Single Focal Length Challenge –

I have been in a photographic funk of late, unable to get into the right frame of mind to shoot. Last week, in the midst of this struggle, I knew that I needed to force myself back into my photography practice. I gave myself an assignment: go out for an afternoon and challenge myself, using one lens at a single focal length.

I use this exercise from time to time, to push me out of my comfort zone and get my mind unstuck. I’m not looking for great photographs; I’m looking to practice the art of seeing. And the great thing about choosing a single focal length — whether using one setting on a zoom or a prime lens — is that it forces me to move around a scene. If I find that I’m receptive to the exercise (it doesn’t always work), it can help me see.

Getting started

For my focal length, I chose an 85mm lens for my Sony A7RIII. It’s a heavy beast of a lens with a wide f/1.4 aperture. It’s an ideal lens for portraits, but few photographers would think of it as a lens you would pick up for general-purpose or landscape shooting. It was perfect for an afternoon of practice, however. I wasn’t interested in creating portraits, and I wanted a lens that I didn’t usually carry with me when I’m out in the landscape.

I started by walking around the center of my downtown area, camera in hand. In the time I’ve lived here, I haven’t found much around the town that has piqued my interest, but I still spent the time walking along some back alleys, looking at the buildings. I took a dozen or so shots of things that seemed interesting, but it was clear that this area wouldn’t hold my interest for long. It was, however, a good way to start thinking about taking pictures, and to get a feel for my chosen focal length.

I realized that I needed to go somewhere new, so I got in my truck and drove out into the country, along roads I hadn’t yet explored. While driving along one gravel road, I saw an interesting group of trees in a marsh near the side of the road. There was something there, but I just gave them a quick glance and kept driving. After about a quarter-mile, however, I stopped and turned back to explore.

I got out of the truck, and immediately took a photo of what I had seen as I drove by:

first shot of scene at 85mm
My initial take on the scene, straight out of the camera.

It was a simple-enough scene: an old fruit tree of some sort, with a birdhouse on it, set back against the mountains and the clouds of a passing storm. I liked the juxtaposition of the tree against the marshlands behind it, but trying to find a decent composition would take some work.

Working the scene

One of the things I didn’t like about the scene was the tree immediately to the left of my primary compositional point, which was the birdhouse. (The branches of the other tree are visible in the shot above.) There was no good way, especially at the tighter 85mm focal length, for me to get more than my tree into a frame without it all seeming insignificant. I walked in closer, and framed the birdhouse on the left side of the frame.

focal length challenge - closer in
Moving closer in gives me a better frame of view.

This was a better shot, helped by the clearing storm, with some big fluffy clouds in the background. It still wasn’t the shot I envisioned, however.

After this, I tried going in even closer, but that turned out to be too close (not shown). Then I tried a vertical shot (below), thinking that it might help a bit, but the tangle of branches left the scene a bit too chaotic for me. I couldn’t get a sense of balance in the frame.

focal length challenge - closing in on the birdhouse.
Getting in even closer feels right, but I don’t like the chaos.

As I looked at the vertical shot on my screen, I flipped back to the second shot above. I liked the look of that composition better, but I also liked the closeness of the vertical shot. I decided to shoot a panorama of the entire scene, similar to the second shot. It could give me the tighter framing of the birdhouse, but with more airiness overall (shown below).

single focal length challenge -- Panorama
Keeping my camera vertical, I took seven overlapping shots, building a panorama that gives me a better feel for the scene.

This shot was built using seven overlapping frames (in manual mode, with the meter set to expose the birdhouse). I liked the overall sense of place in this shot over any of the single frames. I got in close enough to get the level of detail I wanted, but also was able to give a sense of the wide-open nature of the place I was in. 

I knew that I had a good set of photos to build the panorama, but I still wanted to try one more thing. A reprise, if you will, of the first shot. I spent a few more minutes walking around the area. I was looking for a vantage from which I could get the entire scene that had first drawn my attention. It’s still not perfect, but I was able to get a good single frame of the scene (below). Then, I packed up and headed back home, content with that day’s practice.

final shot of tree and marsh
Wandering the scene, I found a better version of the tree and the background, which was the first thing that grabbed my eye as I drove by.

What did I get out of this exercise?

That day, I shot about 80 images across two locations. The downtown shots were busts from a photographic standpoint, but they got my mind thinking about photography. The birdhouse ones were more successful from a compositional point of view. They also got me engaged with the moment. And, once I got used to the 85mm focal length in this situation, it largely disappeared from my mind. I used it as the lens I had.

Better yet, I found a new place to shoot. I added the keyword ‘revisit’ to this series of photos, which is my tag for a place that I feel might have potential at another time when the light was right.

None of these are great photographs, by any means. I was shooting in the middle of the day, with harsh shadows, and using a lens not suited to producing landscapes. The goal, however, wasn’t to get great art; it was to get my mind working, and to spend time practicing my craft.

More resources for practicing

For other ideas about incorporating regular practice into your photography, take a look at the 9th chapter of Complete Digital Photography, “Finding and Composing a Photo.” (If you don’t have the book, you can download the PDF of that chapter free via this link.) In addition, our supplemental Exercise Book, which is available as a PDF, includes more ideas for practicing your photography. Download it free via this link.

I wrote about this little bit of creative block from a slightly different perspective, in an essay entitled “Do. The. Work.

Lastly, if you are curious about the ‘revisit’ tag mentioned above, this post, “268 miles and the revisit tag,” talks about it in more detail.

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