Time was, that a zoom lens was what amateurs used. Real photographers use fixed lenses. A Real Photographer (RP) always had the right lens on the camera and a range of alternatives in their battered canvas shoulder bag. An RP could change a film under sniper fire and judge the right exposure by eye. And besides, all the magazines said that zooms were inferior. At the time they probably were, or perhaps the journalists had a heavy investment in fixed lenses and wished it so.
And then computers happened. Or rather, Moore’s Law and whatever the equivalent is in manufacturing. (Foolish boy! Moore’s law is about manufacturing.) We are very good at learning how to make things better. Cars don’t rust like they used to and getting to 100,000 miles is not worth writing to the papers about. We no longer have to take engines apart to de-coke them or regrind the valves. So apply cheaper and more powerful computers to optical design and clever manufacturing to lens grinding and glass-making and we built a better zoom.
So zooms started to challenge the quality of fixed lenses. Remember of course that this mythical quality was measured by shooting resolution charts and not by the results people got using them. I reckon that people using zooms have always been happy with the results, or they wouldn’t shoot zooms.
And then along came the zoom compact and it sold by the squillion. I remember a TV ad that showed people photographing a group, perhaps at a wedding. The people using ‘ordinary’ point-and-shoots were sliding closer and further to the group to frame their shots. The smug one with the advertised camera used the in-built zoom lens to go from group to single portrait without having to move. Is this the camera that caused obesity? Anyway, we all bought 35mm compacts with zooms and a built-in flash. Although I bet almost all of the pictures were taken at one of the extreme ends of the zoom range.
Hot on the heels of the film compact came the digital one, and these all had zooms as standard. Then came the digital SLR with its standard zoom out of the box. Zoom became the default. I was at an event recently that had an official event photographer capturing the speakers for posterity. He had a pair of cameras, both fitted with zooms. Why not, when you can avoid even having to change lenses? He was shooting in the usual ill-lit theatre environment using a 70-210 zoom and no flash. And the shutter was going click rather than cliiiiiiiiiiiiiiick. So given you can push the ISO to the moon, why not use a zoom to get the framing rather than a wider fixed lens to grab the light?
In fact, the only reason I can see for people using a fixed lens at the moment is to get a special effect or to gain a wide aperture. Give it a year or so and the f1.4 zoom will be in the shops and we need never change lenses again. Although I suppose there will still be sports photographers or weird old codgers who mutter into their beards and smell of fixer. Or Leica users.
I found an object of my youthful lust in a charity shop a few weeks back. A genuine Vivitar Series 1 70-210mm zoom. Filthy as hell, but £8. The joy of (some) old mechanical stuff though is that it was assembled by people, so it can be disassembled by people. You will know what I mean if you have ever tried to fix or replace a component in a smartphone. But the lens came apart in a logical order and cleaned up well. How well does it work? Not sure yet. I must say that I find myself using long lenses less often these days. I’m not a bird watcher and I don’t spectate at sport very often. So I find myself using lenses in the range covered by the zoom compacts of old: a bit wide to a bit long. My favourite zoom of all has the (35mm equivalent) range of 24-68mm and just lives on the camera. So yes, I probably didn’t need the Vivitar. But I can sit in a dark room with it, cackling and calling it precious. And that’s good too.
The serious question is that I am off on holiday next week. Do I take a bagful of fixed lenses or couple of zooms?
So I took the Vivitar 70-210 and a Pentax 24-50mm. I took a couple of shots on the long zoom and none at all on the wide. Part of it was the conditions – I spent a lot of time walking on beaches or sand dunes. I’ve got a rufty-tufty fixed lens camera that is sand and water proof and that got most of the action. I had no problem putting it down onto wet sand to take some very low-level shots or of using it in a storm of blown sand. I think the zoom lenses would have got a bit crunchy or the camera would have seized.
So it set me off to thinking again. I’ve got some compact cameras with built-in zooms. I don’t even think about it when I’m using them – it’s a very convenient way to get the framing quickly, particularly as they will also do macro. I have a digital SLR with two zooms that cover the range from wide to long. I’ve also got a lifetime’s worth of old fixed lenses that I have bought or been given over the years. And I’ve got some cameras that have fixed lenses. So the thinking has been reflection on how I actually use these things.
On the digital stuff the zooms are autofocus and quick to zoom. So I just use them and don’t even think about it. The only problem with the film-camera zooms is their limited aperture, which can make focussing a bit iffy in poor light. The challenge to them though, is that I’m no longer a film-only photographer (but I am still a FUP duck). It used to be that if I wanted the benefits of carrying just the one lens, I had to fit something like a 35-70mm to my camera. I find that what has happened is that, if I want to use a zoom, I use a digital camera. The kinds of things I use a zoom for are the kinds of things that suit digital capture, with its low marginal cost, large capacity and opportunities to play around. And then the kinds of things I like using film for better suit the use of fixed lenses (or I can’t change the lens anyway). For film, part of the pleasure is the difficulty, or perhaps the right word is engagement.
Until I started writing this and thinking about zooms, it had not occurred to me that I do this. So I wonder if I should flog all my film zooms on fleabay and settle down to being an old codger who smells of fixer? I could end up listening to the Classic Lenses Podcast.