Gear Theory Philosophy & Reflections Photos & Projects

Architectural photography with a 50mm lens (and some thoughts on minimalism) – By Daniel Sigg

June 9, 2020

I love modern design, and in particular also interior and exterior architectural design. Most recently, I have been focusing on architectural subjects in my photography. It turned out to be a good subject as I live in a bigger city and was still able to take photographs during the “lockdown”.

I also love minimalism. Minimalism as an art form, minimalist design and minimalist architecture. When I was younger, I studied the works of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and other architects, and still own some “minimalist” furniture from the Bauhaus area.  Minimalistic design has been highly influenced by Japanese traditional design and architecture, and I personally always loved the Japanese design aesthetic.

But I also became interested in minimalism as a lifestyle / philosophy. Using minimalism as a lifestyle “term” is probably more recent development. Proponents of this lifestyle say that it is all about living with less: less financial burden and less unnecessary expenses. And more about experiences.

I have been applying some minimalist approaches to my photography and thought it could be fun to share some of my experiences and thoughts on that topic (with image samples).

Before proceeding, here some articles from 35mmc that relate to this topic:

Unremarkable architecture photo project (Hamish Gill)
Bremen Ports – industrial architecture (Christian Schroeder)
The beauty of basic – life with one lens (Will Mordell)
The Lure of the Uncomplicated Camera (Hamish Gill)

Minimalism in Photography: Gear

Minimalism means different things to different people. For example, in photography, it could mean to apply minimalism to photography gear itself (versus the art of photography).

For my own journey, I started to consciously limit my lens choices to a 50mm focal length (in full frame equivalent).  This meant, I would only bring one camera & one 50mm lens to my photography outings. (With a few exceptions).

Why limit the gear?

Aside from obvious economical reasons to own less, I think the spirit of limiting gear, at least to me, is simplification and piece of mind. In an ideal world, I would just go out and shoot, without thinking about the gear a second. In reality, I still do think about at least two things at the moment: camera body and film stock. If I shoot digital, it’s just camera body for most part. I am not at the 1 body per medium goal yet, but would like to get there.

Once I was out, and I  did not have a choice anymore, this felt clearly liberating to me. In the field, my only decisions are the visual “story” with primarily composition and then some basic exposure settings to worry about. With that, I also decided to not work with filters (although I used to work with filters quite a bit). [[I am planning to do more long exposure fine art B&W work down the road, but this will be very pre-planned and obviously will require a tripod and ND filters unless I do it dusk / dawn / low light.]]

I think there is a host of reasons why gear limitation can be useful (this section has been inspired by a blog post from Erik Kim):

  • Using one focal length only lets you really learn that focal length; if you are smarter than me, and really only use one lens (versus several as I did), you also will really learn the lens
  • Analysis – paralysis – photographers block: I found myself often wondering which lenses to bring, and overanalyzed the gear I was going to bring on an outing or trip. The result: I would often bring way too much gear, and often did not use the extra stuff I brought.
  • Using one focal length makes you see the subjects with that focal length
  • Bringing one lens/camera is lighter and easier than bringing more
  • Not having a choice can paradoxically be freeing, I found this to be very much the case
  • If you have extra $$, perhaps consider spending it on an experience (maybe a road trip) versus the next lens

Does one lens make you a better photographer: not necessarily, but it might 😉

Why 50mm?

50mm works well for my style and I consciously purchased a M3 with that “limitation” in mind last year.  This is not the first time that I explored a more minimalist “single lens” approach: last year, my family and I went on a 2 week Europe trip (I am from Switzerland originally), and I had only a 35mm FF equivalent prime lens with me (back then, a Fuji X camera with a 23mm 1.4 prime lens that I have sold since then).

Are there or were there times when I wished I had a wider or longer focal length? Of course. Lenses after all are very powerful tools for overall creative image control. And very often, lenses are much less discussed and reviewed than the “light boxes” (cameras, sensors, film stocks).

So, yes, 50mm works fairly well, but of course is not always ideal. If it wasn’t, I found myself working the composition and experimenting until I found something that worked. More often than not this may result in “NOT” taking the shot.

Other gear limitations?

