The Storyteller's Kit: How to Shoot for Scene, Subject, and Detail

Allow me to state that for the record before we dive in here, gear does not make the photographer. A talented artist can make an image with whatever falls into their palm, but for those of us who have the luxury of choice, be it the pocket sized Ricoh dangling from Moriyama's wrist, or Crewdson's cherrywood 8x10, a powerful image is about the framing of a moment, the machine it is seen through only serves simplify and streamline the process.To keep things simple, I'm going to be speaking in terms of Prime lenses in 35mm equivalents, so the numbers I'll be mentioning mainly apply to a full frame 35mm standard, even though I will be mentioning photographers who work in smaller and larger formats as well. 

Photographers for the most part, strive to tell stories. Whether found in the instant, completely candid, or carefully constructed, equipment choice can be key in creating the a package that allows the photographer to do their work with ease, unobstructed by the bells and whistles that are so common in modern camera equipment. 

Three lenses - Scene, Subject, and Detail.

© Daniel Schaefer, Leica M9, 28mm Elmarit, Hollywood

Scene - 28mm or Wider

For the cinematically inclined, this lens offers you the establishing shot, it tells the story of a space and the subjects within it. Photographers can find these lenses challenging at times, scene if not handled carefully can be overwhelming. Details in the background can become distracting, and if the frame is not treated carefully, the image can become overcomplicated. Unless the photographers working distance is closer than most are used to, the subject can easily be lost amongst the clutter, but when the frame fits cleanly, a wide angle lens is an incredibly potent tool. Typically most effective when shot horizontally, but of course, there are many markedly exceptions to the rule. 

A handful of artists who have mastered the use of Scene lenses  - 

Mary Ellen Mark - 28mm
Daido Moriyama - 21mm to 28mm
Arnold Newman - 8x10 equivalent

© Daniel Schaefer, Leica M9, 40mm Summicron, NYC

Subject - 35mm to 45mm

When the story one is telling needs to balance more towards the subject, yet the scene is still a necessary aspect of the image, a subject driven lens is always a fantastic option. Arguably the most flexible lens in the three prime kit, many photographers favor these lenses as a sort of default, rendering space and distance very similarly to the human eye. The level of flexibility that comes from these lenses often stem from the characteristics of the way they render depth of field, wide open they isolate the subject cleanly, letting the background fall away without sheerly becoming soup. Stopped down however, they are able to display space almost as cleanly as the scene lenses mentioned above, while still maintaining the obvious balance towards the subject in frame, making sure it’s clear that their story is the one being told. Theses lenses handle well no matter their orientation, vertical or horizontal, they always seem almost lifelike.

Bonus for lens nerds: On paper, it’s argued often that the perfect lens to match the distance and space rendering of the human eye to 43.7mm on standard 35mm film. 

Artists who have mastered the subject lens - 

Peter Turnley - 35mm
William Eggleston - 35mm
Alec Soth - 8x10 equivelant

© Daniel Schaefer, Leica M9, Nippon Kogaku 8.5cm f/2, Beverly Hills

Detail - 50mm or longer

The detail lens isolates, pulls the subject out of the frame letting the space drop away, almost making the frame feel like it’s pulling you inwards towards a hyper specific subject in frame. This lens has advantages no matter your choice in DOF, wide open the shallow nature makes the focus of the image very clear, but stopped down, these lenses have the incredible characteristic of collapsing space together, bringing foreground and background into a single flowing space. In the right hands can be an enormously potent tool, but because of its limits as far as working distance, these lenses tend to be the least versatile of the kit. Rendering most realistically when shot vertically, but as always there are astonishingly beautiful exceptions to the rule. 

Artists who make the detail lens sing -

Jacob aue Sobol - 50mm
Steve McCurry - 85mm to 135mm
Richard Avedon 4x5 & 8x10 equivalents

Voigtlander 28mm f/3.5, Leica 40mm f/2, Nippon Kogaku 8.5cm f/2 LTM © Daniel Schaefer, iPhone 5s

In Conclusion

Choosing your own kit carefully allows you to immediately set yourself apart as an artist, each photographer has a tool that fits them best, be it the tank like simplicity of a blackened brass Leica, the delicacy and precision of a cherrywood Shen Hao, or the whirring focus of a $10 pocket point and shoot found in a thrift shop window, finding the instrument that fits you is always an extremely satisfying moment. 

The beauty of the tools we use as photographers is the range that they offer, and the way that we can take advantage of our equipment working both in and outside of the box. For every example I’ve put above, there will always be an artists who uses their gear in ways far beyond the traditional, making work that contradicts what has come before it, keeping the artistry of our craft fresh and alive.

In the end, no matter the glass, camera, film or file, photography will always be about the final image. 

The tools we use only allow us to reach the creative conclusion in a way that suits our needs as storytellers. 

This article is written by Daniel Sawyer Scheafer. Daniel is a photographer, cinematographer, and educator based in Los Angeles, California. Daniel is currently booking one-on-one custom tailored workshops in Los Angeles during December and January, to sign up, follow the link to his site. Original article appeared on Article and pictures are published with permission from Daniel.

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John Flury's picture

Interesting approach which could yield some good results. To me however, this is more of a conceptual approach then a story. But the word story is used in so many different ways, that nobody can claim to be able to define it for everyone else. We know where the word comes from though and sadly that connection to its literal meaning has gone all but lost.

M L's picture

How is this an Fstopper Original if it was published on first?

Joacim Schwartz's picture

And Petapxel back in november, with some extra added to this article.

Ralph Berrett's picture

That is not different from what I would carry when I would do walkabouts in neighborhoods as a photojournalist.
I carry a Nikon D3. 14 -24mm f/2.8, 28-70mm f/2.8, 70-200mm f/2.8.

"If Your Pictures Aren’t Good Enough, You’re Not Close Enough"
- Robert Capa

I tend follow this idea when shooting. ;)