When I first began travelling and taking photos, my favored lens was the 24-70mm. It was perfect for all-around use. I could use it to capture wide-angle landscapes but also to zoom in for some candid street photography. It was my ’one lens to rule them all.'
However, after an unfortunate mishap, my precious was no more. And so on my most recent trip, I had no choice but to expand my repertoire.
What had been one lens then became two: the 16-35mm and the 70-200mm. These were not ideal for a cover-all travel lens. They were far heavier and bulkier, and to be honest, I felt like they were going to let me down—like I was going to miss so many shots without my trusty workhorse.
To my surprise, however, the images I came home with were far better than those from previous trips. Four months of use showed me how much was possible with these lenses that I had never bothered to get to know well. These days, the two lenses rank among my personal favorites.
A lens is capable of a lot more than we realize when we first pick it up—especially after you’ve finally mastered it. To help you, here are a few handy tips to master whichever piece of equipment you’re currently using.
01. Use your lens as much as possible
The first step to mastering anything is to put in the hours. While Malcolm Gladwell famously says it takes 10,000 hours to truly master a skill, you only really need a few hours of hard work to start reaping the benefits of your new lens.
Go on an adventure and take only that lens, whether it’s a portrait or a landscape. If it’s your only option, you’ll soon discover you can do far more with it than you thought possible. As with anything else, the more you practice, the better you’ll become.
You want your lens to become like a second set of eyes. Special moments that make a photographic shot often occur quickly, and you don’t want to lose them by putting on the wrong lens.
02. Understand the lens you’re using
To get the most out of your lens, you need to know how it works, what is and isn’t possible with it, and when you should and shouldn’t use it.
This focal length is the closest to mirroring how the human eye sees. If you’re using a standard lens, you’re going to get natural-looking images.
If you want to capture a large area of the landscape in your shot, go for a wide-angle lens.
A wide-angle lens is great for creating exaggerated depth and perspective. It can make distant objects appear much farther away and closer objects appear larger. This can lead to distortion, but it can also lead to some very interesting photography opportunities.
If you can’t get too close to your subject, a telephoto will zoom in and do all the work for you. This is why it’s often used to capture the action in sports and wildlife photography. Keep in mind though that a telephoto lens can also flatten the depth of an image and give an exaggerated shallow depth of field.
Understanding how each lens works means you can work to its strengths, account for its weaknesses, and experiment with what’s possible—like take a portrait with a wide-angle lens or a landscape with a telephoto lens.
03. Test your lens across the aperture range
No matter what lens you’re using, an important step to getting the most out of it is to understand how the aperture affects your image. Experiment with different depths of field to observe how they affect the aesthetics of your photo.
Do you want to focus on only a specific part of the photo, or have the entire scene in focus?
The second reason to test your aperture is more technical, but equally important. Due to diffraction, each lens will have differing sharpness across its aperture range.
Diffraction affects how light enters your lens: at a wider aperture, the light enters directly, but as the aperture becomes narrower (when you’re hitting f-stops above f11), the light bends to hit the camera sensor, which leads to a softer image.
The narrower the aperture, the larger the area of the image that will be in focus. On the other hand, lenses at the higher range (between f11 and f22) become softer.
Landscape photographers generally advise to shoot between f8-f11 for ideal sharpness and focal range, but the best way to determine how your lens works best is to test it.
You can easily experiment with this by taking the same image at a range of f-stops, and seeing when it is sharpest and when it is softest.
Each lens behaves differently, and certain lenses are softer with a lower aperture. Comparing the Canon 50mm f1.2 vs the Sigma 50mm f1.4 above, for example, shows differing levels of softness when wide open.
04. Play around with different focal lengths
Like aperture, focal length is a variable that profoundly impacts your image both on an aesthetic and a technical level.
On an aesthetic level, apart from just bringing your subject closer, zooming can change how the entire image appears. With a telephoto lens, for example, zooming flattens the image, bringing the background much closer to the foreground. This makes distant images appear larger, such as the sun in the images below.
Test how your focal length affects how the image appears in the frame. How does zooming out affect the straight lines in your frame? How does it change what appears in the background?
Now onto the technical aspect. Different lenses experience aberrations at different focal lengths. A wide angle lens that is zoomed out may blur or stretch the edges of the image. Meanwhile, the larger the zoom range (i.e the Tamron 18-270), the more likely you’ll experience a softer image when zooming in, so what you gain in convenience by having a zoom lens, you lose a little in sharpness.
Test your lens at different focal lengths to see how much the image quality changes. There’s a reason professionals get a few lenses at different focal lenses, rather than getting one lens that covers it all.
05. Learn when to ‘zoom with your feet’
There are two ways to make your subject appear up-close in your photo: by moving physically closer or by zooming in using your lens. Both will affect the image in different ways.
‘Zooming with your feet’ refers to the act of moving closer to your subject while keeping the same focal length. This way, the background isn’t compressed, and you don't lose part of the image from view as you zoom in.
You can see this principle in action by observing the photos below. Both subjects appear a similar size within the frame even though they are taken at a completely different focal lengths.
Physically moving closer to the subject above creates a dramatic image that separates her from the background and exaggerates depth. In contrast with the image below, zooming in from a distance crops and blurs the background.
Similarly, you can create an interesting image by walking further away from the subject, rather than zooming out. This way, you get a longer focal length, as seen in the two images below.
Being closer to the trees with a shorter focal length means the background is much further away, as opposed to zooming in from further away.
Try moving closer to your subject rather than zooming and vice versa to see what looks best for your image.
06. Experiment with your image composition
The more you experiment with your lens, the more you get to understand its full potential. Try to push its capabilities (and your creativity) by using it to capture unique photo compositions.
For example, shooting a subject in the woods with a wide-angle lens allows you to tell a story using the surroundings.
Zooming in through the gaps in the foliage of a tree can be used to compose a portrait. The compressed perspective creates a uniquely intimate vignette effect.
On the other hand, getting low and snapping an extreme close-up (or macro shot) from the perspective of the forest floor adds drama and atmosphere.
It doesn’t matter if you only have one lens. With practice and an understanding of the endless possibilities, you’ll be creating original and dynamic images in no time.
As I discovered when my favorite lens was destroyed in the line of duty, my other lenses were more than capable of creating the images I was after. Sometimes, I had to work harder to get the image I wanted, but in the end, what I came away with usually turned out better because it took more effort. Not having access to my go-to lens, my images were generally more original. Now each and every lens I own has become my second, third, and fourth set of eyes.