I don't want to crop anymore.
April 23, 2010 12:58 AM   Subscribe

I'm a zoom junkie. What do I do with a 17mm lens?

For years, I had this camera. A month ago, I finally bought this camera with the 17mm pancake lens.

As you can see, I went from a point&shoot superzoom hybrid to a micro 4/3 with no zoom whatsoever. Why the 17mm lens? Because I read a lot (a LOT) of reviews, and people seemed smitten with it. "It's so FUN!" they said. "Look at all these pretty pictures!" they said. And in general photography guides, everyone warned against zooming. "Zoom with your feet!" they went. "It is the only way!"

So, keeping all of this in mind, I thought: "Yes, I will do as the experts say and zoom with my feet, and it will be fun." Except it's not. I took my new camera to my favourite city ever (Berlin) for a week and produced crap. I want to see none of the pictures I took ever again. They're just a horrible mess, nothing jumps out, especially not the reason I took the picture in the first place. There's no focus.

But I want to persevere. One, because I really want to learn this, and two, because it will be a while before I can get another lens (I'll have to save for a few months, so I'm going to spend a summer with this lens for sure).

Please tell me, photographers, how do I transform myself back to the pretty successful zooming hobby photographer I was (not that I was good or anything, just happy with the pictures I took)? Or are some people just... zoomers and was it stupid of me to get this lens?

(Just as a reference, this is a sample of old-camera pictures I'm happy with; this is what happens now.)
posted by Skyanth to Media & Arts (22 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Zooming with your feet is kind of a contradiction in terms. When you move back and forth, you don't really zoom but you change perspective. Zooming doesn't do this..it only changes your focal length...although many get confused by this point.
And sometimes it's not even possible to move back..for instance if you're indoors or even with large objects such as buildings or mountains..you'll have to move quite large distances and there's bound to be something else coming blocking your view :)

Looking at some of your pictures i can see many of your shots are taken with a long focal length, and there's nothing wrong with that. That's just how you capture moments and the pictures are great! But if you zoomed out on those great pictures to 17mm, you would be like ARGH..garbage! :) But i also notice that many of your pictures have different angles and perspectives and look quite creative..but suddenly with the new lens all we get a flat-on angle of a ugly fence/port?

Anyways, the standard response would be that you read up on articles/books about composition etc, but I don't think this is what you're after. Working with a wide-angle prime lends itself to trying to perspectives and angles, you wouldn't really do before with a lens. I think this is what the "zoom with your feet"-people really mean. Not that you should literally go back and forth and frame a subject, but try something new, get close and personal etc. You also have a think differently. Maybe before you had the subject framed in your mind, turned the zoom and took the picture. Now it's maybe not so obvious until you actually "get in there" :)

So my advice is to go nuts and have fun..try taking pictures of subjects and in angles you never would before and you'll probably be surprised by the results.
posted by kampken at 1:28 AM on April 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

Well, for a start 17mm focal length on a Pen is a 34mm equivalent in 35mm format terms. The 35mm is an extremely popular wide-standard lens for a lot of point-and-shoot cameras, and was/is still a fairly popular walkaround/general purpose lens. For this reason shots at the 35mm focal length can seem very normal or boring to some.

For some inspiration go to pixel-peeper.com and look at, for example, 35/1.4 shots with a 5D. These are the same field of view as your lens.

I shoot with a 5D and have three zooms and three primes. 17-40, 24-105, 70-200, 28, 50, 100. I probably use the zooms more, but each prime gets used a lot. I approach prime shooting much differently - I look for a type of view and a consistency in a 'look' over a series of shots rather than attempting to make shots I have in my head a reality by 'zooming with my feet' (which never works by the way - zooming with feet changes perspective).

If you're the type of shooter that shoots in daylight and wants to take a wide variety of shots and is very subject-focused I'd say you need a zoom or two. Still, the 35 is a great low-light lens which will deliver sharp, shallow DOF shots. My advice? Learn to see in that focal length and pick shots that work within those parameters. You'll begin to find shots that didn't exist for you before. You'll also learn what will work and what won't ahead of time so you don't waste time and get your expectations up.
posted by jimmythefish at 1:31 AM on April 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

Looking at your example pictures, I think the main difference is that the pictures that you're happy with have nice composition, while the picture that you dislike (taken at 17mm) doesn't.

