Why shooting with a prime lens will help you grow creatively

Discussion in 'Photography and Cameras' started by rhythmdevils, Aug 11, 2021.

  1. rhythmdevils

    rhythmdevils MOT: rhythmdevils audio

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    Most people especially those just getting into photography tend to use zoom lenses because they seem more convenient and there’s the idea that you’re getting multiple lenses in one so it also seems like a good deal. It depends on what kind of photographer you are and what kinds of photographs you want to make. A zoom is great for certain people and is all they need. Zooms are also really helpful for certain commercial jobs where you can’t move as much, like the ceremonies at weddings or architecture photography where you maybe can’t get into the position you want to get the composition you want.

    But for all but very experienced photographers who have been photographing for decades, using a zoom all the time will limit your ability to expand creatively.

    When people shoot with a zoom lens, they wind up depending on the zoom too much and using their minds and imaginations less. They usually see a subject that interests them, put the camera up to their eye while standing in the spot where they noticed this subject, then just zoom in and out to compose the image and take a picture.

    The thing that is missing from this process is pre-visualization.

    This is incredibly important for the creative process of image making. It’s about not just documenting subjects, but creating an image out of the subject. To photograph with more of your creative ability, you need to learn to see a subject and then see an image made out of that subject in your imagination. And then go about creating that image with the camera. See it in your imagination first, then ]create it with the camera second. This is pre-visualization. Creating images in your mind instead of just documenting things.

    Pre-vizualization happens before you make the photograph. You are looking at the subject and your imagination is creating an image out of it that captures the various elements that will give the subject context and communicate what it means to you. This involves the light, the angle you take the image from, what you include and exclude from the frame, and your composition.

    The problem with shooting with a zoom lens is that they make pre-visualization very difficult to the point that everyone but photographers with decades of experience won’t be able to do it. Zoom lenses are constantly changing the perspective that you see through the lens so you don’t learn and get to know what frame and perspective the camera will see when you put it up to your eye. This is critical to learn, so you can imagine what your camera will see. If you can’t imagine what your camera will see, pre-visualization becomes very very difficult.

    When you shoot with a prime lens, the perspective is always the same. So as you photograph with it more, you learn to know what a scene will look like through your camera. You know where it will crop the edges of the frame when you put it up to your eye, and you know the perspective it will create. So as you learn to get to know this well, you can start pre-visualizing subjects by seeing what your camera will see in your imagination without even putting the camera up to your eye. You can then think with your imagination and move around the scene in your mind and find a frame and composition that communicates what you want to communicate. And then go and create it with your camera.

    The affect this has in the end is that instead of seeing a subject, standing there with the camera at head height and just zooming back and forth with random focal lengths in every shot, you will see a subject, spend some time imagining it (in time this will become quicker and quicker until it is almost instantaneous) and then you will move around the subject, approach it from different heights and angles and create an image that really communicates something more than just "this is a subject"

    I highly recommend all beginning to moderate photographers use one prime lens - for full frame DSLR’s a 35mm lens is a great one to use, but a 50mm works as well. Only use that lens. Don’t even switch between different primes. You need to learn how your camera sees. Do this for a year or more and see how it changes the kinds of images you make. Even if you’re just photographing your kids and your life but want to learn to be more creative this is a great practice. Yes, you will often find it limiting because sometimes you can’t move to where you want to be. But oftentimes limitations force you to be more creative. And the trade off is worth it.

    Use one prime lens, and put that zoom and your other lenses away.

    I’ve been photographing for about 23 years and I have always just used one prime lens with the exception of certain moments or situations in commercial jobs.

    The most creative photographers in history all used prime lenses. If they did what they did with a prime, you will be fine.
     
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  2. Thad E Ginathom

    Thad E Ginathom Friend

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    Zoom can be equal to a bunch of primes without buying them separately!

    I really do get the point of a lot of what you saying. I really like my prime lenses, one in particular. That lens gets time on the camera every session, because, a) faster, b), c), d) and e)... just simply better.

    One gets more exercise with primes. One has to walk around!

    I'm kind-of thinking one can be creative whatever the tool. But if I was to jump the fence to your side, I could take the argument one step further. Don't just say primes, say standard! ie FF 50mm equivalent. What do you think?
     
