The Importance of Prime Lenses for Documenting Life

by Sean Setters

By now, she's actually a couple of weeks old. But at the time this image above was taken, Olivia Jane had been breathing air for only about an hour. My life has change a lot since September 11 at 4:50pm, but one thing remains the same – the importance of photography in documenting the world around me. Specific endeavors require specific gear, and lately I've been leaning heavily on certain lenses more than others. Specifically, I've been relying on wide-aperture prime lenses, with their ability to create subject isolation and freeze motion (using moderate ISOs) when second-chance opportunities are fleeting or non-existent.

A couple of years ago, I posted an article urging site visitors to prepare a Go-Bag packed with the photography gear necessary to accomplish a certain goal. With my wife nearing her due date, I took my own advice and packed a Lowepro backpack with the following:

Sharp-eyed site visitors have likely noticed two aspects regarding the kit listed above. The first is that all the lenses I packed were prime lenses. I chose to pack a large assortment of wide aperture prime lenses because I wasn't sure how well lit the hospital would be and the max aperture of my general purpose lens, a Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM, seemed too narrow to rely on for the indoor event. As it turns out, the room where my wife gave birth was "softly lit for patient comfort" (hospital terminology for "relatively dark") with a couple of bright spot lights illuminating the delivery zone. The wide aperture primes proved essential for maximizing image quality while documenting the life-changing event. When packing the bag, I suspected the longest and shortest focal length primes would be too long/short for effective use in the areas I'd be shooting in during our 2-day hospital stay, and that largely proved to be true.

The second thing you might have noticed is the lack of a backup camera. Knowing the importance of the situation ahead, I packed a second very small shoulder bag with the following items:

This kit in this bag had two purposes. One, it provided me with a backup camera should something happen to the primary camera in the other bag. Second, it gave me a couple of STM lenses that I could pair with the 7D II should I decided to capture video. Not knowing how much room I'd have to store things in the delivery and post-partum rooms, my plan was to leave this backup camera bag in our car parked in the parking lot and simply run out to the car if I wanted/needed it. Of course, a primary camera failure at a critical time would have left me without an easy-to-access backup, but... thankfully, that didn't happen. In fact, the backup camera bag never made it out of the car. Note: I don't recommend leaving your camera gear in an automobile for long periods of time because of prolonged heat/humidity and chance of theft. In this case, however, I prioritized a less-cluttered hospital room over my gear's safety (the bag was well hidden/out of view in the vehicle).

So which lenses did I utilize most during the big event?

LensShots
Captured
Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 USM Macro157
Canon EF 35mm f/2 IS USM156
Sigma 50mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art42
Sigma 24mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art31
Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM17
Canon EF 135mm f/2L USM2
Rokinon 14mm f/2.82
Total407

Olivia Grasps Finger September 11, 2018

Unfortunately, the data is a bit misleading. I used the Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 USM Macro to capture lots of close-ups of Olivia's feet, hands, ears, etc. However, without stabilization (and not wanting to push ISOs too high), a lot of those images came out blurry. However, I was shooting the macros when I wasn't pressed for time and the baby was relatively content, so I often shot a large number of images for each framing I wanted. In other words, the macro lens was only used for a limited number of compositions, but I recorded many shots of each composition to ensure I got what I wanted.

Alexis Going Into Labor

The lens that was mounted to my camera for most of our hospital stay (and just before leaving for the hospital) was the Canon EF 35mm f/2 IS USM. The moderately wide focal length paired with image stabilization made it an extremely versatile lens, able to capture enough slightly-blurry background with the subject to tell a story while remaining easy to work with in relatively tight spaces. The lens' IS system meant that I could use even-slower-than-usual shutter speed when subject movement was minimal, while the wide f/2 aperture allowed me to freeze action even in dimly lit conditions.

Olivia Moments After Birth

The next most-used lens was the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art. It was the lens I chose to mount as soon as Olivia saw light for the first time. At that point, I wanted to limit distractions in the composition by using a narrower field of view to focus on my wife and baby seeing each other for the first time. A wide-aperture 50mm prime lens gave me the composition I desired along with action-stopping shutter speeds and a relatively low ISO setting.

In the Waiting Room

The rest of the lenses I brought were used sporadically, but looking back, I could have sufficed without them. That said, different hospitals may present different opportunities for various focal lengths, so having several available is nearly always a good idea. Could I have gotten away with using only a 24-70mm f/2.8 zoom lens? Maybe, but the max f/2.8 aperture would have required a 2-4x higher ISO to be used to achieve the same action-stopping shutter speeds compared to most of the primes I brought. Also, considering the amount of background distractions found in a typical hospital room, an f/2.8 aperture would not have allowed me to blur those elements quite as much. The downside to primes, of course, is the need to change lenses when a new focal length is desired for the optimal composition.

My Father Holding Olivia

My backpack full of prime lenses proved equally useful after returning home from the hospital. I left it sitting just inside our dining room and would quickly grab the camera for capturing the various "awwww" moments that occurred in our home over following week.

It's been two weeks now, and that day is a bit of a blur in my memory. But thankfully, I have a wonderful set of images to look back on to remind me of the way during my child's first few days outside the womb. My photographic style is typically very deliberate, with lighting and/or tripod setups that slow down the capture process. While prime lenses fit well into that kind of workflow, they aren't absolutely necessary as lighting (either added to the scene or recorded via a slower shutter speed) isn't really a problem. But when documenting life as it happens, what a wide aperture prime lacks in focal length range, it more than makes up for in the versatility and aesthetic afforded by its max aperture.

Posted: 9/26/2018 11:52:31 AM CT   Posted By: Sean
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