SOME people map out their lives based on the cities where they live, the cars they drive, or the arrival of their children. But those of us obsessed with photography can also do it in another way: by the particular cameras or lenses that exemplify the approach we’re taking at any given time. As I look back over the past three years since I started getting serious about photography, I realise that it divides into four eras, each of which is defined by a particular lens.
When I got started in late 2010 it was all about the bokeh. I had a zoom lens on my first proper camera that didn’t open very wide, but I soon realised that to get really shallow depth of field and epic bokeh I needed a wider aperture — as wide as possible! For my camera at the time (an Olympus E-P1) that meant one lens in particular: the Voigtlander 25mm f/0.95, which is equivalent to a 50mm on a full-frame camera. It was my favourite lens for at least six months, and it taught me a great deal. For one thing, it was a manual-focus lens, so I really learned how to focus accurately, especially with such a shallow depth of field. It also helped me get over my obsession with bokeh.
After a year or so I got an Olympus 45mm lens (90mm equivalent) for portraits, which I enjoyed using. But it wasn’t terribly sharp and the focusing was a bit slippery. So when I upgraded to a full-frame camera (Nikon D800) in early 2012 I invested in a Nikon 85mm f/1.8. Although it was initially for portraits, it soon became my main lens. I just loved the way it could pluck specific details from a scene, or isolate someone from the background in a portrait. And the autofocus was so fast, particularly compared with the manual focus of the Voigtlander! Once again, I thought I’d found the ultimate lens.
Then in the summer of 2012 I started shooting diptychs, combining an image of a scene with a detail or close-up. The 85mm was great for details, but not suitable for wider shots. I found that a Nikon 50mm f/1.8 gave me the best of both worlds: I could take both images in a diptych without having to change lenses. (I also bought a Nikon 50mm f/1.4, but I could never get the autofocus to work reliably.) Around the same time I also started shooting film, first on a Rollei and then with a Contax 645. Both cameras have lenses that are equivalent to 50mm (the Contax has a lovely 80mm f/2 lens) so I had the same field of view, whichever camera I picked up. I really came to appreciate the versatility of the 50mm focal length.
But then, a couple of months ago, I found myself using my Nikon 35mm f/2 lens more. I started using it because it was less jarring when switching from my iPhone 5 to my DSLR. The iPhone’s camera is equivalent to a 33mm lens, and I very often take the same picture with multiple cameras. The 35mm lens also has a very small minimum focusing distance, so for diptychs I can shoot both details and wider scenes with it, like I can with the 50mm; but the 35mm is more versatile because it goes wider, but not so wide that it distorts. I also like feeling part of the 35mm documentary-photography and street-photography traditions. It has now become my primary lens. (My husband finds this very amusing; for 20 years he has maintained that 35mm is the ideal focal length, because it approximates the human field of vision, or something.) At the moment I can’t imagine ever breaking up with my trusty 35mm lens — though actually, I can. There’s a legendary f/1.4 version of it that I now have my eye on!
Of course, I have several other cameras and other lenses: macro lenses, telephoto lenses, various Polaroid cameras, and so on. But I’ve realised that at any one time in the past three years there has always been one main lens that has encapsulated what I’ve been interested in, and what I’ve been trying to achieve, with my photography. It’s the lens that has spent the most time attached to my camera, and that I’ve used to take the most pictures. I’ve come to see that these four lenses are like milestones marking out my personal journey as a photographer, dividing it into distinct phases. What are the autobiographical lenses that do the same for you?