Travel photography with a 35mm prime lens

“Travel Photography with a 35mm prime lens” is by Thorge Berger (

I am a travel photographer from Germany and a long-term NikonRumors reader. I have written one guest post for NR before which you can find here.

From the beginning of my photography – which is … almost 30 years ago (can’t be true!)- I was always shooting with zoom lenses. Due to the flexibility they offer, I was convinced to make the best choice. And as far as I know, there will be thousands of travel photographers who would say the same.

I personally started with the classic 18-200mm zoom lens which is sometimes referred to as the travel zoom. But after some time, I moved to a heavier solution, the 24-70mm f/2.8 and the 70-200mm f/2.8 because I wanted faster glass and the option to compose with a smaller depth of field. At some point, I started to travel with 2 bodies (currently Nikon D4s and Nikon D500 or D3s as second body).

By now I have traveled 5 continents and roughly 50 countries and I have literally shot tens of thousands of photos with these lenses. Sometimes I added wide-angle zoom lenses or different prime lenses to my bag – the latter mainly for portrait shooting. Still, there was never a doubt that the 24-70mm and the 70-200m would remain my main lenses.

In 2012, I was leading a photo tour in Bhutan (I do this once or twice a year) and one of the participating photographers had really bad luck: right in the beginning of the trip he destroyed his own 24-70mm lens by dropping it! We were all full of sympathy with him imagining we would be in his place: traveling all the way to Bhutan (in the Himalayas) and destroying our most important lens right in the beginning before we had shot anything!

Fortunately, he had an additional 35mm prime lens in his bag which he then used during the entire trip. Some days later he told me that he was able to develop a different attitude and that he would see his bad luck now as a great opportunity! He said because he had no chance to zoom anymore in many situations he would have to change his approach towards a subject or scenery and that he had experienced that he had shot very different pictures and actually was developing a new style. When he showed me his pictures I was stunned and since then I was thinking about this quite often. Back then I had only one prime lens in my bag which I used for portraits (85mm f/1.4) but I started to equip myself with further prime lenses such as the 50mm f/1.4.

Still, I was too anxious to miss a good shot, so the zoom lenses remained my major ones and I was changing only occasionally to the primes.

Then last year I added a 35mm f/1.4 to my equipment and after I had played a little with it in Germany I almost forgot that I had it. But when I packed my bag for another photo trip which I would lead in Kerala, south India, in January 2017.  I suddenly held it in my hands again and pondered whether I should carry the lens for the trip. Eventually, I decided to give it a try and it turned out to be a meaningful decision for me.

In the beginning of the trip, I started using my zoom lenses as usual. But then on the second morning in Cochin we went out with a boat to shoot the sunrise and the legendary Chinese fishnets. On the way, we saw some nomadic fishermen in very small boats who started their business before sunrise. Everybody was stunned by the beauty of the scenery and started shooting. But as there was still very little light available, so we used our widest apertures – which for the zoom lenses was f/2.8. But our boat was also moving so we had to maintain a relatively high shutter speed which then resulted in very high ISO numbers…

Long story short, I remembered the 35mm f/1.4 in my bag and quickly changed lenses. I used it at f/1.4 with 1/125. Still, I needed ISO 6400 to get enough light. But that was possible with the Nikon D4s and later it turned out that I was the only one among the group who got a decent shot of the scene! Of course we also later shot the ancient Chinese fishnets which we came for, and here again I was using the 35mm lens.

From that day on I started to use the 35mm frequently and I became more and more confident enough to actually use the 35mm as my main lens at several shootings. Next, we went out shooting a market in Cochin and I realized that the 35mm would also work well for portraits.

At the next occasion, I was using ONLY the 35mm. It was a laundry and I forced myself to keep the 35mm lens on the camera. As my fellow photographer in Bhutan suggested, I started to “zoom with my feet”. I realized that using a zoom lens for so many years – in a way – also had made me lazy and I was now getting agile again and I moved around a lot more.

On our way to the north of Kerala we stopped in a primary school where we were allowed to take some pictures. Here I was happy to see the shallow depth of field for my composition to isolate the two girls in the foreground. We also stopped at a Christian church (which you will find quite a lot due to Kerala’s past as a Portuguese Colony) and I was able to convince the priest for portrait in his Church. On another occasion, we stopped at a shadow puppet theater and I was allowed to shoot behind the scenes. Again I was very happy with my choice of the 35mm as there was relatively little light and the puppet players were moving much faster than you would have expected. So I shot with f/2.2 at 1/200 and ISO 2500 and was able to capture the atmosphere of the scene.

The next day we went to a martial arts school where kids learned the tradition of Kalarippayat. That is a century – old martial arts form specifically found in Kerala. Before the start of a training or fight, it is part of the ritual to do a small prayer which I captured with one of the smallest boys in the school. Again I was using the 35mm, this time with f/1.4 at 1/80 and ISO 2000. A little later the actual training started and I captured one girl in full flight attacking her master – of course with the 35mm at f/2.2 and 1/250, ISO 3200 and a fill-in flash.

Eventually we arrived at our major destination in the north of Kerala where we were supposed to photograph the Theyyam festival. During this festival a human person personifies a God. By certain rituals which include particular dressing, masking and getting into a trance they actually become this Hindu God for a small period of time. And because these protagonists are Gods for a specific time they can do incredible things such as running through big fires without getting hurt. It can be an otherworldly scene. After their performance, the believers will also tell them their wishes, thank them for being gracious in the past and/or seek advice in the matters of their lives. In one photo you can see the kids screaming at one of the Gods. I shot it with the 35mm at f/1.8 and 1/400 at ISO 100.

Some of the performances happened at night so it was particularly difficult to capture the Hindu God and I was very happy I had my 35mm. First I managed to get some good shots of him playing with the fire with f/1.4 and 1/320 at ISO 2200 and later when he was running through the fire with f/2.5 and 1/320 at ISO 100.

In the morning, some of the ritual drummers got very sleepy as they had played all night long, so I took a shot of them with f/1.8 at 1/100 and ISO 800. The friendly people of Kerala also invited us to join their lunch and I was impressed of the open air kitchen and the chefs doing their work for the crowds. Again I captured it with my 35mm. The vertical shot is with f/3.2 at 1/100 and ISO 3200 and the horizontal shot with f/2.8 at 1/200 and ISO 3200.

During the trip I really started to appreciate the incredible speed which was possible with this prime lens and the particular feel, quality and sharpness of the pictures. I would have never thought this before but while I was still on the road, I realized that the 35mm literally became my prime / preferred lens. I would start every morning with it and even if I sometimes had changed lenses again over the day I usually also ended my day with the 35mm. After the trip I checked it with the meta data in lightroom and found the proof: the majority of my best pictures were shot with the 35mm prime lens!

Now it is certain that this lens will stay in my bag and let’s see … maybe one day I will actually be brave enough to leave my zoom lenses at home. 😉

If you have an interesting idea for a guest post, you can contact me here.

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