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Home > Learn Photography > The Holy Trinity of Zoom Lenses

As David discussed back in his ‘RAW or JPEG’ article, as photographers we often face options which have to be carefully considered as they can have a huge impact on our ability to capture the kind of images that we have envisaged in our minds eye. Undoubtedly whenever you are capturing an image, one of the biggest decisions you have to make is which lens to use. So, it is hardly surprising that choosing what lenses you should purchase is something of a big deal. And even if money is of no object, choosing wich lenses to take out on a shoot is of upmost importance. Of course you could just take your entire collection of lenses out with you on every shoot, although this is really only viable if you are in a studio or a location that you can drive to – that is unless you have a personal Sherpa!

The majority of us mere mortals have to carefully consider what lens we may require on any particular shoot. Luckily there is a fairly easy option available for any zoom loving photographers out there (I am not going to delve into the prime v zoom lens debate here). So without further ado, let me introduce the Holy Trinity.

OK, so before you all start thinking that lockdown has finally gone to my head or that I have suddenly turned to religion, I am going to explain what the holy trinity of zoom lenses actually is.  The simple explanation is that it is a means to maximize your available range of lens focal lengths whilst only using three lenses – hence why it is a trinity. I will let you decide why it should be called holy but personally I like to think it is because it can undoubtedly make your photographic life easier and help you create far more images with far less stress.

A 24-70 f2.8 lens is an extremely versatile piece of kit for any photographer, regardless of their preferred genre of photography. It is a perfect lens to use for anything from wedding photography…
to photographing ancient landscapes, such as the shot above of the Standing Stones of Lundin. Whilst you really don’t need a f2.8 lens for landscape photography, you will find that when using such a zoom stopped down to maximise depth of field that you will be rewarded with remarkably sharp images.

First up is the humble standard zoom. Now, just in case you were wondering why I am starting with this lens first, the simple fact is that if you could take, or even own, only one (zoom) lens then this is the one to go for.  As such, I personally feel that this is the lens which you have to choose most carefully. If you are thinking of ever doing any kind of indoor shooting (especially if you would like to one day become a professional photographer) then I would urge you to consider getting a ‘fast’ f2.8 standard zoom lens. Yes, it will be heavier than a fixed f4 or a mixed aperture budget zoom but it will also be a lot more versatile with (generally) far better image quality and, if nothing else, you are future proofing your gear lineup should you ever make that plunge into the abyss of making a living as a professional photographer.

Generally, the focal range of the standard zoom lens starts at a semi-wide 24mm (perfect for shooting landscape images with bags of foreground interest) and then zooms up to 35mm (personally my favourite focal length for candid / documentary photography), onwards to 50mm (considered to be the standard focal length because it roughly gives you the same field of view as our own eyes) and finally maxing out at 70mm which is a remarkably useful focal length for portrait photography.

This image from New Zealand would have been impossible without using a telephoto lens. Even if I could have moved nearer to the mountains to achieve the same frame-filling effect, it would have not been possible to achieve the same appearance of the compressed perspective.

Next up is the telephoto zoom. The range of this lens normally starts at 70mm and continues upwards to 200mm (however an alternative option to consider would be 100-400mm).  I can not stress enough just how creative the telephoto zoom can be for your photography, with the ability to pull in distant landscapes and flatten perspective alone being a real boon for outdoor photographers. If you are into portraits then it becomes really simple to capture images with dreamy, out of focus backdrops, simply by using the lens at maximum zoom and filling the frame with your subject (combined with a low f-stop such as f4). Obviously the ability to zoom in on distant subjects is a no brainer for sports or wildlife photographers.

However, all of this photographic goodness comes at a price – both to your wallet and to your back! For example, the Canon EF 70-200mm f2.8L IS III zoom lens costs £1900 new and weighs a hefty 1440 grams. Again the weight is not too much of an issue for studio photographers and the price is irrelevant if you have deep pockets but personally I think the f4 variety of this lens is a perfect compromise between weight and cost, with the Canon EF 70-200 f4 costing ‘only’ £600 and weighing half of the weight of the f2.8 version at a slender 700 grams.

Leading lines and wide-angle zoom lenses are a match made in heaven! Here I used the Canon 17-40 @ 17mm in order to exaggerate the perspective of the sea defences and help lead the eye towards the Blackpool pleasure beach.

The final part of the trinity is the one that I feel is the least essential and as such I often run with only a dynamic duo of zoom lenses, using the Canon RF 24-70 f2.8 and EF 70-200 f4 for the majority of my commercial work. However, the wide-angle zoom is still an incredibly useful lens and justifiably deserves to be part of the holy trinity.

I can already imagine the landscape photographers out there, shaking their heads in furious disagreement of the last paragraph. There is no denying that many landscape photographers would never dream of being without their wide-angle zooms, and with good reason. The focal ranges covered with the wide-angle zoom tend to be from an ultra-wide 16mm (essential for including as much foreground interest as possible) upwards past 24mm until it reaches the street photographers preferred focal length of 35mm.

Wide-angle zooms are an essential part of the property photographers arsenal. I captured this shot whilst on a commercial shoot photographing a new cinema complex, and used the Canon 16-35 f4 to include as much of the buildings features as possible within a single frame.

However, it is not just the fact that this type of lens can include a huge amount of scenery within its frame that makes it a landscape photographers paradise – it can also distort reality! Just as that the telephoto zoom will compress perspective, the wide-angle zoom can extend it; giving an extreme degree of separation between foreground and distant subjects which can be remarkably effective for landscape photography.

Whatever your preferred genre of photography, the focal lengths covered by the range of the three above zoom lenses will probably be adequate for the majority of your needs.  Keeping you choice of lenses down to only three will ensure that you will not need to carry an excessive amount of gear to a shoot and maximize your actual shooting time by keeping the changing of lenses down to a minimum. This in turn will improve your photographic flow and improve your success rate and overall photographic life, which has to be a reason to rejoice. Hallelujah!

I am not going to pretend that this is a macro shot, but, it does demonstrate that you can shoot close-up images using a telephoto zoom. This particular shot was captured whilst walking in the New Zealand wilderness, so on this occasion I opted to carry the dynamic duo!

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