  3. Thad E Ginathom

    Thad E Ginathom Friend

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    On second thoughts...

    I got back into "real-camera" photography two or three years ago, to get better pics at classical Indian music concerts. I bought myself a couple of f2.8 zooms this year. Previously I was only using primes, because I needed the speed first for simply getting pics without motion blur, and second, for compositional aspects.

    So I did do a primes-only apprenticeship, and, I guess it was good for me.
     
  4. YMO

    YMO Chief Fun Officer

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    Zoom is heavy, Prime is light. Zoom is wallet destroying, Prime isn't.

    Back when I had a Nikon I enjoyed it more with a Prime.
     
  5. E_Schaaf

    E_Schaaf MOT: E.T.A Headphones

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    I agree about prime > zoom, but take it a step further and shoot medium format film instead of digital if you really want to be sure you're not snapping all williy-nilly and making best use of the ephemeral moment. On Porta 400 with a 6x9 rangefinder you get about 18 stops of dynamic range and over 1GP of usable information with the right scanner because the lens is plenty sharp and the grain plenty smooth. I shoot an old Fujica GW690 that I got for under $400.
     
  6. rhythmdevils

    rhythmdevils MOT: rhythmdevils audio

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    There are lots of ways to change the way you shoot. Shooting on film is a different experience. But I'm specifically just trying to talk about how using prime lenses will help photographers learn to think more creatively when shooting. This can be done with any film or digital camera you have. And anyone can do this.

    Yes, you can be creative with anything. But my point is that shooting with a prime for at least a period of time trains you to think in a more creative way by making pre-visualizing easier. If you have a super human brain, maybe you don't need this advice, but it will really help a lot of people think about photographing in a deeper, more imaginative way. Being able to imagine what the camera will see in your imagination changes the way you photograph. This is very very difficult to do if you use a zoom and the perspective is constantly changing. But once you learn to see what the camera's eye will see in your imagination, you can sort of go back to zooms for part time use though it wil start eroding what you'e learned if you use them all the time.

    Any neutral prime is fine to pick. With full frame DSLR's a 35mm or 50mm are both fine. I recently did a whole project with just a 35mm prime.
     
  7. Cryptowolf

    Cryptowolf Repping Chi Town - Friend

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    I agree that shooting with primes does make pre-visualization easier, and also has several other advantages: lower cost for faster lenses, generally better bokeh (sp?) due to the higher number of elements in the aperture control, and lighter weight compared to the multi-length zoom lenses. I'm a serious amateur who has been occasionally paid for event photography.

    Here are some recommendations:

    35mm - landscapes
    50mm - great for street photography and as a walking around lense
    85mm - portraits and low light events where you are able to be 10-15 feet from the performers
    100mm macro - watches or other small item studio photography
    200mm or 300mm - sports and nature photography

    These are just general suggestions. As Rhythmdevils suggested, these help train the mind and can help one decide which pricier zooms to acquire. Lastly, lensrentals is a great way to try out a lens for a week or more. They even have a try before you buy program. I am not affiliated in any way, just a happy customer.
     
  8. crazychile

    crazychile Eastern Iowa's Spiciest Pepper

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    I used to teach and shoot semi-pro back in the mid 80s but sort of lost interest coincidentally about the time I started getting into audio. I bought my daughter a digital Nikon a few years ago and started with a zoom lens. Then bought a 50mm. The clarity of the 50mm kills the zoom. But I expected that. But damn, the price of prime Nikon lenses sure hasn’t gotten any cheaper over the decades. Ouch. But I guess going with a cheap zoom is the audio equivalent of buying a Topping D10 and thinking you’re all good.
     
  9. robot zombie

    robot zombie Friend

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    It's good advice. I like to shoot with primes whenever possible. Just plan for the best focal length, maybe bring a secondary. I'm dealing with just two distinct perspectives. And there's a transition between the two. It's all conscious.

