A wide-angle lens can be ideal for capturing a close foreground subject to help define the sense of space from near to far. Used this way, it becomes a great storytelling lens, using the foreground to emphasize a detail of the scene—in this case, a marabou stork, photographed with a 12-24mm lens
What lens should I buy next?" must be one of the five questions I’m asked most frequently at the Nikon School and the various other photographic seminars, tours and workshops I teach. That’s a little like going to a physician and asking, "What pill should I take?" Before giving you any kind of answer, the doctor will qualify it by getting your family medical history, examining you and asking about your symptoms, allergies, current medications, etc. To answer the lens question, we ask similar questions.
What equipment do you have now? What do you like to photograph? What would you like to photograph,and what kind of limitations have you bumped into regularly—i.e., can’t get close enough or can’t get a good exposure?
Fortunately, our choices aren’t complicated. Most buyers of a new D-SLR will initially get a short zoom with the body—maybe an 18-70mm or 18-55mm. The next lens you purchase should be the solution to at least one of your shooting limitations and should avoid overlapping what you already have as much as possible.
So practically speaking, you really only have three basic choices: go longer (more telephoto), go shorter (more wide-angle) or get closer (micro/macro).
Longer Adding a telephoto zoom like Nikon’s 55-200mm ƒ/4-5.6 or 70-300mm ƒ/4.5-5.6 VR could be the perfect complement to your current zoom, allowing you to get higher magnification of the subject from a distance. Sometimes we just can’t get physically closer to our subject because there’s a fence or a river between us or maybe our wildlife subject is too dangerous to approach.
Plus, you can enhance the composition because the greater shooting distance tends to cluster subjects. Getting a compressed angle of view on a flock of birds or a herd of zebras can help emphasize the repetitive pattern of their coats.
When photographing out in the field, sometimes we can’t get physically closer to our subject because of a fence or a river or maybe the subject is a lion in the savanna. Long telephotos are the best solution for these situations. A 200-400mm telephoto zoom at400mm is what I used here on a safari in Africa.
Shorter If you’re having a problem getting everything in the photo, and you just can’t back up anymore, maybe you need wider-angle lens coverage. The 12-24mm might be the right match for your current zoom. Using wide-angle lenses to cover more area is good, but for a more effective use of a wide-angle lens, include a close foreground subject to help define the sense of space captured from near to far. Used this way, it becomes a great storytelling lens, using the foreground to emphasize a detail of the scene, with the smaller background elements as foundation or supplemental information.
Closer A micro/macro lens is your best solution for focusing very close on fine, small details. There are other options to bring the focusing range of some lenses closer—bellows, extension tubes, diopters—but for the best optical performance and the easiest compatibility with the latest autofocus and auto-exposure technology, just get the micro/macro lens.
In the Nikon line, for instance, there’s the 60mm micro, 105mm micro and 200mm micro. All three lenses give the same magnification at their closest focus point, so the real decision about which is the right choice is based on preferred working distance to the subject. If you’re working in cramped quarters, you’d probably want the 60mm. If you’re photographing close-ups of live subjects in the field, you might prefer the less-intrusive benefit of working at greater distances with the 105mm or 200mm.
The Nikon School of Photography is a nationally traveling one-day photography class. Designed for basic to intermediate photographers, the Nikon School covers technical and aesthetic topics and demonstrates ways to take advantage of evolving digital SLR camera and software technologies. For more information on locations and dates for a Nikon School near you, contact the Nikon School, (631) 547-8666, www.nikonschool.com.