The "Zoom with your feet!" might be an appropriate maxim when encouraging people to ditch their crappy 18-55mm kit lens in favour of a nice 35mm or 50mm prime. But I don't think it's an appropriate maxim to apply to comparing the Panasonic's 420mm (35mm equivalent) lens with a 34mm (17mm * crop factor of 2) one. Telephoto and wide-angle are two completely different disciplines of photography.

For example, it would be completely impossible to reproduce pictures like this one with a wide-angle lens, because moving closer to the subject would change the perspective.

My suggestion is that you work hard to improve the composition of the photographs taken with your new camera and lens. You need to be able to identify appropriate subject material, and get used to shooting in a completely different way to the one you're used to. With practice, good results will come!
posted by mattn at 1:42 AM on April 23, 2010

Good advice above. In short though - get closer. The wider a lens, the more background you get in the frame when you get close to an object. Look for three-dimensionality. A wider lens will make depth more prominent. A telephoto lens will flatten depth.

Just get out and play play play. Really do run around - move while looking through the viewfinder to find the best composition.
posted by Magnakai at 1:59 AM on April 23, 2010

Your title is "I don't want to crop anymore," but why? Crop! Crop! Crop! your way to better pictures. Cropping is a basic editorial function and a way to restore some clarity and focus to otherwise boring images. With the gate/bicycle photo you posted, just the leftmost portion of the image shows a lot of potential compared to looking at the entire fence at once. Once you get above a reasonable megapixel rating, the insane resolutions in today's digital cameras is there so you can crop to your heart's content and still maintain quality, so take advantage of it.

I'd also encourage you to get closer to your subjects. 17mm is fairly wide, even on micro 4/3rds, and as a general rule with wide lenses, getting close helps. Ken Rockwell has a nice article on How to use ultra-wide lenses that has some good tips that still apply with merely wide lenses too.

Finally, I'd play around with other ways to draw the viewer's eye and shape focus and composition besides changing focal length. Controlling depth of field, including/excluding strong lines in your composition, and using unusual angles and perspectives, among others, are all areas to explore. When you shoot wide, you often wind up including a whole bunch of "stuff" in your images--disperse forms without any real organization--that normally wouldn't be there because you would have just zoomed in on something more specific if you had a zoom lens. Your job as a photographer (or should I say, what you seem to want to go with your photography right now) is to come up with creative ways to guide the viewer's eye through that collection of forms in a way that makes sense visually.

I very much like kampken's advice: keep shooting. Take 50 pictures of the same subject from all different angles with different focuses and other techniques and see what sticks. Shoot a bunch, and even if you hate everything, find the image that you think sucks the least. Ask yourself why and try to bring that technique with you the next time you shoot. I think with this lens as your only tool for a while, you'll have to practice a much more deliberate form of photography than you're used to, but I think it will ultimately make you a better photographer.
posted by zachlipton at 2:07 AM on April 23, 2010

I think some of the advice above is dead wrong and/or very confusing.

Zoom with your feet is a fundamental principle for a lot of good photography. It comes from the master photojournalists like Cartier Bresson, Capa, and pretty much everyone who was around before the era of fast zooms. So...think: every great photograph before the late 1980s or so. Pretty much, anyway.

Don't crop. Walk around, look through your camera and when things look right, take the picture. You'll learn a lot.

17mm is in no way wide on a micro 4/3 camera. 34mm is close to 35mm which is wide-normal. Or just normal. Really, it's the perfect lens for many applications.

Cropping is ok if you have to, but a trained eye can recognize a cropped picture, and you might find that they lack vitality. If you get too into cropping, you will miss important lessons about composition.

Get a book by Capa or Cartier-Bresson, and realize that they walked around with a primitive camera relative to yours, and one or two lenses just like yours. And they ran their asses off and made amazing pictures.
posted by sully75 at 3:17 AM on April 23, 2010 [2 favorites]

First of all you have a pretty good eye, judging from your photos, although I actually like the work from your new camera better than that from the old one.

If you really dislike it though and you don't want to drag around the several lenses it would take for you to get the same functionality with it that you had with your old one, just sell it and get what you really want. If the new one's in pristine condition, consider the roughly $100 you'll eat in selling it as the price of an education.

As a long time photographer I have 15 (extremely good) lenses but I've gotten so into the "zoom way of working", especially over the last 10 years, that I rarely pull the primes out of the storage cabinet unless I need a special purpose lens for a specific job.

