Monday, December 6, 2021


The two most important things I've learned in my 50+ years as an artist–-with over 35 years as a professional photographer––is that the choice of focal length is the most important artistic decision in photography, which, when coupled with, to quote Ansel Adams, "Where You Stand", relative to the subject, takes care of 95% of the decisions to be made before you click the shutter. These two things can take decades from some photographers to learn (if ever!). The other 5%; choice of aperture, shutter speed and ISO (The Exposure Triangle) I can teach someone in an hour.

16mm Fisheye, f11.0 @ 1/125 sec., ISO 100, Ektachrome I.R.Film

So, on to the subject of this blog. I watched this building being built some 46 years ago; it was completed in 1976. It's located on 1st Street and Hedding in downtown San Jose, California. At the time with its all chrome-look surface flanked by the rusty towers that enclosed the fire-escape stairs, it was the most modern looking building in San Jose. 

Its block like shape didn't thrill me. It looked too static and un-dynamic to be an artistic subject if photographed in a literal style. It looked to be the ideal subject for one of my favorite lenses––the 16mm, Rectilinear, Fisheye (The Minolta Rokkor) for my Minolta SRT 101.

Now, Where to Stand? I knew I had to be close, so I went out there on a weekend so there would be fewer people downtown. Walking around the building I discovered that it was built on a pedestal with a concrete walkway and patio dug out (below grade) surrounding its base.  Fantastic, that meant I could stand under the edges of the building! Being that close and tilting-up with my fisheye gave me incredible distortion turning the building into a pyramid when I placed one of its corners near the middle of my viewfinder's frame. In addition, to create a more surreal, dramatic image I chose Kodak, Ektachrome, Infa-Red film and used my lenses built-in 80B filter to make the sky purple.

Here's what the building looks like in reality today....

f11.0 @ 1/125 sec., ISO 400, Lens at 65mm

It's actually difficult to photograph a building this large without distorting it. I found that I had to back off about half-a-block with my zoom lens at 65mm to not distort its shape. This illustrates again why Focal Length and Where You Stand are so important especially with large subjects.

The Focal Length you choose:

- determines the artistic canvas (how much you see).

- determines the perspective.

- determines the composition.

- and determines what Kind of Distortion (Extension––wide angle or Compression––telephoto) will be used, if any.

Where you stand––relative to subject:

When using a wide angle:  The wider the focal length / the closer to the subject the more pronounced the wide angle (Extension) distortion. Remember, objects closest to your lens will be increased in size the most, relative to the objects farthest away.

The effect of Extension Distortion is so extremely unattractive on portraits of people that I never move in close to a person with a lens of 50mm or wider focal length. My wide angle lenses are only for Landscapes, or artistic images of things.

'Til next time... Jerry

Author: Jerry W. Venz, PPA Master Photographer, Craftsman

Training site:


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