Before my recent trip to India, I had a lot of conflicting thoughts regarding the gear I wanted to take. My entire purpose for traveling was to make photographs, so I wanted to shape my kit into the most efficient setup possible.
It’s not as if I have much to choose from, and my day-to-day gear in London rarely changes. It’s also not as if I don’t know my ideal situation for traveling, having recently shot in New York on essentially nothing but a 90mm. Longer lenses have always just worked for me, and I’ve never taken well to wider angles.
However, many photographers had given me advice, and documenting India was a daunting task — I didn’t want to overlook any of my options. Despite preferring mid to longer tele lenses, a wider lens might give me some kind of edge in some way I was missing. After a lot of deliberation, I decided to take the gear I knew I was comfortable with, and settled on maintaining my XA as the widest lens I would have with me.
Part of me expected to be shooting mostly at 50mm and changing for my longer lenses, so I took one 50mm each for my Leica and Nikon systems. What ended up happening is that only a handful of images on the entire trip were made at 50mm — the absolute majority were either at 90mm on my M6 or at 210mm on my FM2.
Both of these lenses have a maximum aperture of f/4, which some may find limiting, but I managed my expectations of the light and loaded appropriate films for most of my trip. At times I had to drop my shutter to around 1/15s but was able to brace myself for steadier hands.
Light wasn’t much of an issue, although the pollution I encountered often meant it was far more diffused than I was expecting.
The 70-210mm is a great all-arounder for me and covers my favorite focal length at 90mm. The 90mm prime is a wonderful lens, and fantastic for fast use where I can see the frame without wanting to fiddle with the zoom.
It was interesting to use the 70-210mm as my main lens, as this was the most use it had ever seen in one concentrated period. Using longer lenses is not a case of wanting to keep my distance, because you still need to be close to your subject. Not as close as with a 35mm, but that offers a different perspective and a different kind of image to the kind I want to produce.
Still, I think a common misconception is that longer lenses are a substitute for getting close for intimate photographs — this can be true for some, but it is something I try to avoid. To fill the frame with a standing figure who is 6 feet tall (~1.8m), you need to be ~39 feet (12m) away. For someone sitting or a tighter frame, the photographer needs to be ~16 feet (5m) away.
This is not that far, especially considering the profile of such a lens is hardly subtle. It’s obvious that I’m making photographs, and I try and keep my body language open and friendly to make sure people don’t take issue.
So yes, you can afford to be further than when framing with a 35mm or 50mm, but I think five meters is closer than most people expect.
When subtlety is required, then the M6 with the small 90mm attached is perfect for my needs. I’m able to get into a crowd and surgically extract the frames I’m after without needing to worry about people noticing me in the same way they might when I’m using the FM2 and 70-210mm. Again, keeping my body language honest and open is a good way to fit in and not draw aggression.
Longer lenses offer such a fantastic perspective, and as I’ve said before it can be frustrating to see other artists limit themselves to certain focal lengths for specific use cases. I don’t think that shooting on telephoto implies a desire to create images with less intimacy, and less connection with your subject.
As always, it’s the intent and vision of the photographer which will matter the most and not the tools they use to achieve that vision.
About the author: Simon King is a London based photographer and photojournalist, currently working on a number of long-term documentary and street photography projects. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can follow his work on Instagram and you can read more of his thoughts on photography day-to-day over on his personal blog. Simon also teaches a short course in Street Photography at UAL, which can be read about here.