Lens Exercise to Help You Take better Photos

A white goose cleaning its feathers in the sun.
A white goose cleaning its feathers in the sun.

Here is a little lens exercise well worth doing from time to time. It will help to build knowledge and confidence in your equipment, as well as show up any weaknesses or limitations in your lens. The earlier post, Duck Shoot, which is the source of the image above, was in fact this exercise, done for specific reasons.

When traveling, or making pictures quickly, it will always add impact if you use the most appropriate focal length for the subject and context. With a zoom lens, especially the “superzoom” travel lenses now available, it is all to easy to aim, zoom, shoot and move on. Prime lens photographers, and those who came from 35mm film photography, especially photographers who traveled with that equipment, will generally have a clear understanding of the effects of different focal lengths.

The Lens Exercise

The Lens exercise is very easy, and works as follows:

  • Put your favourite prime or zoom lens on your camera, and leave the other lenses at home;
  • Pick a focal length, if it is a zoom, and set it;
  • Set the camera on manual or Aperture preferred;
  • Get out and take some photos – a whole bunch of them – of different subjects, at different apertures and shutter speeds;
  • Load the photos on to your computer and look at them carefully to gain an understanding of how the lens behaves and what qualities it brings to your photos;

[singlepic id=532 w= h= float=none]Tenby harbour at dawn – a walk with just a 50mm f/1.8 on an EOS 450D

You can pick any focal length you like, but here’s a little guide to get started. Focal lengths are for an APS-C camera, with full frame equivalents in brackets. Four thirds users will need to set half the full frame number. Focal length comparison are approximate, essentially based on the markings on my lenses:

  • 17mm (28mm) is wide-angle, taking in a wide picture and distorting depth. Typical landscape lens;
  • 21mm(35mm) is about as wide-angle as you can get with distortions. Great for adding an intimate feel when shooting in a group of people. An excellent city “walk and shoot” focal length;
  • 28mm (50mm) is the classic full frame “standard” focal length. The angle of view is close to that of the human eye, so this focal length gives you natural looking shots. Great focal length for general photography;
  • 85mm (135mm) provides a classic portrait focal length, compressing perspective and lifting the subject off the background. It is also a useful short telephoto setting.
  • Then you get to the longer focal lengths which have many uses in terms of isolating subjects, pulling in distant subjects, etc., Typically these are the 135mm (200 mm) for sport and action, 200mm (300 mm) for wildlife and sport.

Many, more technically oriented, photographers would take me to task for the focal length comparisons above, and they would be correct. They are good enough for this exercise!

Once you complete the exercise, use the results in your photography. No matter how good the lens, simply pointing it and fiddling with the zoom is not going to get you consistently good photos. In a particular situation, preset the focal length you want to use and concentrate on composition and appropriate settings, then use small adjustments on the zoom to perfect the composition.

Lens Exercise in Practice

The photo at the top of the page was shot with an old Cosina 100mm macro, bought pre-digital, used, for £30 – a little gem, though the autofocus won’t switch off.

Here’s a sunset at the local lake, shot with a Canon EF-S 24mm on the EOS 450D. I actually had the 24 and the 50 with me on that walk.[singlepic id=860 w= h= float=none]

My earlier post, Duck Shoot was exactly this exercise. My Sigma 70-300mm APO lens is 10 years old and has delivered many good shots on both film and digital. These were shot at 236mm, which is about the limit of sharp focus with that lens. Following these shots, it has been replaced by a Canon EF 70-300 USM IS lens.

Here’s the slide show from that post.

Blog Note: This is an update of a post previously published in April 2014.

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