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Life as we dream it

Updated: Nov 10, 2023

the super-real world of the 28mm lens

scene from north by northwest, alfred hitchcock

'North by Northwest' - director Alfred Hitchcock

If you could have only one lens, what would you choose? To some degree, of course, your choice will be dictated by the kind of photographer you are - we all have a different idea of how we 'lens-up' to capture the world around us.

But what is the one lens that no photographer can afford to ignore? I would answer - the 28mm wide angle. And this is why: because it gives us a 'super-real' vision of the world. Let me explain what I mean -

When we go to the movies, we are hungry to see stories that reflect our world and that also, crucially, promise to transport us into a life more dramatic and dynamic than our own. The Russian playwright, Anton Chekhov, vividly understood this 'audience need': 'We should show life neither as it is, nor as it should be, but as we see it in our dreams.'

'as we see it in our dreams...'

Think about that thought for a moment - it makes me think of the cinematic ambitions of every film maker from Orson Welles to the present generation.

scene from citizen kane by orson welles

'Citizen Kane' director Orson Welles

Orson's cinematographer, Greg Toland, worked very hard with his director to make 'Citizen Kane' a larger than life experience - Chekhov would have been proud. And it was Toland's use of wide angle lenses that become a keystone to the film's enduring legacy. The 28mm was a Toland favourite.

A 28mm lens offers a field of view just a little bit wider than our field of vision - but not too wide that we become aware of its effect; it’s just different enough to make us subconsciously feel like we’re in a world somehow more 'real' than normal life. And it is this sense that we are seeing an amplified version of our world that makes using the 28 such a special experience. A 28mm frames the world in an incredibly compelling way. It's a lens with a unique and subtle spell.

Cinematography and still photography have grown up side-by-side. The power of the 28mm was recognised not just by people like Toland but also by generations of still photographers - searching for ways to make their images as expressive as possible.

The 28mm is highly effective lens when shooting for dramatic effect but it also remains a vital tool for the photojournalist. For me, the legendary Larry Burrows stands as one of the most effective users of this lens.

larry burrows with his Leica cameras

vietnam war by larry burrows

vietnam by larry burrows

Larry Burrows with his Leicas - using 28mm and 50mm lenses

Burrow's images of Vietnam remain as vivid now as the day he took them - more than fifty years ago. And, setting aside his enormous talent as a photographer, I think that part of the tremendous impact of his work was his use of the 28mm lens. Like Toland and Welles, Burrows knew the power of this lens; the way in which, with its slightly wider field of view than normal human vision, the lens heightens and to some degree mythologises the subject and thereby heightens the power of the image in a way no other lens can.

In Citizen Kane, the last word Kane utters is 'Rosebud'. Nobody knows what the dying man means by this word. It becomes the mystery the movie must solve. In the hands of an investigative journalist in pursuit of the meaning of 'Rosebud', the film's narrative slowly unfolds... Until in the closing moments, we discover that 'Rosebud' - a child's sledge - is the only thing Kane really loved.