On my first four trips to Africa, I carried what in my mind would be the most pragmatic list of photography equipment I could think of. I had a Canon 5D Mk 2 camera body, an external flash, and three lenses, ranging in focal length from 24 to 270 millimeters, (including my extender). I had a 24-70 2.8 Canon L-series lens, a 70-200 f-4 Canon L series lens, and a cheap 50mm f 1.8 lens in case I had a low light situation. I was taking good equipment, so on paper it all made sense that using good glass and covering a wide variety of focal lengths, I should be able to get great pictures.
Practice was different though. As I would look through my pictures afterward, I found that I tended to like a lot of what I got with the 70-200, and hardly anything with the 24-70 lens. I also found that I hardly ever used the 50mm, and out of thousands of pictures I took, I only used the flash perhaps 20 times.
This year I changed things up. Since I rarely liked what I got with the 24-70, and it was my heaviest lens, I gave up the flexibility of a zoom, and left it home. I still carried my 70-200, but for my other lens choices, I changed over to fast prime lenses. For those who don’t know what a fast prime lens is, it’s a non-zoom lens with a very wide maximum aperture. In other words, it lets in a lot of light. The other effect of this is that if shot wide open, these lenses have a very shallow depth of field, so only a sliver of the picture is in focus. This is what I was looking for. We see in stereo, and since each of our eyes sees from a slightly different angle, we’re able to separate the subject from the background. In photography we don’t have that option. We see from only one angle, (through the lens) so we separate our subject from the background through the use of selective focus. Using fast prime lenses gave me more latitude with which to do this than with zoom lenses. I’m a snob about sharp pictures, and prime lenses also tend to be much sharper than zooms.
The two prime lenses I chose were Canon’s 135 mm f2 lens for longer, portrait shots, and Sigma’s new 35 mm f1.4 lens, for wider environmental shots. Both lenses are incredible, but the latter has been particularly so. There’s a slight amount of distortion between close and far due to the wideness of it, but it also allows me to blur out the background, a rarity in lenses this wide. The effect is almost three dimensional, as if the subject has been cut out and placed on the background. I found that even though I brought my 70-200 along with me, and this had more flexibility in a given situation, I spent most of the time using the two primes, even though it was harder to compose the shot. The result was that I got a lot of shots from my most recent trip to Ethiopia that I am extremely happy with. The only time I missed the 24-70 was when I was trying to get a large group shot, and my 35 mm just wasn’t wide enough. Other than that, I never once missed it. Following, I have several examples of the use of the 135mm and the 35mm lenses. Notice the difference in the character of the two lenses. All can be clicked on for a larger view.