    I got into photography by taking a class at the local community college. I didn't do anything with it until a good 10 years later, and I still have never been fully serious about it. It's one of those things I'll probably never be all that knowledgeable on - it's just for fun. But I learned a few things that stuck even a decade later. The instructors were these two greybeards, event photographers for 3 decades. Granted, their heyday was all film. Because of that, they understood certain things. Canon t3i's were plenty accessible then, for a class that gives you real credit. But they instead insisted we all use 35mm film, iso of 100-800 with lower always being better, full-manual, with a 50mm prime. We had to understand the exposure triangle intuitively before we even shot anything. They knew we wouldn't always be using this. They let us know that too. They stressed that it's about your mental habits when you hold a camera. They made it very clear that you could use a digital if you had one, but not for the class. You needed to get an inexpensive film camera and a 50mm prime. I got a Canon Rebel of some sort and a nifty fifty v2.

    The idea was to be deliberate with each shot. Take the time to examine and let it come to form in your mind. They really stressed trying to visualize how it will look printed. After looking through the viewfinder with that lens enough, things lock in quicker and you can start to compose more on the fly. You go back over the photos and learn to intuit where the viewfinder lies to you. This is good because you still have to meter and set exposure before you focus!

    The downside of this is that it is a lot to take in. I know for me it just felt like a lot of missed creative opportunities spent staying on top of the whole exposure cycle. Being tied to film rolls. Even worse, the feedback only comes later, when you're in a different place, mentally and materially. Previews still can't show me everything, but if I have the time I can use the previews to identify pockets in the lens's perspective. I prefer to shoot in manual mode with auto-iso. Lock in one of the other attributes in the exposure triangle depending on what I'm shooting. This way I'm basically only controlling one thing while composing and focusing. My camera has an over/under dial so I can let exposure do its thing and adjust to taste. Less missed opportunities. I can take the time to compose and know I won't miss the shot in doing so. I appreciate that. I still do use primes when I can. I have a tele zoom, but that's already for far away things. Also a wide-angle zoom, if you want to call that a zoom. The perspective shift from 11-22mm on a crop isn't that much. I have a nice 32mm prime for my Canon APS-C. f/1.4, sharper with nicer bokeh. It's a good, versatile lens. I keep it in manual/auto-iso with that lens on it in my bag, open. It's small, but does a lot. I love mirrorless because the size and maneuverability encourages movement. They really get around. The lenses get to be much smaller, just like the bodies. I also like the 50mm with an adapter. The tighter perspective creates a nice feel that pops with the right angles. You can use the distortion a bit. It's one where I tend not to use correction on that.

    You notice stuff like that when you commit to a lens. It's a great thing to be comfortable with, too. You can use your camera more if you can bear to carry less. You learn that over time. At first, you bring what you think you need, over time, you ditch what you don't, because it convoluted a process that you were honing.

    Truth be told, I would ONLY use primes if such a thing was possible. The image quality benefits are always worth it when you can use one. Just another reason to make a habit out of using them.

    I liked those two. My situation was such that I didn't have a car, but sometimes I could get rides a little early - coworker after our shifts together. Sometimes I would use the time to do work for another class, but often I would talk to them. You could ask a question and then they would talk without your intervention for 5-10 minutes. They would definitely agree that working a prime in would be a great way to go. I think a zoom is probably handy for experimenting with composition on the go. I think there are learning opportunities there. Other times, time is just of the essence. I don't have one myself.

    They talked a good bit about grouping. That really stood out to me. They were into how our brains identified things, and how perspective and relative factors played into that. This was never mentioned in a lecture. They told me in private. I didn't fully get it at the time, I was 19. But the gist of what they told me was to use the lens to train myself on the different grouping patterns you see in a scene. Essentially, use the familiarity with the lens to start to wrap your head around the geometry in front of you, and begin to arrange it. That's kinda what I want to work towards. It's a skill that I think helps you no matter what you're shooting. Or, I can't think of a shot where it wouldn't. There are undoubtedly some.
     
  10. Qildail

    Qildail Friend

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    A couple of forevers ago, I had the photography bug in the worst way. I went all in with a Nikon F4 (that thing was a tank for all the times I dropped it...) and a whole bag full of toys.

    In the end I ended up with two primaries: An 85mm f/1.8 and a 200 f/2.8. They were pretty much all I needed for what I was shooting at the time. Later on I picked up a 20mm f/2.8 (and a large Fujichrome budget) for pictures out on the lakefront. I never got the feel for the 50mm, for some reason -- I had a cheap one in the bag but I never used it.

