Three Essential Zooms


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.

canon16-35Canon 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.

canon24-70Canon 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.

canon70-200Canon 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.

Burning Man 2015

Burning Man 2015 Photos by Scott London

Burning Man 2015 will be remembered for the wind, the dust, and the unseasonably chilly temperatures. But it was also a year of first-rate art installations, stunning fire performances, startling art cars, burning pianos flying through the air, and much else besides. It was my 4th year covering the event for Rolling Stone and if you head over to their site you’ll find about 20 images of mine gathered under the heading, See Trippy, Surreal Photos From Burning Man 2015. Some of the same images also appear here (but without the pesky ads!), along with about 80 others that try to capture something of the art, the people, and the performances from an all-around incredible week.

View photos

Pocko Times

The Pocko Times features Scott London's photographs of Burning Man

This week, the Pocko Times is showcasing my Burning Man photographs in a special feature that includes more than 30 photos and an extended interview about the project.

The Pocko Times began as a large format print magazine devoted to art, photography and ideas. It has now evolved into what they describe as “a curated platform of innovative ideas and artist endeavours” — an online platform of sorts showcasing talented individuals with a unique perspective about the world through their work.

It was a delight and an honor to to be profiled. You can read the interview and see the photos here:

Instagram Takeover

Over the next week, I’ll be taking over the Instagram feed for Color Services, a wonderful photo lab I’ve been working with for over 10 years now. Not exactly “taking over,” more like guest hosting. They’ve invited me to share some of my favorite images from the past few years, along with some new stuff. If you’re on Instagram, I hope you can follow along: @colorservices

UPDATE (July 31, 2015):

Thanks to Gabe, Glen, Linda and the rest of the team at Color Services for letting me take the reins for a week. To read their blog entry about the takeover and see some of the photos that I posted, head over to the Color Services Blog.

The 50mm, My First Love

Canon 50mm f/1.4

Canon’s 50mm f/1.4 lens is one that I don’t often use in my professional work but nevertheless serves as a wonderful all-purpose everyday lens. It’s one of my most cherished pieces of equipment. In fact, I consider it essential and rarely leave home without it.

My love affair with the 50mm f/1.4 traces back to my earliest days as a photographer. The first camera I ever owned, a Pentax MV-1, came with a 50mm f/1.4 attached. For years it was the only lens I ever used.

As almost any photographer will tell you, the 50mm focal length represents a “normal” field of view on a 35mm film camera or full-frame digital SLR. It’s very close to how the human eye takes in the world. A 50mm is not exactly wide, but often wide enough if you take a step back. It’s not long, but long enough for most kinds of shooting—and certainly for making portraits.

When I bought my first digital SLR, I picked up a Canon 50mm f/1.4 to go with it. That was more than a decade ago and I still use the lens all the time.

Canon makes the the very same 50mm today, and it still sells for under $400. In the often pricey world of digital photography, I consider that a bargain. And, as I’ll explain in a moment, if you’re considering a 50mm this might be an especially good time to get one.

Meditation Mount in Ojai (50mm, f/5.6, 1/200, ISO 100)

I carry the 50mm around with me almost everywhere I go. It fits on my Canon 6D, just as it used to fit on my original 5D some years ago, and, before that, the 20D and Digital Rebel. Many times it’s the only lens in the bag. For street photography, casual portraits, and just about anything else that catches my eye, it’s an obvious choice.

Let’s be clear, the 50mm f/1.4 is not the best lens in any particular category. But because it does so many things so well, it happens to be one of the most versatile lenses in Canon’s extensive lineup. And because it excels in low-light conditions—from dimly lit rooms to dark concert halls to parties that carry on late into the night—it’s also happens to be one of the most useful lenses for everyday photography.

Fire Fingers (50mm, f/2.2, 1/500, ISO 400)

Among Canon lenses, the 50mm f/1.4 is not the sharpest tool in the shed. But it’s still very sharp, especially stopped down to, say, f/5.6 or f/8.

It doesn’t have the widest aperture and therefore doesn’t let in the most light or create the most dramatic out-of-focus areas. But close enough.

And it doesn’t have the same rugged build quality and smooth and precise auto-focusing that its more expensive counterpart has. But never mind. It’s plenty good.

Here’s the key point: it does all these things while weighing a mere ten ounces, fitting snugly into the palm of your hand, and costing a fraction of what other lenses cost.

Harper the cat (50mm, f/1.4, 1/1250, ISO 100)

I think the days of the big, heavy SLR are over. Cameras are shrinking. Today it simply doesn’t make sense to carry around a camera unless it’s light, compact and portable. Unfortunately, the most versatile zoom lenses are often the biggest and heaviest.

For me, the 50mm f/1.4 is a better alternative in most situations. It’s tiny and it’s light. You can take it anywhere and (provided you have it mounted on a smaller camera like the 6D) be as inconspicuous as ever.

Rumors have been circulating in recent months that Canon is about to revamp its line of 50mm lenses, perhaps doing away with the 50mm f/1.4 altogether. That would be a shame. And it means there might not be a better time to get one if you don’t already own it.