This post focuses on portrait shoots, but also has some relevance for concerts. I also discuss my experiences on campus (University of Cape Town) where I take photos between lectures for fun and also for Varsity Newspaper assignments.


I’ve got two tripods now, I intent to leave one indoors and one in the boot of my car, so I can always use one when I need it. I particularly use it for landscape and macro work.

I bought a backback designed for lenses, so I can pack at least 6 in there and maybe a flash or a 2nd camera. Sometimes I can take as much as I want (studio shoot) and it will be safe, sometimes I need to make the bag light enough to carry and sometimes I have to narrow it down to one or two lenses only (such as for party events or journalism events on campus). So here are a few of the typical set ups I use.

Single lens situation

wide angle for landscapes or events. Such as 18-105 VR, or 24-70mm f/2.8 for low light. Maybe a 50mm f/1.8 or 30m f/1.4 in my camera bag, if its not practical to wear a backpack the whole time.

Some variety of lenses

For concerts and portraits, I have a certain approach. I take a long two Nikon DSLR camera bodies to wear around my neck, with one lens eac.h  My favourite primes are the 30mm f/1.4, 50mm f/1.8 and 85mm f/1.8.  Those three pair up well – I might start the shoot off using a 30mm (slightly wide) and 85mm (telephoto) at the same time. If I am not doing many wide shots for a part of the shoot, I will look into my backpack and swop the 30mm for a 50mm. But if I like the 30mm but I find the 85mm is too narrow for the situation, I’ll change it to a 50mm. I might add a wide-angle (18-105mm, or 24-70mm f/2.8) or longer telephoto (100mm f/2.8, or 135mm f/3.5) to my bag depending on how I predict the location/stage will look and what the lighting will do.

Large range with me

If I am doing a shoot an someone’s house or at a studio where space and weight are not an issue, I will take most of my lenses. Even though the fast apertures of the 30mm, 50mm and 85mm lenses might not be needed, they will give excellent results when stopped down to apertures like f/4 or f/8. Studio lighting or flashes make this practical.

If I don’t know which of the three lenses I will attach, I sometimes start off with the 24-70mm f/2.8 for indoor or outdoor shoots, to go through the zoom range and see what perspective and framing works.

I will take my long primes as well, both the 100mm f/2.8 and 135mm f/3.5 (which are both manual focus and manual aperture rings only). I bought manual focus 200m f/4, which I want to try on a shoot sometime.

Lastly, I’ll take a special effects lens like a fish-eye converter, or my homemade DIY tilt-shift lens.

I also have a 55-200mm VR kit lens, but it’s not that sharp compared to the telephoto primes. So I save it for sport where I need the autofocus and VR.

Walk-about lens

Everyone has their favourite walkabout lens – when travelling or walking around the streets (or me walking around university campus all week), it’s convenient to have a wide-angle with a zoom range. Such as the 18-105mm VR, which I find especially useful with a polariser filter to darken skies. I don’t own an 18-200mm, but it’s popular for this purpose.

Sometimes for a day or for one or two weeks, I’ll force myself to use a limited lens. I wanted to learn how to use my new 85mm f/1.8, so decided to use it exclusively on some days at university. It helped me work on focus, framing and other things which are specific techniques for that focal length and wide aperture.

I like to use the Sigma 30mm f/1.4 (cropped-sensor only) which is a slight wide-angle, but always has beautiful and surprisingly narrow depth of field. It doesn’t work well at long distances, but for short to medium distance focusing, it is amazing. It also has a pleasant natural vignette when shooting wide apertures like f/1.4 (similar issue with the 18-105mm at 18mm or 105mm at wide apertures, but not noticeable on the 50mm or 85mm which are fullframe lenses I use on a cropped-sensor body).

One time I decided to use a manual focus 50mm f/1.4 for 2 weeks straight. It is weird to compose with after using the 18-105mm almost everyday on campus for a year, but I enjoy the 50mm. It helps me find things to emphaise and removes clutter around the edges of the photo. Also  the wide aperture makes it fanstastic for portraits, close-up nature shots, indoors low light. My manual focusing skills also got better, such getting a statue in focus quickly or tracking birds or people moving past (I like the street photography style of crowds walking past on my campus). The lens is manual aperture ring too. On the D90, this meant that I could not shoot in P, A or S modes, only M. I have no lightmeter. I set the aperture phyiscally on the lens, had to try and remember what number I set it too when looking the viewfinder, and set a good shutter speed and ISO value. I used to use Aperture Priority and Program a lot, but having to use Manual helped me understand its advantages better. When I took photos in a dark hall and stepped out into the sun, the camera in A would normally automatically compensate the shutter and ISO for me. But now I had to think, “wait, this appears to be two F-stops brighter than inside”. I would then adjust my ISO, shutter speed and/or aperture depending what look I want, then take a photo and see if I guessed right. The eye sees contrast and lighting zones differently to the camera, so I learnt to figure out how the camera sees. Sometimes I would turn the aperture ring by two turns (two whole-stops) and be spot on. Sometimes I would adjust my shutter speed and be off by a third of a stop, or even way off by a stop.

Sometimes I thought about the difference in light levels deliberately and calculated in my head that I would need and extra stop, so turn the aperture ring by one click or the shutter dial by three clicks.

Sometimes I would go on instinct…  Such as I would move from shade to sun, or sun to indoors… I wouldn’t calculate the number of turns, I would just turn the aperture ring by a certain number of clicks without counting them (or one quick movement so I don’t know how many clicks there were). I wouldn’t look at the number I’ve set, I would just take the photo. And I would often surprise myself with how accurate this method can be for me. I would get a feel of how many turns are needed. This also happened when I shot in manual exposure with other lenses. It would be even stranger with shutter speed accuracy, such as when I would decide I need increase exposure by three stops. Normally I would turn 3 clicks from 1/4000 to 1/2000, then another three to 1/000, then another three clicks to 1/500.  Sometimes I lose count, maybe doing 2 or 4 clicks at time, or getting to in between numbers (1/3200) and losing the neat halving steps. I would be at maybe 1/4000 and turn the dial a couple of times, get lost, then turn a few more until I got to say 1/500, because it “felt” right. Maybe it felt right not be because of the distance to change, but because of the aperture and ISO which have been set and the the brightness of the scene.