My Lens Choices and How I Use Them

With such a wide range of lenses available for camera systems these days, it can be difficult to choose the ones that work best for you. Too frequently I see questions by new photographers asking which lens is the best choice for landscapes or wildlife, for example. Just as frequently, I see answers to those questions that suggest using a wide angle lens for landscape and a super telephoto lens for wildlife.   

When asked to critique photographs, I often find that the photographers had a great vision of what story they wanted their photo to tell. However, the incorrect lens was often chosen and unfortunately reduced the impact of the final image. For many of the images the photographer used a lens wider than necessary and there was no obvious subject of interest, causing the eye to just wander around the image. It's worth noting that the wider a lens is, the more difficult it can be to create a strong composition.  

Depending on the diversity of your photographic subjects, you may be able to use only one lens. Being a fine art photographer who shoots landscape, wildlife, abandoned places and abstract types of images, I regularly use a wide range of lenses. I am shooting with the Panasonic Lumix camera system and my widest angle lens is 14mm and my longest 800mm (both 35mm equivalent).   

Below is a list of lenses I use and a brief description of how I generally use them. These lenses are very sharp autofocus (except the manual focus Venus 60mm macro) very quickly. I hope that after reading these you may perhaps be inspired to try some of your lenses for other subjects:  

Lumix G Vario 7-14mm f/4 (14-28mm equivalent on 35mm)  

This lens is very wide. It can be difficult making strong compositions with such a wide-angle lens. It is very important to pay attention to foreground, mid and background in your scene. I use this lens almost exclusively for night photography and when I really need toexaggerate foreground objects. This makes a scene seem vast and can create a very impressive dynamic scene.  

Lumix G X Vario 12-35mm f/2.8 (24-70mm equivalent on 35mm)  

For many people this lens is their go-to lens. For me personally it is more of my general purpose lens. It's not wide enough or long enough for a lot of my subject matter. Especially now since the m43 equipment is so light, I'll usually bring it along with all of my other lenses because it is incredibly sharp and is useful in many situations.  

Lumix G X Vario 35-100mm f/2.8 (70-200mm equivalent on 35mm)  

This is definitely one of my go-to lenses. I often use it to exclude elements from a scene to create more of an intimate landscape. It's a great focal range and the lens focuses as close as 1ft????? Which is great for close-up work. The addition of extension tubes can make this lens great for insects and smaller subjects as well. Along with the 100-400mm lens, this is used a lot for my abstract photography. The dual image stabilization support for this lens makes it great for great deal of subjects and lower light shooting.   

Lumix / Leica DG Summilux 15mm f/1.7 (30mm equivalent on 35mm)    

I use this lens for night photography and for macro with extension tubes. The lens is fairly wide-angle with a large aperture so it works well for shots of the night sky. If paired with extension tubes (I use the Kenko brand), it works as a very capable macro setup. Depending on the amount of extension tubes used, you can get more than 1:1 macro. If you add too many tubes you won't be able to focus on your subject as it will literally be touching the front of your lens.  

Lumix / Leica DG Elmarit 45mm f2.8 macro (90mm equivalent on 35mm)  

This is my Panasonic macro lens of choice. It offers greater working distance than the 30mm macro lens and is also a Leica lens. Although this lens also works very well for subjects focused at a distance (not all macro lenses do), I pretty much dedicate it to macro. Fantastic dual image stabilization allows me to shoot macro handheld in a pinch which I would never really have done. However, I will still use a tripod 99% of the time unless photographing moving insects.   

Lumix / Leica DG Vario Elmar 100-400mm f/4 - 6.3 (200-800mm equivalent on 35mm)  

I absolutely love this lens. I not only use it for wildlife but also for situations where I want extremely shallow depth of field or where I can't get close enough to the subject. This lens can focus as close as five feet across the whole zoom range, which is incredible and allows for a lot of close-up opportunities. Since there is also hardly any depth of field at 400mm (800mm equivalent), sometimes I'll focus stack to obtain a bit more depth of field. It is critical to use a good tripod or have the lens slightly weight dampened as a mild breeze is enough to cause camera / lens shake at this magnification. Slower shutter speeds will be more affected by this. Consider using a small beanbag or your hand to help control any vibration. Aside from using it for wildlife, I use it a lot to create abstract images since I can isolate subjects extremely well.   

Venus 60mm f/2.8 (120mm equivalent on 35mm)  

This is a vey sharp specialty macro lens that provides 2:1 magnification without the need for extension tubes. It also focuses to infinity. Unlike my Leica 45mm macro, I only use this lens for macro. It is a completely manual lens with no image stabilization or auto focus and it doesn't relay any information to the camera. This is also the only lens I use a (high quality) UV protective filter on as at macro ranges the lens elements retract into the lens barrel at various magnification levels.

Focus Stacking with Panasonic Lumix 4k Post Focus

The introduction of 4K video and photo features to mirrorless cameras has been a welcome addition. These features are more than just a marketing gimmick, helping you capture those unique moments that were sometimes too difficult or nearly impossible to achieve. One of the most interesting 4K features that the Panasonic Lumix line of cameras has added is called Post Focus.   

