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.

~ Tim

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13 COMMENTS

  1. Hi,

    Great article, I’ve actually done exactly the same as you did and after shooting 28mm on my Fuji x100F to see if I would enjoy it I just ordered a 28mm f2.8 AI-S for my FM3a.

    Just to add my little grain of salt to the debate, 28mm also helps with:

    – shooting close to people, getting over your fear/mental brake of going up close to people
    – making you a better photographer though the need to compose your shots better to fill your frame. You can also add more layers to your composition, both in the street or elsewhere. Remembering the difference between 28mm and 35mm is the context.
    – people end up spending more time looking at a 28mm shot because it’s not the natural frame for the eye. people will flick through 35mm shot in a second on Instagram, not a 28mm shot (if that’s what you are after)

    Next challenge: shoot 28mm on a Leica M/A in the street with slide film and questionable light! (Mission impossible!)

    Thanks again

    Pierre

    • Pierre-Alix , the third one’s a very interesting point. People spending more time on your photos is always a good thing, especially these days. I’m going to contemplate that one some more. Glad you enjoyed the story and had some thoughts to add. Merci.

  2. Excellent work. 28mm is not an easy lens, although so many used to say that it’s “too” easy, in the years it was so popular among amateurs (and less among professionals)..
    I never used it on a RF camera, possibly it’s even more difficult than on a reflex (apart form the fact that it can be very heavy wearing glasses). I used my first 28/2.8 FD on AT1 and FTb as my standard lens, for almost a decade when I started to shoot, then for almost 20 years used nothing between 17 and 35; in recent years became an addict of 24/2 FD.
    Now I see that it takes a little to restart with 28 when I decide to use it, like in a recent trip, and again I feel that it’s made exactly for the kind of scenes that you framed very well in Vietnam. In a sense, it’s more a “wider 35” than a “narrower 24”. It forces you to a different approach in front of people, keeping you and the subject within a proxemic social distance, so that both have to interact – as Dan observes – in a positive or negative way. And where the shutter’s sound is difficult to hide when you’re shooting candids 😉

    • Thank you, Sergio. I’ve read/watched interviews with some hard-core photojournalists, and noticed a lot of them use a 24mm, producing some amazing shots. So that’s been in the back of my mind, too, but way, way back I think. For now, it’s the 28. As for the shutter sound, it helps to have a noisy city! And I’ll be honest, sometimes I do cough or clear my throat if I want a candid. But that’s not too often 🙂

  3. Hello Tim,
    Thanks for the article. I was curious to read another person’s experience with the 28. I’ve used them on my Nikon SLR’s, and I’ve tried them three times with my Leica M (film.) I’ve had the Leica, the Zeiss & the Voigtlander. As hard as I tied over the years, I just couldn’t make them work for me. I’ve sold them off within 6 months of buying them. It’s not the equipment…my eye is hard-wired to my brain in the sense that the 35 or 50mm is how I perceive my world. I don’t use any of the moderate tele’s either…I just don’t see that way.

    Now, I’ve noticed something else (I know this is going to go political…) lately. When shooting on the streets in NYC or Washington DC, people have begun to react is a more aggressive manner when you’re out shooting.
    You’ll need to take my word for this, but I’m a nice, easy going guy. My style is not like Bruce Gilden. I don’t seek confrontation with photography or my political views. I’m not sneaky or pushy, but I have seen an uptick in people willing to go from 0 to pissed without taking time to ask what you’re doing. Hence, I’m using a 40mm or 50mm lens more often to just give me some space between my subject & myself.

    Good luck working with the 28, I like the ice cream shot, illustrates we have more in common with people than we might think.

    Regards,
    -Dan (flickr.com/photos/dcastelli9574/

    • Dan, glad to hear you enjoyed the story. For street work, I often zone focus for the candid stuff, and think the 28’s good for that, too. But a 35 is a favorite of a LOT of photographers, too. And if it’s working for you (and it looks like it is), you just have to go with it, right? I think the key is really, really liking your main lens and like you say, having it hardwired. Good luck out there!
      tim

  4. I love wide ! Depth of field is more cinematic in a sense …I rock with a 21mm on my contax g and a 15mm voigtlander on my zorki… my fav is 10mm rokinon aspherical (the 15mm too)

    I try to put my actor or model into my universe inlieu of the world we are presented…

    http://www.uptilldawnstudios.com

  5. I totally understand how you feel about the 28mm. You are right, your vision has to change based on the focal length that you are carrying. I’ve once took to carrying two cameras, a 28mm and longer one, like a 50mm or an 85mm. It didn’t work, I kept reaching for the long lens. Ultimately, I just started leaving the long lenses at home and only taking the 28mm. I’m not there yet, but I am getting better with it and working on my composition. I have to look at the subject as it relates to the greater surroundings and compose accordingly. I really enjoyed your article. It was good to see someone else with the same issue. Very well written too.

  6. Excellent piece. I got hooked on 28mm with a GR, and eventually bought a summicron for an extended project on film.

    With a rangefinder, I find 28mm really difficult – partly because as a glasses wearer the frame lines are difficult to see, and so framing and shooting quickly is always difficult. Getting close is a challenge for those like me who are nervous, not to mention framing, subject matter and accurate focus in low light.

    And every time I start to get comfortable with 28mm, part of me then starts to wonder about 21mm 🙂

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