of you. If you doubt this, just watch someone try to zoom while using the camera back as a viewfinder. You’ll see them ignore everything around them including traffic!

Doing adventure photography, when an extra hand may ensure your survival, an auto-focusing prime lens lets you operate your camera with one hand and leave the other hand free. Generally, you also compose more efficiently without zooming. A single focal length lens makes you move to compose. You have walk to and from your subject, and zoom with your feet.

Photo of “Keep Back Feet”, Provincetown, Massachusetts by Jim Austin
“Keep Back Feet”, Provincetown, Massachusetts 50Mm focal length, f/8, ASA 200, digital capture

Point and shoot camera owners who have zooms can choose just one focal length setting as a good exercise. This can be a valuable visual learning exercise. DSLR owners have an advantage because it’s easy to remember to leave a prime lens on their camera.

For emotion-packed situations, in crowds, or when traveling abroad, the more practice you’ve put in with your photo gear, the more effective you will be in getting good images. Remember, your attitude is the most important piece of gear you carry as a photographer.

When a student in my photo class asked what part of the camera is the most important, I answered, “It is the slightly worn “search for knowledge” button on the camera.”

But let’s return to those ideas for improving your framing. Here are two fundamentals for beginners and pros:


1.) Have a single bread-and-butter lens on your camera at all times. This lens is the one with which you can auto-focus, or focus manually, without looking at it, keeping your concentration on what you’ve composed through your viewfinder.

2.) Pick a focal length and stay with it for 100 frames. Use a variety of lenses, but let the prime lens stay on the camera body as the first lens of choice. Try lightweight, fast-focusing lenses. Allow a wide angle lens to pull you closer, until you are involved in the scene, so the pictures you make also pull your viewers in. They should feel like they are an intimate part of the action.

Having seen some advantages of a using single focal length lenses, I’d like to ask, “What is the bigger picture?” We’re all trying for better pictures, so how can this recipe help us as photographers?

Photo of “Fleet Blessing Crowd", McMillan Wharf, Provincetown, Massachusetts by Jim Austin
“Fleet Blessing Crowd”, McMillan Wharf, Provincetown, Massachusetts 20 mm, 1/125th, f/13, ASA 200, digital capture

When you look at expert, professional photos, look carefully at the framing. Everything inside the frame belongs there, without any extraneous elements. All the space in the picture is balanced. Practicing with a prime lens helps your framing; having placed a fixed frame onto your scene makes you much more aware of the picture space, thus improving your spatial composition skills.

Photo of “Aleppo Shriners" disembarking in Provincetown, Massachusetts by Jim Austin
“Aleppo Shriners” disembarking in Provincetown, Massachusetts 18mm lens, ASA 200, f/13, digital capture

You can energize your vision by simplifying your equipment. Perhaps you’ll find that you create your most moving shots when you moved your own two feet to capture them. The celebrated photographer Ernst Haas was on target when he said, “The best zoom lens is your legs.”

by Jim Austin
All text and photos: © 2010 Jim Austin. All rights reserved.

All written content (and most images) in these articles are copyrighted by the authors. Copyrighted material from Apogee Photo Mag should not be used elsewhere without seeking the authors permission.

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