Love the Lens You’re With

Photo from the blog post "Love the lens you're with".

Written by ian robert knight

Travel Photographer, Bangkok

Love the Lens You’re With

There has always been a lot of chatter in the camera world about having the “right gear” for the job. Many photographers swear by specific cameras or lenses, figuring that they can’t do their job without those items. And photographers on the other side of the debate say that any camera will do – that the gear doesn’t really matter.

Recently, I learned which side of that debate I am on, because on a recent trip to China I broke the lens that I shoot 80% of my photos with. So I was forced to use other gear that I wouldn’t normally use. I learned that if you can’t be with the lens you love, you have to love the lens you’re with. (Credit and apologies to Stephen Stills, circa 1970)

So here’s the story. When I travel on tour, I generally bring 3 or 4 lenses with me, you know, just in case. But in reality, I typically use one lens for the majority of my work. That is not uncommon for many photographers. We tend to use what is thought of as our ‘standard zoom’ lens. For me, that is (was) my Tamron 24-70mm Ultrasonic VC 2.8. It’s a chunky lens, weighs a ton, and I love it (loved it). It’s been all over the world with me, up mountains, over oceans, in good times and bad. I’ve put it through a lot.

The Event

Cut to May 1, 2017. I am in Xi’an, China, home of the Terracotta Army excavation site (go see it, seriously). As with pretty much every place in China, it is always super crowded. May 1 is a national holiday in China, so if you can imagine the largest amount of people you’ve seen in a tourist attraction – then double it. Normally, I sling my camera over my right shoulder (not my neck), and hang onto the strap with my right hand. But this time, in this crowd, I am thinking that I didn’t follow that habit.

My camera strap slid off my shoulder, and my camera dropped to the concrete floor, lens first.
As I was trying to find a comfy spot to anchor myself for photographs of the army statues, some dude bumped into me. My camera strap slid off my shoulder, and my camera dropped to the concrete floor, lens first. It seemed to happen in slow motion, but not so slow that I could stop it from happening. I heard the lens make a loud thud on the floor, but didn’t notice who bumped into me (not that it really mattered). Then I picked up my camera and saw that the lens was droopy at the mount, limp and sad-looking.
Sad, broken lens
This will never work again. That mount is damaged too much.

I quickly surveyed the damage, and it was clear that the lens snapped apart at the mount, but the camera was fine. That was the saving grace. At least I would be able to use other lenses. If the camera had been damaged too, I would not be taking any more photos for the rest of the tour. That is, unless I used my iPad. And that wasn’t gonna happen.

Learning from Disaster

So this gets me to the point of the blog posting. What I learned from this disaster was that although I habitually shoot much of my work with this (now damaged) lens, I managed to carry on working as if nothing had even happened. I had two other lenses with me this trip – a wide zoom (12-24mm) and a telephoto zoom (70-210mm). Studies have shown that most people use the far ends of their zoom lenses much more than the ‘middle’ of them. So if that theory is true it means that I usually shot my photos at 24mm and 70mm. My other zoom lenses covered these ranges, so it was not a complete loss.

What this meant to me was that I was going to have to rethink how I approached each scene I encountered from then on. In most cases, I used my 12-14 wide zoom since it was better for landscapes and interiors. And in a few other occasions, my telephoto zoom was called on for service. Despite years of habit using a 24-70mm, I really didn’t miss it that much.

What I learned was that when I am put into a position of having to use sub-optimal gear, I was able to find the angles and positions for great images. I learned that my photographs were much less about the equipment I use, and much more about how I use it. This isn’t a new idea to me. I’ve always felt that the camera doesn’t matter much – or in this case, the lens doesn’t matter much. I was forced to move around my subject matter, and I saw things from a different viewpoint. As a photographer, that’s a good thing.

Photo of a Terracotta Army warrior and horse.
Taken with a super-wide zoom lens
Close up photo of Terracotta Army horses.
Taken with a telephoto zoom lens

Vision vs. Equipment

The bottom line here is that photographs are not about equipment. The lens on your camera is just a tool. The photographer’s vision and interpretation of the scene is created in the mind long before a camera is involved. Getting hung up on what equipment you’re using will make your photos about the gear, not about the vision behind it. Learn to love the lens you’re with – because your pictures aren’t about the gear.

If you’re thinking about visiting China, check out my other site for personalized photography experiences. And for more photos like these, have a look through my Places Photo Gallery.

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