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Tips and techniques

From the Archives — Which Lens Should I Bring?

By June 13, 2018No Comments

Ed. Note:  Today, we offer another blog post from our archives.  Hank Erdmann prepared a good discussion on how to choose a lens when headed out for a photography session in the field, and it’s nicely illustrated with his photographs.  This post originally appeared about two years ago.  DL


"Peninsula Snow Sculpture" © Hank Erdmann Peninsula State Park, Door County, Wisconsin (90mm lens for 4x5)

Peninsula Snow Sculpture © Hank Erdmann Peninsula State Park, Door County, Wisconsin (90mm lens for 4×5)  

Story and Photos by Hank Erdmann

“What lens should I bring (into the field) with me?”  This is a question I hear many, many times a year while conducting tours, classes, and workshops. While I joke about this, often saying: “well, all of them.” To an experienced photographer, the question on the surface seems silly. To be truthful however it is a very valid question, on more than one front. While I usually address the issue up front in classes before we hit the field, I and other experienced photographers should be more aware that this is not as obvious as we think it is.

I often say something almost intentionally snippy, like “I don’t know” or “I have no idea,” not to insult someone, but to emphasize the point or points I will then make about the question. If any of my readers recognize that they asked this question in one of my classes or tours, please don’t feel this is directed at you; instead let me give you my thanks for being the genesis and inspiration of this blog, because “What lens do I bring” is a very good and a very valid question.

"Matthiessen Roots" © Hank Erdmann Matthiessen State Park, LaSalle County, Illinois (12-24 mm Zoom Lens)

Matthiessen Roots © Hank Erdmann Matthiessen State Park, LaSalle County, Illinois (12-24 mm Zoom Lens)

If we ask the question on the basis of what gear do I “drag” along with me, meaning that I have 50 or 60 lenses to choose from and which ones do I select, one you are better off financially than I, and two, can I come and live with you? If the question is one of equipment, it often means which one of the two or three lenses a person owns should they carry. That is especially true when one has sacrificed fortune and body to purchase and carry one of those very expensive, very heavy, 2mm to 2000 mm, f1.4 lenses. I joke about those numbers, but I’m also making a point. Fast lenses with wide ranges may seem like a good idea until one sees the price and tries to carry it everywhere.

So let’s address the question of physicality, which lenses does one carry? I can answer that question in two ways. One, I carry all the lenses I can physically and comfortably carry for a reasonable expectation of what kinds of subject matter I am likely to encounter. Two, if I paid hard earned money for a lens, I ought to be carrying it if it is one of the current lenses I regularly use. It cannot take any pictures sitting in the car, my hotel room or at home. There are exceptions obviously. I don’t drag my 170mm – 500mm zoom lens around with me in my normal pack unless I’m very likely to use it. But it is usually along with me in the car where I can go grab it. Recently I had a situation where I wanted to use it and could have used it to photograph some neat ducks…but it was back in my room at my lodging…where it did me absolutely no good. This is probably the only time in months when I haven’t had it close enough to use if I needed it (I had taken it in to clean it). Point made, lesson learned!

"Cottonwood Winter Sky" © Hank Erdmann Lake Michigan Shore, Berrien County, Michigan (70-300mm zoom lens)

Cottonwood Winter Sky © Hank Erdmann Lake Michigan Shore, Berrien County, Michigan (70-300mm zoom lens)

Here’s what I normally carry with me. It’s not a light pack, nor is it too heavy for me to carry on an everyday basis. To be honest, as I’ve gained years in age, I’ve also eliminated things from the pack to save weight. Normally those “things” reside in another pack in the car where they are available when needed. I carry a 12-24mm wide angle lens, an 18-70mm wide to normal lens, and a 70 -300mm telephoto lens. They are all zooms, all normal speed, lighter lenses. I also carry an extension tube set, various polarizers, ND filters, and 2-Element Close-Up Diopters, extra SD cards, 2 extra batteries, a compass, small flashlight, a composing square, and assorted other things I regularly use.

