In August I have less teaching and whilst I spend a lot of the month catching up on administrative tasks (yawn!) I also make the effort to do something a little different to usual with my camera. This summer I have made a number of trips to Digbeth, in Birmingham’s city centre. As usual, my 50mm lens came into its own on my explorations, due to its relative small size and weight. Digbeth is an industrial area, overshadowed by the huge and now disused Duddeston Viaduct that previously brought trains into the city centre. I initially went in search of Curzon Street Station, or more specifically the Grade I listed entrance building which was built in 1838 and, according to Wikipedia, is ‘the world’s oldest surviving piece of monumental railway architecture.’ My interest was piqued having read a news article which suggested that this building would be incorporated into the planned HS2 terminal in Birmingham and I was keen to see it before all changed (even further) beyond recognition.
I spotted Curzon Street Station for the first time that day from the top of a bridge over the canal. A strange area, bang smack in the middle of the Eastside redevelopments, I viewed the station from the rear across waste ground which I guess will eventually hold the lines of HS2. The strange juxtaposition of this historical building orphaned alongside the wasteland, with the modern city structures in the background, and modern railway busy with trains alongside really brought home to me the inexorable pressure of humankind’s need for ‘progress’ on the landscape.
I worked my way around to the front of the building, now facing the (relatively) new Eastside City Park. Dwarfed by the modern structures nearby, it reminds me how the concept of ‘monumental’ has changed in recent years. The station appears dusty and squat, perched in the corner of the blindingly white square. I wonder quite how the HS2 terminal will preserve the dignity of the structure in among all this rampant progress.
A longstanding habit of mine is to try to avoid being caught out by catering for all eventualities. Heading out for a walk? Better take a mac, just in case it rains, or a sweater, for it might turn cold. Going away for the weekend? Pack all and sundry, after all, there’s plenty of space in the car! Perhaps it’s our changeable British weather, a habit instilled in me in childhood, or my desire for control over the situation. Who knows? Whatever the reason, it means I tend to spend a lot of time thinking about what I might need for any conceivable circumstances before I venture out and this habit has spilled over into my photography outings as well. A day out would be accompanied by a selection of lens and other paraphernalia, snugly packed into my rucksack. Much of which would return home untouched.
Over recent weeks I have been using my DSLR primarily with my 50mm lens. There is a certain freedom in leaving the rest of my kit at home, and not just in the sense that I am no longer toting a heavy rucksack everywhere. I feel more spontaneous, and my attention to my surroundings is not broken by technical issues relating to my kit. When you carry your photographic world on your back, you can select the best kit for every circumstance and perhaps become a little snap-happy. Using just one lens has encouraged me to be more selective, directing my attention to look for compositions that work well with the limits of the lens.
Taking a photowalk with just one lens also teaches acceptance, as sometimes the shot you see just isn’t going to work with the focal length you have. Time then, to put the camera down and explore whatever has caught your attention with your eyes instead, connecting to the subject in a mental image rather than an electronic one. A gentle reminder to be present in each moment, mindful of its passing, living in each and every one. Having the camera with me prompts me to look closely, to really see my surrounding, but I am learning to be more selective about the images I bring home.
My latest project has been to spend time using my 50mm lens – on a full-frame camera, so it really is 50mm. I tend to use longer focal lengths so this is the start of a move towards working with shorter lenses. This has been a considerable challenge for me for a number of reasons. Firstly, on a crop sensor the focal length is equivalent to about 75-80mm, and using it on a full-frame sensor makes it seem positively wide-angled! I have to move much closer to fill the frame with my image and sometimes this just isn’t possible. I realised I often see an image within the broader landscape and pick it out using the longer lens rather than showing the landscape in its entirety. I don’t paint with a broad brush! My next problem is that I like to get up close and personal to small subjects, often using a macro lens and I just can’t get close enough. The extension tubes are tempting but that is kind of cheating! However, on the plus side I do have a nice wide aperture of f/1.8 to play with, and my little ‘Nifty fifty’ Canon 50mm f/1.8 stays pretty sharp even wide open.
50mm is often considered to be a contemplative focal length as it is said to give the nearest to the viewpoint you get with the unaided eye. I have however also seen this claim made for slightly shorter lengths and slightly longer ones as well, in the range 40-80mm, so I decided to test it out. Rather than using different lenses I decided to try my 50mm lens on both a full frame and a crop sensor camera, (because I had both cameras to hand but not more lenses!). After some serious squinting through both viewfinders trying to assess if the image in the frame was the same size or bigger/smaller than that seen with my other eye, I came to the conclusion that for me, the image created by the full frame canon 5D mark II was smaller than that seen by my eye, whereas the images I saw doing the same test using the APS-C (1.6 crop factor) Canon 550D were pretty similar in size. So, for me at least, a slightly longer lens, about 80mm equivalent, is nearer to what I see with the naked eye. It’s hard to define, as of course the end result then depends on the size of the final print, or how much you zoom in on screen. So is there a contemplative print size as well, to go with the contemplative focal length?