Road-trip – Getting reacquainted with the 35mm focal length

August 3, 2017 Brian Matiash

If I’m being completely honest with you, I’d have to say that the 35mm focal length was never really my thing. Don’t get me wrong. It isn’t lost on me that pretty much every roll of film and digital camera I’ve used has been of—or equivalent to—the 35mm film gauge. It’s just that I have always tended to veer towards the wider end of the focal length spectrum. When you get to the 18mm or 15mm focal length, then you’re starting to speak my language. I’ve always gotten a kick out of seeing how much I can fit into my frame at that focal length and, over the years, I’ve learned to appreciate and embrace the sort of radial distortion you can getThat is not to say that I don’t enjoy the mid-range focal lengths. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that the 24mm – 50mm focal range is one of the most important as far as photographic compositions go and the 35mm focal length, in particular, is one of the most classic.

The Garden of One Thousand Buddhas – Arlee, MT

One of the most common pitfalls of using an ultra-wide focal length is that it’s easy to get lost in everything in your frame. When you’re working at 15mm, it’s quite amazing to see just how much subject matter you can fit in those four frame walls. With that, though, comes an increased chance of including too much, which only results in busying up your image and making your viewer get lost. The 35mm focal length reminds me of the classic tale, “Goldilocks and the Three Bears,” where it is not too wide and not too long. Rather, it’s just right. This idea crystalized itself when I visited the absolutely charming Garden of One Thousand Buddhas, near Missoula, MT. Upon arriving, you’re greeting with a lovely field and paths leading to a circular garden populated with a dizzying number of Buddha statues as well as to a small hill with additional shrines and statues.

© Brian Matiash, Sony A7R2, ZEISS Milvus 1.4/35, f/9.0, 1/250 sec., ISO-100 © Brian Matiash, Sony A7R2, ZEISS Milvus 1.4/35, f/2.5, 1/2500 sec., ISO-100

It is here that I quickly began to appreciate the benefits of the 35mm focal length and the build quality of this Milvus lens. I wanted to explore the Garden with as little gear as possible so all I took was my Sony a7R II and Milvus 1.4/35 lens (using a Sigma EF-to-E adapter). No filters. No tripods. Just one camera and one lens. Admittedly, I am often over-caffeinated, so handholding my camera can prove to be challenging. Fortunately, the massive f/1.4 aperture allows me to speed up my shutter speed to where shaky hands wasn’t an issue. Another point worth highlighting is that thanks to the 5-axis in-body Image Stabilization of my Sony a7R II, I was further able to ensure crisp, sharp photos while handholding my camera.  Additionally, the construction of this particular lens resulted in a wonderfully balanced feel in my hands and that is a factor that I believe goes unmentioned a lot. If you’re holding a camera to your face, it makes things go much more smoothly if what’s in your hands feels balanced. That was exactly what I felt when using this particular camera and lens combination… it just felt great to hold.

I didn’t just benefit from the f/1.4 aperture as far as shutter speed goes. The resulting shallow depth of field allowed me to get very creative with my surroundings and resulting compositions. It also allowed me to easily separate my foreground elements from the background, as was the case with my sister, Greta, blowing on a gigantic dandelion.

© Brian Matiash, Sony A7R2, ZEISS Milvus 1.4/35, f/4.5, 1/640 sec., ISO-100 © Brian Matiash, Sony A7R2, ZEISS Milvus 1.4/35, f/2.0, 1/8000 sec., ISO-100
Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming

Just because you’re using a 35mm focal length doesn’t mean that you can’t get the benefits of a wider lens. One of the hallmarks of any photographer is to make your gear work for you the best way possible. Similar to the Garden of One Thousand Buddahs, my goal for this National Park was to go with one camera and one lens. I wasn’t worried as much about needed a telephoto lens because so much of the location’s natural beauty is quite wide and expansive. For a while, I was able to fit just the right amount of subject matter without letting the frames get too busy. Between the prismatic colors of the mineral deposits to a beautiful, cascading waterfall, the 35mm focal length proved ideal and the Milvus lens handled like a champ.

© Brian Matiash, Sony A7R2, ZEISS Milvus 1.4/35, f/10, 1/100 sec., ISO-100 © Brian Matiash, Sony A7R2, ZEISS Milvus 1.4/35, f/16, 1/6 sec., ISO-100

Everything was going fine until I came upon the Fountain Paint Pot Trail. Near the start of the trail was a collection of dead, nearly petrified lodgepole pine trees sitting in shallow mud and mineral deposits. The scene had a bit of a spooky vibe in the way that the trees were arranged, standing stiff, dormant and dead. As soon as I went to compose the photo, I knew that I was in trouble because my focal length was too narrow and I didn’t have enough room on the trail’s boardwalk to go back on. Fortunately, I had a trick up my sleeve. Instead of fitting the entire scene into a single horizontal frame, I held my camera vertically and took five quick shots panning from left to right, ensuring a healthy amount of overlap between frames.

Before doing so, I made sure to lock my focus and exposure settings so that each frame would be exactly the same. It is worth noting that using a high performing lens constructed with stellar glass optics is critical when you intend on stitching multiple photos into a singular panoramic image. Most lenses will be sharp in the center but often lose that detail as you approach the edges of the frame. This can result in a subpar result when stitching your photos together. However, the outstanding edge-to-edge sharpness produced by the Milvus 1.4/35 ensured that when I stitched each of the five frames together, the result would be seamless, clean, and sharp throughout the combined frame. Panorama stitching technology has come such a long way. You don’t even need additional software anymore, assuming that you use Adobe Lightroom. Within seconds, I was able to stitch these five handheld panels into a single composition that included everything I had aimed for, all while at a 35mm focal length.

© Brian Matiash, Sony A7R2, ZEISS Milvus 1.4/35, f/6.3, 1/200 sec., ISO-100

© Brian Matiash, Sony A7R2, ZEISS Milvus 1.4/35, f/6.3, 1/200 sec., ISO-100

Badlands National Park, South Dakota

The final leg of our road trip had us go through Badlands National Park. After a week of shooting pretty much exclusively with the Milvus 1.4/35, I gained a keen appreciation for the focal length. If I had to sum it up, I’d say that it gives me the best of both worlds with regards to the benefits of wide and narrow focal lengths. I was always able to fit everything in the frame, even when I filled most of it with plants or reeds. That’s where the fine-tuned focus ring really came handy. I’d get my composition framed up and could dial in my plane of focus with amazing precision, ensuring that everything I wanted in focus would be. Admittedly, this is something I take for granted, so when I have that sort of control at my disposal, I make every effort to take advantage of it. Additionally, the 35mm focal length allows me to capture an expansive scene without making the background elements seem tiny and overly distant.

© Brian Matiash, Sony A7R2, ZEISS Milvus 1.4/35, f/13, 1/60 sec., ISO-100 © Brian Matiash, Sony A7R2, ZEISS Milvus 1.4/35, f/13, 1/60 sec., ISO-100

So, there you have it. After driving over 2600 miles, visiting four National Parks, and taking hundreds of new photos using the Milvus 1.4/35, I think it’s safe to say that I am hooked and when you spend some time with that lens, you will be, too. Before signing off, it’s worth revisiting the notion of spending an entire shoot, or day, or week using one camera with one lens, especially a prime lens. I challenged myself with this criteria on my road trip and doubled down by locking into a focal length that, admittedly, I believed I wasn’t very fond of. However, after going through the motions of composing shot after shot, I began appreciating the limitation—if you want to call it that—of being locked into a 35mm focal length. As photographers, the gear you use shouldn’t be so much about what’s easy or convenient but rather what enables you to satisfy your creative vision.

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