None: that’s what we made do with

Here’s the proposition: we modern photographers may be spoiled with our digital cameras and zoom lenses.

Here’s the question: “When in past times you used film cameras and carried them in your packs on walks into the mountains, in addition to the standard lens on your camera, how many additional lenses did you carry?”.

Here’s the answer: “None. We carried no additional lenses”.

For many photographers of the wild country in those times, answering ‘none’ was a true answer. We made do with the standard lens the camera came with. Those were, in what photographers call ‘full frame equivalent’ focal length (full frame is the equivalent I talk about in this article), 50mm or 55mm lenses. Limited in focal length, for sure, but with apertures around f1.8 or f2.8 they were good low-light lenses and photographers made use of that characteristic.

No problem with zooms

I have no problem with modern zoom lenses. Even the kit lenses that most consumer cameras come with are capable of making high quality photographs. I use a modern zoom lens on my Sony a6300 camera and I used them on the Olympus OM5D I had, and on my Olympus film camera in days gone by, though then they were usually a supplement to a fixed focal length lens of around 50mm.

When we think of modern zoom lenses we might think of how photojournalists in the days of film cameras would have dealt with shooting in a situation in which proximity to the subject would vary. Perhaps they couldn’t get close to the subject or perhaps the subject was mobile and close proximity wasn’t always an option.

The solution was to carry two cameras, one camera body fitted with a moderate wide angle lens of perhaps 35mm and another body with a telephoto around 135mm focal length. This was a versatile arrangement. Now, photojournalists use zoom lenses because by zooming in they can better frame a subject they might not be able to get close to. Some still carry two cameras, one fitted with a short telephoto zoom of around 24-70mm focal length and the other camera fitted with a 70-200mm zoom. The difference to those single focal length lenses is that two zoom lenses give a wider range of framing options.

So, to get back to my proposition, modern photographers, even those with cheap consumer cameras, might be considered somewhat spoiled to those of us who started out in the days of cameras with non-interchangeable fixed focal length lenses. The zooms that started to appear in those times are now the everyday.

Getting the image

But in those days when we carried film cameras with their single focal length lens in our packs into the mountains, how did we approach the business of photographing something?

We used the two-legged zoom to frame an image. That is, as we could not zoom to frame an object or landscape, we walked around to find the best place from which to compose our image. Mountain too far away to convey its scale? Wait until we get closer to it and hope the weather holds until we get there so we can get the photo. Can’t get the stream in the image with the mountain behind? Climb down the stream bank to get closer to the water. To make the image we wanted we had to move about rather than simply zoom to frame it as is done today.

Then there was the challenge of photographing the inside of a hut or some similar challenge with just a standard 50mm lens. Sure, some carried a wide angle lens, and in those days 35mm was considered wide angle, and that would prove useful in this situation. But if all you had was your standard lens then either you couldn’t get all that much of the interior of the hut in your image or you focused on some detail, such as just one part of the hut that conveyed the feel you wanted in your photograph. You used detail to suggest something about the hut.

It was simpler on those mountain walks in the past, in the days of camera plus standard lens. Not much to carry by way of equipment, just camera and some spare film. There could be some weight in those cameras, like the Canon FTB I carried for a few years before the lighter weight and more compact Olympus OM 1 came along.

Today, unless they go out to photograph wildlife, all the traveller in the wild country needs is a compact, lightweight camera with a single zoom lens ranging from wide angle to moderate telephoto. While zoom lenses might have spoiled us, with just that camera and lens as kit, the photographer can still answer ‘none’ when asked what additional lenses they carry.

Photo: Anna Langova. Public domain license.

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