Lenses and eyes

Random landscape in Arunachal, near Tawang

I have been clicking photos for 30 years now, give or take a few. Started with my father's fixed-lens rangefinder with its 45mm lens. Moved to SLR with my friend's Pentax K1000, and stuck to SLR and 35mm (the format, not the technology) since.

During these years, I've played with relatively few lenses. I must have used just the standard lens for the first fifteen years of my clicking journey. I then added a 28mm (even the price difference between that and a 24mm was significant for me at the time). Later I added a 135mm f/2.5 lens. Today, I use a 24mm, 50mm, and 100mm.

After all these years, some strange realisations have dawned. I hope they are realisations and insights, not the outpourings of an addled middle-aged brain.

Lenses are like eyes

Different lenses let you see different worlds, in the same physical reality.

Think about a military parade. If you look at the parade from a distance, you will see precision and drill, and the wave-like beauty of the row upon row of uniformed personnel all moving in lock step.

If you look a bit closely, you may see a young Captain or Lieutenant who is nervously glancing at the lead soldier in his platoon, hoping that his accuracy will keep the platoon in lock step.

If you look somewhere else a little more closely, you may see some self-consciousness in a platoon commander or some envious glances from someone in the audience towards someone in the parade. You may a proud parent's preening look as he or she watches a child marching past. You may see something untidy in one corner of the chief guest accepting the salute of the troops.

We treat all these as but normal. We zoom out and zoom in with our minds all the time.

I have begun to feel that these stories are actually parallel universes. I think the description of zooming out and zooming in does the universe an injustice. Changing lenses changes the field of view, and actually allows us to switch universes.

Choosing how to relate to a world

Imagine a gathering of an extended family in a small room. It spans three generations. There are at least eight or nine adults in the room at any time, and there's a lot of banter, recounting of hilarious gaffes which grow with each retelling, and some general chaos. I am never more than about six or seven feet away from some group or other. I cannot use the standard (50mm) lens -- it would get me only portraits of one person at a time. I am enjoying the mood of the gang, I want to see the chaotic energy in my frame. The fun is only in the interaction, the variety, the candid freezing of half a dozen people in one frame. I need a 28mm or 24mm. It becomes "a 24mm event" for me. I am in it, in the midst of it.

Another gathering of people. A bunch of professional colleagues meeting for dinner, with spouses. The spouses have never met each other before. The colleagues have never tried to do a dinner with family members before. There is friendly conversation, but I can see that the layers of conversation are being built. Someone pulls another's leg, and a third person picks up that joke and gives his explanation -- an explanation he's given before. This familiarity comforts him. Another joke is cracked. The layers of conversation are being built one at a time. My mind is not in the midst of all this; I am bored with the jokes and the structured friendliness. I search for something which I will find interesting through my viewfinder, and I decide to get close to individual faces. I sit in one corner and use my 100mm lens to get candid portraits of people talking. I see self-consciousness, confusion, guarded politeness, and sometimes bursts of loud laughter. I don't want to mingle any more closely -- I like the distance. It has become "a 100mm evening" for me. I choose the eyes -- I choose the lens.

Each world is different, and we move from one world to the next all the time. We finish some work at office, and that's one world. We get up and step out for a chai, and that's a second world. This walking from one world to another is the stuff of my daily life -- the daily lives of all of us. In each world, we have to choose how to connect with it. Which lens shall I use here? Which lens, after the lunch is over and I head back to office?

Everything I'm leaving out

One Sunday morning, I watch a bunch of kids playing cricket. I am near the edge of the small field, and the field itself is dusty, with very little grass cover. This is the usual dirty brown dust of a dry tropical field. The outfield areas are covered in scrub and nettles, and some scraps of litter. Around the field are fairly dreary buildings, streaks on the walls by years of rain. I finger my camera uneasily -- I am not liking what I'm seeing, visually. I don't want to relate to all this dry brown dust and the dead-pan concrete around me. So I focus on the kids in the midfield, banging away at their cricket. The batsman swings his bat each time with wild abandon, the ball connects about a quarter of the time, and if the ball is hit, the fielders scream their lungs out while the batsman darts between the stumps. What energy -- it's like life itself. The youngest of the gang must be about six. No one is older than ten. So I step a bit closer, switch to the 100mm, and look at all this through my viewfinder. The concrete, scrubs, and litter are gone. Over two hours, I get eighty frames.

When someone else sees the frames later, does he realise what I've left out? He may think I'm showing him the action in the cricket pitch and the life in the children's faces. Actually, I'm also leaving out everything else. It's become "a 100mm event" for me, because I don't want to zoom out, I just want to zoom into the cricket. I wanted to walk into the midst of that cricket game and walk out of the surrounding world.

Doorways, not just tools

Lenses are not just tools. They are doorways. When I switch from the 100mm to the 50mm, I'm walking out of the 100mm universe into a different one, a 50mm one.

Here's two shots during the same meeting. The first is my 50mm world:
The 50mm world

And this one is the 100mm world:
The 100mm world

People tend to say that these are two frames of the same "event" because they "happened" in the same room during the same two-hour session in physical reality. I see them very differently. In the 50mm world, I am seeing a meeting, with multiple people, all conscious of each other, interacting with each other, working together for some purpose. I am watching them work, and noticing how they are engaging with some common goal. In the 100mm view, I am seeing one person grappling with his thoughts, trying to put his thoughts into words. I am listening to him, probably trying to engage with him -- the rest of the team and the meeting are immaterial. Two different worlds.

In this case, I had the energy and involvement to switch worlds and still relate to the event around me. I enjoyed being witness to both worlds. Sometimes I can't relate to any world but one. Sometimes I don't own the only lens with which I may have tried to connect to world around me, and in those cases, I just switch off the viewfinder of my mind.

Me and my lenses

Given all this, it is no surprise that I build a relationship with each lens I use. Each lens almost has a mood associated with it, as if I have different types of conversations through different lenses. With my 24mm, it's close-up wade-into-the-midst engagement with groups, or big expansive panoramas. With my 50mm, it's quiet everyday chit-chat, where I am most relaxed and natural and we are at peace with our surroundings. With the 100mm, I am either putting a distance between me and the world around, or I'm so immersed in some one piece, one face, one breath, that I have already lost everything else. With the 200mm, I guess it will be even more distance, even more concentration, as if I am engaging in a discourse on a clear theme.

This is also probably why I can't easily relate to zoom lenses. The act of zooming is too easy -- it allows me to switch in and out visually without allowing my mind a chance to decide what kind of conversation I want to have. It becomes a noisy experience, with the noise that happens if you mix light chit-chat, relaxed conversation, and focused thought into one five-minute encounter. I need the unmounting and mounting of lenses to be a deliberate physical act.

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