If I want to go light, i.e., I have a big fanny pack for city shooting or other times I have to drop weight, I leave one of the shorter lenses out and some of the filters, and usually the extension tubes and 2x teleconverter. The main point is with either set-up, I can cover focal lengths from wide to short telephoto, and for what I photograph my lenses are almost always adequate.

Let’s make the question one of photography and composition versus a question physical carrying capacity. Let’s make it particularly a question of perspective and treatment of subject matter, versus one of what I can, want to, or should be carrying just because I spent a few bucks on it. While I know for many beginners the question is one of “what do I drag with me, especially since you’ve already made me drag this ridiculously heavy tripod with me,” for most photographers with even a little experience the question is really more one of what am I going to see here, how should I photograph it, will the view be telephoto or wide angle. That should really be the question. What kind of photographic opportunities are here? Close-ups? Intimate Landscapes? Landscapes? Etc, etc?

So again if you ask “What lens should I bring” even when the question is really what are we likely to be photographing, I might get a bit short again…JUST to make another point. “I don’t know!” is my usual answer. I really don’t know what lens I’ll be using when standing in a parking lot. I can tell someone about likely subject matter, I can tell a person if landscape opportunities exist, I can tell a student if close-up opportunities exist. (YES, close-ups always exist everywhere!) But honestly, I’d rather not!

I don’t want to tell someone such things for a very good reason. I want them to discover on their own, without a jaundiced or even a prejudiced viewpoint that is subliminally mine. I want them to experience a new environment on their own with the same awe and inspiration I felt upon first seeing it. It’s not because I don’t want to share; I do or I wouldn’t be teaching the class or leading the tour. Once in the field, I start asking questions; “what catches your eye?,” “what contrasts do you notice?,” and if we stop at a given subject I ask “how do you want to photograph this subject?” meaning with what perspective and what focal length. There are of course no “right” answers to such questions, while there may indeed be less successful answers to such questions.

Black Partridge Woods Forest Preserve, Cook County, Illinois (12-24mm zoom lens)

Black Partridge Woods Forest Preserve, Cook County, Illinois (12-24mm zoom lens)  © Hank Erdmann

One of the greatest lessons I ever learned was that of getting rid of pre-conceived notions of what I’m going to see, what I expect to see, what I subliminally want to see, like some Hudson painting school notion of the environment that nature can never match. I learned early on that when I doggedly go after an image that I expect to make, want to make or think I can make, and ignore current local conditions, I pass up great opportunities I can never get back and I don’t make good images from the expected subjects. Some photographers expressly don’t want to even see images from a place they have never visited, preferring to see it with their own eyes for the first time and not through another photographer’s lens. That can be hard to do these days, google someplace to get information and directions to it and you’re very unlikely to get info without some images included.

Don’t undervalue the power of unaffected vision of a place at your first visit. I’ll never forget the wonderment and awe of the scene on my first visit to Council Lake in the Hiawatha National Forest. I’ve been back so many times and made hundreds of images on that same 100 feet of shoreline, but it never fails to impress me, or to thrill me no matter how many time I go there. At some places, those first views are even more important, as we’ll never be able to see them again. Nature changes any view with time and conditions experienced one year will not likely be repeated without subtle or more likely drastic changes.

So I’ll say “I don’t know” in answer the question of what lens to bring, because I really don’t know, I don’t want to even think about that question until something I see as I walk into the environment catches my eye and I say, “hmm, that should make a neat image!” Then I’ll think about what lens, what perspective, what viewpoint, what kind of image, and what variations of the same I might want to make. Only then is the question of “what lens” pertinent.

So the next time you think “what lens should I bring with,” stop before the words come out and ask yourself “what am I likely to see here?” “What are the photo opportunities here?” Maybe a better thought should be, “Wow, what a great new unblemished, unimagined, unprejudiced, unaltered (in my mind) canvas I have in front of me.” The question then becomes “can you point me in a direction to discover?” Can you point out any dangers or things I might need to explore happily and safely?” “Where are you going to photograph here? “I’m coming with you.” Then maybe later ask “what opportunities exist in the opposite direction and should I go there?”

As photographers should say “Go forth and discover”!

Hank Erdmann Photography Workshops, 903 Windsor Drive, Shorewood, Illinois, 60404