Tag Archives: what

No One Else Sees What You See (Morning Musings 10/15/14)

Museum Atrium
Museum Atrium

I’m going to try to keep this post somewhat brief, and touch on two aspects effects of this reality. There is, no doubt, much more to say about both ideas, but not in a “morning musings” post! So I’ll keep it to one paragraph per idea this time.

I believe that photographs are not so much about the things in front of the camera as they are about how the photographer sees the world. Whatever the subject might be, there is only one of it. Yet there are as many ways of seeing that one subject as there are people — perhaps even more. At first we all are certain that the subject of a photograph is that thing at which we point the camera, but the more photographs we see — our own and those of other photographers — the more we understand that the important thing is how and what the photographer sees, and how that way of seeing is shared photographically. In your own photography, this can and should eventually lead you beyond trying to emulate or compete with other photographers, and toward finding your own true and honest way of seeing.

Related to the idea that photographs embody your way of seeing is a secondary issue that affects the difference between how we see our work and how others see it. I sometimes am surprised that a photograph I believe in provokes little response from viewers, while one that I might think is fine-but-not-great will evoke a strong response.  One explanation may be that no one else can ever see a photograph in the same way that the photographer sees it. I don’t write this to suggest that viewers are coming up short when they look at photographs. The point is actually more about a mystery that the photographer often has to deal with. We often “know” our photographs in ways that are inaccessible to others. We recall the experience of making the photograph, what we had in mind when we made it, how the subject might connect to us in a personal way. We understand what we wanted the photograph to be and to do, and we are aware of things that we might have chosen to do differently in retrospect But viewers know none of this and, for the most part, can never fully know it. One of the outcomes of this reality is that we, as photographers, are frequently not the best judges of our own work. For everyone in the world but the photographer, the photographs have to say what they say on a visual basis — whatever meaning and associations they may have must come from that visual object.

Morning Musings are somewhat irregular posts in which I write about whatever is on my mind at the moment. Connections to photography may be tenuous at times!


G Dan Mitchell is a California photographer and visual opportunist whose subjects include the Pacific coast, redwood forests, central California oak/grasslands, the Sierra Nevada, California deserts, urban landscapes, night photography, and more.
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Text, photographs, and other media are © Copyright G Dan Mitchell (or others when indicated) and are not in the public domain and may not be used on websites, blogs, or in other media without advance permission from G Dan Mitchell.

Photographic Myths and Platitudes: New DSLR? Why You Do NOT Need a 50mm Prime

(Note: This article has been slightly revised and updated since it was originally posted.)

From time to time I share here my response to a question that I fielded somewhere else. In this case, the subject concerned whether or not a beginner getting a new DSLR should start out with a “normal” 50mm prime lens. Here is a slightly edited version of what I wrote.

Every so often a beginning photographer buying their first DSLR, typically a cropped sensor model, will be advised to “get a 50mm prime,” either as their only lens or as an adjunct to the “kit zoom” that likely comes with most entry-level DSLRs. Some say you should do this because you must learn to shoot with a prime before you are ready for a zoom. (This is nonsense, in my opinion.) Others suggest that folks should get the prime because good and inexpensive versions are available – which is true, but not a reason to buy one.

I’m here to say that there is little or no good reason for a beginning DSLR shooter to get a 50mm prime—especially a 50mm prime—with their new camera. Get the kit zoom and start shooting.

The advice to get a 50mm prime comes from a very different set of circumstances and a very different time. When 35mm film SLRs first became available some decades ago, decent zoom lenses were not available at prices that beginners would contemplate paying, if they were even available at all. (Those shooting 35mm rangefinder cameras found even more impediments to the idea of using a zoom.) In fact, photographers generally didn’t use them. “Zoom or prime?” was not the question at all – primes were the only realistic option.

