A Tribute To Robert Capa And The 50mm Lens

6 June 1944 - Normandy, France "D-Day" Robert Capa - Magnum Photos / Courtesy - Life Magazine
6 June 1944 – Normandy, France “D-Day Allied Beach Landing”
Robert Capa – Magnum Photos / Courtesy – Life Magazine

It was widely believed that the world famous war-time photographer and co-founder of the famed Magnum Photos, Robert Capa, used nothing more than a 50mm standard lens when he captured those eerily emotional images of World War II.

If Your Pictures Aren’t Good Enough, You’re Not Close Enough ~ Robert Capa

This is a follow-up article to the earlier article What Is The “Best” Lens For The DSLR?, which briefly describes what is the 50mm lens all about, and why it’s called the “standard” lens.

The Parachute Photojournalist

I first came across the term “Parachute Photojournalist” when I was volunteering for BERNAMA as a photojournalist and sports photographer, back in 1996. It was coined up, I believe, as describing a photojournalist equivalent of the elite paratrooper in the military.

A paratrooper is literary dropped smack, right into the middle of the action, and is expected to fight the enemy literary the moment he lands. He is equipped only with what he can carry with him on the parachute jump, which is not much to begin with. So that means no artillery support and no heavy machine-gun. He only has his trusty personal light weapons, and the support of his fellow troop-mates.

Likewise, a Parachute Photojournalist is literary “dropped” into the midst of the action, and is expected to shoot photos of the event from the moment he “lands”, right up until he is relieved by a fellow photojournalist, or when the event ends. Just like his military counterpart, he has got no external support, and relies solely on the equipment that he can carry on his person. So this means that he cannot afford to lug around the heavy super-telephoto lenses, bulky ultra-wideangle lenses, oversized tripods and several camera bodies with him wherever he goes.

A modern-day Parachute Photojournalist would probably carry one camera body, one wide-angle zoom lens, one tele-zoom lens, and the trusty old 50mm standard lens. Memory cards are negligible, as they’re so small and light.

Robert Capa was the father of the modern day Parachute Photojournalist. He was said to be armed with only two Contax II camera bodies, both mounted with 50mm lenses, and plenty of film, when he landed on Omaha Beach, Normandy, during the D-Day operations on 6th June 1944. Yes, that’s right, only two camera bodies, both attached only with 50mm standard lenses.

By Rama - Own work, CC BY-SA 2.0 fr, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4500005
Coatax II mounted with Carl Zeiss Jena 50mm f/2.0 Sonnar. By Rama – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.0 fr, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4500005

Modern Day Photographic Warrior

The modern day professional photojournalist is equivalent of the military’s heavy infantry, or the armoured cavalry. He probably brings along several tens of kilogrammes worth of hardware when he goes to work, capturing newsworthy images to be published. And more often than not, he will be working close to the shared mobile press centre of some sort (military equivalent of forward bases), where he can conveniently drop most of his gear, while he heads out into the action, carrying only what he needs for that particular session of the event.

But in the absence of a mobile press centre, he will have to lug along all of his equipment, which is next to impossible, considering that he might have to mobile enough to chase after the action at a moment’s notice. Leaving all those expensive photographic equipment unattended isn’t an option either.

The only logical choice here is to go the path of the Parachute Photojournalist, and bring along only what you can carry on your person at any time. That means that you’ll have to seriously decide what photographic equipment you can’t absolutely shoot without. More often than not, you’ll end up packing the trusty old 50mm lens with you, or even making it your primary optics for your assignment.

If it’s good enough for Robert Capa to shoot in the midst of chaos of gun fire and bomb explosions on Normandy beach during D-Day, it’s definitely good enough for you to shoot your annual dinners, weddings and birthday parties.

Tribute To Robert Capa For Making The 50mm Lens Indispensable

No prizes for guessing what lens I’ll be bringing with me if I’m ever stranded on a desert island…

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