Of course, the obvious one that I don’t strictly adhere to all the time, is the film medium.  Some might argue that this is not a limitation, but a complication. And they might have a point. Aside from the obvious cost, the use of film is limited by film stock (including color or monochrome), and ISO speed and the overall work flow. But then the limitation/choice of ISO and film stock force us photographers to be more deliberate with our approach.

For my personal and professional work, I used to use and still own a lot of gear: digital camera bodies, many lenses including specialized tilt-shift, strobes, light modifiers, LED lights, tripods, mono-stands, light stands, C-stands, clamps, macro-rails,  backdrops, gimbals for video work etc. etc. For my personal landscape work, I used to travel with 3 full-frame zoom lenses, 2 bodies, a variety of filters and a big tripod.  And while there are no regrets and I did indeed use all this gear, there is a liberating aspect of traveling with (and ultimately also owning!) less!

Of course, the current economic crisis lends itself to pursue such “minimalistic” life style if nothing other than for economical reasons.

In order to work towards using and owning only essential gear, I have been reviewing/listing all the photography gear I own, and have been proactively selling what I no longer consider essential.

(Digression: prime versus zoom

Now, I wanted to briefly discuss one issue that often comes up in the prime versus zoom discussion. Often prime lens proponents seem to talk about “zooming” with your feet and how that would help overcome the limitation of not having a zoom lens or multiple focal lengths.  This is simply not true. To make matters even more complicated, many say that focal length determines the perspective of an image.  But strictly speaking, this is also not true. Perspective only changes with the photographers location relative to their subject. To keep this digression to a minimum, but if this topic is of interest, I recommend John Aldred’s piece and also a more in depth discussion on focal lengths by Cambridge in Colour. If one is particularly interested in depth of field and out of focus rendering, both important artistic tools, I also recommend Cambridge in Colour.)

Minimalism in Photography: Art

As mentioned, I love minimalism as an art form / style as well. Whether this is minimalist design, sculptures, paintings, or photographs. And certainly, there can be an overlap between a minimalist design aesthetic, and a minimalist life style.

With regards to a minimalistic aesthetic in my own work, I always strive for simplifying my compositions.

Examples

I wanted to share some recent 35mm architecture film photographs I have been taking with 50mm lenses, and various 35mm film stocks.

All films have been developed at home, scanned with a Nikon DSLR system (D850, with Nikkor 105mm Macro 2.8 lens), digital raw files converted with Negative Lab Pro 2.0 and edited in Adobe Lightroom.

Delta Pro 100 Leica M3 Summicron 50mm

Rollei Retro 400S Nikon FM3a 50mm 1.8

Delta Pro 100 Leica M3 Summicron 50mm

Delta Pro 100 Leica M3 Summilux 50mm

Kodak Portra 400 converted to B&W Nikon FE Nikkor 50mm 1.8

Kodak Portra 400 converted to B&W Nikon FE Nikkor 50mm 1.8

Rollei Retro 400S Nikon FM3a Nikkor 50mm 1.8

Rollei Retro 80S Leica M3 Summicron 50mm

Rollei Retro 80S Leica M3 Summicron 50mm

Ilford Pan F 50 M3 Summilux 50mm

Rollei Superpan 200 Leica M3 Summilux 50mm

Rollei Superpan 200 Leica M3 Summilux 50mm

Rollei Superpan 200 Leica M3 Summilux 50mm

Ilford Pan F 50 Leica M3 Summilux 50mm

Final Thoughts

Of course, the lens (camera) is ultimately just a tool. But to me, it’s important to love my tool, to take care of it, and to also use it regularly. And it has to be easy and intuitive and fun to use.

Ultimately, every photographer has to decide individually what tool(s) work(s) best for their creative vision.

At the moment, I plan to continue my “minimalism” journey. Artistically, this mean continue to work almost exclusively in black and white, probably mostly using the 50mm focal length (possibly 28mm at times), pushing my compositions, and further simplifying my gear.

I look forward to hearing from you.  What your favorite focal lengths? Have you been trying to explore minimalism, either artistically and/or as a lifestyle or both or elsewhere?

Thanks for reading! I hope you enjoyed the pictures and perhaps some of the thoughts.

You can find me on Instagram here.

