Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about lenses and how they are (or can be) very similar to bicycles. This is partly because I’ve been in the market for a new camera recently. It’s also because I’ve thought about the concept of viewing life “through” different lenses before, and a tweet by John Watson of Prolly Is Not Probably got me thinking about it again. He posed the question of what lens he should bring with him on his OR-CA bike tour, which is a really good question, and it got me thinking. The lens that you decide to mount on the front of your camera really dictates how you view the world, clearly (no pun intended), and the bike that you decide to ride can do the same thing.
There are plenty of different types of lenses, all for different applications. You’ve got your “prime” or “fixed” lens, those that don’t have the ability to zoom in or out. They are called “fixed” purely for that reason . . . they are “fixed” in focal length and if you want to change how close or far you appear from your subject, you must physically move your person. Then you’ve got “zoom” lenses, which will zoom in and out for you and might be considered more “versatile” than a prime. After that variable, many other things differ, but it’s not worth noting those things here.
Let’s go back to prime lenses. There are quite a few photographers that favor them and I am without a doubt a part of that faction. Why? Well, they limit you in a way that makes you think about limits differently. With a prime lens you are always going to be looking at your subject through the exact same frame size, depending on how far you are standing from them. You can’t get artificially closer by zooming your camera in, nor can you get further away by zooming out. With a prime lens you have to think about how you will frame your picture and how it will look before you even begin to bring the viewfinder up to your eye.
BMX bikes and fixed gears are quite similar. Neither are exactly ideal for an urban environment, if you are mainly concerned with getting around, that is. BMX bikes are very small and only have one gear. In today’s BMX scene, it is also common to ride without a brake, which makes descending hills a little tricky. Actually . . . tricky might not be the right word here, I don’t want to upset any riders. You just have to think about going down a hill a bit differently than you would if you had normal brakes. If you are flying down a hill with brakes on your bike, as soon as your realize, “hey, I should slow the heck down”, you can pull on your brakes and slow right now. Riding without a brake you have to come up with other ways to slow your speed. You carve back and fourth. You hop the curb and cut a line through some grass to slow you down a tick. You drag your feet, you jam them between the tire and the frame. None of this is necessarily “hard” to do, it just takes a moment of thought before the action is required. This is much the same as a prime lens.
I am not aiming to say that a prime lens or a BMX or fixie will hold you up or cramp your style. Quite the opposite, in fact. You come to the task at hand with an idea of what you want to achieve before you even start.
I used to ride street on a 26″ wheeled mountain bike that was complete with front and back brakes, a front suspension fork, and even gears. This opened so many options in an urban environment that it was easy to get overwhelmed all the possibilities. Riding a rigid, singlespeed BMX bike with smaller diameter wheels (that don’t roll over obstacles as effortlessly as 26ers) and rather slick tires means that I have to think more about how I am going to interpret the terrain in a different ways. Riding transitions requires more care, because the small wheels and rigid fork can’t account for your miscalculations. Dirt jumping becomes a whole other world! Manuals don’t come as easily, because there is no rear brake to tap in the event of a mistake. This actually feels more organic, though, because you must use your body weight to maintain the balance of the manual, rather than a mechanical system.
Zoom lens remind me of a sturdy, steel commuter/touring bike. They can get you around lots of different places without many worries. Full gears are great for getting up and over hills, mountains, short rises, etc., and brakes let you cruise down a hill in confidence. The frame has some give to it and provides a comfortable ride . The key here is versatility and the ability to cover terrain efficiently. A zoom lens does a similar job. If you are behind the fence at the zoo, but want a close-up of the lions, you can just twist the lens and presto, there you are. Both are a bit heavy and cumbersome, especially after you’ve used a lighter bike or a prime lens, but they have their purposes.
I really enjoy changing bikes as much as I enjoy changing lenses because it keeps you guessing. It keeps you in focus and in the moment because you have to re-adapt whenever you change. It keeps your skills in check and it also lets you experience the present moment in new and refreshing ways. Sometimes I’m in a mood to see the world through a BMX lens, and other times I crave the quickness of my road bike. On most days, I find the touring bike to be pretty fun because it’s such a good all-arounder and I know it well.
I hope you change up the “lens” that you view your world through from time to time, even if that lens has nothing to do with cameras or riding biycles.