I've always found when looking at replacing cameras that I know right off the bat when a camera/lens combo just feels right for me.

Life's too short to fight your equipment.
posted by imjustsaying at 3:30 AM on April 23, 2010


The only thing a zoom lens does is change magnification. That's it. The minute you take one step, you've changed perspective.

You *can't* zoom with your feet. You *can* get a closer perspective.

"Zoom with your feet" is terrible advice, and it teaches exactly the wrong things about how magnification and perspective work.

Look at it this way: A zoom lens changes the focal length, which is analogous to changing the magnification power. A lot of this comes from wrongheaded advice to "use a telephoto to compress distance", for example. If you took a 300MM lens and shot a scene, and then shot the same scene with a 50mm lens from the exact same spot, and then cropped the 50MM shot to the same field of view as the 300MM shot, they'd show exactly the same thing (modulo quality differences due to enlargement).

The same thing happens with wide angle lenses. A wideangle shot of a fountain, and a 'normal' shot of the same fountain shot from the same location, will show that the wideangle view will contain the entirety of the 'normal' view within its frame.

Now move towards the fountain: It becomes larger in the viewfinder with respect to the background. You can get so close that you can't see the background at all. That's a function of perspective.

I urge anyone not clear on the concept to pick up Ansel Adam's The Camera and read chapters 5 through 7. He shows this much more eloquently (and with photos!) that I can type it out.
posted by pjern at 3:47 AM on April 23, 2010 [5 favorites]

Skyanth, I think your question is more about your current taste than your technique. Photography is supposed to be fun as well as creative, and you're not feeling it with a 17mm lens because you liked your shots at longer focal lengths. So the lens change feels like a radical decision and you're firmly out of your comfort zone.

But as the other posters have said, exploring the unfamiliar is exactly how people learn to like things they never knew they liked. This is your opportunity to take your photography to the next level. You'll have to experiment with new forms of photography, but you may end up really digging them.

So, change where you go photowalking and the scenes and subjects you look for. For example, you can get real context into your shots with the wider lens for portraits of people in their own environments. Try close-up candid street photography (wear the camera around your neck and snap people as you walk past them, like here) - the wider angle will give you a lot more latitude for cropping your subject later. Obviously, landscapes are suited to the shorter focal length. And macro shots provide an interesting (and easier) playground which give you a shallower DOF that you never thought your new camera could achieve.

Good luck!
posted by scrm at 4:19 AM on April 23, 2010

When taking photos with a wide-angle lens such as yours, you must be sure to incorporate foreground, middle ground and background elements for the best effect. This way, you play to the strength of a wide lens: a very large depth of field (DOF). This means that lots of things can be in focus at once.

Also, don't be afraid to crop. It's a prime lens, so you're not going to get the perfect photo every time. I am a pro photographer with a wide array of lenses, and I almost always crop my photos. Better to decide on the crop when you're processing the photo rather than when you're taking it, because if you crop too close when you take the photo, you won't have any room to work with afterward.
posted by jehsom at 4:52 AM on April 23, 2010

Seconding everybody else's advice. You need to work on composition -- here's one of the better composition tutorials I know of.

Don't worry -- it's easy, and you'll be a better photographer on all focal lengths once you get the hang of it.

(There are also a few good guides to DoF and Lighting on that account)
posted by schmod at 5:33 AM on April 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

Haven't read the thread; but I have looked at your photos and they're great. You have a good eye, in my opinion.

Don't blame your tools; save and get the zoom back but learn to make the most of what you have, as well ;) I quite like the "Tacheles argh" one, for what it's worth!
posted by DrtyBlvd at 5:41 AM on April 23, 2010

A good tool to observe focal length changes: http://www.tamron.com/lenses/learning_center/tools/focal-length-comparison.php

If you scroll down a bit here you can see how taking the same picture at different focal lengths can "flatten" the image.

Have fun!
posted by mcarthey at 6:32 AM on April 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm a zoom junkie. What do I do with a 17mm lens?

Well, if you want extreme zoom you can always reverse the lens. A reversed 17mm will get you >3:1 macro. To give you an idea of what that means, 1:1 means the projected image is the same size as the real object. Here's a coin at 3:1.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 7:48 AM on April 23, 2010

Go to a cramped space and take advantage of the shots you couldn't get with a longer lens. I bought a wide angle lens just before my last trip to Venice because the long lens I took the previous time couldn't pull in enough of the tight surroundings to give a good feel of the place.
posted by ChuqD at 9:33 AM on April 23, 2010

Forgive my not answering the question directly, but if you want a cheap way to add some zoom, you could buy an adapter and an old 50mm manual focus lens. I have a stash of my parent's Canon FD lenses, so I bought an m43-Canon adapter on eBay for around $70 and I can swap my 20mm for a 28mm or 50mm whenever I get bored.

