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I love my “travel zoom”

In an online community for photographers I sometimes visit, there is a pretty vocal group that swears by fixed focal length lenses. Zooms in general are considered sub-standard, and so called “travel zooms” (with a zoom range of 10x or more) despicable. Among the many sins attributed to us zoom users, sloth is worst: “You don't need a zoom”, the saying goes, “as long as you have two good feet you can just change the distance to frame your subject.”.

Today, I had the chance to test this theory. I was in hurry, and has forgotten that the night before, I has been using the camera for some low-light photography, so I'd put the Nikon 50 mm f/1.4 on my D80 body.

The plan for the day was to photograph some of the environmental works that has been assembled by the good people on the Danish island of Samsø over the last decade. I was in a hurry, and just grabbed my camera without checking what lens it had attached.

My first stop was a huge array solar thermal collectors located just outside the village of Nordby. The array uses the sun to heat water piped through the panels to 70°C. The water is then used by local houses for heating. When I discovered that the lens sitting on the camera was the 50 mm and not my usual 18-200 mm zoom, I thought I should give the “foot zoom” theory a try. You can see the result below:

50 mm.
Nikon 50 mm fixed focal length lens.

As you can see, 50 mm is a focal length that is inappropriate for the job. Because of the narrow field of view of this focal length, I have to put some distance between myself and the structure. At this distance, a row of bushes is between me and the thermal collectors, and you have to know what to look for to see the structure at all.

I also tried to take position in front of the bushes, but then the 50 mm would just capture a tiny fraction of the array. The image above was the best I could get with the 50 mm fixed focal length lens.

Frustrated, I pedaled back the 3 miles or so to our rented cottage, picked up the 18-200 mm “travel zooms” I'd left behind by mistake, and returning to the thermal collectors. And in no time, I was able to get the shot of the structure that is shown below:

18 mm.
Nikon 18-200 mm travel zoom @ 18 mm.

The point of this story: Sometimes, having access to just a single focal length can be really frustrating. Physical obstacles, such as bushes, buildings and billboards may make it impossible to “frame” a scene just by using your feet to change distance. When travelling, I find it restricts my freedom of movement to carry a backpack full of lenses. So I love my 18-200 mm “travel zoom”.

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