Inexperienced photographers tend to think that the camera matters far more than the lens – however, as veteran shooters know, the lens is a hugely important part of photography. After all, a lens influences image sharpness, autofocusing speed, field of view, background blur, low-light shoot flexibility, and so much more.
But once you own a good lens, how can you get the most out of it? How can you learn its features, its focal lengths, and its unique way of rendering the world so that you can use it to create gorgeous photos?
I’ve handled a lot of glass over the years, and as a result, I know how to get to know a new lens (or improve your understanding of the lenses you already own). In this article, I share my top tips for working your way through this process, including a few handy tests and exercises as well as more general tips for approaching new glass.
Are you ready to master your lenses? Then let’s dive right in!
1. Use one lens exclusively for a month
In the book Outliers, author Malcolm Gladwell put forward the now-famous idea that true mastery of a skill takes 10,000 hours of practice. I’d say that the idea of putting in 10,000 hours applies to photography as a whole rather than photography using a single lens, but by using the same lens for an extended period of time, you’ll certainly get to know that lens really, really well.
If you own multiple lenses and need to use them regularly (e.g., for upcoming paid sessions), you don’t have to be super vigilant about this. Just try to take a single lens out on a shoot, and if you can maintain the streak for a few days in a row, that’s fantastic.
If you like how it feels to just use a single lens, try taking it further by extending the exercise out for a week, a month, or even longer. It’s up to you, but the more time you spend with that one lens, the better you’ll get at visualizing its field of view before you raise the camera to your eye. You’ll be able to create compositions before you look through the viewfinder, and your keeper rate will grow dramatically.
This exercise is best done with a prime lens, but it works for zooms, too. If you do work with a zoom, you may want to start by picking a single focal length and sticking to it. Of course, you’ll eventually need to test out other focal lengths if you want to really get to know a lens’s capabilities, but beginning in one place can be a good idea.
One recommendation: Before you head out with your lens, spend a bit of time thumbing through the manual. Make sure you’re familiar with all of its features, including any switches or rings on the barrels. Then be sure to practice using these different elements when out shooting!
2. Test your lens at every aperture
Part of mastering a lens is getting to know how it performs. And the fact is that every lens’s performance varies across its aperture range, so I highly recommend you spend some time with the glass you’re looking to master and really assess it at all apertures.
Print off a test chart or make your own, then mount your camera on a tripod and take a series of photos as you go from the lens’s widest to its narrowest aperture. All lenses are softer at their widest and narrowest aperture settings, so don’t be surprised if that’s the result you get – but the details matter, too. How sharp is your lens at its widest aperture? How do you feel about the level of detail? How about at its narrowest aperture? What are your thoughts?
Here, it can help to take notes for each aperture (after all, it’s a lot to remember!). And once you’re finished with your tests, spend some time thinking about what the results mean for you photographically.
For instance, if you often use small apertures when you take photos, then you’ll need to figure out when blur due to diffraction starts to become a serious problem. And if you prefer to use wider apertures, consider whether shooting wide open will net you some reasonably sharp images, or whether you’ll need to stop down slightly.
If you like that shallow depth-of-field look yet your lens struggles at wide apertures, remember that the key is to find a balance between bokeh and image quality. For example, I find that when I make portraits with a short telephoto lens, I get the best results at f/2.8. The f/2.8 aperture ensures that most of my model’s face is in focus, yet the bokeh still has a beautiful quality:
Of course, you might prefer a different aperture, and that’s okay! The point is to spend some time testing and thinking about the results.
Note: If you’re working with a zoom lens instead of a prime lens, carefully read this next section:
3. Test a zoom lens at different focal lengths
Prime lenses are relatively easy to test: You print off a test chart, you set up your camera, and you take images throughout the aperture range.
The situation becomes a little more complicated with zoom lenses, however. This is because you have an extra variable: focal length. Not only does sharpness vary according to the aperture, but focal length also has an effect. Very few zoom lenses offer outstanding optical quality across their entire focal length range. Therefore, if you really want to understand your lens, you’ll need to test it at a variety of focal lengths.
Personally, I like to think of zoom lenses as several prime lenses in one package. For example, when I owned a 17-40mm zoom, I tended to set it to 24 or 35mm for most of my shots. At other times I would use 17mm – if I wanted a real ultra wide-angle effect – or 40mm. So to me, it was four lenses in one – a 17mm, 24mm, 35mm, and 40mm lens.
These photos show the difference between the 17mm and 40mm focal lengths:
But remember: Breaking your lens up into a few specific focal lengths is essential. Do the corresponding tests, and as you become more familiar, you can expand your sense of each subject.
4. Zoom with your feet
Regardless of whether your favorite lens is a prime or a zoom, it’s helpful to practice zooming with your feet rather than using the zoom ring (also, if you have a prime lens, you have no choice in the matter!). Zooming with your feet is an expression used to describe the process of moving physically closer to or farther away from your subject to change its size in the frame rather than using the zoom ring on a zoom lens.
For zoom lens owners, this comes back to the earlier idea of a zoom lens essentially containing three or four prime lenses in one. If you have an 18-55mm kit lens, for instance, then your lens behaves very differently at different focal lengths. At 18mm, it’s a wide-angle lens that’s ideal for subjects like landscapes. At 55mm it’s a short telephoto lens that you can use for portraits.
In terms of perspective, both focal lengths are very different. You will only learn about perspective and the way it changes as you move closer to or further from your subject if you stick to using your zoom lens at a single focal length. If you use the zoom ring to change the subject size, you won’t learn about perspective.
For example, with an 18-55mm lens set to 18mm, you need to get fairly close to the subject to obtain the dramatic perspective associated with wide-angle lenses:
But if you’re further away from the subject, the perspective is much less dramatic:
5. Shoot different subjects
We tend to think of lenses as associated with specific subjects. For example, wide-angle lenses are ideal for landscapes and short telephoto lenses are perfect for portraiture.
But what if you mix it up a little? What happens if you use a short telephoto lens for landscape photography or a wide-angle lens for portraiture? The idea is to take yourself out of your comfort zone and find creative ways to use your favorite lenses, which will expand your understanding of the glass.
If you use a wide-angle lens for portraiture, you’ll soon find that if you get too close to your model, you’ll end up with some very unflattering effects. But what if you step back and include more of your environment? Suddenly, you’re taking a very different approach! Experiments like these can add new skills, new understandings, and new ways of working to your repertoire.
6. Push your compositions to the limit
My final tip for mastering a lens? Really push yourself. Take each technique to the extreme and see what you can do with it. Only by really pushing your equipment can you really understand it!
If you have a wide-angle lens, what happens if you get as close to your subject as you can? What happens if you use the lens’s widest aperture setting?
And if you have a telephoto lens, how can you maximize the compressed perspective that the longer focal length offers? What subjects can you shoot to make the most of the layered effect?
That’s the process of experimentation. Not all of your experiments will work – but when they do, you’ll be adding new skills to your repertoire!
Tips for mastering your lenses: final words
Hopefully, these tips have given you some ideas for working with and getting to know your favorite lenses. Instead of fantasizing about the next lens you are going to buy, spend some time getting to know the glass you already own!
You may find that pushing the lenses you already own to their limits can be deeply rewarding.
Now over to you:
How do you plan to master your lenses? Do you have any additional tips that we missed? Share your thoughts in the comments below!