The Storytellers Kit – Daniel Schaefer
Daniel Schaefer shares with us his thoughts and experiences on developing the right kit for telling your story. A great look at how different focal lengths can change the narrative. Check it out.
The Storytellers Kit
Gear does not make the photographer, allow me to state that for the record before we dive in here. A talented artist can make an image with whatever falls into their palm, but for those of us who have the luxury of choice, be it the pocket sized Ricoh dangling from Moriyama’s wrist, or Crewdson’s cherrywood 8×10, a powerful image is about the framing of a moment, the machine it is seen through when chosen properly, serves to simplify and streamline the process.
To keep things simple, I’m going to be speaking in terms of Prime lenses in 35mm equivalents, so the numbers I’ll be mentioning mainly apply to a full frame 35mm standard, even though I will be mentioning photographers who work in medium and large formats as well.
Photographers for the most part, strive to tell stories. Whether found in the completely candid instant, or carefully constructed, equipment choice can be key in creating the a package that allows the photographer to do their work with ease, unobstructed by the bells and whistles that are so common in modern camera equipment.
Simply put, three classes of lens – Scene, Subject, and Detail.
Scene – 28mm or wider – For the cinematically inclined, this lens offers you the establishing shot. It tells the story of a space and the subjects within it. Some photographers can find these lenses challenging at times, scene if not handled carefully can be overwhelming. Details in the background can become distracting, and if the frame is not treated carefully, the image can become overcomplicated, busy.
Unless the photographers working distance is closer than most are used to, the subject can easily be lost amongst the clutter. However when the frame fits cleanly, a wide angle lens is an incredibly potent tool. Typically most effective when shot horizontally, but of course, there are many beautiful exceptions to the rule.
A handful of artists who have mastered the use of Scene lenses –
Mary Ellen Mark – 28mm – http://www.maryellenmark.com
Daido Moriyama – 21mm to 28mm – http://www.moriyamadaido.com/
Arnold Newman – 8×10 equivalent – http://arnoldnewman.com
Subject – 35mm to 45mm – When the story being told needs to balance more towards the subject, yet the scene is still a necessary aspect of the image, a subject driven lens is always a fantastic option. Arguably the most flexible lens in the three prime kit, many photographers favor these lenses as a sort of default, rendering space and distance very similarly to the human eye.
The level of flexibility that comes from these lenses often stem from the characteristics of the way they render depth of field contrasted with the way they render distance. Wide open they isolate the subject cleanly, letting the background fall away without sheerly becoming soup. Stopped down however, they are able to display space almost as cleanly as the scene lenses mentioned above, while still maintaining the obvious balance towards the subject in frame. This balance towards subject keeps it clear that their story is the one being told. Theses lenses handle well no matter their orientation, vertical or horizontal, they always seem almost lifelike.
(bonus for lens nerds) On paper, it’s argued often that the perfect lens to match the distance and space rendering of the human eye to 43.7mm on standard 35mm film.
Artists who have mastered the subject lens –
Peter Turnley – 35mm – http://www.peterturnley.com
William Eggleston – 35mm – http://www.egglestontrust.com
Alec Soth – 8×10 equivelant – http://alecsoth.com/photography/
Detail – 50mm or longer – The detail lens isolates, pulls the subject out of the frame, letting the space drop away. Almost making the frame feel like it’s pulling you inwards towards a hyper specific subject. This lens has intriguing visual advantages no matter your choice in DOF. Wide openm the shallow nature makes the focus of the image very clear, but stopped down, these lenses have the incredible characteristic of collapsing space together, bringing foreground and background into a single flowing space.
In the right hands can be an incredibly potent tool, but because of it’s limits as far as working distance, these lenses tend to be the least versatile of the kit. Rendering most realistically when shot vertically, but as always there are many stunning exceptions to the rule.
Artists who make the detail lens sing –
Jacob aue Sobol – 50mm – http://www.auesobol.dk
Steve McCurry – 85mm to 135mm – http://stevemccurry.com
Richard Avedon 4×5 & 8×10 equivalents – http://www.avedonfoundation.org
Choosing your own kit carefully allows you to immediately set yourself apart as an artist. Each photographer has a tool that fits them best, be it the tank like simplicity of a blackened brass Leica, the delicacy and precision of a cherrywood Shen Hao, or the whirring focus of a $10 pocket point and shoot found in a thrift shop window. Finding the instrument that fits you is always an incredibly satisfying moment.
