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Library of Inspiration

Why Fast Lenses Make All the Difference

Jaipur, India

"Great lenses pay off when the going gets tough," Jim Richardson tells us. Of course, "tough" can be a relative term.

A recent adventure for Jim, who has photographed over two dozen assignments for National Geographic magazine, and who can best be described as an editorial narrative photographer, took him to nine countries in 22 days on National Geographic Expeditions' private jet around the world tour. He talked with some 80 participants about the cultural and historical aspects of various exotic locations, shared his experiences photographing for National Geographic, offered photographic advice and documented the trip for a presentation. A busy schedule to be sure, but still—business class accommodations on the jet, chef on board, top-notch hotels and a world's greatest hits of locations and sites that included Easter Island, Machu Picchu, Angkor Wat, the Taj Mahal and the Serengeti. Not exactly 40 miles of bad road by anyone's definition.

So where does "tough" come in?

Glad you asked. The word applies to the often less than ideal conditions for photography and the overall run-and-gun pace of those 22 days.

"It's a tour," Jim says, "a classy tour, but a tour nonetheless, and I had maybe two or three minutes to make most of the shots. That's not my usual way of shooting for the Geographic, where I'd take some time at a location, explore some possibilities and be able to come back under optimal conditions. Here I couldn't come back tomorrow; tomorrow we'd be at the pyramids. I decided on the shot, made the shot and moved on, quickly."

But when you look at the images he made, there's nothing run-and-gun about them, and that's thanks to Jim's skill and his years of ‘been there, shot that' experience—in addition to his choice of lenses.

"The thing about really "primo" glass is that the worse the conditions, the more it shines." In this case, primo glass meant the AF-S NIKKOR 24mm f/1.4G ED, the AF-S NIKKOR 50mm f/1.4G EDand the AF-S NIKKOR 85mm f/1.4G ED. Pro shooters call lenses like these fast glass, meaning they have large maximum apertures—f/1.4 for this trio—that let in lots of light and thus allow the use of fast shutter speeds.

"In a lot of situations that was critical," Jim says. "Take the first image, of elephant polo at night, for instance. There are a few lights, but most of the field is pretty dark. I got that shot at f/1.4, 1/8 of a second and pushed the ISO to 6400; I needed all the speed that 24mm lens could give me."

In addition to speed, the lenses offered another key advantage: shot at or close to their maximum aperture they provide pleasantly soft backgrounds. "For the [image of the] man in the red turban, I was able get up close with the 24mm lens and get a smooth, soft, out-of-focus background that doesn't distract from, or compete with, the subject. And for the snake charmer, [the seventh photo], also shot with the 24mm, I was able to get within 18-inches of the cobra, capture the texture of the scales on its back and still give some definition and detail to the snake charmer in the background."

"The man in the red turban shows something else about these lenses," Jim adds, "and that's how well they hold their contrast against bright light. My first reaction was to think about maybe popping a strobe on him, or moving him someplace where he was getting more light from outside, but I decided to see what this lens could do with bright sunshine pouring in from the background. And he came to life; the color did, too, and there's no hint of flare."

Jim has the same feeling about the fifth image, the photograph of the boatman. "That was f/2 at 1/3200 of a second in full daylight. I wanted the lens opened up to get a soft focus background, but with that much light, I needed a fast shutter speed to get a good exposure with no flare."

As the trip progressed, more and more opportunities presented themselves. "This incredible technology—in the lenses and the camera—just opened up a lot of possibilities in a lot of situations; things I wouldn't have thought of before became not only possible, but eminently doable, and not at the outer fringes of image quality—they were right on the bull's-eye."

Jim also has a good word for Capture NX 2, the software he uses to get the most from his RAW files. "I use it for toning and burning and dodging-type techniques [essentially lightening or darkening specific parts of an image]. I think of NX 2 as part of my Nikon system—it delivers the maximum quality from the image."

He also has a word for the low-light capability of the D700 that accompanied him on the trip. He took the last photo in Samoa, from the balcony of his hotel room at 2:00 a.m. in the morning, after the lights on the hotel grounds had been turned off. "I set the camera on a tray to prop it up at an angle, set the self-timer to trip the shutter and made the shot at 30 seconds at f/1.6 and ISO 5000. You can see the Andromeda galaxy in the sky."

Maybe the best thing about Jim's story is that we don't have to sign up for a whirlwind 'round the world tour in order to take advantage of lenses like the NIKKORs Jim used. Chances are circumstances close to home will offer us plenty of low light situations, portrait possibilities and selective focus opportunities that'll allow fast glass to shine on brightly.

© Jim Richardson