    I ended up selling or giving away most of my zooms. The problem I always had was the ones I could afford had bad variable apertures (f/5.6 in a high school basketball barn? Forget it; might as well just pack it up) or bad optics from too many moving parts. The good zooms were (then, probably still?) bulky and expensive.

    Not to steer out of my lane, but this idea even works for phone photography. Keep your hands off the zoom slider and move your feet...
     
  11. Bina

    Bina MOT - Shanling

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    In our photoclub, I think we are somewhere around 60% zooms and 40% prime people.

    I personalty find standard zoom lens (24-70/105) the most boring thing ever. If I go for some once in lifetime opportunity, I guess I would take it. But for anything else, it always sits at home. I feel different about 70-200mm zooms, but that's mostly because these are harder to replace with primes (especially on M43).

    For my random photowalks, pretty much this whole year it was 28mm lens and fisheye. Just sometimes switching to 90mm.
     
  12. shambles

    shambles Facebook Friend

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    With the exception of a brief DSLR period 15+ years ago when I first got into photography, I have always been a 100% prime person and always in the 28mm-50mm equivalent range. Regardless of whether shooting film (M-mount for 35mm and going back further MF) or digital (Ricoh GR and X100V) those focal lengths give me everything I need for what I shoot personally. I owned several longer and wider primes years ago (21mm, 25mm, 90mm) but through taking a shitload of photos and thinking critically about your objectives and output, you just work out over time what fits you.

    In terms of usage cases, for me it's something like this:
    • for more conventional (i.e. non-urban) landscape: 90% 35mm and 10% 50mm
    • for city/street-scapes and architecture (I don't do street photography in the traditional sense) 75% 35mm and 25% 28mm
    • for portraits, I mostly do more environmental portraits so 35mm works well, but occasionally 50mm for more conventional portraits
    Since 35mm covers all bases, it has always been my default focal length.

    As others have said, the price-to-quality ratio of primes is a big plus, but I also find the smaller size and weight to be a huge advantage (hence my love of M-mount and other small cameras) since I walk a lot when photographing. The pre-visualisation thing is also extremely valuable for me. I can pretty accurately picture the frame lines for these 3 focal lengths without raising the camera and you get used to a particular perspective and way of thinking. I realised early on that the additional choice zooms give you for framing has a massive negative impact on my image making process.

    Yeah completely agreed, the Fuji MF stuff is superb value for money. Back in 2010-12 I shot a ton of 120 format Portra 400 on a Fuji GA645i for a big landscape project and it's still the most satisfying (and I think best) work I have done. I'd use an external light meter and set focus and exposure manually as I do when shooting 35mm rangefinders, even though the Fuji 645s have auto-everything and are basically giant MF point and shoots.

    The format and process forces you to focus and think more and even 645 scanned carefully using good 3rd party film holders on a decent flatbed gave me superb results, so 6x9 would be insane. Yes, modern full-frame digital would give more resolution than 645 these days (6x9 is another matter), but this was 10+ years ago and the same was not true. Even ignoring the resolution, the dynamic range and tonality you get from MF (or larger) colour neg film is just not something digital can replicate.
     
    Last edited: Aug 12, 2021
  13. Bobcat

    Bobcat Friend

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    I have a different problem; moving my feet isn’t an option :). I primarily do aviation photography so I have to take the pictures from where I’m standing. That said, I use both primes (long) and zooms (also long) frequently with teleconverters. 500mm f4, 200-400mm f4, 300mm f2.8, and a personal favorite when things are closer, 200mm f2. But if the planes are on the ground, I usually use zooms. On a busy ramp you end up standing where you can; 14-24mm f2.8, 24-70mm f2.8 and 70-200mm f2.8.

    Rob
     
  14. rhythmdevils

    rhythmdevils MOT: rhythmdevils audio

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    This is a very good example of a necessary use of zoom lenses. And you don't need to worry about it. I'm not saying that using zooms is bad. I'm just saying that using one prime will help you develop creatively. Unless you can't like your situation, then it would just limit you.
     
  15. rhythmdevils

    rhythmdevils MOT: rhythmdevils audio

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    Using multiple prime lenses makes previsualization much easier than a zoom because you have only a few perspectives, and its possible to learn these perspectives as opposed to a zoom that has infinite perspectives.

