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Phil Taylor?s "Ten" Lens Thoughts


Time for an update: I still use film, though. Not vast quantities, but I have a darkroom, and I'm not afraid to use it.

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Phil Taylor’s "Ten" Lens Thoughts

16 Jul 2020 8:36AM   Views : 676 Unique : 447


Phil was in Grumpy Old Man Mode when we chatted about this: so we’ll start with his annoyance about the overpriced 'prime nifty fifty' that used to be the cheap giveaway. What used to be the best lens in the range, and the cheapest, is now, far too often, big, heavy and expensive.

‘It’s ridiculous to see how some of the cheapest lenses ever made have developed cult status, a good example is the 58mm f2 Helios, a copy of the ancient Zeiss Biogon. Frankly, there’s nothing exciting about a lens that’s usually too narrow or too wide for most jobs. Maybe it’s the lure of an aperture that’s wider than the 18 to 55 f4-5.6 of a modern kit lens?’


Why, when small is so often beautiful? Time was when a 49mm filter would fit most of the lenses an ordinary photographer owned – but even a ‘standard zoom’ of f/4 may wear a 77mm thread these days. ‘Behemoth’ is not a word one wants to associate with routine kit!

‘I own a very early Billingham 445 bag. In the 80s and 90s four lenses would fit in the divider, with two motor driven bodies and the inevitable Metz flashgun; nowadays, even standard primes won’t fit in the pockets, as they are all too fat, and don’t get started on the weight. ‘


Some lenses make their own connections – at least for Phil. As a photojournalist, he’s had the ill fortune to own a lens that seemed to come with a curse – his ‘murder lens’.

‘For most news work it’s the standard ‘holy trinity’ of zoom lenses, a modern zoom ultra wide, a mid range zoom, and the inevitable 70 to 200 f2.8. For some reason, police tape cordons seemed to be getting bigger, and even on a crop sensor 200 mm wasn’t cutting it. I didn’t want to carry my 300mm f4 L all the time, so the search was on for something cheap, light, and with excellent image stabilisation. I settled on the Tamron 70 to 300 f4-5.6 VC. Within moments of it arriving from MPB it was off to an RTC, and thereafter it seemed to be incessantly going on murders, fires and dramatic floods. It gained such a reputation that it earned the nickname of ‘Godzilla’ and one colleague reckoning that even off the camera its focus motors would creak, informing me of dramatic events in the style Skippy the bush kangaroo.
Along with the 300 f4, it was traded in. One picture editor remarked that the buyer will be sat photographing Mallards on a pond, and Jumanji style, a car will crash into the pond and explode.’


On a more positive note, Phil’s learned to love zooms (unlike me). I was intrigued to find… ‘Back in the 1980s I bought into the Pentax MX system, beautifully light miniature bodies in the style of the Olympus OM1 and Nikon FE. Lenses were of the same style, my kit of 24, 28,35, 50, 100mm mm could fit into two hands, and the 200 f4 was quite small. Lugging that collection in the aforementioned Billingham was no challenge. At that time I was starting to shoot weddings, and most of the time zooming with your feet wasn’t a problem. However, since 2000, I’ve been predominantly a press photographer. In many situations, you can’t ‘zoom with your feet, and things change so fast that you wouldn’t be able to change lenses, especially when walking, or quite possibly running backwards. Watch the news, and you’ll usually see the photographers working with 2 bodies, and either a standard or ultra wide on one, and a 70 to 200 on the other. Up until the 90s the quality of many zooms was questionable, but by the 2000s, unless you were pixel peeping it became harder to tell.’


Maybe that’s why Phil reckons the ‘one lens challenge’ is ridiculous – the limitations reduce the chance of making an interesting image from a routine story that isn’t inherently very visual. ‘I recently covered the Black Lives Matter protests, and selected two lenses the much derided (but exceptionally sharp) Canon 24-105 f4 kit lens, and the Tamron 70 to 300 f-5.6, both had their hoods removed, as if they get knocked off they are expensive, which would tempt you to bend down and get trampled in the process if there was a crowd surge. In this situation, when the ‘statue protectors’ surged forward I was able to hold the 24-105 in the air for a 24mm wide shot, and then immediately home in on participants with the 105 end.

‘That’s not to say that you can’t go on a job with a single fixed focal length. At the start of the Covid 19 lockdown, I covered the end of nightlife with a full frame body and a 50 1.4 Canon, primarily for the aperture, although with modern high ISO capabilities it’s not so vital. The main thing for me was working within limitations. No sweeping wide views of empty streets or using a long lens to remain unobtrusive. It enforced a lot more social distancing though…’


Digital has made a lot of things simpler, but it was sometimes a battle in the early days. Getting a real wideangle lens for crop sensor cameras back in the early days was hard, as all manufacturers were relying on ‘legacy’ film camera lenses. Suddenly, a 20mm was only a modest wideangle… Phil tried everything from a fisheye to an overpriced 14mm f2.8 lens with flare.

