Little Photographer by Jaromir Chalabala

Chris Kilkes is a long-time resident of San Francisco who moved to the city to be a poet, not a technocrat, and ended up working in tech while dreaming of becoming the next Jackson Pollock and Julius Shulman. He’s also one of the newest employees at 500px.

You can find a randomly updated collection of his photos on his 500px account and Facebook page.

I’ve been taking pictures for a long time; actually, since late 2001 when, oddly enough, having been laid off during the first dot com boom here in SF, I felt flush enough to buy a Fujifilm Finepix 2800 Zoom 2MP digital camera (does anyone still remember those? I still have mine…) for some reason. But back then and for a long time afterwards my main passion—and the thing I tell people I “am” when they ask—was fine arts, specifically abstract modernist painting.

For many years photography served simply to record the work I created and exhibited at the time in small galleries in the Mission District of San Francisco. Over time, however, I began to get more invested in the photo world.

I upgraded from that Fujifilm camera, bought a series of Canon’s Digital Rebels (mainly because I got tired of Nikon taking forever to boost its MP count—those were the days!), then a 50D, and finally a Canon 7D… all because I happened to live in Seattle and had fallen in with a group of fanatical photographers.

Cheesegrater.  Gherkin.  London by Chris Kilkes on

While I had moved up to shooting in Program mode and had learned how to manipulate my focal points, I knew nothing about the holy trinity—ISO, aperture, and shutter speed—and that final frontier, shooting in manual. But that’s a whole other story because by now I’ve come to my point:

I learned that there was a raging debate among photographers about whether to only shoot using only prime lenses versus slapping on a handy zoom and being content to range free without ever changing a lens again. To zoom or not to zoom, that was my question.

It’s something my friends argued about strenuously. They spent so much time trying to explain this rather arcane issue to me, an issue that I found baffling because, in my mind, the correct approach is simple: “use the right lens for the right situation.”

Case in point.

I was in Berlin last fall at the Neues Galerie wandering around the antiquities galleries after having seen the Nefertiti statue, which, of course, you’re not allowed to take pictures of in any form whatsoever. As I stood at the far end of the gallery with a clear view of her bust lit up in the distance, I pulled out my 7D and trusty 24-105mm and took this shot.


Now, if I’d been a rigid believer in the “zoom with your feet” prime lens school of thought, I would have run right up against (or maybe even into) the scowling security guard you can see to the right of the doorway. And guess what he would have said when he saw my camera? I’m pretty sure it’d be the German equivalent of “get outta here buddy!” In my case, he could see me taking the shot but because I was literally at the opposite end of the gallery he could do nothing about it.

I’ll never sell prints of the photo or do anything commercial with the picture out of respect to the museum, but to me this shot (which I love so much) only happened because I had the right lens for the right job.

Oh, and the only other lens in my bag? My equally trusty 50mm f/1.2L.

Portrait of Kevin, SF Ferry Building by Chris Kilkes on

To me it’s not whether to zoom or not, it’s about having the right tools to get the job done. Whether that’s a prime or not. Throughout my photographic career I’ve always had one trusty zoom—mainly because I love taking pictures of architectural details on antique buildings—and multiple primes.

If you’re aiming for sharpness, detail, bokeh, you name it, a prime lens will deliver that better than any zoom most times. But zooming with your feet simply isn’t always feasible.

So be flexible. Relax. Listen to the arguments and read the strident opinion pieces, all the while knowing that you’ve risen above the “rules” of photography to embrace whatever gear will allow you to get the shot!