It takes more than great equipment to make a great image. You need artistry, skill, and often a bit of luck. But having the right gear is an important part of the equation.
I get a lot of questions about what’s in my camera bag. Here’s a look at three zoom lenses that are critical to the work I do in the field. They are not the only lenses I use — in fact, I have a special love for fixed-length primes, which I’ll talk about in a future post — but when I’m on assignment, shooting events, or doing spot news coverage, chances are that one of the following three lenses is mounted on my camera.
Canon 16-35mm f/2.8 L II. Wide-angle lenses are challenging to work with. They require a sophisticated understanding of composition compared to standard lenses. It has taken me time to learn how to shoot wide — and to develop the confidence to get really close to the action. But this lens is a joy to use and has produced some of my all-time best images. Of the three lenses listed here, it’s the softest and produces the highest degree of distortion, especially in the corners. Doesn’t matter. It’s a rock-solid performer, one that produces consistently excellent results, images draw you in with their rich detail and stunning colors. Aside from the versatile zoom range, two things I especially like about this lens are 1) its relatively light weight (about one and a half pounds with UV filter, caps and hood), and 2) its incredible sunstar effects when stopped down (a function of its having just 7, rather than the usual 8 or 9, diaphragm blades) which means I can shoot directly into the sun, for example, or make sparkling long-exposures after dark.
Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 L II. Canon released this lens in late 2012, replacing the original 24-70mm f/2.8 L, which I had carried around in my bag for about 8 years. While that lens was incredibly rugged and dependable, it was never much fun to use. In fact, even though it was probably the lens I used the most, it was the one I loved the least. When Canon came out with the new version, I had mixed feelings. It cost a fortune, for one thing. How could I justify spending so much on a lens that seemed so, well, plain and ordinary? But every review I read made it clear that the new 24-70mm was in a class of its own. And the image comparisons between the old and new versions made the choice obvious. I’ve now had the lens for more than three years and I can safely say that it’s the most versatile and optically superior piece of glass I own. It works for everything from product shots to press conferences to portrait shoots, producing rich, pleasing images that almost always impress with their clarity and detail. Whenever I’m limited to working with a single lens, this is always my first choice.
Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 L. Just about every photojournalist worth his or her salt carries a 70-200mm telephoto lens. It’s just hard to manage an assignment without it. Over the past decade, my 70-200mm f/2.8 L lens has gone with me almost everywhere. It’s heavy, weighing in at well over 3 pounds with the UV filter, caps and hood (not to mention the weighty tripod collar). But there’s no replacement when it comes to shooting concerts, lectures, plays, and other events where you need a close-up or a little extra reach. The power of the 200mm focal length is that it compresses distance, making it ideal for compositions that bring together multiple elements in the frame, making them appear closer to each other than they really are. Shot wide open, the 70-200mm can also help separate a subject from its background, making it perfectly suited for long portrait work. It has a very flattering effect on the human face and tends to produce beautifully out-of-focus backgrounds. It used to be my go-to portrait lens. But in recent years I’ve shifted toward shorter focal lengths which force you to get closer to your subject and therfore create more intimate images. The most common version of the lens has image stabilization, but I prefer the one without. I still have a steady hand and like the reduced weight of the non-stabilized version.
In addition to these three zooms, I have a collection of other lenses that serve a variety of special purposes, from a 15mm fisheye and a 35mm f/1.4 to a 85mm f/1.2 and 135mm f/2. More on these in a future post.
Like many photographers, I fantasize about owning other lenses. But the reality is that I already have more gear than I can carry in most situations. And when I need something in particular — such as a 400mm f/2.8 to shoot, say, a concert — I simply rent it.