How Large is the Moon in a Photograph?

During the early morning of Saturday, 28 July, 2018, a special celestial event was to occur: a total lunar eclipse, resulting in a red moon — one like this:

Red Moon

Red Moon

I captured this particular red moon on 28 August, 2007.  Incidentally, it was the first and last red moon I captured!

For the most recent total lunar eclipse, I planned to rise early and capture the moon.

Unfortunately, due to cloud, I barely caught a glimpse of it, so no images were forthcoming.

The night before, however, I captured some images of the rising full moon in the early evening.

Now, there are different ways of photographing the moon.

Some people like to place the moon in the context of a broader scene, depicting trees, city architecture, animals or people.

Other people like to capture the moon in and of itself, with a view to depicting as much detail as possible.

I have historically fitted into the latter category, and I have photographed the moon numerous times with it being the only subject.

Naturally, when using only DSLR equipment and no telescopes or other space observation equipment, I like to use the longest focal length possible so that the moon in all its glory is more prominent, and therefore larger in dimension.

The maximum focal length I can achieve is 1,120mm by attaching both a 2x tele-converter and a 1.4x tele-converter to my 400mm lens.

People often wonder which focal lengths to use for capturing the moon.

Which focal length to use depends on the kind of image desired.  In my case, I want as long a focal length as possible.

Once a focal length has been decided, the next question is as follows:

How large will the moon appear in my image?

The answer is that it depends on several factors; namely:

  1. the focal length;
  2. whether the camera is a full-frame, APS-C or APS-H model (the latter two of which crop the view a full-frame lens natively provides on a full-frame camera); and
  3. the distance between the moon and the earth.

The short answer is that the moon is not very large relative to the frame.

If an APS-C camera is used, there is a distinct advantage, as the moon will appear larger relative to the frame than it would when captured with a full-frame camera.

In my case, I have only full-frame DSLR cameras.

Today I decided to explore and compare the size of the moon relative to my camera’s frame size, when shot at different focal lengths.

The night before the total lunar eclipse, I went outside to capture some test images.  I happened to capture images at both 1,120mm and 800mm.

Both focal lengths are considered extreme super-telephoto focal lengths in the DSLR world, but there is a surprising difference between them.

In both cases, the moon is not very large, relative to the frame.

I use a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, which produces a native image size of 6,720 x 4,480px (30,105,600px).

Let us take a look at how many times the moon can fit into that frame size when captured at the two focal lengths I used.

This is an image measuring 6,720 x 4,480px (the exact image dimensions a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV produces), depicting the size of a full moon relative to the size of the frame.

Moon Captured with Canon EOS 5D Mark IV at 1,120mm

Moon Captured with Canon EOS 5D Mark IV at 1,120mm

The full moon was captured in Sydney on 27/07/2018 at 17:50:13, using a focal length of 1,120mm.

The moon, when captured at 1,120mm at this particular time, measures approximately 1,751 x 1,741px (3,048,491px).

With a frame size of 6,720 x 4,480px (30,105,600px), this means that the moon occupies approximately 10.1% of the frame.

Equipment used:

This is an image measuring 6,720 x 4,480px (the exact image dimensions a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV produces), depicting the size of a full moon relative to the size of the frame.

Moon Captured with Canon EOS 5D Mark IV at 800mm

Moon Captured with Canon EOS 5D Mark IV at 800mm

The full moon was captured in Sydney on 27/07/2018 at 17:54:19, using a focal length of 800mm.

The moon, when captured at 800mm at this particular time, measures approximately 1,267 x 1,258px (1,593,886px).

With a frame size of 6,720 x 4,480px (30,105,600px), this means that the moon occupies approximately 5.3% of the frame.

Equipment used:

As can be seen, despite using long focal lengths on a full-frame DSLR, the moon is still relatively small within the frame.

Here are those key figures again:

  • 1,120mm: 10.1% frame coverage
  • 800mm: 5.3% frame coverage

In this case, the size of the moon nearly doubled with the use of a longer focal length, despite that focal length not being twice the size of the shiorter focal length.

It is not quite an exact science, particularly when considering that the image shot with the 800mm focal length was captured just over four minutes later, by which time the moon had risen marginally higher; but it is a substantial difference.

In both cases, while the moon does not dominate the frame, it is certainly large enough to show very pleasing details.

Photographers desiring even more prominence and detail would be likely to attach the camera to a telescope, but if, like myself, a photographer does not have a telescope, but does have long focal lengths, a very pleasing result is certainly possible.

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Autumn Adventures in Mount Wilson

Mount Wilson, in the Blue Mountains to the west of Sydney, is a wonderful location for landscape photography.  Its specific appeal is the rich colours of the leaves during autumn, and many photographers venture to Mount Wilson to capture these colours.

The quiet little mountain township had been on my never-ending list of photography locations/subjects, and it was a place which required autumn weather for the kind of images I wanted to capture.

I missed the opportunity in 2017, so I was determined not to miss the opportunity in 2018.

I had been following and participating in an online discussion about locations in Sydney at which to photograph the autumn colours, and naturally locations such as Mount Wilson and other parts of the Blue Mountains entered the discussion.

There was a specific image I wanted to create.  A few years ago on Instagram, I had seen a fantastic image of a stone staircase in Breenhold Gardens, captured by landscape photographer Kalan Robb, whom I follow on various sites.  The image was rich with colour and atmosphere, and I wanted to create that kind of image.

Through following the online discussion, in which a few people who lived in the mountains (or had visited) reported on conditions, I had a good idea about when would be a good time to visit.

