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Photography Techniques - The Single Lens Approach

written by Greg Cope

My photo bag is often stuffed with gear, from memory cards, to extra batteries, flash, filters, and of course - lenses. More often than not I find myself carrying at the very least three lenses that span the spectrum, from wide angle to telephoto. Yet when presented with a scene I often gravitate towards the most appropriate lens - for instance a telephoto lens for wildlife or a wide angle lens for landscapes.

After several years of photographing beaches along the california coast I felt my images were becoming stale - be it a lack of creativity or a desire to one-up a previous image - I felt my photos were starting to all look the same. This feeling was reiterated by my wife one evening with a brutally honest critique: "didn't you already take that photo?".

Intent on making a change, I decided to try something a bit different. Rather than packing up my camera bag with all the gear it could carry, I decided to bring along a single lens - in fact a lens that would seem out of the ordinary for the scenario (in this case a 400mm to photograph the sunset). While I'd like to say I came home with a winning image that evening, I did not. What I did come home with however was something more valuable - a spark of creativity. Forcing myself to use a single lens forced me to see a different perspective, forced me to work in a different way, and most importantly forced me to see the landscape differently.

While using a single lens may not always be the most appropriate technique for every situation, I have found it invaluable to help stear me out of "writer's block" scenarios. My camera lenses of choice include a 400mm and 50mm - both fixed width so that I am not tempted to adjust what I see with a zoom. I have found the 400mm - when used in a landscape scenario is quite interesting. While it typically produces few usable images in this context, it forces me to think that much more outside the box in ways I might not ever have thought of otherwise.

Beyond the Single Lens

sea foam bubbles along the coast

An image taken while forcing myself to exclusively photograph the ground.

Forcing oneself to use a single camera lens is but one technique to try and see from a different perspective*. Other techniques can include forcing yourself to photograph a single color, a single subject, or a distinct camera angle. As an example, one evening I forced myself to exclusively point my camera at the ground - no horizon for me that evening. It was an interesting exercise searching for something, anything to work with. I had a blast, and a different perspective rewarded me with images I might have never have thought about of without the different approach.

One may require some self-control to stick to the single lens plan. I have often had the desire to stick to the plan, only to revoke that plan as the conditions changed (it can be difficult to hold a 400mm lens when the sky is lit up in flames from horizon to horizon). I have found it helpful to give oneself some 'outs' - if the sky does this or I see animal X the plan goes out the window. Alternatively, one can limit their use of these techniques to times when the alternatives aren't available - no animals, no sunset, or no light to photograph.

For questions or comments on this article, please contact Greg Cope.

*I do find it ironic - perhaps counterintuitive - in the sense that restricting my capabilities does the opposite to my creativity.