The general feeling was that something in the 50mm focal length range or thereabouts would be the ideal starter “normal” lens on a 35mm film camera. (This was not a universally held viewpoint – some preferred lenses a bit wider and some of the standard primes came in longer focal lengths such as 55mm.) A 50mm +/- prime was the first lens that most folks got with their new film SLR, and there were lots of fine and inexpensive options. You got your camera and you got your 50mm prime. In fact, if you got a SLR “kit,” it was camera plus a 50mm or so prime, probably a f/2 or f/1.8 version. The fact that we still have lenses like Canon’s EF 50mm f/1.8 at such a low price is an after-effect of this situation.

In reality, the valid advice back then was to “get a 50mm prime and learn to shoot it before buying more lenses.” The source of this advice had nothing at all to do with a zoom versus prime question. Primes were the only option. The implication actually was don’t get sucked into buying a bunch of lenses before you know what you are doing or what you need. (We are all aware of how tempting it can be to allow gear acquisition syndrome to supplant photography.) In other words, get a first lens, shoot a lot with it, learn a lot from doing so, and only then start to consider what your experience tells you about the need for (maybe) getting other lenses.

That warning still holds true, but keep in mind that it is a warning against rushing out and buying lots of stuff. Today, the better, and far more likely, first lens choice is going to be a zoom. There are excellent, inexpensive options available today that have supplanted the old-school inexpensive 50mm prime as the logical first lens. Every manufacturer has at least one fine and inexpensive “kit” zoom lens. The more accurate modern update of the old “buy a 50mm prime, learn to shoot before you buy more lenses” is actually:

Get the kit zoom, and learn to shoot before you invest in other lenses.

(The logical extension of the old advice is to shoot a lot with your kit zoom before getting sucked into buying… a 50mm prime!”)

Among those “other lenses” you can wait to acquire are primes. A person starting out with a cropped sensor DSLR almost certainly does not need to get an additional lens at first, any more than the beginning 35mm film SLR buyer needed to buy a set of three primes “back in the day.” It is true that the new photographer may eventually travel a photographic path on which owning a prime is useful, but before that happens he or she can shoot at this same focal length on the 18-55mm kit zoom and find out.

Secondly, and to repeat the obvious, a 50mm prime on a cropped sensor DSLR does not even provide the same functionality as the 50mm prime on the 35mm film SLR. IF you accept the notion that shooting a prime is important at first—though I emphatically do not—it would not be a 50mm prime, but the angle-of-view equivalent for a cropped sensor camera. This would be a roughly 31mm lens for a 1.6x crop factor body. (If this were not the case, 80mm would have been the “normal” prime FL on those early film cameras. In short, it wasn’t.)

So, start out with kit zoom that is available for your new DSLR. Shoot a lot before you start buying a bunch of other lenses. See what happens. If it turns out that the kit lens really limits your photography, you’ll figure that out based on your experience with this lens – and you’ll also begin to more clearly understand the things that you might need in order to overcome any such limitations. Your interests and needs are likely to evolve in ways that you cannot accurately anticipate until you do a lot of shooting – a task for which the kit lens is perfectly suited.

As you do this, one of several things might happen. A very large percentage of those who start with the kit lens find that it is really all the lens they need, and they do not get anything else. Others discover that the kit lens works well but that perhaps they want more “reach” for some subjects, at which point they look for a suitable longer focal length lens. Others might discover that they need something wider. Yet another photographer might discover that he/she is shooting a lot at one particular focal length, needs a larger maximum aperture, and needs a smaller camera/lens package – in which case a prime at that favored focal length might be useful. And there are many other possibilities that I can’t list here.

There’s always time for that prime later on if you discover you need it. I’m betting that most beginners won’t, but that those who do will figure it out soon enough and make a much smarter decision by waiting.

(Note of clarification for those who may read too quickly: A few people have misconstrued this article as being anti-prime or suggesting that there is something wrong with a 50mm lens. A more careful reading of the article will confirm that this is not the case. The context is entirely about the beginning photographers getting his/her first DSLR. Depending upon what sort of photography one eventually ends up doing, primes including the 50mm focal length may turn out to be very useful. As a matter of fact, I own more primes than zooms… though I do use the zooms more than the primes. That is probably a subject for another article. ;-)

© Copyright 2012 G Dan Mitchell – all rights reserved.

G Dan Mitchell is a California photographer whose subjects include the Pacific coast, redwood forests, central California oak/grasslands, the Sierra Nevada, California deserts, urban landscapes, night photography, and more.
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Text, photographs, and other media are © Copyright G Dan Mitchell (or others when indicated) and are not in the public domain and may not be used on websites, blogs, or in other media without advance permission from G Dan Mitchell.

What Happened to My Death Valley Guide?

During the past year or two I had written the majority of an extensive guide to photographing in Death Valley National Park and some of the surrounding areas, and shared it at this web site. It was chock-full of the names of places and descriptions of how to get to them and specific suggestions regarding how they might be photographed – along with a few disclaimers and warnings about dangers including focusing too much on bagging photographs of icons, endangering certain fragile things in the park, and so forth.

I recently took this guide down, with the intention of writing a new one that I hope will be more useful to those who are looking for a bit of a deeper understanding of the place and how it might be photographed, perhaps at the expense of providing that quick list of where to go and how to get there.

Every so often friends remind me that there are ethical risks in sharing too much detailed information in the wrong forums, and recently one friend mentioned this relative to a post about a particular area I had photographed that is easily accessible but not yet overrun. As result I began the process of going through some previous posts and editing descriptions to offer details only when it seemed important in the context of the photograph. Then I started thinking a bit more about the content of the my existing guide to photographing the park. Even though I had worked to “sanitize” the descriptions in the old guide – removing many of the references to exact spots and so forth – and of including exhortations to protect the place, I began to think that I was not necessarily doing photographers a big favor by offering a guide that was primarily organized along the lines of “places to go,” and which might encourage people to go “bag a shot” of these places rather than looking a bit deeper.

Some may ask, “Why not tell people the best places?”

  • Plenty of other people have already written guides to the places. In the end, I probably don’t really have a lot to add to this pool of information. If you want to know the names of icons and where to find them you can certainly find this information elsewhere.
  • While many of us begin by thinking that the goal is to photograph the “famous places” – and, frankly, that is not a bad way to start – eventually I realized that it was the process of discovering my own orientation to the park that brought greater pleasure and rewards. I don’t want to encourage others to miss out on that experience.
  • Some of the places are wonderful largely because of their remoteness and solitude. In fact, the immense solitude of Death Valley is one of the most powerful and rare things it has to offer, and there are still many places and times to find this. I don’t want to accelerate the loss of this valuable commodity.
  • While many areas of the park might seem too rugged to be damaged much by our passage, there are fragile things here that cannot withstand the presence of too many people – and there are plenty of examples of things that have already been damaged. While it isn’t my goal to keep people away from the park, I certainly don’t want to accelerate the degradation of these resources by unnecessarily encouraging more people to go to these places.

So, I’m offering this post as both an explanation of where the old Death Valley guide went, and as a promise to get to work on the document that will replace it. My plan is to speak in more general terms about what it means to photograph in the park and about how to approach it as a photographic subject – and to do so in a way that may offer something useful to all who want to seek out the rewards that come from developing a deeper relationship with this land.

G Dan Mitchell is a California photographer whose subjects include the Pacific coast, redwood forests, central California oak/grasslands, the Sierra Nevada, California deserts, urban landscapes, night photography, and more.
Blog | About | Flickr | Twitter | FacebookGoogle+ | 500px.com | LinkedIn | Email

Text, photographs, and other media are © Copyright G Dan Mitchell (or others when indicated) and are not in the public domain and may not be used on websites, blogs, or in other media without advance permission from G Dan Mitchell.

What are YOU shooting this weekend?

Just saw a twitter (ahem, a tweet..) from Jim Goldstein asking what folks are shooting on this spring weekend. My immediate plan is to get out and photograph some of the “impossibly green” California grassland and some spring wildflowers this weekend – but also to prepare for an upcoming visit to Death Valley.

What are you shooting this weekend and beyond?