In the autumn of 2018, the cool change came quite late, as there had been unusually warm temperatures.  Usually mid-to-late April is a good time to capture the autumn colours, but the temperatures did not drop until early-to-mid May, resulting in late development of the colour of the leaves.

We happened to be going away to the Blue Mountains on the weekend of 12-13 May, 2018, and as the time for photographing Mount Wilson‘s autumn colours is very limited, a visit to this location was a must.

We departed early in the morning to get to Mount Wilson for two reasons: to capture the location in good light; and to avoid the crowds of day-trippers who would descend upon the area as the morning wore on.

We entered Breenhold Gardens, and wandered around.  I photographed a few locations, with one of my earlier images capturing Socrates Garden.

Socrates Garden

Socrates Garden

Socrates Garden is a tranquil enclosure within Breenhold Gardens.

High on my agenda was a visit to Laburnum Steps, which was the feature I specifically wanted to photograph.  We procured a map and made our way to the steps.

Armed with my tripod, camera and 14mm lens, I went about my particular routine of setting up my gear and composition.

Here is one of the images I captured:

Laburnum Steps

Laburnum Steps

I was fortunate to see some stunning autumnal colours, but based on other images I have seen, it did not look like it had reached the intensity exhibited during colder years.

The rich red colour of the Japanese maples was present, and there were leaves scattered around on the steps and the dirt path perpendicular to the steps.

In the distance was a mix of greens, oranges and yellows, so it was a smörgåsbord of colour.

I was quite happy with this image, but I felt that I had not captured this location at its best.

In an earlier shot, I moved closer to the steps and shot an image in portrait orientation.  Here is the result:

Mount Wilson in Autumn

Mount Wilson in Autumn

Here, the orange ands red colours of the fallen Japanese maple leaves can be seen more prominently, and the viewer’s eye is led up the winding staircase into the distance.

Incidentally, I have never actually climbed that staircase, or even set foot on it!

From that brief visit, I came away with at least two pleasing images, plus a number of other images I captured at different locations within Breenhold Gardens.  I should re-visit those images and see if there is something worth publishing.

However, my work was not complete.  I did not feel that the autumnal weather conditions had peaked, and with Kalan’s image in my mind, I knew I had to return.

On our way out of Breenhold Gardens, we met one of the managers of the gardens, who lives on site, and often stands at the entrance, meeting and greeting visitors.

I spoke with her for a few minutes, telling her of my interest in the colours, and of being there early in the morning.  She said that she could allow me earlier access.  Normally the opening time is 10am, which is too late for moody photography, and too late if peace and quiet is what one seeks.

She told me that the following weekend would be the best time to visit, as the conditions would very soon deteriorate.  Heeding her advice, I contacted her later that weekend and made arrangements to gain access at dawn.

So, on the following weekend, we headed back to Breenhold Gardens, even earlier, arriving just before dawn.  I wanted to be ready to capture Laburnum Steps in great conditions.

Through the darkness, we took the short walk to the steps, where I again went through my fussy ritual of setting up my composition and waiting for the right light.

This time, I opted to shoot with my 24mm lens.  I felt that 14mm was too wide to feature the steps prominently enough, and I wanted a different image of the same subject.

On this morning, I found that the light was flatter and more subdued.  We were there earlier, and due to the mountainous location, the warm morning light falls upon the scene much later, by which time it is too late for serious photography, as all of the day-trippers have crowded the scene.

We were there for the better part of an hour, waiting for the light to change.  I realised that the sun would not hit the steps and foliage until much later, and continued shooting.

Here is one of the earlier images I captured during that morning:

Laburnum Steps Revisited

Laburnum Steps Revisited

The flatter nature of the light can be seen in this image.  This image was captured at 6:47am, whereas my image from the previous weekend had been captured at 9:37am — nearly three hours later.

What was also noticeable is that the colour had not dramatically intensified, and the number of leaves on the steps and surrounding areas had not really increased.

I was somewhat disappointed that the conditions had not improved much within a week.

As was the case during the previous visit, I also shot a vertical composition.

Enchanting

Enchanting

I shot a few more compositions of Laburnum Steps before I decided to wrap up and head off to find some other locations in Mount Wilson.

Only a few metres away from Laburnum Steps is another set of steps called Acer Steps.  In fact, descending this staircase is one of three ways of accessing Laburnum Steps, and it was the route we took on both visits.

Heading back up Acer Steps, I noticed that the backlighting of the scene worked very well with the Japanese maple whose canopy shelters the steps.  The light and the intense colour instantly attracted me, so I scrambled to set up for another shot.

I struggled to compose (which is not a problem I usually have), and moved the tripod a matter of inches here and there (and sometimes even greater distances) to try and get the best composition from a tricky scene.  I was trying to avoid some distracting elements being positioned too close to the edges, while also prominently featuring the backlit red leaves, and avoiding any direct light from the still-rising sun.

After much fussing around and making of micro-adjustments, here is the image I eventually captured:

Acer Steps

Acer Steps

After this shot, we headed to Church Lane, where I found this charming entrance to a property containing the Koonawarra guest house, located in Dennarque Estate.

Entrance to Dennarque Estate

Entrance to Dennarque Estate

The rich reds and oranges in the distant trees looked radiant in the warmth of the morning light.

Church Lane itself can look fantastic in autumn, but it needs the right conditions, and there is the problem of power poles, power lines and parked cars polluting an otherwise quaint scene.

After shooting this image, we went looking for the chestnut picking farms, for which we had seen signs the week before.  Unfortunately there was no sign of any chestnut picking opportunities in the area, so I found one more spot to photograph before we headed home.

Along Waterfall Road, there are some picnic tables, and I focused my lens on one of them while a group of tourists/photographers engaged in some frivolity and portraiture not far from where I was shooting.

Breakfast Stop

Breakfast Stop

This spot would make a great location for breakfast in the crisp, autumn air.

Having captured what I decided was my final image for this visit and for this year, we headed back home.

It was an interesting couple of visits to Mount Wilson.  There is a lot to photograph, and I came away with some key learnings.

Firstly, it really is a location best photographed in autumn.  The conditions can make or break an image.  While I had some nice conditions, there was still something lacking.

Mount Wilson contains many locations to photograph, but some can be deceptive in photographic appearance.  For example, the quaint Church Lane actually contains ugly power poles along it, which detracts from the look and feel of the street.

Some locations simply look better when viewed with one’s own eyes, and producing a pleasing image which captures the essence of the place is not a simple matter of plonking down a tripod and pointing the camera at what looks good without a camera.

A location such as Mount Wilson really warrants planning, in terms of the specific location, time of day, and weather.  Of course, not everything is necessarily controllable.  Sometimes it is a matter of luck, particularly when coming from a place where the weather can be quite different.

Mount Wilson is a location which needs more than one visit (or even two visits) to do it justice.  I am sure I will head back there again next autumn, but unless the conditions I seek all align serendipitously, I do not think I can achieve a better image of Laburnum Steps.  What I captured  is as good as I can get unless a specific set of conditions exists.

On that note, Kalan Robb happened to be a member of the site on which the online discussion about autumn photography was taking place, and joined in the discussion.  I suspect it came to his attention because I had mentioned him there and provided a link to his excellent article on photography in Mount Wilson.

About his image of Laburnum Steps — the image which was my source of inspiration — he provided some insight into it.

Firstly, he does process his images quite differently to the way I process mine, which I suspected, and which he confirmed.  His processing is more intense, but effective.

What was more important was the conditions, which he said made up for 70% of the result.

He shot his images in 2015, during whose autumn it got colder much faster than what I had experienced.  Crucially, it was wet at the time.  On that morning, he explained, it had been raining steadily, which produced the misty glow.

What my images lacked was wetness and mist.  It simply had not rained and was not cold enough to produce those highly atmospheric conditions I wanted.

Kalan explained that the abundance of leaves on the ground was due to heavy rain and wind the day before.  My deduction is that while many of the leaves had fallen from the trees, they had not been blown away; and that the rain-soaked ground may have played a significant part in keeping them in place.

So, there is some insight into the conditions.  These conditions would have been perfect for my desires, but on both visits, it was not to be.  It could take me years to encounter conditions like that, and it may simply never happen.

What I do have is a chance, so I will return next autumn and see what I encounter.  There is more work to be done at Mount Wilson.

Canon’s Big White 200mm Primes Compared

Introduction

People who are familiar with Canon’s EF telephoto lenses may know that over the years, Canon has offered two wide-aperture, fast-for-focal-length 200mm prime lenses:

  1. Canon EF 200mm f/1.8L USM; and
  2. Canon EF 200mm f/2L IS USM.

Firstly, here is a view of these two wonderful lenses side-by-side:

Canon EF 200mm Prime Lenses Side-by-Side

Canon EF 200mm Prime Lenses Side-by-Side

The Canon EF 200mm f/1.8L USM is a legendary lens, and although it has been discontinued since 2003 or 2004, it remains a desirable and collectible lens, and can be difficult to obtain cheaply, if at all.

For a number of years, Canon did not offer a 200mm prime lens faster than f/2.8, until the Canon EF 200mm f/2L IS USM was announced in 2008.

I am fortunate enough to have used both of these great white 200s in real-world shooting situations, and I also own one of them.  Friend and fellow photographer David de Groot is the proud owner of a Canon EF 200mm f/1.8L USM, and I am the proud owner of a Canon EF 200mm f/2L IS USM.

My New Canon EF 200mm f/2L IS USM

My New Canon EF 200mm f/2L IS USM

In December of 2017, David and I decided to somewhat scientifically test the two lenses in a semi-controlled environment for the purpose of very simply comparing the resulting image quality of both lenses when shot at their widest individual apertures (f/1.8 and f/2), and when shot at the widest aperture common to both lenses (f/2).

Now, this article is not intended to provide an in-depth, deeply scientific and highly technical evaluation of the two lenses; rather, it is intended to simply show in pictures, and describe from my own perspective as a lens user rather than a lens reviewer, how the two lenses perform at the widest apertures.

I am not going to compare the finer points of image quality, or even discuss the specifications and features of the lenses, as those details are widely published, and are not so relevant for the purpose of this article.

For people who are interested in far more detailed and scientific reviews of these two lenses, I recommend visiting The Digital Picture’s Canon lens reviews.  Bryan Carnathan has owned and reviewed both lenses extensively, and his reviews provide much more detail for those seeking that level of analysis.

At this point, I would like to state that both lenses are sharp wide-open, and produce very similar — and pleasing — results.

While there is a lot of similarity between the results of both lenses, there are also some differences, and in my own opinion, the much newer Canon EF 200mm f/2L IS USM is superior — from a sharpness perspective — to the older Canon EF 200mm f/1.8L USM.

This is not altogether surprising, as there is a considerable age difference between lenses, with the newer lens having the advantage of optical technology advancement in the years between lens releases.

Now, some details about the test environment.

The Testing Process

There was not much to the testing process.  We used a plush toy dinosaur as the subject, placed it outside on the railing of the verandah, and then shot our images from a tripod.

In the distance behind the subject was lush green foliage, which made for a pleasing background.

The subject was a little over three metres from the camera (3.05m, according to the focusing distance data reported by the Canon EF 200mm f/2L IS USM).

Other than the lenses, cameras and perhaps a slight amount of distance changing when the lenses were swapped (due to the varied position of their tripod mounting feet), the only significant change was the ambient light, and composition to a small degree, which is not important for the purpose of comparing image quality.

All of my images were shot in raw mode, using my Canon EOS 5D Mark IV in manual exposure mode.  David captured his images using his Canon EOS-1D X.  In both cases, the images were captured using the conventional on-camera shutter release button, without the use of a countdown timer or the mirror lockup feature enabled.

It is therefore possible that photographer-induced motion (even at minute levels) may have been introduced, which in turn may have affected the results; but it is to be remembered that people photograph human or animal subjects with these lenses in real-world situations, meaning that there is almost always human contact with the camera.

The three images I captured are as follows:

  1. Image 1, shot with the Canon EF 200mm f/1.8L USM at f/1.8;
  2. Image 2, shot with the Canon EF 200mm f/1.8L USM at f/2; and
  3. Image 3, shot with the Canon EF 200mm f/2L IS USM at f/2.

Image Processing

I decided not to apply any post-processing to the images, with the exception of the exposure level.  Due to the ambient light levels varying between shots, the brightness of the images consequently varies, so I adjusted the exposure to bring the three images to the same visual brightness level.

Images 1 and 3 had their exposure increased by a third of a stop (+0.33 in Adobe Camera Raw) to bring the exposure level to the approximate brightness of image 2.

Otherwise, I applied no post-processing to these images beyond simple raw conversion.  I did not adjust any settings or apply any colour profiles; I simply exported the images straight into Photoshop (Adobe Photoshop CC 2018) and saved them as JPGs at the highest quality level (12).

Crucially, I have applied absolutely no sharpening to the images.  What you will see is what the camera captured.  While sharpening is a necessary part of digital image processing (particularly for raw images), what I want to highlight is what the lens is capable of producing, not what Photoshop is capable of producing.

Image 1 – Canon EF 200mm f/1.8L USM at f/1.8

Here is the first image, captured with the Canon EF 200mm f/1.8L USM at f/1.8:

Toy Dinosaur - Canon EF 200mm f/1.8L USM at f/1.8

Toy Dinosaur – Canon EF 200mm f/1.8L USM at f/1.8

Click the image to download the full-size 30.1mp file (6,720 x 4,480px).

Here is a 100% crop of the first image:

Toy Dinosaur - Canon EF 200mm f/1.8L USM at f/1.8 - 2,048px Crop

Toy Dinosaur – Canon EF 200mm f/1.8L USM at f/1.8 – 2,048px Crop

Click the image to download the cropped 2.8mp file (2,048 x 1,365px).

Image 2 – Canon EF 200mm f/1.8L USM at f/2

Here is the second image, captured with the Canon EF 200mm f/1.8L USM at f/2:

Toy Dinosaur - Canon EF 200mm f/1.8L USM at f/2

Toy Dinosaur – Canon EF 200mm f/1.8L USM at f/2

Click the image to download the full-size 30.1mp file (6,720 x 4,480px).

Here is a 100% crop of the second image:

Toy Dinosaur - Canon EF 200mm f/1.8L USM at f/2 - 2,048px Crop

Toy Dinosaur – Canon EF 200mm f/1.8L USM at f/2 – 2,048px Crop

Click the image to download the cropped 2.8mp file (2,048 x 1,365px).

Image 3 – Canon EF 200mm f/2L IS USM at f/2

Here is the third image, captured with the Canon EF 200mm f/2L IS USM at f/2:

Toy Dinosaur - Canon EF 200mm f/2L IS USM at f/2

Toy Dinosaur – Canon EF 200mm f/2L IS USM at f/2

Click the image to download the full-size 30.1mp file (6,720 x 4,480px).

Here is a 100% crop of the third image:

Toy Dinosaur - Canon EF 200mm f/2L IS USM at f/2 - 2,048px Crop

Toy Dinosaur – Canon EF 200mm f/2L IS USM at f/2 – 2,048px Crop

Click the image to download the cropped 2.8mp file (2,048 x 1,365px).

Observations and Conclusions

As I mentioned earlier, both lenses are very sharp.

However, the difference in sharpness between the Canon EF 200mm f/1.8L USM and the Canon EF 200mm f/2L IS USM can be seen when viewing the 30.1mp image at 100% magnification.

It is really necessary to view the images at 100% magnification (rather than the 640px versions presented above) to properly see the differences in sharpness between lenses, and between f/stops on one of the lenses.  Having said that, sharpness variations can still be seen in the 640px versions of the cropped-to-2,048px versions.

When inspecting the full-size image files, look in particular at the catchlight in the toy dinosaur’s eye, which was the focal point in the images.  The sharpness difference can also be seen in the texture of the fabric from which the dinosaur is made.

The Canon EF 200mm f/2L IS USM clearly has the edge, and it is noticeably sharper.

Interestingly, the image shot with the Canon EF 200mm f/1.8L USM at f/1.8 is noticeably sharper than the image shot with the same lens stopped down to f/2.  This may have been due to photographer-induced movement upon depressing the shutter release button, but it is impossible to tell.

I am not too concerned about this difference, as lenses typically become sharper when stopped down.  While I cannot prove it, it is possible that I may have accidentally thrown off the focus by a small amount when composing and capturing the image at f/2, and given that the image captured at f/1.8 is sharper, I will treat this intriguing result as an anomaly, and not representative of the capability of the Canon EF 200mm f/1.8L USM.

One other difference between these two lenses is the colour.  To my eyes, the colour rendered by the Canon EF 200mm f/2L IS USM is more vibrant, and a touch warmer, than the colour rendered by the Canon EF 200mm f/1.8L USM.

The varying light levels may have contributed to this, but when looking at both images captured with the Canon EF 200mm f/1.8L USM, the colours are more subdued.

Now, while the difference in wide-open sharpness is definitely noticeable between lenses, is it enough to make a difference in the real world? That is hard to say, as different people have different expectations and preferences.

In reality, many people, upon seeing images in normal viewing conditions (and without pixel-peeping or wearing a lens reviewer’s hat), may not care to notice the difference, or even be able to tell the difference.

On the other hand, very discerning people, who do analyse lens performance results more critically, would see the differences, and for them, it may make a difference — assuming, of course, that the photographer is in the rather enviable position of having to choose between these two fine lenses.

My view is that while both lenses are sharp and produce stunning results when the photographer does his or her part, the Canon EF 200mm f/2L IS USM clearly has the advantage over its older brother by a noticeable difference.

While I have shown the results of some testing, here are some real-world results.

On two occasions, I photographed a little penguin at a wildlife park.  On the first visit, I used David’s Canon EF 200mm f/1.8L USM, and on the second visit, I used my Canon EF 200mm f/2L IS USM.

Here is the image I captured with the Canon EF 200mm f/1.8L USM:

Checking Out This and That

Checking Out This and That

And here is the image I captured with the Canon EF 200mm f/2L IS USM:

Profile of a Little Penguin

Profile of a Little Penguin

These two images were captured on different days, in different lighting conditions, and with different lenses; but I am pleased with both.  I actually prefer the earlier image captured with the faster lens, as the composition and colour are both more appealing to me.

While my test results reveal that the Canon EF 200mm f/2L IS USM at f/2 is sharper than the Canon EF 200mm f/1.8L USM at both f/1.8 and f/2, my real-world results show that both lenses produce very sharp images, and that the practical differences are minor.

If you happen to be able to own or use either lens, it makes for happy shooting.

Guest Speaker at a Camera Club v3.0

Last year, a good friend of mine, who runs a growing camera club, asked me if I would return for the third occasion as a guest speaker.

I had the honour and privilege of presenting an audio-visual show and talk about light and composition in September of 2017, and in February of 2016, I presented some images and spoke about wildlife photography and our adventures in South Africa and Kenya.

This time, I decided to focus my presentation on seascape photography, which has been one of my major photographic pursuits for over a decade now.

During my time off work over the Christmas and new year period, I re-visited a seascape presentation I had delivered at another camera club in 2010, and revised the content.  I also created a new AV presentation of my favourite and most compelling seascape images, as I had produced my best work after 2010.

My presentation will provide an introduction to this popular form of photography, and will cover topics such as when, where and why to shoot seascapes, considerations such as weather, tides and safety (it can sometimes be a dangerous pursuit); equipment (both photographic and non-photographic), more detail about filters; techniques such as composition, focusing and exposure; and how to capture the image.

There will also be a small show-and-tell, where people can have a look at the equipment I use for my seascape photography.

I was also asked to provide short critiques of the members’ photos produced for the club’s monthly challenge, so I am looking forward to seeing what the members have been shooting, and giving them some good, constructive critique to help them with their journey.

Lenses: Primes vs. Zooms

Introduction

In the photography world, the topic of prime lenses vs. zoom lenses is one of those enduring debates.

As someone who has used both types of lenses extensively over the years, I will offer my views both for and against both types.

Let me preface by saying that I made a conscious choice to use prime lenses only; but before explaining why, this article will examine the strengths and weakness of both lens types.

Photography is all about trade-offs, and it is no different with lenses.

 

Prime Lenses

A prime lens, otherwise known as a fixed focal lens, is a lens which has only one focal length.

 

Advantages of Prime Lenses

Because a prime lens is optically designed for a specific focal length, it is therefore specialised.  It does one thing, and it does that one thing well.

With a prime lens, it can be the case that the optical formula is simpler, and therefore the types of adverse optical effects the optical design needs to counter, are reduced in both number and nature.  The use of less lens elements or groups of lens elements contributes to this ability.

Prime lenses are generally (but not always) sharper than their zoom lens counterparts at equivalent focal lengths.  Depending on the lenses compared, the sharpness difference can be substantial, or barely noticeable.

Zoom lenses have come a long way in recent years, with their sharpness in some cases able to equal or exceed the sharpness of prime lenses at equivalent focal lengths.

Newer lenses may introduce optical designs and lens coating processes which are superior to those of older lenses.

On the other hand, some quite old lenses are legendary for their sharpness despite substantial development as digital photography has become widespread.

Prime lenses tend to be available in wider apertures than zoom lenses, with f/2.8 commonly being the widest aperture in which zoom lenses have been available.  In recent years, zoom lenses have become available with maximum apertures of f/2 and even f/1.8.  Sigma in particular has been at the forefront of lens innovation and breaking of traditional boundaries.

In the Canon EOS/EF product lineup, the lens with the widest aperture ever released was the Canon EF 50mm f/1.0L USM, which has long been discontinued, and which is somewhat rare and expensive, earning it a position as a ‘cult’ lens.  Currently, the widest aperture Canon offers is f/1.2, in both a 50mm lens and an 85mm lens.

Incidentally, despite its cult status, the Canon EF 50mm f/1.0L USM is notoriously soft at f/1, and produces a strange rainbow effect in the bokeh in some situations.  This lens is more desirable for its specifications than its abilities.

In the 1960s, Canon offered an S-mount 50mm f/0.95 lens.

The f/1.4, f/1.8 and f/2 apertures are common maximum apertures amongst prime lenses.

Generally speaking, lenses with very wide or very long focal lengths tend to be somewhat limited in the widest apertures in which they are available.  This limitation is due to physics, in that it requires a lot of glass — particularly with long focal lengths — to produce a lens with a wide aperture.  This increases the optical complexity, production cost, size and weight, all of which are inherently negative attributes from both the manufacturer’s perspective as well as the end user’s perspective.

Because prime lenses are generally available in wider apertures than zoom lenses covering the same focal lengths, this makes them advantageous and desirable on several fronts.

The first benefit is low light ability.  Lenses with wider apertures can more easily capture images in low light.  This means that a faster shutter speed and/or lower ISO sensitivity rating can be used, which has the benefit of hand-holdability and a cleaner image.

The ability to use a faster shutter speed is particularly important when capturing movement — specifically when there is the desire to freeze subject movement.  It is difficult to achieve this objective by using lenses with narrower apertures.  There are ways around this, but there are invariably trade-offs.  Increasing the ISO sensitivity rating increases noise, and using artificial lighting is not always practical or even possible.

The second benefit is bokeh, the Japanese word for the quality of the out-of-focus highlights.

A lens with a wider aperture means that it is possible to achieve a narrower depth of field, which obfuscates the background with pleasing blur, and isolates the subject from the background.  Both effects are visually appealing, particularly for portraiture.

Depth of field is, of course, affected by not only the aperture, but the focal length and the distance between the camera and the subject.  The extent to which the background is blurred is also affected by the distance between the subject and the background.

The third benefit of lenses with wider apertures is the ability to autofocus in low light.  Modern lenses with electronic apertures leave the diaphragm wide open when composing and focusing, and then close it down to the user- or camera-specified f/stop when exposing.

This means that even when shooting at f/11 with an f/1.4 lens, the lens’s aperture is opened to f/1.4 when composing and focusing.  This results in more accurate, reliable autofocus.

One final benefit of prime lenses is a reduction in size and weight, compared to zooms offering the same focal length.

While this can be the case, it is not always the case.

The Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L USM lens is physically large and heavy relative to its focal length.  It is physically longer than the Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM lens, which itself is a monster of a lens, weighing over 1kg.

Other prime lenses are smaller and lighter than the general-purpose zoom lenses which provide the same focal lengths.

So, those are the advantages of prime lenses; but what are the disadvantages?

 

Disadvantages of Prime Lenses

For all the positive benefits prime lenses provide, they also come with some negative attributes.

As discussed in the previous paragraph, prime lenses can be larger and heavier than zoom lenses which provide the same focal lengths.

This is particularly true with longer lenses, such as those offering the 200mm or 300mm focal lengths.  Prime lenses in these focal lengths — even those not offering the widest apertures available in those focal lengths — can be larger and heavier than some zoom lenses which cover those focal lengths, albeit at narrower apertures.

A photographer who makes use of prime lenses may find that the size and weight increases, and this must be considered when travelling, as it does not take much effort to consume a lot of space or exceed airline cabin baggage weight restrictions.  Having carried large and heavy prime lenses to far away destinations, I am all too familiar with these challenges.

Cost is another consideration when using prime lenses instead of zoom lenses.

Some zoom lenses cover a broad range of focal lengths, and to cover a number of those focal lengths with prime lenses can mean not only an increase in the number of lenses one needs, but a higher cost, depending on the specifications of the lenses.

One general-purpose zoom lens can easily cover four, five or even six common focal lengths for which prime lenses are available, in a single package which costs and weighs less than a bag full of primes.

By far the most significant disadvantage of prime lenses is the lack of flexibility to change the framing.  With a prime lens, the only way to change the view of a subject is to move — or change lenses.  In some cases, this is not particularly problematic; but in other cases, there may be circumstances which limit or eliminate the ability to move.

Someone photographing action, such as wildlife, sports or performances, may not have the time to switch lenses.  These subjects are very time-dependent, and a moment missed can never be re-visited.

It may not be possible to move positions to change the view.  When photographing any of those above-mentioned subjects, you may be limited to the very position in which you happen to be, as it is not safe, practical or permissible to move closer to the subject, or further from the subject.  To that end, prime lenses can be quite limiting.

 

Zoom Lenses

A zoom lens, otherwise known as a variable focal lens, is a lens which offers a range of focal lengths, which can be changed by rotating a ring on the lens barrel.

 

Advantages of Zoom Lenses

Zoom lenses offer a number of advantages over prime lenses.

The most significant is the ability to change focal lengths without moving, or changing lenses.  As discussed in the preceding section on prime lenses, sometimes timing may be critical, or the shooting position may be fixed.

If one is shooting a subject which moves, an appropriate focal length can be selected by rotating the zoom ring in either direction to zoom in or out of the scene to achieve an ideal composition.

In addition to the often highly desired ability to change focal lengths easily, is the reduction in size and weight.

One zoom lens can easily cater for the focal lengths of five or six prime lenses.  This means that the size, weight, cost and quantity of lenses is significantly reduced.  In some situations, this can be essential, as well as desirable.

This can be advantageous for someone on a budget, or with limited ability or desire to carry a bag full of lenses.  Convenience is the result.

One other feature zoom lenses offer is the ability to introduce motion blur by zooming during exposure.  Admittedly, in my opinion, it is a gimmicky effect which has limited practical application; but occasionally, if done sparingly and with a suitable subject, the motion blur caused by zooming in or out during exposure can result in an interesting image, which no prime lens can capture.

What zoom lenses offer over primes is predominantly convenience.

Some people do not wish to change lenses, which in my own opinion defeats the purpose of investing in a camera system designed for the ability to change lenses; but in some situations, changing lenses is not practical or sensible.

So, what are the disadvantages of zoom lenses?

 

Disadvantages of Zoom Lenses

Naturally, zoom lenses come with disadvantages, too.  Remember, photography is all about trade-offs.

Image quality — particularly sharpness — is one of the attributes often cited as a disadvantage of zoom lenses.

One must be cautious when making claims about the sharpness of images captured with zoom lenses — specifically, less sharpness — as it is not quite so simple.

As described earlier, some zoom lenses can rival or exceed the sharpness provided by zoom lenses at identical focal lengths.  Modern zoom lenses have come a long way, and the current generation of professional-grade zoom lenses offers image sharpness which would satisfy all but the most fussy, pixel-peeping photographer.

In practical terms, very few people could look at an image captured with a modern, professional-grade zoom lens and identify, purely visually, that it was captured with a zoom lens.

Of course, not all zoom lenses offer outstanding image quality.

The challenge zoom lenses have, which prime lenses do not have, is the need to optically cater for a spectrum of focal lengths and associated optical characteristics.

Zoom lenses generally have more distortion than prime lenses, particularly at the widest and longest focal lengths provided in the lens.

The widest focal lengths tend to experience more pronounced barrel distortion; and conversely, at the longest focal lengths, pincushion distortion is not uncommon.

The broader the range of focal lengths a zoom lens offers, the more challenging it is to avoid adverse optical effects.

This is why professional-grade zoom lenses offer a narrower range of focal lengths than entry-level or mid-range zoom lenses.  Professional-grade zoom lenses typically do not exceed a zoom ratio of 3x.  Entry-level ‘super-zoom’ lenses can offer zoom ratios in double-digit territory.

The zoom ratio of a lens is calculated by dividing the longest focal length by the widest focal length.

A 24-70mm lens has a zoom ratio of 2.92 (ie, 70 divided by 24 equals 2.92 with rounding).

An 18-200mm lens has a zoom ratio of 11.1 (ie, 200 divided by 18 equals 11.1).

One of the other disadvantages of zoom lenses is the maximum aperture available.  Added to this is the fact that not all zoom lenses have a constant aperture across the range of focal lengths.

Until relatively recently, whether the aperture was constant or variable, zoom lenses did not offer a maximum aperture wider than f/2.8, and zoom lenses which could open to f/2.8 were typically professional-grade lenses, which cost a lot more than consumer-grade lenses offering similar focal lengths.

As discussed earlier, some lens manufacturers — notably Sigma — have recently offered zoom lenses with maximum apertures wider than f/2.8.  Major camera and lens manufacturers such as Canon and Nikon, at the time of writing, have still not yet offered a zoom lens with a maximum aperture wider than f/2.8.  Perhaps the third-party vendors, or even other major players, will challenge that and result in wider-aperture zooms becoming available.

Other than professional-grade zoom lenses, mid-range and entry-level zooms typically have variable apertures (eg, f/4-5.6).  This means that as the focal length increases, the maximum aperture decreases.  The main problem with this design is that if one is shooting at the widest aperture, and zooms in to a longer focal length, the exposure will need to be adjusted, as the aperture will automatically stop down as the focal length is increased.

With zoom lenses offering narrower apertures than prime lenses of an identical focal length, the ability to isolate the subject from the background is reduced.  It should be remembered, as discussed earlier, that depth of field is affected by more than aperture; but all else being equal, a narrower aperture results in a less blurred background.  Depending on the focal length, camera-to-subject distance, subject-to-background distance and aperture difference, the resulting background blur and subject isolation may not be substantially different.

 

My Choice of Lenses and Preference for Primes

As mentioned briefly in the introduction, I shoot with prime lenses only.  I have owned a number of zoom lenses over the years, up to the year 2017, when I offloaded my remaining zoom lens, which a prime lens replaced.

I have had zooms and primes for a long time.  When I bought my first SLR, I had a pair of cheap, slow kit zooms.  When I bought my first DSLR, I also had a kit zoom, and I bought a number of zooms over the years since.

I also bought and sold a number of prime lenses.

I owned a Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM lens for over nine years, and I extensively shot with it until early 2017.  According to my lens usage statistics, it is my most commonly used lens.

What I observed, and what my focal length usage per lens statistics confirm, is that the 16mm focal length was by far my most used focal length on that lens.  I used the lens like it was a prime, and I recall being on one shoot, disliking the composition, and then moving the tripod forward to re-compose.  It did not even occur to me to simply rotate the zoom ring!

Now, I like the 16mm focal length, and I already owned more primes than zooms, so perhaps it was two factors which unconsciously affected my behaviour.

In early 2017, as much as I liked my Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM, I decided that I wanted a wider focal length, and I wanted to move to a prime for my ultra-wide lens, so I replaced this lens with a Canon EF 14mm f/2.8L II USM.  More details about this lens change can be read here.

A few months later, I decided to replace my long-serving Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM with a Canon EF 200mm f/2L IS USM.  Like my 16-35/2.8L II, my 70-200/2.8L IS had brought me many pleasing images, and had travelled abroad on several occasions; but again, I wanted to move to a prime-only configuration, and gain an extra stop in the form of the lust-worthy 200/2L IS.  More details about this lens change can be read here.

Even more recently in 2018, with the addition of a Canon EF 24mm f/1.4L II USM lens (story here) which bridged the significant gap between my 16mm and 35mm lenses, I have covered all focal lengths I want, in prime lenses only.

While I had only two zoom lenses for a period of nine years, I made a rapid transition to exclusive use of prime lenses in 2017.

Why did I do this?

I like prime lenses.  I am used to using prime lenses, and ‘zooming with one’s feet’ is not something I find to be an obstacle.

I also like lenses with wide apertures, and primes give me that.

I like the look the use of a wide aperture provides, and I like the ability for low light to be of little or no challenge.

All of my lenses have the widest currently available apertures offered by Canon in those focal lengths.

While there are some excellent zoom lenses, the advantages zoom lenses provide are not necessary in my pursuits.  I do not need the convenience one or two lenses offers over six or seven lenses.

My photography is mostly planned.  I do not carry an SLR rig as a matter of course; I go out specifically to shoot, and I take the lenses I know from years of experience that I will need.

The use of prime lenses suits my planned, controlled and specific photography.

It just works for me, and I am very accustomed to it.

Sure, I sometimes end up with a heavier bag than other photographers may like, but for the images I seek, and the capability I want, I can work with this.

With my current array of primes and telephoto extenders, I now have 14mm at f/2.8, 24mm at f/1.4, 35mm at f/1.4, 85mm at f/1.2, 135mm at f/2, 189mm at f/2.8, 200mm at f/2, 270mm at f/4, 280mm at f/2.8, 300mm at f/2.8, 400mm at f/2.8, 420mm at f/4, 560mm at f/4, 600mm at f/5.6 and 800mm at f/5.6.

I cannot complain!

Where is the 50mm prime, you ask?  Not in my bag!

 

Conclusion

As this article has discussed, both prime lenses and zoom lenses have their advantages and disadvantages.

Both types of lenses have their place.

Some people, such as myself, choose to use prime lenses only, as they like the capability and specialisation primes offer over zooms.

Some people choose to use zoom lenses only, as they like the flexibility and convenience.

Some people — many, from what I have seen — like to use both, and therefore have the best of both worlds, with more flexibility being the key benefit.

There is an enormous range of high-quality primes and zooms available, and many of today’s zooms can rival or exceed the image quality traditionally provided by prime lenses.

It is all a matter of choice, based on the individual photographer’s needs and wants.

Hopefully this article has provided plenty of information about both lens types which will help people decide whether one type of lens, or both, is the most suitable choice for the job.

Precarious Position: First Seascape of 2018

This image of Turimetta Beach was captured during my first seascape session in nearly a year, and this was the first time I have returned to Turimetta since 2012.

Precarious Position

Precarious Position

The conditions were a lot more dangerous than this image would suggest, with a strong south-easterly wind, medium-to-large swell and an incoming tide.

Large waves were crashing near this small part of exposed rock shelf and causing splashes and surges which made standing here dangerous.  I had to be quick about composing and capturing images in between sets of larger waves.

It was good to be near the ocean again, but having been out of the seascaping scene for quite some time, this morning’s shoot had its challenges.

My New Canon EF 24mm f/1.4L II USM: Ideal for Cityscapes

Last week, I decided to buy a Canon EF 24mm f/1.4L II USM lens.

It was a lens I had entertained — but not seriously — adding to my rig.

Until the addition of this lens, my two wide lenses consisted of my Canon EF 14mm f/2.8L II USM  and Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L USM.

While I love a wide vista, sometimes 14mm is just too wide.  I never thought I would say so, but alas, it is true.

On the other hand, 35mm can sometimes be too long.

Twice in the past 12 months I have needed a focal length in between 14mm and 35mm, but did not have a lens of that focal length.

I have barely owned my Canon EF 24mm f/1.4L II USM for a week, and I have used it on two separate twilight cityscape shoots.

So far, the 24mm focal length is proving to be very useful for cityscapes — particularly when shooting skylines across the water from a distance.  With a wider lens, the skyline can shrink into a vast expanse of sky and water; and with a longer lens, the framing can be just a bit too tight, whereby there is not quite enough sky.

My first shoot, on the same day I bought the lens, resulted in the following image:

Lavender Bay on a Summer Night

Lavender Bay on a Summer Night

This particular location does not seem to be hugely popular for cityscapes, but it was something different, and the 24mm focal length was absolutely perfect for this composition.

My second shoot with the new lens was last night.

After a few lazy days at home, I felt the need to get out for a photoshoot.

I decided to re-visit Mrs Macquarie’s Point.  The last time I photographed Sydney from this location was just over eight years ago.

Mrs Macquarie's View

Mrs Macquarie’s View

From this view, the skyline has not changed a great deal, but there are some buildings which did not exist in my previous image.

For this image, I opted for a wider focal length, and waited for the rich blue light of twilight to emerge after sunset.

I am enjoying the field of view this new lens provides.  Not having used the  24mm focal length for quite a while, it made for a nice change, and has been quite suitable so far for the images I have captured with it.

I am hoping to use it more next week, but I really need to invest in the NiSi filter holder which will fit this lens, as I need to be able to use my grads and ND filters with it.