Life’s actions are not without consequence. Some are major. Most are minor. A few are simply curious. One of the more eccentric ramifications of the 20 years I spent designing music software, is that I now possess an unnatural obsession with terminology. Each new product design introduced a rash of innovative new features and new technologies — all of which, without benefit of precedent, required the invention of descriptively pithy names. The more succinctly and accurately I could name a feature, the easier it would be for a customer to comprehend its purpose. Therefore, the curious consequence of my product design career is that I became a compulsive neologist.
During a product’s development cycle, programmers and engineers would tender suggestions for naming many of the new features. Often, the suggested names would faithfully represent how a particular feature impacted the inner workings of the product. Yet, more times than not, the name didn’t convey how the feature should actually be used — only what it did. So I would strain, stress, and struggle to come up with nomenclature indicative of the feature’s effect, and not necessarily its function.
Because of this, I seem to have developed a mild form of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. But instead of compulsively counting objects or arranging them, I strive to rename them. Everything I see becomes fodder for my moniker-manufacturing mind. No object is safe — not even those in my camera bag.
Let’s look, for example, at the wide angle lens. An engineer would argue that this is an aptly named device. After all, the most obvious attribute of a wide angle lens is that it captures a wider field of view in front of your camera. So why are novice landscape photographers often dissatisfied when they capture sweeping, scenic vistas with a wide angle lens? Because, 9 times out of 10, it’s the wrong lens to use.
Every year, a new generation of neophyte photographers are victimized by their literal interpretation of this lens’ name. Any reasonable person would logically conclude that the best use of a wide angle lens is to fit more “stuff” into the photo’s width. There’s just one problem: while you’re cramming more visually interesting “stuff” into that frame, you’re also cramming in a whole lot of visually uninteresting “stuff.” And, in spite of the name, you’re not just including more stuff in a horizontal arc — you’re also including more stuff in a vertical arc. In other words, your “wide angle” lens is also a “tall angle” lens.
The effect of this is that your subject of interest — usually something beautiful along the horizon — is dwarfed by an expansive sky and a cavernous foreground. If you’re lucky, the sky is particularly dramatic that day, and you can shift the horizon low in the frame. Of course, once you do that, the photo becomes more about the sky than the actual landscape. Foregrounds are even more problematic. Often, when rookie photographers capture scenic vistas, they’re actually standing in rather un-scenic spots. Human beings, when gazing upon beauty, are quite adept at ignoring the fact they’re standing in a parking lot. Your camera, unfortunately, is not. Since your wide angle lens is also a tall angle lens, your picture will come out looking like a photo of a parking lot, rather than a scenic vista. The problem is compounded when you consider that wide angle lenses exaggerate the spatial differences between objects that are close to the camera and objects that are further away. Specifically, the closer an object is to a wide angle lens, the more gigantic it will appear in comparison to the objects behind it.
None of this is actually bad. In fact, these are among the characteristics that make wide angle lenses so useful. But the way photographers actually use these lenses isn’t accurately represented by their name and, as such, “wide angle” lenses have confounded and mislead novice photographers for generations. At one point, I began to use the term “long angle lens,” rather than “wide angle lens.” My rationale was that, because wide angle lenses create photos with extensive depth of field, I used them when I wanted to render both foreground and background objects in focus. I didn’t use these lenses to fit more into the width or height of a frame. Rather, I used them to fit more stuff into the third dimension — the one that extended from just in front of the camera to infinity.
Ultimately, I was no more satisfied with this rebranding than with the original “wide angle” moniker. It still wasn’t descriptive of the lens’ use. So I asked myself some questions. Why did I consider the “long angle” attributes to be important? Why did I need the extended depth-of-field? Why did I want to place important objects in both the foreground and the background? How was I making actual photographic use of the lens’ characteristics?
Upon analyzing it, I realized I would usually choose this lens when I wanted to put subjects in some kind of context. Sometimes the primary subject is in the foreground, but I want the extended background to provide a frame of reference. Sometimes the primary subject is in the background, but I want to give it some kind of meaning, or context, by juxtaposing it with a foreground element.
On the streets, I’ll often use a wide angle lens. But it’s not because I’m capturing scenic cityscapes — it’s because I’m capturing people, up close and personal, and I want to provide some context as to where we are. To me, photographers who shoot “street” with a telephoto lens are not “street photographers” — they’re paparazzi. Telephotos have no place on the streets. Telephotos have the opposite effect of wide angle lenses — they isolate the subject from their environment, and they isolate the photographer, himself, from the scene. For me, good street photography makes the viewer an active participant in the scene, rather than a detached voyeur. Wide angle lenses let me get close to my subjects, and they let me place those subjects in some kind of context. When used in this manner, they are “contextual lenses.”
When I shoot landscapes, I tend to favor a mild telephoto lens for its ability to capture a slightly flattened perspective of a well-chosen slice of scenery. I will, however, use the wide angle lens when I find a foreground that lends suitable context to the overall scene. So, just as I do on the streets, I use wide angles in nature as “contextual lenses.”
Note that I’m not actually proposing that Zeiss, Canon, Leica, Nikon, Voigtlander or any other lens manufacturers rebrand their “wide angle” lenses as “contextual” lenses. That ship has sailed. I am, however, proposing that all those who develop new products give careful consideration to the naming of features or product attributes — that they consider how the item is used, not just what it does. If lens designers had adopted this philosophy, there would be a lot fewer parking lots immortalized in family vacation albums.
©2010 grEGORy simpson
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