Background Relevance - Comparing the 21mm, 35mm, and 50mm Focal Lengths in Rome
If the hotels and airfare for European destinations are categorized as low season in rates, then why did I have trouble getting hotel reservations when booking late in June? Originally, I had wanted to visit Paris out of a sense of nostalgia. After all, I did live there many years ago. But circumstances being what they were, I was unable to get multiple room reservations. With Paris out of the picture, all roads (and direct non-stop flights) led to Rome.
Of course, it's not as if room occupancy in Rome were exactly plentiful. Again, vacancies were surprisingly scant. To make matters worse, every hotel I considered required a deposit at the time of booking, and tagged on a penalty in the event of cancellation. That made booking somewhat of a challenge - given my partners in crime, my agent, and I were all in different time zones, many hours apart. But in the end, I got my bookings done.
Still, why bother with all that trouble? Bringing the blog on the road does seem rather exhaustive for essentially no meaningful gain. What may not be immediately clear is the underlining reason motivating me do this. You see, I need to maintain elite status with my hotel loyalty program. And now that I winter in Northern Japan during the high holidays, my quest to reach lifetime status is in jeopardy - that was until the blog provided me an excuse.
A Mostly 35mm Focal Lengths... Plus 21mm Too
For those of you who have been following this blog, you know I can be obsessive at times. Yes, needing to reach elite status in loyalty rewards programs is symptomatic of that. But staying on topic, my obsessiveness also extends to packing gear optimally for travel photography. So for the longest time, I felt the Leica 28mm f/1.4 Summilux-M ASPH with an M-mount rangefinder was all I ever needed. However, I'm beginning to have second thoughts in recent months.
After all, I've been making good in maintaining elite status in bringing the blog on the road. Thus, I've had the benefit of opportunity to put my original bias to the test. Thing is, a fast 28mm lens in a lightweight rangefinder is sufficient for capturing most documentary situations. Like clockwork, it always gets the subject in frame, at closer focusing distance, with most of what you want in the background captured - even in lower light.
However, playing it safe doesn't necessarily mean taking the best approach for each documentary moment. It just means you're working the percentage to ensure a photo opportunity gets crossed off a checklist. And therein lies my problem with my longstanding view favoring a fast 28mm lens. I was no longer trying to optimize my image capture on a case by case situation. Instead, all I was doing was simplifying my task to get the shot.
21mm Focal Lengths - My Primary Angle of View for the Visit
Over the last couple of months, what had become increasingly clear to me were the unintended consequences of forsaking other focal lengths in documentation. Far too often, I've been limiting myself to the 28mm focal length, because of a heightened compulsive need to obsessively rid the threat of unwanted photobombing. As a result, playing it safe made everything I photographed look the same. With that being the case, it only made sense I introduce some variety into the mix.
In resolving this issue, the question I was forced to address was when to use any particular focal length for a photo opportunity. Typically, conventional practice would suggest that a focal length be selected on the basis of a subject's distance to the camera. Thus, the further the subject is, the tighter the focal length should be to bring the subject closer into frame. And the closer the subject is, the wider the focal length should be to accommodate the subject in frame.
No less conventional in approach is selecting a focal length based on how much coverage in frame is required of a subject. That is to say, a tighter focal length is selected when increased isolation in the subject or subject detail is required. And in contrast, a wider focal length is selected when increased environmental coverage of the subject is required. As such, landscapes are typically shot with wider angle lenses, while portraits are shot with tighter angle lenses.
More 21mm Focal Lengths
Admittedly, both are valid approaches in deciding which focal length to use. However, I would argue that a better way is to pick a focal length based on how close you want your background to be in relations to the subject. I mean, one can always capture a subject at any focal length to appear similar in framing, assuming the required shooting distance can be met. But, what can't be replicated at different focal lengths is how the background is captured.
Often times when we consider which focal length to use, we forget to consider the background in relation to the subject. On a wide angle lens, we're always aware of perspective distortion at the edges and corner of the frame, and also at closer shooting distances. However, we tend to overlook how wide angle lenses make the background appear in the documentation. It stretches the world behind the subject further and further away.
It makes sense that wider focal lengths causes the background to appear further away. After all, background details become smaller, which enables more of it to be crammed into the frame. That's what a wide angle lens is made to do. But when those details become too small, one risks losing the background altogether - if pushed too far away. For this reason, a wide angle lens can reduce the visual relevance of the background, if it's too distant from the subject.
