35mm Lens Photography: the Selective Reality

I picked up 35mm lens photography 7 years after my first click of a camera shutter button. I remember vividly the day I saved up and bought my first ‘proper’ DSLR, a Canon 1000D from a shop 45 minutes drive away from where I live. Everything about the camera seemed so perfect: the grip, the curves, the dials and buttons and especially a large zoom lens that covers everything from wide angle to telephoto focal lengths. I presume enthusiast photographers all go through similar paths: taking photos of little flowers on the side of roads, macro photographs of birds and insects (my favourite close-up shot is a water dragon sunbathing on a rock), portraits of friends and family, architecture and landscape. Over the years I lost my Canon to a burglar and subsequently experimented with Pentax, Sony, Nikon, Fujifilm and Ricoh cameras. When travelling I always take my full frame DLSR with me wherever I go with a 28mm – 105mm travel lens. My photos get 30 seconds of fame on Flicker, Instagram, 500px alike, which inspired me to make them closer and closer to magazine covers: ‘just a bit more pixels, add on the unique film effect, a little more saturation and contrast, maybe some dark edges to make the centre subject pop!’

Then one day when I flicked through my ‘processed and uploaded’ photos, a terrifying idea came into my mind: although I do see the improvement of both my technique and the quality of photos due to better equipment, the photos that represent my pride and joy are no different to a random collection of stock photos: they all have nice color saturation, contrast, sometimes ‘artistic’ choice of white balance, a few low key moody shots, a couple of black and whites. Most of all, my photos were all about objects and people that are perfectly beautiful themselves, regardless if I took the shot or not. I asked myself, what was the objective of photography other than documenting reality and my whereabouts? Unfortunately, when I was trying to pick my ‘profile’ photos, the ones with highest ‘likes’ on social media are all about beautiful subjects, but not the relationship they had with me when I took the photo.

35mn Lens: the Selective Reality

Photo Credit: Vivian Maier October 31, 1954. New York, NY

If you are like me, someone who takes photography serious enough (or at least I think that way), we eventually outgrow the online popularity contest and discover what I believe sets a fine art photographer apart from the rest: the ability to relate ourselves to the world that is personal to us and present viewers the selective reality we chose to show.

I found the answer when I started to collect and use Pentax prime lenses. The distinctive ‘classic’ 31mm, 43mm and 77mm prime lenses felt a little hard to get used to in the first place for someone who started photography on zoom lenses. In contrast to the ‘pleasing’ zoom lenses, The prime lenses are no longer negotiable which forces me to do walk in order to find my scene. I am no longer the master that dictates every possible thing I can include in a photo. Suddenly the glass is more ‘selective’ than I am. Composition no longer starts with a centrepiece in mind, followed by deciding how much of ‘everything else’ to include in the frame. Rather, it is about finding the hidden frame in the view in front of me: the photo is already there, you just need to exclude everything that is not part of it.

Interestingly enough the selective nature of prime lenses also reminded me to de-clutter the soon-to-be uncontrollable ‘creative tools’ everyone has from the ultra-wide zooming ranges to countless filters and presets. Again I learnt to restrict myself from these choices and settle down into a fixed, almost stubborn relationship between the photographer and the subject, defined firmly by the focal length of my choice, 35mm. After shooting with the prime lenses for over 6 months, I seem to find the selective reality I was looking for.

Today I shoot almost exclusively with a Ricoh GR, cropped to 35mm equivalent focal length (I sometimes shoot 28mm and crop later). I do not limit my shots to black and white, but I am very selective in post-processing. In fact, I would shoot directly using the in-camera jpeg format. Relying on the style presets within the GR II, I only do minimum exposure adjustment and cropping.

I am reasonably pleased with the style consistency I now enjoy. To me, the visual style is the first layer of one’s selective view of the world. Soon enough when I review my recent photos, I am able to enjoy them as a collection so that it is no longer the case that every individual photo needs to be outstanding on its own. Instead, collectively a series of photos with consistent style and personality will carry so much emotion and energy that outweighs the message a single photo or a group of individual subjects would have. Is this art I am creating?

A 35mm prime lens allows one to see the world the same way we see a theatre stage, that’s why movies are shot with this focal length. With a 60 degrees diagonal angle of view, there are enough environmental elements in the photo so as not to isolate the subject on this own. At the same time, the 35mm focal length is close enough to provide a clear differentiation of ‘main’ subjects and ‘supporting’ subjects. There is proximity for the audience to feel the emotion of the ‘lead actors’ yet it still leaves comfortable room to set the scene to make the emotion reasonable. 35mm lens is the photography language of a storyteller. 35mm lens is not about the beauty of the wings of a blue Morpho butterfly or a spectacular sunset over the horizon. Instead, it is sympathetic of humans, it records us and nothing that dwarfs us in size or emotion. A 35mm lens is a medium that relates the photographer to the world out there and projects our emotion to add a tint to the reality.

For everyone else

One word of warning: The 35mm prime lens is not for everyone. The vast majority of camera owners are happy to capture beautiful things and rare encounters: the sunset, a lovely lady, stunning architectures and exotic destinations. If this is you, then you are, to me, a true documentary photographer. There is nothing wrong with showing the world the beauty. Sometimes you don’t even realise until much later that the documentary photos carry your precious personal style in it. Actually, I greatly respect the length landscape photographers go just to witness a few minutes of such beauty. If this is you, your lens choice would be determined mainly by the size, distance and speed of your subject. A simple starting point that fits the bill, just like what I really enjoyed using when travelling, is a 28mm to 105mm equivalent standard zoom lens.

and you?

If you have decided to acquire or put on a 35mm prime lens tomorrow, congratulations, this website is the ‘selective reality’ I create for you.

My other photography related thoughts can be found here.

Let’s talk

This is one of my first blogs on this website. Although I am sure it is not the best, you can see why I started this website and blog. Leave me a comment and let me know what you think I’ll be sure to reply. 


6 thoughts on “35mm Lens Photography: the Selective Reality

  1. Sounds like you’ve found your true artistic path by shooting with the 35mm lens. I didn’t know about this fine distinctions.The pictures look gorgeous. I still shoot with my old Canon EOS 30D occasionally.

    1. Hi Felix, EOS 30D is a great camera. Hopefully, the photos and articles on this website will inspire you to shoot a little more when you get a chance. Thanks for your comment.

  2. I love your article. I have just brought myself a new DSLR with a 200mm. I use it to take photos of my daughter playing AFL. I can really get some great shots from one side of the ground to the other. Thank you for your insight.

    1. Hi Karen, 200mm is a great focal length for shooting sporting events. I am sure you have many amazing photos of your daughter playing footy! 200mm is also great if you wish to photograph wild animals. I have a friend who is fond of taking photos of birds. If you ever feel adventurous, try using a 35mm lens and take photos of places and people around you. They will make great memories years later.

Leave a Reply to Eric Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *