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In Defense of Zoom Lenses: A Wedding Photographer’s View

I’ll begin by saying that I don’t only shoot with zoom lenses. I should also add that what I’m about to say is perhaps most relevant to other wedding photographers, particularly those shooting in a documentary style like myself.

If I was a landscape or portrait photographer for example, and wasn’t under quite the same time pressure, and was likely to be making large prints, or wanted a particular flair or bokeh effect, I would most probably want to use prime lenses.

Also, although I’ve used a 16-35mm and 70-200mm in the past, currently my only zoom lens is a 24-70mm, and I do use a number of prime lenses in conjunction with that lens. My current setup is two Sony a9 cameras with the 24-70mm f/2.8 GM that lives on one camera for most of the day, and I put whichever prime lens I think is most appropriate for the situation on the second body.

The 24-70mm f/2.8 G Master is also a phenomenal lens, with sharpness comparable to many prime lenses, and with minimal distortion and vignetting. It’s only perhaps for the portrait session or in extremely low light that I might use two primes. I own a 25mm f/2, 35mm f/1.4, 55mm f/1.8, and 85mm f/1.8.

So why do I like my zoom lens so much when so many wedding photographers I know swear by a kit that consists of perhaps only two or three prime lenses? And why oh why did I switch to a smaller/lighter mirrorless system, only to go and add a big old zoom lens on the front of my camera? I hear what you’re saying.

The Sony 24-70mm f/2.8 is about the same size as the Nikon DSLR equivalent and larger than the Canon DSLR version, but of course the answer here is that the reduction in size that mirrorless affords, is only one advantage of the system. The EVF, in-body stabilization, autofocus and silent shooting on the a9 are just a few of the reasons for making the switch to this particular mirrorless system.

What I observe within the industry chatter is a view that stigmatizes the zoom lens, characterizing it, and its users, as slightly amateurish. As though only “Uncle Bob” would use a zoom lens, and that to become a true professional one should choose between the classic focal lengths of 24mm, 35mm, 50mm or 85mm. This way of thinking, bordering on snobbery, overlooks the fact that, in much the same way that one needs to learn a particular camera system or focal length to get the most out of it, the use of a zoom lens can also be learned.

In this article, I hope to outline some of the advantages of the zoom lens and dispel some of the myths that have built up around us photographers that continue to use zooms, while also pointing out where I think primes are still an important part of the kit bag.

Even though I use the 24-70mm lens for the majority of my shots, I’m still constantly on the move throughout the wedding day, pre-visualising shots, anticipating the action, and working on my compositions. Most importantly of all though, the zoom lens is not a substitute for zooming with my feet! It’s an oversimplification to think that a zoom lens, at the telephoto end of the spectrum simply gets you closer to the action, and at the wide end of the zoom range simply squeezes more into the frame.

Shot at 70mm and f/2.8.

I’ll save for another article, an in-depth look into the psychological impact that a particular focal length has on the image and how it can change the feeling/meaning of the image, but what the zoom lens affords me, is the ability to make minute adjustments in the relationship between background and foreground objects, balancing the composition and making the most of juxtapositions within the image.

The best illustration of this is not in photography but in the “dolly zoom” technique used in film. Check out this diner scene from Goodfellas to see the way the zoom is used to slowly change perspective and increase the tension within the scene (warning: strong language).



February 2020
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