The Sydney Opera House, Bridge Side

1/640 sec @ f/9.0, ISO 200

Window detail from the Sydney Opera House

1/200 sec @ f/9.0, ISO 400

Brain Space vs. Lens Space

For over a year I’ve shot almost exclusively with the 20mm f/1.7. And while I thoroughly enjoy it, I often long for a slightly wider field of view. So, understandably, I my attention piqued when Panasonic announced their 14mm f/2.5 prime.

The day the lens went on sale, I ran over to Bic Camera in Tokyo. I slapped it on my GF1 and was shocked — so much space! This shock comprises a sliver of the joy of shooting with primes. By using a prime, you train both your brain and your eyes to think in their space. A zoom lens allows you to shift the lens-space to your brain-space. But with primes you’re stuck in their world. You become intimate with life within their frame until composition becomes second nature. And so to throw an extra 12mm (20mm - 14mm x 2) of field of vision onto the camera carries quite a shock.

Disparate things that didn't fit in 20mm space suddenly fit. For example, those two tiny women and the opera house and the married couple above — this image wouldn’t have been possible without that extra space brought about by the 14mm lens.

With a single gesture — changing lenses — your visual lung capacity increases. The sky explodes over subjects and you have to forcibly reframe the world because your brain is stuck in 20mm mode. Your mind's eye shifts — an internal aperture expanding to welcome the new space. And you start to wonder — how the hell did I live in such a small box before?

Opera House 1:1 Detail

Crop of the Sydney Opera House tiled exterior

1/1250 sec @ f/9.0, ISO 400

Prime Layers

Shoot with a single lens for a year, stick a new one on and poof — the world becomes fresh. This is but one of the magics of photography.

Many of us shoot to see the world more intimately. Or perhaps, to remember the world more intimately. At least I know I do. Curious, that. To get closer we have to stick a bunch of glass and metal and plastic between us and the world. But it works.

This — increasing layers to increase perception of intimacy — reminds me of one of my favorite artists, James Turrell. The architectural spaces he creates bring ancient things — like stars and the sky — closer, simply from the use and shape of materials and a subtle manipulation of light. Thoughtfully adding layers to minimize or change our relationship with distance.

The layers serve two functions.

They slow us down; force us to genuinely engage something we may have only hitherto passively observed. And they make us consider why these tricks of light and space change our relationship with the world.

The other day I was walking through the Cartier-Bresson exhibit at the SF MoMA. I was struck by many things (an overwhelming compulsion to travel, for example) but was most shocked to see how little is in focus. I love this. Fuck focus.

We’re interested in seeing. Bresson is seeing things — shape, light, balance, dissonance, emotion — and the moment his index finger pushes down on that metal Leica shutter release, time is frozen for him. Not you — him. And only he carries that true image within him. The output is secondary. Focus has very little to do with the process.

With the passing of Bresson brought the passing of the real negatives of those images on the wall in the MoMA. Somehow this makes them even more powerful. Laid before us is what he captured, but what was he seeing?

Bresson shot because he needed to shoot. Many of his photos weren’t developed for decades. It’s an affliction. A disease. This desire to see (and thereby internalize) and envelop the overflowing and heartbreaking and beautiful found around us when we take time to look.

The process of a great street photographer is elemental — precisely what I like about primes. And the starkness of this elemental nature was brought into sharp relief when I switched to the 14mm f/2.5. A small but important awareness. A surprise lesson in remembering why I photograph and how simple changes to your kit can manifest in larger insights.

Bresson, unfocused detail

A distinct lack of focus

1/40 sec @ f/2.5, ISO 400

1/200 sec @ f/2.5, ISO 400


It’s been about a month and the 14mm f/2.5 still lives on my GF1. I've yet to pull it off. The results are satisfying but I also miss the extra stops of light afforded by the 20mm f/1.7. Sometimes, those stops help. But when they’re not necessary, I’m happy to have the extra space with which to compose.

Interestingly, Lightroom 3 has dramatically improved its noise reduction algorithms. And as such, you can now use a GF1 at 400 or even 800 ISO and get acceptable results. So while you lose a couple stops moving from f/1.7 to f/2.5, Lightroom has given them back to us in this latest version by allowing greater ISO ratcheting.

More than anything, I've genuinely relished the subtle but powerful visual refresh brought about by shifting down to 14mm from the 20mm kit prime. I fully acknowledge I don't shoot like most people. I like to choose one set of constraints and live in their world. Creativity flourishes with the right boundaries, and I dig as deeply as I can within those afforded by prime lenses.

If you've shot exclusively with zooms, or have yet to try to shift your brain-space to lens-space, it's worth rediscovering a bit of the world in 14mm. Focused or not, distant or near, I can't help but feel there's just a bit more space — and connection — between everything around me.

1/2500 sec @ f/9.0, ISO 400

1/1250 sec @ f/9.0, ISO 400

1/400 sec @ f/9.0, ISO 400

@stml, @craigmod, @migurski — MONORAIL!

Feet on the MONORAIL

1/50 sec @ f/2.8, ISO 400

About the author

About the author

Craig Mod is a writer, designer, publisher and developer concerned with the future of publishing & storytelling.

As of October 2010, he's based in Palo Alto and collaborating with the publishing mavericks at Flipboard.

He is the founder of publishing think tank PRE/POST. He is co-author, designer and publisher of Art Space Tokyo. He is also co-founding editor and engineer behind, co-founder and developer of the storytelling project Hitotoki, and frequent collaborator with Information Architects, Japan. He's lived in Tokyo for almost a decade and speaks frequently on the future of books and media. He is the worst speller you will ever meet.

An extensive collection of images of books he's designed is available here.

Where this was written

In hotel Ibis, Sydney, looking out over the harbor in October, watching squalls turn to sunshine and back again. In San Francisco. At the Shala under the watchful eye of Enrique and Ben. In Los Angeles. In my beloved Tea Time and Coupa and University Cafe and above the tatami — the impossible tatami — in Palo Alto.

Thank you

@bobulate & @marumushi

Highly Recommended

About the images

All images © Craig Mod 2010.

Image reproduction is available under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike license. If you wish to use these photos in a commercial context, please contact me directly.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.

All images taken with the Panasonic GF1 + Lumix 14mm f/2.5 pancake lens. Except that one by Cartier-Bresson. Which I sadly didn't take. All post-processing done in Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 3.

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