    But it is still going to be a challenge for most people to be able to see in your imagination what the camera will see if you are using multiple primes.

    When I go photographing, I figure out the shot I want before putting my camera up to my face, and I can usually then move to the exact right place to get that angle and composition. Because I only use one prime lens.

    But again, if you need multiple perspectives, having 2 or 3 primes is still going to help in this way over a zoom.
     
  16. Bobcat

    Bobcat Friend

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    Not a problem. I wasn't introducing my situation as a disagreement with your point, which I heartily agree with. To be honest, you can see a lot of primes on my list and when I'm in less restrictive circumstances, I tend to pull more primes out of the safe (reminds me; my 85mm f1.4 needs to see the light of day). This weekend I have the opportunity to shoot an event that doesn't come around very often (and not a plane) and again, I'll be restricted in being able to move and shooting something moving. So the zooms will make their appearance again :). Proper tools to appropriate circumstances.

    I think that the problem for me is that I shoot mostly moving objects which don't allow me the amount of time for introspection and assessment of the scene. I need to get out and shoot some landscape and architecture to re-skill my eye!

    Rob

    [​IMG]
     
    Last edited: Aug 12, 2021
  17. Thad E Ginathom

    Thad E Ginathom Friend

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    Well, I used to keep a 30mm/1.4 lens on the camera as "standard" and go-to for snapshots. Now I tend to keep 17-70/2.8 there. Sure adds a lot of weight, and a lot of cost --- and renders the camera built-in-flash useless.

    I have a Sony a6500, APS-C camera. Up to this year, none of my lenses cost anything like the camera did. Now I think that my two Tamron zooms are both more expensive than the camera.

    But primes? This is a steepening curve. I want the Sony 135/1.8: it will cost more than twice the cost of the camera. I want the Sigma 105/1.4: again, more expensive than the camera, but it is my lack of muscle that worries me on this one: it is a hell of a heavyweight lens.

    So, whether primes are lighter on the arm and the wallet than zooms... depends!

    I use my Tamron 70-180 because I want those longer primes as mentioned (and I will probably never have a 200mm fast prime).

    I use my 17-70 because I have no prime wider than 30, and... convenience.

    It is an ill wind that blows nobody any good...

    Covid has brought me the opportunity to attend private recordings of concerts, for streaming, as they are not open to public now, and, as long as I stay out of the video, I can walk where I want. I'm not a pro, and I'm nowhere near pro standard, but I have a good relationship with the venue and the artists, and I get enough pics that they like.

    Southern-Indian classical music is nothing like as formal as western stuff, but the resumption of normal life (yes please!) will put people in chairs in all those places. But even that will be freedom compared to the person at an event where they may be be restricted to one seat.

    I was out this morning. I was thinking about this thread, and how each length on the zoom, and each pic still needs to be thought about. Sure, sometimes a zoom can be just about getting the head and feet in, but that is just a tweak to the composition and focal length chosen for that composition.
     
  18. Bobcat

    Bobcat Friend

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    Well, there's a good thing about lenses. As long as you stay within your system, lenses are an investment. Cameras (being pretty much a computer) aren't; they need to be replaced with more functional, faster cameras. I started out with Nikon D1 cameras, moved to a variety of D2 (D2H, D2X, D2Xs) cameras. Now I'm running a pair of D810 and a pair of D4. I really should be looking at a couple of D5 but I tend to prioritize glass over bodies. Big glass, big expense :).

    Rob
     
  19. dasman66

    dasman66 Self proclaimed lazy ass - friend

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    (nodding my head as I attach my 25yr old Canon L series lens on my 2 yr old canon body)
     
  20. robot zombie

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    When I DO take out 3 primes (counting the wide-angle zoom,) I prioritize different subjects or more just types of shots upon swapping. I swap because as I've been shooting I've been mulling over going into a mode with that lens. I'm going to ignore opportunities that my other lenses might give me for a while. There can be opportunities with those later. I make a conscious effort to plant a flag in it. Like, I consider it a part of my basic mental f'ing discipline to not be a lens-flailing flusterbusser.

