What zoom for your Harley-Davidson – Part 2

Welcome to Part 2 of my photographic ramblings. In Part 1 I outlined the different camera types you may want to use to take gorgeous pictures of your Harley Davidson, and the places you visit with your bike. I did not cover the 2 extremes, the very expensive professional DSLRs costing as much as your bike, nor the very cheap low end point and shoot camera or the camera in your mobile phone, as I think you and your bike deserve better.

In this second part, I want to speak about focal length and its impact on your creativity.  Understanding the focal length is important, for everyone, irrespective if you own a high end DSLR with numerous lenses, or a compact with a zoom lens, as the basics of a zoom lens is the same for both, it is the ability to zoom in (going long) and zoom out (going wide).

Unfortunately most users leave it at just that, they are using their focal length variation just to zoom in or zoom out to adjust the frame from where they are standing. But they tend to forget that one of the main influencing elements in creative photography are…  your own legs.

Walk close, walk away, bend your knees, stay on a ladder or lay flat on the ground, all these actions, in combination with the right choice of focal length, can change one and the same picture dramatically.

Here are 5 simple examples of the same bike, where I move away from the Harley, adjusting the focal length (zooming) so as to fill the picture with my Road King Classic (before it was kissed by a Land Rover). It may seem boring at first, but check out the summary below:

taken from 1.5 m (1.6 yards) distance

taken from 2.6 m distance

taken from 5.3 meter distance

taken from 9.5 m distance

taken from 18 m distance

From this same 18m  distance I took this reference picture with my 12mm.

At first glance, all the above pictures simply show is a Harley Davidson Road King Classic standing on a sunny day in front of some vegetation. But there are fundamental differences you should be aware of.

In this following summary picture, I just took a part of the above 5 pictures, and added lines to highlight the impact of focal length choice, the zoom position.

Wow, now the differences become visible, at 175mm, objects in front appear smaller, like the headlight, but objects in the background appear closer, larger, like the tree. Remember, all pictures are taken from (about) the same angle to the bike, from the same height of about 1.5 meter above ground, but from different distances.

But what is “correct”, what is “artistic manipulation”? Well it depends on your eyes and taste. Nature gave your eyes a focal length of around 50 mm, that is also why this lens group is called “standard lens”. Your eyes can not zoom, so a focal length of 50mm produces the most realistic proportion, or better say: proportions perceived as natural, as they are very similar to the picture your own eyes produce for your brain.

In portrait photography, the 85mm segment is the choice of professionals, as it produces a image of your face in the most pleasant and still natural proportions. With a fisheye lens like a 10mm your face will look like a inflated balloon, but using longer lenses do not have such a distorting impact.

Even when showing details, the choice of wide or long focal length is important. Compare these 2 pictures: in the 12mm wide angle shot the headlight appears more dominating then in the 400mm long zoom, but also check out the completely different backgrounds of 2 pictures taken from the same angle to the Road King Classic

A final word on the crop factor involving digital DSLRs. This issue is much discussed and initially drove me insane, as it was stated that a 50mm lens on my Nikon D1 – DSLR has – compared to a film 35mmm camera – a focal length equivalent of 75mm. The field of view crop factor is 1.5, due to the size of the sensor. Confused? I was, but to make some sense I now live with the following explanation: a 50mm SLR lens remains a 50mm lens on a DSLR, irrespective of the crop factor. The proportions and angles do not change, what changes is just the crop of the image itself, as the senor is smaller then of a 35mm film frame.

Its the same picture, just cropped. Let me try to illustrate it with this following montage:

Whatever camera you own or plan to buy, it most likely will have a zoom. Play with it and be aware of the influence it can have on the composition of the picture.

  • If you want elements in the background to appear bigger, more dominant, select a long zoom and move away from the bike. It may sound unnatural, but to have a background building appear bigger, you move away and zoom in, you dont move closer and zoom out.
  • If you want a wide landscape to be fully captures, move closer and zoom wide out. Check out this article by Gary on his take on the need of a wide lens.
  • If you want proportions to appear realistic, do not use a wide zoom, stay in the standard focal length area and cop by adjusting your distance to the object.
  • But if you want parts of the bike, like the engine, a indicator, a air filter or the headlight appear massive, more dominant and imposing, go close and zoom wide out.

The weather for a ride?
London, 2.5.2010: very wet, 8 Celsius (46 F)


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