Leave it to the imagination

I have to admit I was always a fan of wide angle lenses. While many new photographers are fascinated with supertele zoom lenses (and the bigger the better) one of my first lens purchases for the DSLR was a super wide Sigma 10-20mm lens (APS-C). At some point I started asking myself what was so special about wide angles that seemed to be working so good for me. Then I realized that I had this urge to show as much of the world in front of me as possible in my photos. Whenever I would be standing at the top of the canyon or in the middle of a busy street I felt that I would like the viewers of my pictures to immerse themselves in the same setting and feel the way I did. Wide and ultra wide angle seem to serve this purpose very well although they distort the picture as well reminding the viewer every time that it’s still just a photo.

While there is nothing wrong with above mentioned concept, It’s good to remember that there are situations when using longer focal lengths is beneficial and I don’t mean sports and wildlife photography. What I’m trying to say is that sometimes showing less to the viewer will allow him to see more. Let me explain this idea with a story of one of my own photo shot.

At the end of October 2012 Hurricane Sandy hit several States along US East Coast and New York, my current home state, was one of them. Flood damage was extensive due to unprecedented tide level at the time when hurricane struck NY shore.

While it may not seem sensitive to admit it, any tragic event such as this one is an exceptional opportunity for photographers to freeze in time those intensely emotional moments and share with all of us. Hurricane Sandy was no exception here and resulted in many iconic photos still circulating Internet. Among those, one of the better recognized scenes is a 185 feet tanker ship John B. Caddell washed ashore in Staten Island. As it happened literally few blocks away from my home it was a great photo opportunity for myself.

I picked up my gear bag (with way too much stuff in it) and I went to the shore. As I was approaching from far away I could see the tanker with some people and cars surrounding it and I had a nice view on Verrazano – Narrows Bridge in the back:

 The photo was taken with 80-200mm zoom somewhere at the long end. I find this composition quite interesting but there is simply just too much going on in this scene. Front elements, lampposts and guard post are making the scene appear more genuine but block the view at the same time. Also the number of people around the scene is definitely distracting. Finally while the placement of the ship is unusual the viewer is not getting clear idea what has happened to it.

I came up closer and realized the size of the ship is considerable. It was definitely not a colossus but the size was intimidating enough. I took out my 10-20mm zoom and decided I will try to make this ship look as big as possible:

At 10mm (15mm for Full Frame) I managed to fit entire tanker within a frame and show it’s awkward placement on the shore. One of the problems with this photo is that it does not provide a clear point of reference. Some people may be seen on the right but they are visibly placed in the back and because of the distortion this particular focal length produces it’s really hard to judge how impressive this vessel is.

Another issue is the amount of negative space. Negative space can be a very powerful element in a photo provided it is used correctly and it is an integral and intentional part of the composition. In this case negative space on the top (sky) and on the bottom (ground) are rather an unintentional outcome remaining after an attempt to fit entire ships length within the frame.

As I was still not satisfied I started playing a bit with my vantage point. I circled the ship to my right at which point I could use a tighter framing with 17mm focal length (25mm for FF) and I kneeled:

This picture was somehow more satisfactory.  The ship is clearly shown in its entity and the person standing next to it makes a much better size reference. At the same time however stern part of the ship is quite far which makes the bridge look naturally smaller. In this sense we are getting a better understanding of what happened but photo is losing on some impact. Negative space is managed slightly better as the bottom part now clearly shows it’s a road therefore viewer has no doubts about the awkwardness of the scene.

 In my continuous effort to get the best shot possible I decided to abandon the idea of framing entire ship on the picture. I moved a bit to the left, changed focal length to 20mm (30mm for FF) and came up with yt something different.

This is actually a shot I am very happy with. While it’s not perfect right out of the camera it has a potential after some editing. We have pretty much all here that is needed.  The ship looks big and is visibly washed ashore just next to a road. There are some people standing next to it as a size reference. Verrazano- Narrows Bridge in the background tells the rest of the story allowing viewer to better identify the location.

The white car on the right is somehow distracting but the right part of the photo can be cropped out along with some road on the bottom keeping even the width-height ratio of the photo intact. Such picture would definitely work nice and I would be very happy with it if it wasn’t for the last, lucky shot I took before leaving.

I made few steps away from the scene and turned around and I asked myself a question “how could I frame it with a tele lens?” So I took out a 60mm macro lens which on APS-C sensor works as a short tele (90mm for FF) and took a picture:

Now I knew this one was a keeper. Everything is really in the place. While only the bow of the ship is shown the people standing next to it provide a very good reference as to how big this vessel is. Furthermore the name of the ship as well as Verrazano – Narrows Bridge are both visible putting the scene within a context even for those viewers who are not familiar with the event. Finally three people standing next to it make impression of being overpowered by the circumstances.