Post Focus basically allows you to capture a scene and, once completed, choose the area that you want to be in focus. When Post Focus is enabled you will not need to focus at any point in your scene. You just have to press and hold the shutter button and your scene will be scanned for all of the unique focus areas. The camera then captures all of the photos necessary, up to a blazing 30 frames per second, to create the 4K file. You can now choose the area of the scene you would like in focus by touching the LCD screen and saving the photo. Post Focus is a feature that works extremely well and is very easy and intuitive to use.   

However, Post Focus can be used for something even more useful, especially for photographers who do a lot of macro photography. Post Focus can be used as a very effective tool for a technique called focus stacking. For those not familiar with focus stacking, you use software to stack (or layer) photos taken at different focus points of the subject and then blend them together into a new photo. You can decide how much depth of field you want in the photo. You can choose anywhere from minimal depth of field to an unlimited depth of field with absolutely everything in the photo in sharp focus.   

To achieve the best focus stacking results from Post Focus, its beneficial to know a bit more about how the process works. When Post Focus is taking all required photos, it is creating an MP4 video file. This is the same MP4 video file created with all 4K photo and video features. Since 4K is recorded with a resolution of 8.3 megapixels, each photo you save from the MP4 video file will be 8.3 megapixels. The extracted photos will also be JPG files as shooting and capturing RAW files at 30 frames per second would require processing power that current cameras don't have. While creating a series of RAW images manually for focus stacking may produce higher image quality, there is also more room for error and the high quality 4K 8.3 megapixel JPGs produced allow for high quality prints if using good technique and lenses.  

Before the methods of image extraction are introduced, there are a few more points to note in order to get the best possible results. When you enable Post Focus, a crop factor will happen as the 4K aspect ratio is slightly smaller than the micro 4/3 sensor. Your subject may not fit into the frame anymore. Keep this in mind as you compose your photo before enabling Post Focus. When choosing your shutter speed and ISO, choose settings appropriate for capturing a sharp image of your subject. When it comes to choosing your aperture, you have a couple of things to keep in mind. Since Post Focus captures every focus point of the scene, you don't need to use a small aperture, such as f16 (which would cause heavy diffraction on a micro 4/3 sensor). It is best to choose a sharper aperture such as f/2.8-4 depending on which lens you are using. The only caveat is that since using larger apertures produces smaller depth of field, you will end up with more photos in the 4K MP4 file to extract and focus stack. Since Post Focus is capturing at up to 30 frames per second, hand-holding is a viable option, however,  I still recommend the use of a tripod wherever possible, especially for macro (1:1 or greater) work. It is difficult to make and assess accurate macro compositions handheld. The last piece of info to note is that you need to make sure your lens is able to focus close enough to the part of your subject closest to you. For example, if your lens can only focus as close as the middle of your subject, the closest part of your subject will be out of focus after the focus stack. You can use any lens appropriate for the situation you are shooting and this technique isn't limited to just macro lenses; I will sometimes use focus stacking with photos from telephoto lenses.  

There are a few methods of extracting the images from a 4K MP4 file. The first is by previewing the photo on the camera, touching the LCD screen at each point you want in focus and then choosing to save each one as a JPG when prompted. This method is tedious and not as accurate as using computer software. The second method of extracting the images is to use a recent version of Photoshop. You can open an MP4 file and then render the video timeline by choosing the Photoshop image sequence option from the rendering menu. When extracting the images through Photoshop you have the option of extracting the images as JPG or TIF. Using the TIF file format will be beneficial should you wish to further edit the images as there will be no further image degradation. Once saved, you can open the extracted photos in PS and use the focus stacking feature via Photomerge. The third and probably most efficient and highest quality method of extracting the images is to use Helicon Focus, the software I use and highly recommend as it produces excellent results. The latest version of Helicon Focus has added support for directly opening MP4 files. It is incredibly easy to choose which images you want to include or exclude from the focus stack. Since Post Focus has captured every single part of your scene "in focus", there will most likely be images you will not want to include in the focus stack. Some of the images will be of focused areas much further behind your subject.   

Post Focus is an invaluable tool for the creation of focus stacked images. It is perfect for when the situation doesn't necessitate or allow for manually taking all required images. Now that you know how Post Focus can be used for focus stacking macro subjects, try using it for focus stacking landscape scenes. Post Focus is a very capable tool that is useful in many photographic situations. 

Focus on Nature - Connecting Youth to Nature Through Photography

In May I had the opportunity to volunteer with Focus on Nature on one of their workshops to photograph the days events. Focus on Nature is a non-profit charity, operating in Guelph, Ontario, that provides a nature photography program for children in grades four to six. They are aligned with the Ontario visual arts curriculum with their main goal being to connect youth with nature through photography. The program aims to encourage and inspire students to increase their confidence, feed their creativity and instill a healthy appreciation for the natural world. I was looking forward to the day but I couldn't have guessed how powerful the experience was going to be. 