Finally, thanks, Hamish, for letting me publish this little piece.

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24 Comments

  • Reply
    Bob Janes
    June 9, 2020 at 10:52 am

    Some lovely abstracted forms & great use of symmetry/near symmetry. Just shows that great perspective shots can be taken with a 50.

    I often take part in ‘One prime’ weeks/month over on Dyxum, so have tried out most focal lengths over the years – my favourite I guess in the 24, which makes for a notable wide angle on full-frame and a good 35ish equivalent on APS-C…

    • Reply
      Daniel Sigg
      June 9, 2020 at 4:09 pm

      Bob, thanks for your comments! I am also a huge fan of the 24mm focal length, in particular for landscape photography. Cheers, Daniel

  • Reply
    Christian Schroeder
    June 9, 2020 at 12:01 pm

    Hi Daniel! A well written, thought provoking article – and exceptional imagery!

    Very recently, I decided to get rid of a lot of unused and/or defective gear. Every piece that had been kept untouched in my drawer for more than a year: goodbye, won’t see you again. This felt liberating, indeed! However, as (industrial) architecture is by far my most favorite subject when it comes to photography, I finally ventured towards large(-ish) format. I haven’t exposed a single frame yet, so I can’t talk about my first experiences now. The workflow is completely new to me and seems exciting. As much as I appreciate a minimalist approach in my “general” photography, I regularly feel the urge of rather complicated, technical procedures. It’s like Yin and Yang.

    And concerning my casual 35mm photography: I’m a 50mm guy, too. Absolutely.

    Cheers, Christian

    • Reply
      Daniel Sigg
      June 9, 2020 at 3:55 pm

      Hi Christian! Thanks for your kind comments! That’s exciting that you are venturing into large format photography. And I hear you on new exciting technically challenging procedures, I certainly love that as well! I look forward to seeing some of your large format work! Cheers, Daniel

  • Reply
    Michael K.
    June 9, 2020 at 2:21 pm

    Hi again Daniel!
    Have you ever considered something like the Nikkor 35mm F2D? You say the 50mm has its limitations. While your images are very minimalist & highly detailed, do you think maybe even more subject would perhaps suit your style, or is that perhaps too wide for your consideration? Perhaps then a 40-43mm range lens? I’ve recently been experimenting with the aforementioned lens & find it simply brilliant, considering I’ve primarily been a 50-100mm prime shooter for just over a decade. Trying the 35mm out in the last month or so was like opening a whole new world to me.
    Really loving the PanF & Retro 80S images too. 🙂
    All the best,
    Mikey

    • Reply
      Daniel Sigg
      June 9, 2020 at 3:51 pm

      Hi Mikey, Thanks for your comments! I still own a 28mm Nikkor 2.8 manual lens that I might bring on road trip leaving this week! So, I don’t think a wider lens is necessarily too wide for my consideration. For example, I did bring a 35mm FF equivalent lens on a Europe trip last year as my only lens (this was digital), and consciously limited myself to that focal length. It worked quite well, especially since I was also photographing some landscape vistas. Good luck with your 35mm! Cheers, Daniel

  • Reply
    Phil Harrison
    June 9, 2020 at 3:11 pm

    Spot on!! Excellent photographs too!! Having spent the last 4 years mostly using ‘standard’ lenses on my film cameras, particularly the 35mm film cameras with a 50mm lens, my new standard on the M6 is a 35mm focal length. Change is as good as a rest. A single lens on the camera has definitely improved my photos.

  • Reply
    Simon
    June 9, 2020 at 8:32 pm

    Some striking images here, thanks for sharing them.

    Long time photography writer Mike Johnston has long extolled the virtue of OCOLOY – one camera, one lens, one year. I feel that, rather than seeing it as a restriction, the reduced set of equipment choices is very liberating. I spent many years using my Zuiko 35 and 50mm lenses for 95% or more of my photography (an 80-210mm zoom was the sole other item, often left behind as I didn’t like carrying it everywhere while one prime was on the camera and the other would fit in a pocket).

    Thinking back, as I acquired more lenses I didn’t necessarily take better photos and those two lenses were and are still the most used of my film camera lenses.