In the end I decided to go with B&W for the more journalistic feel of the photo and since I’m a big sucker for B&W I do honestly believe it is better:

So why am I talking about all this? Why am I describing the whole process?

The reason is because I was thinking a lot why the last picture appeals to me so much. Just so I don’t sound overly self-absorbed I will admit that several who have seen this photo find it at least interesting if not more than that. So what is its strength?  Where is the impact coming from?

After some pondering I realized that it is not what the picture shows but it’s what it doesn’t show. My initial attempts at framing entire vessel in my viewfinder were simply trivial and so were the pictures they yielded. Everyone knows how does a ship look like more or less. The point of the story is not how the ship looked but the fact that it was big and it was washed ashore where it should have not been. The last photo achieves that showing just the bow of the ship and three people standing next to it. The rest is left to the viewer’s imagination.  

To recap the whole thing let’s just remember that sometimes it is important not what is shown but what is left out of the frame. This way viewers become stimulated; they start analyzing the picture and immersing themselves in it. Those photos will have a sense of mystery and uniqueness to them and will certainly grab viewers’ attention. 

Essential focal lengths - a minimalist approach


Photography is not a cheap hobby. However, it can be relatively inexpensive to photographers with clear vision of their work, sufficient knowledge and, some skills. Unfortunately  many beginners having none of the above end up paying dearly (and literally) for those shortcomings.

One of the dillemas beginning photographers face is the choice of lenses. These days selection on the market is shamefully vast. Aside from having full lineups for each of several different systems, we also have offers from third party manufacturers and even unorthodox constructions like Lensbaby. Looking at the website of one of the largest photo equipment retailers in USA we have 205 different lenses available for Nikon F mount only. Do you need them all if you are a Nikon shooter? God forbid, no.

For the purpose of this article I want to focus on strictly one and most important feature of every lens and that is it’s focal length. Furthermore I will be considering prime lenses only as those are purest in terms of technical aspect and represent fundamental approach to photography. Prime lenses, unlike zoom constructions, allow photographer to focus on the subject and understand its relation to the space and other elements of surrounding. Primes are truly the only way to comprehend proper composition and framing techniques.

(Note: below discussion is assuming 35mm/135 format system)


So which focal lengths may be considered essential? Let’s start with one that’s probably most obvious and popular but often underestimated and misunderstood– 50mm. The myth says that angle of vision provided by this lens is closest to the one of human eye, which would allegedly explain why this lens has been around since forever. Unfortunately it’s a far stretch from the truth and I encourage everyone to do a little investigative work to find out why.

The truth is that typical fast 50mm lenses are relatively simple constructions – easy to design and manufacture.  Back in the analog days cameras were often sold with 50mm lenses bundled as a kit. Today cameras are usually bundled with zoom lenses but 50mm primes are still a staple of any 35mm format based system and they are usually the most affordable primes.

But what actually makes 50mm so special? Why should we consider this to be an essential focal length? While it does not exactly provide the angle of human vision, 50mm offers a coverage that is somehow unique. Being considered as neither wide nor tele it can actually act either way as long as photographer is skilled enough. For this very reason this focal length requires a god deal of discipline – one must know how to use it in a particular shooting situation. Henri Cartier-Bresson was using 50mm lens almost exclusively and according to some sources as much as 90% of his work was done using this particular focal length. On the other hand Ansel Adams mentioned: “In general, I do not find the normal lens especially desirable, functionally or aesthetically. The angle of view and depth of field characteristics do not seem favorable to me in interpreting space and scale.”

Personally I do not use 50mm extensively but at certain times I will mount such lens on one of my film cameras and it always surprises me how many great shots you can compose with this one while out on the street.

Normal focal length undoubtedly requires a good dose of skill, discipline and imagination to be used effectively but because it’s so widely available and in a way quite versatile it should be considered an essential one.


Wide focal lengths are generally easier to use (up to some point) and possibly more useful in your average daily photographic situation. Focal lengths I would like to consider here as essential would be 28mm/35mm. Some photographers have particular taste for wider angles provided 24mm or 21mm but those focal lengths are considerably harder to use as distortion becomes more apparent with them. I happen to be extremely comfortable with 35mm as it usually provides me with wide enough coverage for street, indoor and landscape photography. If a portrait needs to be taken it can be also achieved with this focal length although understandably full body shots are desirable over headshots.

Some photographers feel more comfortable with 28mm and this would be most typically for street, PR and landscape photography. View angle difference between 28mm and 35mm is too small to usually justify owning lenses of both focal lengths and using them alternatively thus photographers typically develop taste for one or the other at some point.  I have to admit that 28mm has its charm especially for street photo but I still find it personally less versatile than the view angle of 35mm.