The beauty of the tools we use as photographers is the range that they offer, and the way that we can take advantage of our equipment working both in and outside of the box. For every example I’ve put above, there will always be artists who use their gear in ways far beyond the traditional, making work that contradicts what has come before it, keeping the artistry of our craft fresh and alive.
In the end, no matter the glass, camera, film or file, photography will always be about the final image.
The tools we use are but conduits to reach the creative conclusion in a way that suits our needs as storytellers.
Daniel Schaefer is an LA / NYC based photographer and cinematographer.
Currently offering custom tailored one on one workshops designed to fit any photographers specific creative needs, goals, and equipment, to sign up for your own session, visit his website – OutlierImagery.com
Thanks to Daniel for sharing his thoughts with us.
Have you found your storytelling gear yet? Please tell us about it in the comments.
Very well written and it’s super cool of you to stick to 35mm terms to easily understand. Also nice of you to give examples of photographers who’ve used a specific focal length a lot!
On that note though, a small correction to Jacob Aue Sobol. I believe most of his body of work (Sabine & I, Tokyo) was made with a Contax T3 and sometimes a Ricoh GR1. It’s only for the recent Arrivals & Departures that he used a Leica 50mm Summicron. I believe it was to promote the lens at the same time with the Monochrom, both of which were new at the time.
Hello david, I’m actually well aware of Sobol using wider lenses previously, but additionally so have many of the other photographers. I chose sobol because his work with the 50mm really showed off the collapsing of space I speak of well, his use of strobe in conjunction with the detail lens I found to be particularly effective, thus choosing him as an example.
Definitely take a look through all the photographers, many of them are masters in many rights, if you look through Turnely or Mccurry especially, since they were both news/location based photographers they had to take advantage of a real array of lenses. I just personally find their work most effective with the categories I’ve slid them into.
Really loved reading this “about the essence” article. Great. Thank you, more of that.
Really enjoyed the article! I agree about different lenses to tell a story. For me, I use 35mm and 50mm primes. Have been shooting one focal length or the other exclusively for the past 7 years.
Great read! again!!
That was gorgeous work and a great read, I love it!
It made me think about my cameras and which one I prefer to use over the others and why I chose those. For some time I’ve felt like I didn’t have my set tools that made me comfortable … but I do. Thanks for helping me find my path.
I’ve come to realize that I like my Nikon 28, Fuji 30 and my Pentax 50. Granted I have a 50 Nikon and a 28 Pentax. I just don’t feel comfortable with them set up like that. Now If I could just find a bag big enough to carry all three perfectly.
A most interesting article. Just curious on your photographer’s selection –
Did you consider the photographer Bruce Gliden for the ‘scene’ category? His style is unique and he uses the 28mm in an original way.
How about Elliott Erwitt? I’ve always considered his work superior to (gasp!) H C-B, and as a bonus, Erwitt has a sense of humor. (Now that I’ve spoken out against the god of photography, my Leica is melting…)
My kit has consisted of a Leica M (film) and a 35mm lens for years. I’m starting to slowly employ a 50mm again, and I’m intrigued with using a 24/25mm lens. Your article gave me some food for thought. Thank you.
Hello Dan, I actually consciously avoided some photographers who come up in common photographic conversation like Bressan, Erwit and Gilden. I’m well aware of their work, and a huge fan of all three, easily considering them within the same ranks of those mentioned above, but for the sake of this article I wanted to open up the conversation to some photographers who aren’t as often mentioned in street photography circles.
I’d definitely encourage picking up a wider lens, my personal kit consists of a 28mm, 40mm and 85mm all in M mount.
Great article and I particularly agree with the purpose/best use of each focal length as you describe. Can I ask, though, what’s the tape on the RX1?
The tape is dark green cloth gaffers tape, primarily placed there because I have big hands and the body of the Rx1R is relatively slick. You can also see the rubber band I have anchoring the EVF onto the body, it shook it’s way out of the shoe one too many times on my bike, so I had to secure it further.
You can see all the work I did on that camera in the Via Firenze section of my website.
Thanks for the swift reply, Daniel. I, too, use the rubber band technique to fasten the EVF. I wish it had a locking mechanism…
I had a look at your work. Very nice! Keep it up.
Thanks for this, Daniel. Thanks especially for pointing me at the work of some folk who are new to me. Cheers!
There many too many myths about photography, it is almost impossible to get rid of them.
The storytelling is just one of them.
A movie can tell a story because its nature.
Photography is just an instant, a fraction of second lets say 1/125 second.
In this is where is to be found the true value of photography in the ”decisive moment”.
But like other myths composition, photography as art, and so on, the storytelling myth is here to stay and to downgrade photography.