    • Reply
      Daniel Sigg
      June 9, 2020 at 9:30 pm

      Thanks for your comments! I was not familiar with the OCOLOY term. But I completely agree that the reduced set of equipment choices is very liberating indeed.

      Cheers,

      Daniel

  • Reply
    Sroyon
    June 9, 2020 at 8:56 pm

    Very nice photos 🙂 I like your thoughtful use of symmetry and asymmetry.

    I’d say I’m a minimalist when it comes to most personal possessions. I read a lot, but almost always from libraries or on Kindle. Sometimes I buy books or get them as gifts, but after I’m done I often give them away. Since my university days I only had one pair of jeans and trainers at a time (though I’m almost always in jeans and trainers). About five years ago my girlfriend persuaded me that it was okay to own two pairs of jeans – blue and black. Now for the last two years she has been trying to persuade me to upgrade to three… so far without success. I’ve moved countries several times in the last ten years, which is one motivation for keeping belongings to a minimum. On the other hand, I do have five film cameras (I aim to get this down to four). My main camera is a Leica M3, for which I have three lenses: 50, 28, 135 (in descending order of how often I use them).

    • Reply
      Daniel Sigg
      June 9, 2020 at 9:27 pm

      Thanks for the kind comments!

      You are miles ahead of me with regards to minimalism! Great selection of focal lengths of your M lenses.

      Cheers,

      Daniel

  • Reply
    eric
    June 9, 2020 at 11:28 pm

    Hiiii Daniel.
    One more great work, one more great review from you, with great topic, and great images.
    Thank you so much.

    I totally agree with you. You have explained very well the creative power of one camera with only one lens, especially the 50 mm for 35mm. The 50mm can have great aperture, and are normally very sharp to extremely sharp.
    This is the reason why for 50 mm when I want to be very creative and light, I choose nearly the same than you : the Leica M3 black and the Nikon FM3 a mostly with Ektar 100, ProImage 100, Tmax 100, TriX 100.
    Of course, of course I need a great lab, and after long years to find one which can work with photographer abroad, I have found one of the best in the world : http://rewindphotolab.com.au
    I just want to thank you deeply for this great sharing and : BRAVO ;-0

    • Reply
      Daniel Sigg
      June 10, 2020 at 1:17 am

      Hi Eric,

      Thanks for the kind and encouraging comments. Fun that we have the same cameras! Also thanks for the photo lab tip!

      Cheers,

      Daniel

  • Reply
    Ben
    June 10, 2020 at 7:32 am

    Hi Daniel.

    First of all, your images displayed are striking. Thank you for sharing yours.

    Second, regarding gear minimalism, I am a great proponent of this. It has been bothering me a lot when i have too many things to work with. I feel cluttered. This is the same in photography as well as synth gear and a few other things.

    With music, I am more creative and get more out of a session when I am working within restrictions. I enjoy choosing a prime and then taking that only, which I will do when cycling. Unless I know I want a specific set of shots in advance, one lens is liberating.

    As is one gear on a bicycle, but that is another story.

    • Reply
      Daniel Sigg
      June 10, 2020 at 2:56 pm

      Hi Ben,

      Thanks for your comments! I had to laugh at the one gear on a bicycle comment! I remember those bikes and was never a fan, especially growing up in Switzerland!

      I am also a musician, and have started to minimize my gear there as well.

      Fully agree with you that one lens is liberating!

      Cheers,

      Daniel

  • Reply
    Guest Post on 35mmc Photography Blog: Architectural photography with a 50mm lens (and some thoughts on minimalism) | Sigg Photography
    June 10, 2020 at 3:29 pm

    […] I wrote another guest blog for Hamish Gill’s 35mmc Blog Site, you can find it here. […]

  • Reply
    Daniel Castelli
    June 12, 2020 at 4:36 am

    Hi Dan,
    A nice post -I’ve reread it a few times and I really like your geometric ‘eye.’
    Here’s my one camera/one lens experience: I always shoot a roll of film on new years day. Back in 2016, I was preparing for my NYD shoot. Out the door, and I realized I had taken my 50mm lens, and forgotten my 35mm lens. I shot the whole day with the fifty. One day turned into a week, a week into a few months, etc. At the end of the year, I started to print the selected negs and noticed something; I really didn’t like the 50. I had some good stuff, but too restrictive. Back to the 35. The year long exercise made me realize the 50 was not right for me. But, that’s good. My one camera/one lens: the 35mm on the camera. My minimal approach led me to realize I ‘see’ with the 35mm. I don’t regret not having other focal lengths, because I have “wider angle” legs & “fill the frame legs.”

