I’ve been shooting digital, and more recently film, for many years, doing work that mostly involves people in one way or another. Throughout it all, though, I’ve always been a little scared of the 28mm focal length (on 135 film/full frame digital). Although perhaps I should say, a little scared and intrigued by it.
I had made efforts in the past to commit to at least trying the 28mm focal length in a serious way. But all came up short. I took a workshop with a photographer (Antonin Kratochvil) who is known for using 28mm, and wanted us to use one for the workshop. But all I had with me was a 35mm, and I used that instead. Then I got a Ricoh GR, but almost always ended up setting it to the 35mm equivalent crop. I’d told myself countless times, “set a zoom on your DSLR at 28mm and leave it there”, but I never kept it there for more than a few shots. 35mm and longer always felt more comfortable–and comforting. I got plenty of good photos with 35mm and longer, and sometimes great ones.
Why mess with what’s working? Right?
At the same time, though, more and more I kept admiring photographers who really rocked a 28. Ones like Antonín Kratochvil, Jeanloup Sieff, Garry Winogrand, etc. I wanted more elements and more story in my frames like they had. I wanted my photography to say and do more, and I knew a 28mm lens could help me achieve that but it was always something to “try later”.
Then…one day after I’d booked a trip to Vietnam, I saw a used, affordable (for Lecia) Elmarit 28mm for sale on Tamarkin Camera’s website. The time had come, and I took the plunge and vowed to keep that lens attached to my M6 for an upcoming month-long trip to Vietnam. My trusty and much “better” 35mm Summilux would stay at home. I would temporarily burn all my bridges, with no way back to the safety of a 35mm.
I had a couple of weeks at home to test and get used to operating the new lens before I left, and then I was off to the airport with my M6, 28mm lens and a bag of film. At the last minute though, I did throw a 50mm Summicron into my bag – an old collapsible Leica thread mount lens with an M-adapter (that I got from Tamarkin, too).
The Summicron 50 is rumored to be a version with the “radioactive” glass. Which only means, it sounds cool, but can’t be cleaned easily because the coating’s too soft (hence the B&W filter). Nobody’s perfect but I only used it a handful of times for portraits). I was genuinely excited, not just about seeing Vietnam, but about really making a good, honest effort with the 28. I would come back either knowing it was for me, or it wasn’t.
During the 20 hours of travel time, when not trying to sleep, I had plenty of time to think about what I wanted to achieve, and how I might go about doing it. Get closer. Stop to look and think more about the surroundings, rather than just the one subject. Return to a place to take more photos, having had time to think about it and get more the next time. Just try to do more, whatever that means.
I arrived in Hanoi in the middle of the day, checked in to my hotel, loaded up the M6, and headed out to the popular (and easy to find) Hoan Kiem lake. And just like that, I got my first inspiration for a more story-based approach to taking photos: a series of photos of people exercising around the lake early in the morning. It was a place I could return to multiple times, had plenty of room to work, and most importantly of all: I’m pretty big into fitness, so I both felt at ease and inspired. I was able to ingest all the visuals going on, while at the same time thinking of ways to capture the spirit of it, rather than just single elements of it.
I was off and running with the 28mm, and while I did struggle and fumble at times, I had the FEELING that the wider lens would work for what I was trying to do. It was a good start at least, and I’m happy with the results.
I continued to use the 28 throughout most of the trip, rarely breaking out the 50mm. I still appreciate what a longer lens can do, like compression and good bokeh, but those kinds of shots, for me, aren’t the be all and end all of people photography. I want the complexity—both compositionally and subject-matter wise—that a wider lens like the 28 produces.
But I’m not trying to kid anyone, including myself. I know it’s a hard lens to master, and I have a long way to go. But I don’t necessarily think I should have started using one earlier, either. 35mm is a good focal length, too, and I’m more than glad to have spent a few years with that first. And I think that goes for a lot of focal lengths. You can’t really know how much you’ll like a focal length until you’ve used others as well.
But one thing, in general, I’ve learned as I’ve gone wider over the years is, it’s also not just a matter of sticking a new lens on a body and going about things in the same way as before. Really learning a lens so it is second nature, so you can look around you at any time, and see in terms of that focal length, takes different thinking and different seeing.
…and that takes time and dedication.
So it makes sense to have a reason for going in a given direction before you head out on the journey. In my case, it was because of photographers’ work I liked, wanting to create work more like theirs. For you, it might be something similar. Or you might be more than happy with your current focal lengths.
Only you can decide that but either way, thank you for reading.
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