‘Back in 2001 I became the first photographer supplying the local paper to go digital with a Canon D30. 3 Megapixels didn’t challenge my 20-35 f3.5 to 4.5 Canon USM, but where could I fimd a wide angle for somebody used to 24mm on most jobs? The first attempt was a Canon 15mm f2.8 fisheye, which gave you 24mm shots, but with bent edges, then it was a 17mm f3,5 Tokina that weighed a ton, but gave a straight edged 28mm equivalent, then the medium term solution of the Sigma 15 to 30 f3.5-4.5 EX arrived with the size of a bean can, but a 24mm equiavelent, that was followed by the 14mm f2.8 Sigma EX, expensive, and with an injury prone bulging front element, and the ability to flare at any opportunity. Finally, salvation arrived with the Sigma 10-20 f4-5.6, reasonably priced, and with great performance apart from wide open. ‘Nowadays, this has been replaced with the superb 16-35 Canon f4L.’


Phil had an early love affair with a Pentax Takumar – 35mm f/35 doesn’t sound spectacular these days, but… ‘It was the 70s, Pentax’s widest lens was a 28mm, my father bought a Super Multi Coated Takumar 35 3.5. It was a tiny lens, about the size of an egg, sat easily in the palm of my teenage hand, was spectacularly sharp, and gave me that love of getting closer, and involved.’

Phil’s latest love is the Canon 70-300mm L Series – but it’s starting to do strange things connected with bridges, though there are no murders. Yet. ‘Purchasing a new lens tends to bring on dramatic events. The latest purchase seems to have brought on its own set of dramatic/tragic events filmed from or involving bridges, I even covered a stabbing with ‘bridge’ in the street name.’


I asked Phil about the most unobtrusive and generally useful lens he’s ever owned. ‘Probably the Sigma 17 to 50 f/2.8. Hand holdable in low light due to IS, wide enough to leave the 10 to 20 behind for most stuff, bright enough to make a 50 1.4 redundant with modern sensors, and weatherproof enough. Close focus was sufficient for many years of food photography.’

And in search of one more lens to make a nice, round ten, I asked what lens taught him most? He responded: ‘That 1970s Takumar 35mm’ – neatly wrecking my concept.

I said he was in grumpy mode. But, obviously, not so grumpy that he wasn't happy to put time and effort into my blog. The socially undistanced image of fans at the Rivington Music Festival (in the rain) was shot before lockdown. All pictures © Phil Taylor.


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PaulCox Avatar
16 Jul 2020 10:40AM
Bravo, a really interesting article it is great to realise that some of the lenses I have are in fact considered to be OK, as one quite often thinks that did I make a mistake buying that one. Interesting that the Sigma 10-20 f4-5.6 DC HSM was mentioned it is not the neatest of lenses in fact quite chunky and weighs quite a lot, 555 grams with 77mm UV Filter, I purchased it to use in confined spaces, typically very narrow French village streets, and Churches, and was impressed with the results, but then Sigma do tend to make very good lenses. Congrats on another great Blog. Paul.
philtaylorphoto Avatar
philtaylorphoto 22 334 2
16 Jul 2020 11:04AM
The helmet? Health Nd safety at a Viking battle would only allow me to work close up with PPE.

The Sigma 10 to 20 f4-5.6 is a classic I reckon.
dudler Avatar
dudler Plus
20 2.2k 2063 England
16 Jul 2020 11:13AM
I feel the portrait counters the 'grumpy' tag quite well, Phil!
GeorgeP Avatar
GeorgeP 16 62 26 United States
16 Jul 2020 2:25PM
Great article - I still use those old Pentax lenses Plim alludes to. The 50, 77, and 135 are all take the same 49 mm filter and even the 200/f4 is only 52 mm diameter. Most fit in the pockets of some cargo shorts and if the climate here was a bit colder and I had to wear a jacket, then I could probably dispense with a camera bag. Does anyone still make (or wear) those "photographer's vests with all the pockets these days?
dudler Avatar
dudler Plus
20 2.2k 2063 England
16 Jul 2020 3:24PM
They do indeed still make them, George. A websearch comes up with a couple of different 'ten best of 2020'!

I still have a cheap one from 35 years ago: I must get it out again to distress my wife. She always hated it. Our children were more understanding, as there were pockets for stuffed cats and the odd diplodocus.
philtaylorphoto Avatar
philtaylorphoto 22 334 2
16 Jul 2020 3:35PM
Well, John I feel a comment on waistcoats coming on, or maybe a piece on hateful camera protection.
dudler Avatar
dudler Plus
20 2.2k 2063 England
16 Jul 2020 6:36PM
I can rock the look, Phil. Complete with short sleeved shirt, socks, and sandals...
philtaylorphoto Avatar
philtaylorphoto 22 334 2
16 Jul 2020 6:57PM
Those jackets are great for when you want to look like a cross between Tim Page, Larry Burrows and Action Man.

I bought mine when freelancing at a local paper in 2000, it's a fisherman's jacket in canvas. The advantage of slimmer lenses is that you can work light with pretty much any l 70 to 200 f4, 70 to 300 f4-5.6, and smaller zooms in the pockets. Notebook, phone, wallet, memory card, keys hide in the smaller ones. Back then, my kit was all film, with an EOS1n HS, a rubbish 70 to 300 Canon, 28-105 (58mm thread) and the cute 20 to 35 USM, flash stayed on the camera. All of that lot would fit in the jacket.

There's really no need to look at the 'pro' ones, especially the ones with a see through pocket for a press card that makes you look an idiot.

I don't know of any that can carry a 70 to 200 f2.8.

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