    • Reply
      Daniel Sigg
      June 15, 2020 at 4:35 am

      Thanks, Daniel. It’s great that you found “your” focal length. Thanks for sharing that interesting experience (and your NYD tradition!). Cheers, Daniel

  • Reply
    Zubida
    July 10, 2020 at 6:34 am

    Liked your thoughts and works. Your images are gorgeous for their simplicity and impact. The thing I like most about minimalism is it works on small screens. The small zone of phone screens implies that there’s very little space for complex details and areas with a ton of interest; rather, a single subject against a monotone background will stand apart substantially more without any problem.

    • Reply
      Daniel Sigg
      July 10, 2020 at 2:04 pm

      Thanks for your comments including for the kind words about the images and the very interesting thought about impact of minimalistic style on small screens! Cheers, Daniel

  • Reply
    Photographing An American Road Trip - by Daniel Sigg - 35mmc
    July 16, 2020 at 4:01 pm

    […] much as I have been into minimalism (see my recent post on this), I decided to bring 3 film cameras on the trip. In order to be truly minimalist, I maybe should […]

  • Reply
    David Campbell
    October 20, 2020 at 10:30 am

    Daniel — Great post and wonderful group of minimalist photos. They all look like something I would take! As the son of an landscape artist/architectural illustrator, architecture photography is one of my loves, especially architectural details.

    I guess I am on a journey that is somewhat the reverse of lots of younger photographers, as far as gear is concerned. I started serious photography in 1976 in a required college photojournalism class and learned how to shoot with a loaned, all manual Yashica 35mm film camera with a 50mm lens. First I learned composition, which could be aided by zooming with my feet, and cropping, first in the viewfinder, and then in the darkroom. Cropping out extraneous background is what sent me down the minimalist path.

    After college, when I finally could afford my own camera, I got a Canon EF 35mm with a 50mm lens, which I used for many years without any other lenses at all, even shooting paid gigs like weddings. So I was forced to be creative with my limited resources. I yearned for other lenses, especially zooms, which I finally got after my EF was fatally damaged in a dust storm while I was setting up for fireworks photos. I upgraded to a Canon EOS 630 with two autofocus zooms and no prime lens at all. It was used gear in a package deal with a price I couldn’t pass up. So then, for years that was my kit: 35-80mm and 75-300mm zooms.

    It wasn’t until another dust storm about 15 years ago killed the EOS 630 that I moved up to digital, but still with no prime lenses. I didn’t get another 50mm lens until about five years ago, partly because I needed a faster lens in my bag and I was then shooting a lot of music performance photos in dimly lit places.

    Now, inspired by sites like this one, I have decided to re-explore the fun, challenges and occasional frustration of film and have picked up several old 35mm cameras and plan to rediscover my roots. I will always be grateful that 30 years of shooting film taught me the discipline of the economy of careful shot choice, though digital has let me break that discipline often enough to get some great action shots of musicians on stage!

    • Reply
      Daniel Sigg
      October 20, 2020 at 2:26 pm

      David,

      Thanks for the kind words, and your thoughtful comments! My first camera was a Yashica 35mm as well, given to me by my parents, with a 50mm lens. Of course, there is nothing wrong with zooms! The great Jay Maisel used (perhaps still uses?) a 28-300mm for much of his later work. I think for his style of intuitive shooting this worked very well. But a simple prime and the resulting limited choices definitely works well for me when I go out on the streets 😉

      I liked your comment of “fun, challenges and occasional frustration” of film, I think that is definitely true. There is something to be said about the economy of shot choice with film, but it is also true that digital enables us to sometimes perhaps take more risks (although one could argue we can do this with film, too … something I am trying to do at the very moment … to photograph much looser and less planned and take more risks so to say).

      Cheers,

      Daniel

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