Boring is the new cool

tilthharvestfair_20100911-84I’m excited about my latest photographic equipment acquisition.

Is it a new super-wide-angle lens? The latest full-featured camera body? No, it’s…

A normal lens.

Yes, it’s the most boring of all the lens possibilities – what is sometimes called a “kit lens”. That’s the lens you get when you buy the camera – the assumption being that sooner or later you’ll get bored with its limitations and start buying more interesting lenses. Like telephotos, wide-angles and zooms.

The normal lens is the equivalent of a 50mm lens on an old-school 35mm film SLR camera. It isn’t wide angle. It isn’t telephoto. It doesn’t zoom. It is – or was – “the lens that came with the camera”. Included in the “kit”, hence the term “kit lens”. (Although actually calling a normal lens a “kit lens” is a bit of a misnomer in the present day – most DSLRs now come with an inexpensive zoom lens.)

In my case the lens is a Nikon 35mm f/1.8, which on my D300 (with its smaller APS-C sized sensor), is the equivalent of about a 53mm lens on a 35mm SLR. You can read a nice review of it on Ken Rockwell’s site. It’s cheap – under $200. As a good kit lens should be.

What’s so great about it?

It makes you move

Man, we photographers – which is everyone with a camera – are so lazy. We really do not want to move. With a fixed focal length lens, if your subject doesn’t look good from where you’re standing, you can’t just twist a ring and make it look better. You actually have to move.

Often it isn’t just a matter of moving straight towards your subject or backing straight away. While you’re moving you also have the opportunity to change your angle of approach – crouching down, standing taller, moving left or right. Come on, you’re already moving. Try moving a little more. Hey look – you found a new angle. And it’s better. Fabulous – wasn’t that worth it? Plus you got a really tiny bit of exercise, so maybe you won’t die as soon.

It slows you down and makes you think

Ah, the beauty of digital. No film to buy, and with a big enough card you can shoot 11,000,000 pictures before you run out of space. That works out to 10,999,970 crappy pictures and 30 that are really excellent and worth keeping. Shoot shoot shoot. Crap crap crap. After you’ve been doing this for a while you start to wonder “is it all worth it”? You spend 12 hours sifting through pictures every weekend because it’s just so freakin’ easy to take them.

Not to worry – the sense of futility is just your mind telling you it’s time to make a creative leap. It’s time to stop thinking about “capturing” an image and start thinking about “creating” an image. And anything that can slow you down is a great step in this direction. Manual exposure. Manual focus. And – non-zoom lenses. When you have to think about getting into position, and making the right adjustments, two things happen: you start taking fewer pictures, and you start taking better pictures. Well, eventually you do.

Rubber hits road

So the lens arrived on Friday, and the next day I had a date to visit the Seattle Tilth Harvest Fair with my wife. The Fair is sort of a combination farmer’s market, music festival and go-green event held in a north Seattle park that also includes a demonstration garden. Meaning lots of produce stands, flowers, a few interesting people, some goats, and the chance to move around a lot.



Here are some artichokes. I could have shot this from twice as far away with a zoom lens, but the fixed 35mm made me go in close and get a shot I might not otherwise have been able to get. I think they’re gorgeous.



Got really close for this celery. Had to talk to the stall owner – I didn’t want to be rude and take pictures of her veg without permission. She was happy to share.

One really cool aspect of this lens is the speed – that is, the maximum aperture. This lens is an f/1.8, which means it:

  • Opens up really wide
  • Works great in low light (less need for a tripod)
  • When it’s wide open, it gives a really shallow depth of field. The closer a subject is the more pronounced this shallowness is. At closest focus and wide open, the zone of sharp focus might only be half an inch from near to far. Shallow DOF is awesome – it lets you draw the user’s eye to certain elements while throwing others out of focus. Like these:

Old toy truck at Bill the Butcher's

Old toy truck at Bill the Butcher's



You can see the full slideshow here.

While this lens may be boring, I’m thrilled with it, and with the way it’s making me think a little differently about how I take pictures. And I’m looking forward to it kicking my butt into actually moving. A little.

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