Monday Musings: The 50mm Calf Portrait

by | Aug 14, 2023 | 0 comments

The Good Humor bar had been consumed. Popsicle stick in hand. Conversation in progress, and a young photographer sat next to Casey and me.

We had just come out of guest critiquing final presentations at Parsons School of Design and took a beat to observe the area. Sitting next to us, a young gent with one of those behemoth plastic Canon lenses, you know…the ones that you see in any corner electronics store here in NYC that can zoom across a football field, however fail to have actual good glass or relative sharpness in low light. He was taking the photograph of a young woman’s calf tattoo from 15ft away. Out of my own curiosity, I asked the gent what focal length that lens was. His reply, 600mm zoom 5.6.

600mm. Not entirely surprised I asked why the need for the 600 in a park? The Canon gent happily pulled out several printed portfolios of animals and people, using that lens from a long distance. He liked to not interfere with the environment. But from my perspective perusing this portfolio, something was amiss. The framing was off, the eye was all over the place.

The 50mm lens. The Nifty Fifty. A prime lens. It was the lens I grew up with. The one my Father had sharpened my eye and composition with. Optically it’s the closest lens to our own as humans. With all the photographers I apprenticed/studied with, they had all said the same. Start with the 50mm. No zoom lenses, no crazy wide, unless it was a 35mm but even then, learn your 50mm world.

First lenses shape how we view things in our mind’s eye. I eventually graduated to a 105mm 2.5 for portraits. For years, those were the only lenses that existed. For today’s youth it’s the cell phone. Make of that info as you will.

I asked the 600 gent, do you have a 50mm? He happily pulled one out of his bag of 5 various lenses. He was self taught as was I for the most part. We commiserated on that fact, and the fact that I’m an adjunct professor at Parsons. I asked him why not use the 50? His response as … “can’t get close enough.”

If you’ve ever worked with me, or seen me in action, I have no problem getting down on the ground and/or dirty to get the frame right. That’s a hard pill for many to swallow especially on the streets of New York. I will say though, there’s nothing like lying on the sidewalk to capture your portrait and having all of New York just pass you by. In your shot, behind you, over you, and my favorite, the absent minded cellphone yoga wearing bystander who lets their dog pee on your leg while you’re on the ground getting the shot. Woof.

Back to the 600.

I knew I had a moment, similar to what I had grown up with, to open his world. Having given him a brief description on how zoom lenses operate … in short a telephoto zoom lens uses multiple lenses to achieve desired focal lengths within one lens housing, and thusly light must travel through said path and that affects the quality of the light. Yada Yada Yada. A prime lens on the other hand, only has 1 lens for light to enter, so the light and sharpness is more brilliant and able to capture more detail and light spectrum…, I suggested, but to certain extent implored to 600, “Take a month off from all of your lenses and only use the 50mm. Shoot everything and anything with it. If you don’t like what you’re viewing, just get closer or make a shift. After that month, go back to your 600 and you’ll notice a difference.” At that moment I remembered I had my digital Leica M10p in my bag and said, better yet I’ll show you. I approached the young woman and chatted it up about art, and asked if I could take a photo of her calf.

So there I was once again on the ground. My Father’s voice in the back of my head telling me to get closer, get closer. Bystanders around me asking what kind of camera I was using, what I’m thinking, and me laying in dirt after not moments ago giving a small lecture on commercial imagery.

I dusted myself off and showed 600, and compared to his long lensed calf portrait. With his 50mm in hand he followed my example and created his own shot asking for permission and getting relatively close to the ground with his 50.

We compared 50mm images and swapped names and that was that. No instagram handles exchanged, or email addresses or phone numbers, just two strangers hungry to make a better photograph. We wished him well and were off.

Casey shared the moment of me on the ground that she had captured with her phone. It was a common event for me, however it never really occurred as to what I looked like in those moments. “You shifted his life forever”, she said. “Maybe.” I replied. As with all photos, time will tell. We walked a few blocks and reflected on that moment in deep thought on photos and art and… ooo! Doughnuts!

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