    Everything about the way I operate and kit out is in service of minimizing the need for superfluous gear interactions and complications. I picked a camera largely based on control scheming and options. I can set this thing to put my actual hands on every parameter I need. Automate, or at least smooth over the things that get in the way. I like intuitive. Enough that I planned ahead. IME my intuition can do things my conscious mind can't think up consistently. More I can leave for that, the better. Get things that hinder it out. You gotta think outside of the box. Because if you can simply channel it, it delivers. But this requires some introspection and willingness to observe how you yourself operate and react to different things. Work your compass. Recognize the pathos in your methods of both acting and observing, and in doing so shape choices that supplant new patterns in your intuition. You're training yourself to be able figure it out without needing to try to figure it out. To bridge the gap between perceiving and reacting.

    It gets too disorienting swapping all of the time, not to mention you STILL miss shots swapping lenses. I don't ever like doing it on the go. I have cleaned many a sensor myself at this point but it's very much do first no harm for me, as far as that is concerned. I play it like a survival game. Coveting those super-costly health kits. Never know when you're out at the wrong time and wind up stuck with a scratched sensor. I can clean them with no fear, I trust my skill and respect for the equipment. But I also trust the forces of the universe like my cheating ex fiance. She could also be considered a force in the universe.

    It's funny you mention being able to move yourself. That's exactly where I become disoriented. There's a disconnect. I have this hand-eye pocket that I know from a life of different sports, instruments, and hands-on work. I've always just been very physicality-minded. I have ways of getting into that place with the camera. It's really a process that involves your lifestyle habits and how you keep your thoughts... but that's another can of worms. That's about your relationship with your body - how adept are you at teaching it things, and more importantly what does it teach you?

    I usually depend on my body to know the movements while I handle higher-level calculating. I'm like this with so many things - from my perspective the movements are barely there. I really have no unnecessary situational awareness, either. For instance, I can walk up to a piano with portapro's blaring more rhythmic music and play something completely different. I literally do not have the headphones in my awareness. It pops back in when I switch off from the piano. There are these RIGID canals that get formed with repetition, linking up certain mental and physical processes in spontaneous synthesis. A sequence emerges. Same as how you do not think of your words letter by letter or word by word. Your thoughts manifest in sentences and phrases in real-time, just as you will them to. You can be like this with many other things The key to inducing it is repeating the actions under a variety of recurring, controlled parameters.

    In shooting handheld, or really even on a tripod/assist, one such control would be the focal length. One point of connection in the sequence of things that need to be processed and corresponding movements to be tuned is the perspective. Just as important as how you hold the camera and how you look at the image (do you chimp a lot? or are you a screen gawker?)

    I mean, I can keep going - I think the ways that we learn physically-rooted tasks, and the ones we master without a thought are quite remarkable, but it's going to get beyond what this thread is supposed to be about. The thing that sticks out to me as I go over this stuff is this idea that it should be reasonable for a person to be able to train themselves on different focal lengths at different times. Spend a lot of time with each, separately, essentially. If you have regular consistent experience with each over enough time, it should start to get a little easier to swap. It's just a matter of having the patience and will to build and then retain those channels in your mind and body. I guess it comes down to how long retention really is, what the cooldown is... though I suspect the ultimate limit, other than time, is the amount of lenses a person can stay dialed into at a time.

    It's like any of the actions I learned in baseball, or matching chords with melodies on piano. You do it enough, the relevant parts of your body take over with greater efficiency and mental resources get freed up. If your mind is ever wandering and you find yourself bored, something got absorbed into the automation ring network. If I couldn't do this, I'd be dead a couple dozen times over :p It makes complex sequences of physical movement accessible by brief conscious impulses. You can be physically reactive on the fly if you have that visual-spacial sense built up. It is DEFINITELY the swapping that throws that off. I never noticed, I'm only realizing why I have these habits with primes as we discuss it.

    It's something for 'outing' types of days as is. I'm carrying a small satchel-style canvas bag with some batteries and other accessories, too. I probably have a few particular things in mind. I never bring nearly everything. It depends on what I want to shoot on that day. I will have hours. But I am without realizing, working towards and then settling on a lens. I just stick with it until I lose my mind for it... when the tendrils loosen and the images flatten a little. At that point, the perspective switch will make me plug into new arrangements. I start visualizing again. It's like I go mentally cross-eyed after too long with just one perspective.
     

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