Equipment: SLR Lenses

(about lenses)

For underwater, I use a pretty static setup without much variability. To me, the underwater choice is all about the most flexible camera setup; No lens changing happens underwater. But in air, I use a range of gear.

My photo opportunities typically range from closeups to people to city scenes to broad landscapes (or seascapes — you get the picture). Cities and monuments are often most picturesque and/or easiest to shoot without large crowds in low light, either at dawn or dust. Many scenes are at their most spectacular at the extremes — shooting into the sun or after dark when the sun or lights are the main photo attraction. Distances in cities are shot from either short-range at street level or very expansive for skyscraper-height city views. Landscapes outside the city could be shot with anything, but the focal length should be carefully chosen to frame the scene to best advantage. Small subjects need macro, and people are best at portrait focal lengths around 100mm.

My “core” lens usually includes just four main lenses. I carry an extreme wide-angle lens to shoot big things (buildings and marquees) from ground level, for expansive land- and city-scapes, and to capture room-filling scenes indoors. Also, nothing beats a good wide-angle for great depth of field to permit unconventional quick shots without much focus adjustment. For greatest flexibility near to far and framing for interest on the fly without lens changes, my “main” lens is an extreme (wide to telephoto) zoom. But aside from that one lens, I tend to prefer fast lenses (f/2.8 or better) to permit hand-held shooting even in low-light situations. To cut down on weight and reduce number of lens changes, I favor zoom lenses.

So what is my usual? Four main lenses:

  • Extreme zoom as a “normal” lens: The Nikon AF-S Nikkor 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 G ED VR DX zoom lens just about lives on my camera. This is a fantastic, versatile lens — clear and sharp throughout the focus range and very little focus softness or light fall-off at the edges. It is not all that fast, but Nikon’s built-in Vibration Reduction (VR) does allow me to shoot hand held at relatively slow shutter speeds. What’s not to like?
  • Wide-angle zoom: I recently got the fabulous Tokina SD 11-16mm f/2.8 IF DX ultra-wide zoom. This is probably the best ultra-wide zoom made for Nikon. Maybe even better than Nikon’s own offerings in this focal range. Tack-sharp edge-to-edge, with a solid zoom and autofocus. And at f/2.8, it is fast, so great for low-light inner cities and indoor shots.
  • For low light, the Nikon AF Nikkor 35mm f/2 prime lens. It’s not a zoom, but at 35mm on a DX (APS size sensor) camera it gives about equivalent framing to a 50mm “main” lens on a film camera — right in the “normal” range of my first SLR. Very familiar and easy to work with. At f/2, it is quite fast and allows me to shoot hand-held in most situations (though in dark places, I may choose to brace against something solid). It’s also very small and fits easily in a corner of my camera bag.
  • Finally, if there’s room I will bring along the excellent Nikon AF-S Micro-Nikkor 105mm f/2.8 G ED VR prime lens. At 105mm, it is perfect for close-framed portrait-style photos that might be favored in the wedding scene. This “micro” lens is also capable of focusing to a 1:1 (macro) reproduction ratio — a great benefit if I find flowers, bugs, or other small stuff to shoot up-close. At f/2.8 and with VR, hand-held shooting should not be a problem. (And no, I do not know why Nikon, alone in the camera marketplace, decided to label as “micro” what everyone else calls “macro.”)

I augment these basic lenses with a very few basic filters. Only a couple of filters are routinely needed in this digital world. Shooting in camera raw format, most stuff for which we once needed filters when shooting on film (color balance and focus effects) are easily adjusted later, on the computer. I tend to use only a couple of filters all the time: A circular polarizer to cut reflections and bring out more colors in bright light; and a range of neutral-density filters to control light when shooting into the sun or when light is not well balanced across the frame. Those filters are still needed with digital because they do not change colors but do allow us to manage light and therefore contrast. Too much contrast (very high dynamic lighting range) may exceed what the camera sensor can capture, resulting in blown-out highlights or lost details in shadow. What the camera can’t capture, cannot be saved. Recently I have begun to experiment with high dynamic range (HDR) processing, but it is still worth my while to carry neutral density filters.