When considering telephoto lenses one that definitely comes to mind is 85mm. As a short telephoto this focal length is quite versatile since it allows design of some very fast lenses (typically f/1.4 or f/1.8) without making the entire construction too bulky and overly expensive at the same time. Such lenses are a primary choice for portrait photography providing good separation from the background and enough compression while keeping distortion at very low level.

Personally I find 85mm to be quite versatile focal length serving good not only for portraiture but also for landscape and some candid shots. Wildlife and sport photographers will undoubtedly argue for more reach but we can honestly admit those are rather specialized fields in photography that heavily rely on particulars of the equipment setup.


While combination of 28mm/35mm, 50mm, 85mm provides extremely good focal length base and should satisfy needs of most amateur/hobbyist photographers, some situations may call for more extreme angles.
While fisheye is a very concept based optical construction I will avoid discussing it but it seems that these days ultra wide angles are very popular. Advancement in design and production of lenses allowed the market to see zoom lenses with 12mm at wide end. More importantly those constructions do not require one to mortgage his house in order to acquire such piece of optics. Shooting so wide is without a doubt a unique and fun experience but it’s also hard to deny there is a lot of abuse involved. Ultra wide angles require special care during composition and framing and few photographers have those skills. Furthermore using those constructions in inappropriate situations makes them simply gimmicky. For those reasons I would suggest avoiding such extremely wide angles unless one has a very clear vision of his work. Otherwise anything in between 20mm - 24mm should provide enough coverage for those special situations involving mostly landscape shots.

In case of tele lenses there are many choices above 85mm and depending on particular application they can be well justified. I personally prefer 135mm as a longer alternative to 85mm. Those constructions can be still quite fast while remaining compact while the coverage itself is very versatile. Shallow DOF allow good separation of the background making them very good for portraits while compression is very nice for some tight landscape shots. In fact, for landscape photography I would definitely pick 135mm over 85mm. It is also the focal length that still allows handheld shooting with relative ease.

Some photographers prefer going longer with 180mm or 200mm and those focal lengths are still quite versatile and usually portable. I consider anything above 200mm to be a specialized construction dedicated for a narrow scope of applications like sports or wildlife photography.


If I had to make choice and could use only one prime lens I would pick 50mm (along with Nikon FM3A, haha). If I could have two primes I would settle for 35mm and 85mm. So I guess on a list of essential focal lengths I have to place 35mm, 50mm, and 85mm. I strongly believe that for noncommercial, hobbyist applications those three focal lengths allow vast possibilities. It’s a versatile setup for street, portraiture, landscape, journalism  and many other types of photography. In case of landscape photography, where more extreme focal lengths are desired I could go with 24mm, 50mm, and 135mm.

Otherwise this is really all that most photographers need even thou some of them may think otherwise. But this minimalistic approach is not just its own purpose. There are several advantages that comes with it:

-          Less lenses means less weight to carry – no more bulky backpacks full of gear

-          Less lenses means less money spent – a no brainer

-          No tough decisions during shooting – photographer knows when to use each lens

-          Three focal length can be mastered much easier allowing photographer compose images in his head

I strongly encourage anyone to try this approach. I am speaking out of experience as at some point I realized I have so many lenses cluttering my drawers that I could barely keep up with the inventory and thus understandably there were many lenses that I barely used. So I started selling them off along with some obsolete cameras and other, usually redundant, photo gear. Ever since then I undeniably started focusing more on photography instead of choosing gear. My every day camera of choice is a Fuji X100s with a fixed 35mm equivalent focal length and…honestly there isn’t much I cannot do with this piece of equipment. 

Spring clamp for flash

Today just a very quick DIY project for spring clamp with flash bracket. Camera stores offer few variations of this concept but the one I want to present is  cheaper of course and really easy to make.
We will need to stop at a local home improvement store as well as camera store for some parts:

  • Spring clamp typically found in tools section at Home Depot
  • A 3/8" nut
  • Double-male round spigot with 1/4" and 3/8" threads from camera store

  • Cheapest universal umbrella bracket

All of those should cost around $23 + tax. which is under half the price of similar accessories offered at camera stores.


Using a 3/8" metal bit drill we make a hole in one of the arms on the clamp as per picture:


Then we secure spigot with 3/8" nut...


,,,and install umbrella bracket on the spigot


Congratulations - you just saved yourself in 5 minutes almost $40 when comparing to similar offer from leading manufacturer of tripods. Sounds better than Geico saivings.

Frozen Upper Bay

This is a rather unusual look for the Upper Bay just next to Battery Park in NYC.


One gentleman riding the Staten Island Ferry told me that the last time he remembers something like this happening would be about 25 years ago. Well, as I was not around at that time, I have to take his word for it.

This year's winter is particularly tough in NYC but also provides us with many outstanding photo opportunities. So stay warm and always have your camera with you.