Updated: Feb 27
(Or how I learned to stop worrying and love the Nifty Fifty)
I started, like most people, thinking that wide angles are the best lenses for landscapes. It’s what we’re taught, and there’s a simple explanation for that; They capture more of the scene, and help the viewer feel like they’re surrounded by the view in front of them. Sites like 500px are a full of ultra-wide-angle landscapes, capturing the drama of spectacular locations worldwide. But there are downsides to wide-angle lenses too. They distort perspective and exaggerate distances, so that mountains and middle-ground subjects appear vastly smaller than they are to the human eye. They also appear to show woodland scenes much less densely than medium to longer focal length lenses (the trees seem further apart). For a while, the 70-200mm lens had been my woodland lens of choice; to counteract the downsides of a wide-angle. But that creates problems too. Even at 70mm, I can’t quite get enough of the scene in view, and the reduced depth-of-field becomes a problem.
The 50mm prime lens, so-called ‘Nifty Fifty’ due to its ubiquity and flexibility of use is on most photographers list of must-have lenses, and always recommended for newcomers. It gives a very natural perspective; similar to the human eye, with almost no distortion and a very sharp image. Best of all, it’s one of the smallest, lightest, and cheapest lenses around – a bonus simply down to physics, and the relatively little amount of glass and technology required to collect light at that angle. I’d always thought that as a landscape and wildlife photographer, 50mm was neither here nor there. Not wide enough for landscapes, and certainly not long enough for wildlife. But both of these conventions have been proven wrong of late, and 50mm started to feel like it might be the ideal lens for woodland and forest scenes. So I took the plunge, and bought one, and when we woke up to a misty morning last month, I went out with just a camera and the nifty fifty.
I went to my local woodland; Aspley Woods, near Woburn Sands. I used to go as a child, and it’s still one of my favourite places. There’s certainly a wealth of potential for photography, with a nice mix of straight fir trees and pockets of silver birch.
Walking around with the nifty fifty was a real weight off my shoulders; quite literally. I didn’t need the usual tripod and rucksack required for the heavier 70-200mm. It made the whole experience more enjoyable, and having just one prime lens with me reduces the decision-making required. No more constantly thinking about changing lenses, or zooming. Just walk, compose a shot, and move on. I got to enjoy the woods a lot more.
Bedfordshire isn’t many people’s first choice location for landscapes, but we do have these gems hidden away, and Aspley Woods is one of my favourites.
With the mild, grey winter we’ve had this year, it seems like a lot of landscape photographers have been relying on misty woods to offer some kind of interesting subject. It has been tough lately to find much else around (locally, anyway). But that doesn’t detract from the result in my mind. A misty woodland scene is something I think most people have an instant connection with and reaction to, and it’s a perennial favourite with me.
As I’ve mentioned before, I got into photography in the first place with the aim of capturing some woodland scenes for the walls. Woods and forest are my favourite locations for walks, and I’m always happy to be among the trees. So I’m always particularly satisfied when I get some woodland photos I’m happy with.
Recreating the colours (or white balance) of the morning was difficult, and these photos vary in tone from shot to shot. In some cases, I’ve tried to recreate the colours as I saw them, and in others I’ve sought just to tone the image as I think it looks best.
Since Lightroom introduced their raw file panorama feature, I’ve been using it no end. It’s a brilliant innovation, and very effective. I’ve always liked wide-aspect photos, so to be able to create them in raw format, without cropping is a big deal.
I would say that the combination of woods and the nifty fifty was nothing short of a triumph. I love the natural perspective it gives, and it’s so sharp. I’m now looking forward to bluebell season. After last year, when I made a real project of the bluebell woods, I’m hoping to do something similar this year with the 50mm. So we’ll see how that goes in the next few weeks…