50mm Focal Lengths
In contrast, wide focal lengths can enhance the visual relevance of the background when its focal plane is close to the subject. This is particularly true when the subject is standing right in front of a shallow background. For this reason, I favored the 21mm focal length, when roaming the narrow cobblestone streets of Rome. Given the absence of distance between the background and the subject, environment details were not at risk of being pushed too far at wider focal lengths.
That being said, cramming environmental detail in frame when the background is far away isn't always a disadvantage for the 21mm focal length. Background details weren't at risk of being lost, given the magnitude of many Roman monuments. As such, I found the 21mm focal length more than ample in offering sufficient coverage to fully capture its scale. I mean, so grand were some of Rome's landmarks that it could never be at risk of being lost in the background.
By comparison, I found the 35mm focal length much less useful. Without the need to take group photos on this visit, the 35mm focal length did seem redundant. It offered neither sufficient coverage to fully capture the background nor enough emphasis to isolate the subject. It's like a vestigial remnant of a conventional setup. That being said, it did offer some use when preserving background relevance was sought at a wider angle of coverage.
Comparison of 21mm vs 35mm vs 50mm - Same Framing but Different Shooting Distance
Though to be fair to the 35mm focal length, it would have been much more useful had Anna come on this visit. But with one subject short of a pair, any added benefit brought by the 35mm focal length in bringing the background closer didn't seem different enough to necessitate a switch from the 21mm focal length. For this reason, I opted for the 50mm focal length as my alternate, since it was observably better in bringing the background closer into the frame.
As you get tighter in your angle of coverage, you begin to notice how much more integrated the subject appears in becoming a part of the background (albeit at further shooting distances). The overall effect of the background pulled closer to the subject creates a more realistic impression of space. However, that assumes you have enough shooting distance to accommodate what wider focal lengths can accomplish closer up in fully capturing the subject in frame.
And therein lies the crux of what's involved in deciding between focal lengths. It's an issue of background coverage in relations to the subject versus the available shooting distance required to accommodate the shot in frame. In a perfect world, I believe everyone would opt to shoot at tighter focal lengths. I mean professionals do it. But real life gets in the way, with narrow spaces and the threat of photobombing. It makes using tighter focal lengths more of a challenge.
Comparison of 21mm vs 35mm vs 50mm, Continued
In retrospect, I think I should have brought a 90mm lens instead of a 35mm lens as my third lens. I think the 90mm focal length would have had more use - in pulling the background even closer - than what the 35mm focal length offered on this visit. That said, I think I would have selected a 28mm lens instead of 21mm or 35mm lens if taking group shots were required. With more than one subject, the 21mm focal length might present a challenge.
Instead of opting for the 28mm focal length, I suppose I could just as well continue with the 21mm focal length, frame at the 35mm frame lines, and then crop at the 35mm equivalent - seeing how the final result appears nearly indistinguishable from an image taken at the 35mm focal length. However, the loss in image quality from scaling wouldn't make this an effective option beyond the odd cropped image or two.
Still with just the one subject, I stuck to the 21mm focal length for most of the visit. It was Lydia's travel pictures, after all. I had to go for the percentage shot. That said, I will have more from the 50mm focal length on next week's post. I didn't really do this post justice in showing the Eternal City in all it's historic glory - especially at the 50mm focal length. I suppose I could have switched the image sets around. But alas, being obsessive compulsive prevents me from doing that.
Comparison of 21mm vs 35mm vs 50mm, Different Framing at Same Shooting Distance with 50mm Crop Equivalent
Every image has been tweaked in post on Adobe Lightroom. This includes minor cropping, leveling, and some vertical and horizontal straightening. Color balance has not been altered. Film negatives have all been digitized on a Pakon F135 scanner. Gear used for this post are as follows:
1. Leica M10 + Leica 21mm f/3.4 Super Elmar-M ASPH
2. Leica M10 + Leica 35mm f/1.4 Summilux-M ASPH FLE
3. Leica M6 + Leica 50mm f/2 Summicron-M version III + Kodak Portra 400
I didn't choose the Leica 28-35-50mm f/4 Tri-Elmar-M ASPH because I wanted to bring the 21mm focal length on this visit. Speaking practically, I felt there wasn't enough of a difference between the 28mm and 35mm focal length of the Tri-Elmar.