The day began with me arriving at St. Patrick's Catholic School to meet with the Focus on Nature folks. Today's class was a five / six split taught by Mrs. Porcellato. I was immediately told to go to the office. Fortunately, unlike a few times in my elementary school days, this visit was just to sign in! After signing in I went down to the library to meet with Roblin May, the Chair of the Volunteer Committee and Dianne, John and Ric, the workshop volunteers. Focus on Nature has a number of volunteers that help run the daylong workshops at schools across Guelph. I was treated to a very pleasant welcome and was introduced to how the day was to unfold.  

The first part of the day happens in the classroom where the children learn the basics of photography. Roblin taught them compositional concepts such as patterns, negative space, rule of thirds, form and leading lines. The students were also given guidance on how to frame the subject in relation to things around it. The energy in the room was one of enthusiasm and intrigue. The students were soaking up all the information and enjoying every moment of the presentation. Hands were being raised left, right and centre to ask and answer questions. It was so nice to see these kids so eager to unleash their creativity! 

After the presentation was complete, the cameras were assigned to the students. Focus on Nature uses Panasonic Lumix Tough point and shoot cameras. These are great for the students (and any outdoor adventure types) as they are waterproof, shockproof, dust proof and freeze proof. These cameras can handle any of the elements and bumping around they might encounter; although, the students weren’t told that the cameras were virtually indestructible because we can all imagine what the outcome of that might be! I have one of these Panasonic Lumix tough cameras and it goes with me canoeing, backpacking and is pretty much with me wherever I go. As the students were handed their cameras they ran back to their desks, full of enthusiasm, all ready to learn and play! Roblin taught them how to operate the cameras (the Lumix cameras are all very intuitive to use) and went over some dos and don'ts. When the students heard the words “OK let’s go out and take some photos!”, they could barely maintain their ability to form a straight line. They were about to embark on an exciting creative adventure! 

The first activity of the day was walking to a nearby field to photograph the yellow dandelions, trees and any other interesting subjects that the students might find. Unfortunately when we got to the field we watched as the last bunch of dandelions were being mowed by city employees! Roblin grouped everyone up, explained the rules and guidelines of the activity and then broke the group up into three smaller groups to be supervised by Dianne, John and Ric. The groups then went on their way to different areas of the field. Needless to say, there was no walking but full-on sprinting to their assigned areas! Even though the field was made less photogenic with the lack of dandelion colour, there was no holding them back. They were in bushes, on their knees and would stop at nothing to figure out a way to photograph subjects that captivated their creative minds. Some of the subjects and compositions they found interesting is real proof that sometimes as we age we lose our ability to think outside of the box. It was inspiring to be around so many energetic emerging artists! 

After lunch, the next group of activities included a photo scavenger hunt, nature sculpture and editing their photos.  This session was setup as a rotation where each of the group leaders would take a group of students and run the assigned activity. This was a way to give the students the chance to fit all of the activities into the day. For the photo scavenger hunt, the students were in groups of three and were given a list of things to photograph and the photographs had to be nature-based. It was a great way to practice the think outside the box idiom. The nature sculpture activity was a very interesting concept. Once again, the students were sent in groups of three to go and find tidbits of nature, such as grasses, sand, stones, wildflowers and weeds and create a piece of art on the ground. Some of the designs and ideas were a treat to experience. Once the group had a creation they were happy with, it was photographed by the group leader. It was remarkable to witness some of the intricate designs, patterns and shapes these students had made from scrounged up and assembled pieces of nature that people take for granted and ignore every day.   

The last activity was done back in the library where Roblin taught the students how to cull down their images to their top five using Google Picasa. They were allowed to take a maximum of 50 photos during the day. Undoubtedly there were some who took more than this limit, simply based on how excited they were out in the field. The students grasped the image editing process quickly and completed the selection and editing process in no time. Focus on Nature has a number of laptops that are used to perform the photo editing process on. It was a real joy witnessing the satisfaction the students experienced as they played around with cropping, changing colours and adding special effects to their photos. 

The day ended back in the classroom with a slideshow. For each student, their top five photos were projected in front of the class. If the student was interested, they were allowed to speak to their favourite photo they took of the day. It was precious how many of them participated in this exercise and it was clear how proud they were of their photo accomplishments. Speaking in front of the class also encouraged public speaking skills and general confidence and self-esteem. Listening to some of them reflect on their art was astounding with some students providing somewhat deep and philosophical explanations. 

I had no idea what to expect when I agreed to volunteer for the Focus on Nature workshop. To watch these students know essentially nothing about photography and basic concepts to producing some inspiring photographs and speak to them by the end of the day proved a fundamental point. That point being that we need to continually encourage our youth to always feed and pursue their creative outlets and stay connected with nature. The genuine awe and anticipation these students had when photographing and appreciating all things creative and natural was undeniable. I feel honoured and privileged that I was invited to tag along and enjoy the workshop. I’ve always been a proponent of connecting youth to creative outlets and nature and I applaud Focus on Nature for implementing such an effective program. I urge anyone who has an opportunity to volunteer with Focus on Nature to do so. It is an experience that will inspire you as much as it inspires the students.