Aina and I spent two weeks zooming around France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, and Sweden.

No we didn’t. Zoom is not the right word at all.

Yes, it’s true, we did take a few very fast trains (the French TGV and Belgian Thalys both go over 300 km/h), and a few at least reasonably fast trains (120 km/h). But other than that, we mostly walked, averaging over 10 km each day.

And, more importantly, I did not use a zoom lens.

This really matters. I actually brought four lenses, but on the first day of the trip I put on my 20mm f/1.7 lens (equivalent to 40mm on a 35mm camera) and ended up leaving it on for the entire trip, no exceptions. It’s a nice, sharp, fast lens with minimal distortion. It’s a moderate wide angle and covers scenery quite well and, with any camera of good resolution (such as mine), can be cropped down for a tighter angle of view (you lose resolution, but are you planning to make a poster of it? If not, it likely makes no perceptible difference). With that lens on my Olympus E-PL3, the whole camera fit neatly into my jacket pocket when it had to, and it still took good pictures.

Meanwhile, everywhere I went, there were many tourists walking around with huge cameras, camera bodies the size of plates with zoom lenses on them that weighed a few kilograms each and could actually have been used to club a horse to death. Not that they were, of course. They were just used to club photos and a whole vacation to death.

Look, a camera that big and heavy is a pain to carry around. And a zoom lens is like any other all-in-one-type thing – fax/copier/printer combos, all-season radials, whatever: it does a wide variety of things not very well. It is guaranteed to be slower, harder to use, less versatile in the ways that really count (e.g., varying depth of field), more prone to distortion, less sharp. It guarantees that people will waste time zooming in and out and in and out trying to get just the perfect angle. It also guarantees that you’ll miss some shots just because you left the frickin’ heavy ugly thing in your hotel room for a switch.

Some people go for these lenses because they think they look professional. The truth is that when you do see a pro with a zoom it’s because they actually do need to shoot dramatically different focal lengths and they just don’t have the money to have multiple camera bodies with different prime lenses on them (prime = single focal length). Mainly, though, people have them because the camera body comes with them (a kind of basic all-in-one deal), or because some salesperson upsold them to one (they tend to cost more). Sure, they look impressive. In the same way as sesquipedalian words look and sound impressive but may impede communication.

The word zoom does not start with lenses, of course, and is not limited to them. But I’m finding that the word zoom probably means you’re being pandered to. Examples? Zoom lens, of course, for reasons I’ve just given: people think it looks impressive, but photographically it’s typically your worst choice. There’s also digital zoom, which is actually just cropping plus interpolation so you get a bunch of junk pixels – extra file size but no gain in image quality. But there’s also Zoomer, a magazine and marketing concept marketed to baby boomers who are becoming – not seniors, gracious no! – “zoomers.” And there’s zoom zoom, the marketing concept for Mazda. No worse than any other marketing concept, and in fact better than many, but marketing butters its bread by pandering, and zoom zoom is, like all car ads, selling you not a machine but a self-image.

The word zoom comes from onomatopoeia: it first of all described a buzzing sound. Airplane pilots borrowed the word to describe abruptly climbing with an airplane, no doubt at least in part because of the noise the engine made. The word has come to refer to fast motion in general, especially motion of short perceived duration (something may be moving fast for a long time, and we might not think of that in terms of zooming, but if you’re standing still it will zoom past you). The sound lends itself to a feel of such a motion; say it out loud and you may get something resembling the Doppler-effect sound of a very fast motor vehicle going by, the engine buzz coming and the tire hum fading away as the pitch lowers. And a zoom lens, when you’re looking through it as it zooms in or out, seems to be producing rapid limited-duration rapid forward or backwards movement: zooming in and zooming out. Suitable.

Which brings us to the fact that zoom lenses do have their uses. On movie cameras, they can produce a valuable effect, zooming in on someone to tighten the focus. (On news TV cameras, on the other hand, this effect has often been used to close in on someone who is experiencing a strongly emotional moment, a practice I have long viewed as one of the most utterly detestable things. They’re upset. Stop intruding on them for a moment, will you?) And for some varying real-life circumstances, a zoom lens makes equipment much simpler – you make trade-offs in terms of speed and weight (and cost!) for that specific versatility.

That’s really the thing about zooming. It zooms in on one thing: versatility in focal length. You lose some versatility in aperture (and thus range of shutter speed too) and portability of equipment, and you lose some sharpness too. You may even lose some skill as a photographer. Relying on zooming in and out for composition is like relying on punctuation to do your writing. Working with one lens with one focal length focuses your mind. It zooms out from the one thing and can help you think about all the other things more. It also makes you move your lazy butt a bit more.

Let’s take a parallel example in the world of words. Some people zoom in too much on the etymology of a word without paying attention to current usage and phonaesthetics. Just remember this: if we zoom in on etymology, a zoom lens is a lentil making a buzzing sound. Yes – lens is Latin for ‘lentil’; the piece of glass got the name due to shape resemblance.

Oh, are you curious how my single-lens adventure worked out? I took 1160 photos, and you can see the 230 I liked best on my flickr, www.flickr.com/photos/sesquiotic/. I cropped almost none of them, because I composed for what I saw and because, honestly, how much time do I have? Yes, many of them could use a bit of trimming and adjustment. I make no great claims as to their artistic merit, but I guarantee you they’re better than I could have gotten using a zoom lens. I do have a zoom lens – it came with the camera body. It stayed in the bag the whole trip.

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