Tuesday, September 22, 2009

What's Your Focal Length?

At The Parade, 2009

It’s a staple of most creative training that when you feel blocked you do something to shake things up. When I took piano lessons my teacher would have me learn a piece and then play it in a completely different style. She had me play Chopin in a ragtime style and Bartok as the blues. Supposedly this loosened me up by getting me to think about something besides the notes on the page.

I’ve been shooting Shriner parades at Virginia Beach for several years. I’m not a Shriner myself. My grandfather was. My father was Mason who, although I don’t know that he attended a meeting in thirty-five years, died wearing his Masonic ring.

Two of the regional Shrine associations hold their conventions here every other year. They’re usually scheduled one right after the other. So there are parades held on successive Saturday mornings.

Over the years I’ve learned to cover these parades with two cameras, one with a long lens and one with a shorter zoom. They give me the flexibility to get shots both wide and close. Carrying two cameras also apparently makes me look legitimate enough that if I walk out onto the street and into the midst of a throng of marching Shriners to catch an interesting shot no one bothers me.

I use the short lens most. I tend to want to see things wide, full of information and just skewed enough in perspective to draw the eye in. But having used this same pair of lenses for several years, I decided that for this past weekend’s parade of the South Atlantic Shrine Association I would leave the short zoom lens home—well, to be honest, I was too insecure to do anything but leave it in the car, “just in case”—and replace it with a fixed 50mm lens.

The 50mm lens is thought by most to be the perfect lens for street and travel photography. It doesn’t have the distortion of wider lenses. It’s great for either shallow or deep depth-of-field.

You’d think that would be good for a parade. But try as I might to adjust to needing to stand in a different position relative to my subjects than normal—how hard could that be?—I found myself spending most of the morning fighting the lens. The lens’ scope was too tight. I wanted to see wide. I’d stand out in the middle of the street between screaming Shriner go-karts from Sumter, South Carolina, and a bagpipe band from Richmond and not be able to compose the scene I wanted. The heck with shaking things up!

Since the camera lens is ostensibly an extension of the photographer’s eye, I concluded after Saturday morning’s parade that it’s indeed my style to see things wide, whether than means having to live with straight lines rendered into curves, or not.


  1. I love the guy in the green shirt you captured watching them here. Great shot! Whenever I try to change what I'm doing to get the creative juices flowing, I just get more depressed that I can't do either thing well. Supposedly that works, but it just makes me even more insecure.

  2. I like long. When I have a wide lens on my camera I feel like I'm wearing someone else's shoes.