Learning photography is like learning a second language, you can learn absolutely everything from books but when you come to try it out in practice, it will all go horribly wrong. Whilst knowing the theory is a great thing, there is no substitute for experience and the best way to gain experience is to set yourself tasks or projects. One way to really improve your photographic skills is to use just one fixed focal length lens or prime lens.
What If You Don't Own a Prime Lens?
Now I am sure that like me, many of you don’t own a prime lens – well don’t despair, there is a quick and dirty trick to remove the temptation to turn that zoom ring, electrical tape. Simple set the zoom to the focal length you wish to use and apply the tape around the barrel making sure you cover both the ring and the non moving part. The good thing about electrical tape is that it does not leave sticky residue when you remove it.
So What to Shoot?
So with our prime lens or pseudo prime lens, what are we going to shoot? Well, simply everything that you would shoot normally, city/travel shots, portraits, even macro. A good starting point is to use a fixed lens of 50mm, this was the most common standard lens before the advent of zooms. Using it will challenge you to be more creative in the composition of your images.
For example, trying to photograph a beautiful church exterior, you may find you cannot get everything into the shot. So you have to weigh your options, can you move back and get it all in, if not, can you move in close and find some great details on the building, or shoot upward creating a dramatic perspective.
Using a 50mm can be tough in city photography, where you generally need a wide angle to capture architecture and a telephoto to get in close on details. This is a great environment to learn a single lens technique, be creative, look for alternative viewpoints or perspectives. A 50mm is a great starting point for street photography, forcing you to get close to your subjects.
Let's Think About Portraits
Shooting portraits will also be challenging. Maybe you are used to the perfect, flattering perspective of an 85mm. A 50mm may be a lot less flattering if you move in close to replicate the 85mm’s coverage, so stay put and shoot half length or full length images or even move back and use props to put your model in an interesting environment.
Onto Close Ups
Macro, or close up photography is also going to be very challenging. Your lens may not focus very close, especially if it is a taped zoom. So rather than concentrate on, for instance, one flower, look for the flower that is different, perhaps taller or a different colour and shoot in a way that highlights it’s differences.
Switching to Different Focal Lengths
When you have become comfortable with shooting the 50mm focal length, its time to up the ante a little. Try using a fixed 200 or 300mm. This will really focus your mind on looking for the details, there will be no way to get that all encompassing shot so you will need to find a whole new way of looking at things. Using a fixed wide angle is going to present you with the opposite problem, you will be able to get the big picture, but to concentrate on the details you are going to have to change your position and move very close, the exaggerated perspective of wide angles adding to your creative dilemmas.
To achieve results, you will need to be strict with yourself. Set aside at least one week per focal length and stay with it. By working with one lens, you will come to appreciate the convergence of perspective, depth of field, and positioning, hopefully taking your photography to a new level.
Jason Row is a British born travel photographer now living in Ukraine. You can follow him on Facebook or visit his site, The Odessa Files. He also maintains a blog chronicling his exploits as an Expat in the former Soviet Union