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
I recently updated my equipment page — see What’s in the Camera Bag? — and it struck me that I had given short shrift to one of my most cherished pieces of equipment, the 50mm f/1.4. This is a lens that I don’t often use in my professional work but that nevertheless serves as a wonderful all-purpose everyday lens. In fact, I consider it essential to my photography 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 ten years 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 lens 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 simply the best 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.
Arts Illustrated is a beautiful journal devoted to art, photography and graphic design. I was delighted and honored when the editors contacted me some months ago asking if they could feature a selection of my photographs along with an interview. The issue is now out and it features a full 12 pages of my photos, along with an interview in which I talk about my journey as a photographer, my sources of inspiration, and of course what it’s like to shoot at Burning Man. Here’s a short excerpt from the Q&A:
Burning Man appears to be a very seductive and transformative place.
Yes, there is a sense when you arrive at Burning Man that you’re stepping out of one dimension and into another one — one teeming with possibility, suffused with beauty, and replete with freedoms that we don’t have in our everyday lives.
The rules and conventions of ordinary life simply don’t apply the same way. At Burning Man, you are whatever you happen to be doing or creating. So you can reinvent yourself in whatever guise you like. You can try on new identies and explore new modes of expression.
I have a friend who embodies a different character each day throughout the event. Like an actor, he doesn’t break character all week. Each character has its own personality, its own history, its own outfit. Some of his creations are extremely elaborate. He spends months planning it all down to the last detail.
As a photographer what appeals to you most and as an artist what do you connect with the most?
As a photographer, I feel that our culture is already heavily saturated with imagery. We see hundreds if not thousands of images every day. They flicker by in an unending stream and we barely stop to take notice. This means that it’s very difficult as a photographer to make an impact, to touch people and say something new, with a single image.
I don’t know of any good way around this problem. But as a photographer I’m always looking for moments that contain some element of the unexpected. I think those have a greater chance of speaking to people. The most powerful photographs, I believe, are those that surprise you and perhaps awaken in you a sense of possibility.
Burning Man is a wonderful place to make such images because things are never quite what they seem there. The foreign and the familiar are always coming together in arresting ways.
Some of the images from Burning Man make it appear like a very surreal place.
The word surreal is apt because there is always a sense at Burning Man that what you’re seeing is not quite real. A sixteenth-century Spanish galleon gliding across the desert floor. A group of bankers in dusty outfits holding umbrellas and briefcases. An old country church tipped on its axis, like a mouse-trap.
The Surrealist movement a century ago was a subversive attempt to redefine art and literature by erasing the line between dream and reality. The Surrealists sought to disrupt our habitual ways of seeing the world by juxtaposing contradictory images and bringing together seemingly unrelated frames of reference.
Like much of the art and writing from the Surrealist period, what you see at Burning Man can be startling, witty, unconventional, and, in some deep sense, eye-opening.
How easy or difficult is it to capture people and get them to participate in your visual chronicle?
It has gotten easier over the years as my confidence has grown. In the beginning, I was wary of getting too close to my subjects. My training as a journalist had emphasized objectivity — the idea that you must faithfully record events and document people’s lives but without interfering or affecting them in any significant way.
This ethos may work well for photojournalists covering the news. But it doesn’t work at Burning Man. In fact, it violates one of the essential principles of the event — the notion that each of us is a participant rather than a spectator.
To participate fully meant that I had to step out from behind the lens and create images, not stand by and wait for something interesting to happen. So I’ve adopted a more participatory approach over the years. My best images now come from working with people to create images that can stand on their own. It’s more collaborative, more creative, and a lot more enriching.
When you shoot for stock agencies, you never know where your images are going to turn up. A friend of mine contacted me a few days ago, saying that one of my photos just appeared in Dagens Nyheter, Sweden’s leading daily newspaper. It was a rather unremarkable red carpet photo of actress Jennifer Lawrence that I had taken some months ago.
What was poignant about this particular photo credit was that Dagens Nyheter was where I first broke into print. I was a teenager living in Stockholm in the early 1980s. The newspaper ran a short commentary of mine about a city landmark—Kulturhuset—that I happened to love. To say that I was happy to see my name in print would be an understatement. It was one of the biggest thrills of my life!
Some years prior to that, one of my mother’s friends, a reporter at Dagens Nyheter, had given me a personal tour of the newsroom. The experience set its mark on my young and impressionable psyche and nurtured my passion to become a journalist.
That was more than thirty years ago. I don’t feel that same rush of excitement when I see my name in print anymore. But for whatever reason, getting published in Dagens Nyheter still feels a little bit special. Like returning to an alma mater or revisiting a childhood home.
It helps me remember where I first set out on this long and strange professional journey and, more importantly, take stock of the many places I still want to go.
I received a note from a young photographer. She said she’s considering returning to school to get a degree in photography. Did I have any advice for her? Here’s my reply:
I studied photography in college and learned some valuable things. But the best education is the one I gained in the field.
I’ve always had doubts about the value of photography school. My sense is that there are better—and cheaper—ways to learn and develop your craft. And today a photography degree no longer brings any guarantees or opens any special doors.
In fact, I’ve been saddened by the many requests I’ve received from photographers with degrees from expensive trade schools who want to intern with me. The time for an internship, it seems to me, is before you enroll in a degree program, not after.
The great Henri Cartier-Bresson once said that you have to take 10,000 images before you find yourself as a photographer. And Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers, says the general consensus is it takes 10,000 hours—about 20 hours a week for 10 years—to develop true mastery in a given field.
Both of these observations hold true whether you’re in school earning a credential or out in the field making pictures. So why not skip the degree?
Most of what you can learn in college, you can also learn just as effectively through books, online courses, and weekend workshops. To say nothing of good mentors.
One more thing. Too many people who go to school think that graduating means they are done with their education. The degree gives them the illusion they know everything they need to know. But we can never stop learning, any more than we can reach the limit of our creative capacities. People who are self-taught seem to understand this intuitively.
My best advice to you is:
- Volunteer/intern with an established photographer that you like and respect (or simply ask to follow him or her around in the course of a day’s work)
- Start a clippings file (or folder on the computer) with work that inspires you and blows your mind and then try to recreate some of those images in your own style
- Share your work with other photographers and solicit constructive feedback (and always take “likes” and other forms of positive feedback on social networks like Facebook and Flickr with a grain of salt)
- Spend time every day shooting for no other purpose than to have fun and experiment