Welcome to 2023, everyone! I hope you had a wonderful New Year and are ready to continue your photographic journeys over the coming year. Today, I’m going to share my thoughts on why it is important to work exclusively with a single focal length for long periods of time. Of course, there are so many benefits to working with a zoom lens or having a few nice primes at your disposal, but there’s also a freedom and creativity that comes with taking just a single focal length out to work with.
This is actually one of the biggest joys for me about getting to test so much gear for FujilLove and my YouTube work; I have a great excuse to play with a single piece of gear for a long period of time and make use of things that I normally wouldn’t for my own work. When I’m paying the rent with my camera, I’m typically using lenses that I know well and focal lengths that will work for the types of pictures I promise to create for my clients. However, the freedom that comes with completely flipping that on its head is a great way to learn and grow as a photographer.
So, for this article, I’ll be using my time with the new Laowa 19mmF2.8 for GFX as an example. I recently had it on loan from Laowa for review purposes and spent a little over a month with it in my bag at every opportunity. 19mm on the GFX sensor is a seriously wide lens. It has the equivalent field of view of around a 10mm lens on a Fujifilm X camera. Let’s just say, it’s not ideal for birding. But, it was ideal for me to completely adjust the way I saw the world for a period of time.
Focus your attention
When you know that your lens simply can’t capture that skier on the mountain opposite you, something switches in your mind. You simply stop looking for subjects that sit in that category. You start looking for possibilities with the lens you have at hand. This is different from working with a zoom, where you have flexibility in your focal length or with a bag full of primes that can be changed if you see something that requires a different focal length.
I don’t often work with ultra-wide lenses, especially on the GFX, so the Laowa 19mmF2.8 was quite a shock to the senses the first time I mounted it. It was a challenge, for sure, but I almost immediately started seeing images that would benefit from such a wide angle of view.
I was no longer looking 10 metres in front of me as pretty much anything at that distance would be in my frame anyway. I was looking down at my feet to see what interesting foregrounds I might be able to include in the scene in front of me. Immediately, having no other option but to shoot wide allowed me to begin seeing the world in a different way. If I were to have mounted something like Fujifilm’s XF200mmF2 on my X-T5, I certainly wouldn’t have been looking down close to my feet for foregrounds!
By restricting yourself to a single focal length, you can actually open up possibilities that you may not have otherwise seen. Essentially, by focusing on less, you’ll start to see more.
Learn your lens
Does the lens you’re using lend itself well to shallow-depth-of-field images? How deep of a depth of field can you get at different distances? Are there any other effects of stopping down or opening up the aperture of the lens? What happens when you tilt the camera up or down with this focal length? Is it better for getting in close or stepping back?
You begin to learn the way that this lens or focal length renders the world if you stick to a single focal length for long enough. The key is to spend time only using this focal length. By doing that, you force yourself into seeing that way and also experimenting with how the lens renders.
While I was working with the Laowa 19mm, for example, I found that it wasn’t at its sharpest when used close to wide open and that I preferred the results from about f/8 onwards. I also learned that, at that point, the lens was capable of producing sunstars around the pin lights in my scene. Finally, its “zero distortion” designation meant that, as long as I kept the camera level, the lens wouldn’t contribute at all to the distortion of objects in my scene. This made it perfect for capturing extremely wide views of some of the buildings I love in this little town on Jeju Island.
If my focal length of choice had been the 80mm or 110mm lens, I may have decided to get a vertical image of the man in the doorway, look for details in the building, or even skip this location altogether. However, knowing that I had an ultra-wide lens that could be used to capture the whole scene, I decided to go for that.
Not only do you find yourself looking for subject matter that you can shoot with the focal length at hand, but you begin looking for new ways to photograph familiar subjects with the focal length that you have. Using a single focal length, especially an unfamiliar one, forces you to move your camera position in order to find ways to photograph the subject.
When I visited this waterfall, I had a bag full of lenses that I’d used here the day before to photograph a couple who wanted to visit the area. However, I left those in the car and headed down with my tripod, the GFX 100S and the Laowa 19mm.
I have been here several times before and, usually, I’ve tried to find a way to photograph part of it in some sort of abstract image or find ways to frame out the constant flow of tourists that visit. You can see an example of that here.
For the image below, I knew how wide my field of view would be and that I’d likely not be doing either of those things, so I had to look for some sort of foreground to work with and a way to frame the entire waterfall in an interesting way. I also knew that I was unlikely to completely avoid having people in my frame, so I paid them no heed and resigned myself to potentially using Photoshop to clone them out.
I encourage you to take a single focal length out with you. Start with something that you’re familiar with and work with it for a month. Then, completely switch it up. If you started with the XF50mmF2, move to something like the XF16mmF2.8. The way you see the world will change immediately and, over time, the way you work with each of these lenses will change. I’d love to hear in the comments below what focal lengths you’re most comfortable with and which ones you’d like to learn to use better.