You could look around for some cheap manual lenses then get the adapter for whatever type is easiest to find - around here i see lots of Minolta MD lenses in the pawn shops. For under $150 you can be shooting with a 50mm (100mm equivalent) manual focus lens.
posted by Gortuk at 9:36 AM on April 23, 2010

jehsom mentioned foreground, middle and background. One of the tricks I've found with slightly wider lenses is to not only move forward and back, but also to bend down or stand on things. Get away from eye-level. If you're close to the ground, you'll almost always have something in the foreground. Getting higher, you can find things like a nearby tree-top, top of a fence, or a sign. Or bring a prop to put in the foreground. I have a squishycow I got from Tucows years ago that rides in my camera bag. It's appeared in pictures in faraway places when I couldn't figure out a composition. "Well, I guess I'll just shoot a squishycow photo. Oh wait, hey, that's a good angle...."

And if you find it just isn't working at all, in spite of trying new things and new shooting positions, go back to a longer lens. Everyone "sees" differently.
posted by DaveP at 11:09 AM on April 23, 2010

I think people are taking the “zoom with your feet” thing too literally. It’s not supposed to mean “walk closer to your subject and that will exactly duplicate the effects of zooming a lens.” Yes, walking closer will change your perspective, but sometimes that’s a good thing.

When you’re out on the town with your superzoom, and you see an interesting thing on the other side of the street, you might be tempted to just zoom in and click the shutter. You might even end up with a nice shot. But if you only had your 17mm lens, you’d have to take the time to walk over there and figure out how to compose the picture so that only your interesting thing is in it. The limitation in your camera forced you to think more about your photo, and there’s a good chance you’d wind up with a nicer shot. Obviously, this won’t happen in every scenario, but it’ll happen often enough!
posted by Garak at 1:56 PM on April 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

Another way to think about this is "limited palette". I feel that these kinds of arbitrary restrictions are essential to develop your eye. The teacher who had the most effect on me told me two things that stay with me a couple of decades later: i) do the things that make you uncomfortable; ii) compose in the camera (i.e. no cropping).

Sometimes I walk around with my 5D and one prime lens chosen at random. I'm only allowed to make images that work with that lens; no cropping. Yes, this means I have to walk around to compose the picture, and sometimes I have to walk away because nothing fits with the lens, but so what? Because the important thing is to look at a scene and be able to see the picture instead of the actual objects in view. (Ansel Adams called that pre-visualization.)
posted by phliar at 5:41 PM on April 23, 2010 [2 favorites]

I think people are taking the “zoom with your feet” thing too literally. It’s not supposed to mean “walk closer to your subject and that will exactly duplicate the effects of zooming a lens.” Yes, walking closer will change your perspective, but sometimes that’s a good thing.

This is exactly right. Zoom with your feet is the best advice to give to a photographer who's shy about taking pictures of people or creating intimate images. That's why most aspiring photojournalists hear this advice. A zoom lens often makes for a sterile stand-offish image, and a wider lens often forces you to talk to your subjects, which will in turn lead to better pictures. Better pictures, here, doesn't necessarily mean technically or aesthetically better, but instead, perhaps, more meaningful, emotive, intimate, and thoughtful pictures. A good photographer can do that with a long lens, too, but the way a short lens forces you to get into a scene might well take you to another, dare I say, philosophical level with your pictures.
posted by msbrauer at 2:43 AM on April 24, 2010

A zoom lens often makes for a sterile stand-offish image, and a wider lens often forces you to talk to your subjects, which will in turn lead to better pictures.

That’s a good way to phrase it, and it reminds me: you might want to flip through a copy of National Geographic. The photogs often use surprisingly wide lenses for people shots—wider than I’d be comfortable with—with awesome results. They make you feel there in a way that photos made with a longer lens don’t.
posted by Garak at 7:40 AM on April 24, 2010

Thank you all very much. I took your advice to heart and there's some improvement already (315 pics yesterday and I actually liked one or two!)
posted by Skyanth at 2:10 AM on April 25, 2010

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