Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Psychology of the Telephoto Lens

Nikon D3S, ISO 200, f/5.6, 1/125, & 300mm using a Alienbees 1600 Flash for fill flash.
“What I need is a telephoto lens.” We’ve all said this. It doesn’t take long to discover we can’t get close enough to our subjects with a “normal” lens.

If you have kids in sports or the performing arts or if your interest is photographing birds or wild animals either rules or common sense keep our subjects just too far away for interesting photos without a long lens.

Professional photographers reach for their telephoto lenses for the same reason – to fill the frame with the subject.

If they can, the professional photographer may use their longer lenses to tie a subject to its soundings. In an earlier blog post (here) I talked about using wide-angle lenses to show a person in their environment. This can still be accomplished with the use of remote control cameras put in place prior to an event. A remotely controlled camera taking pictures up close of a lion feeding on a carcass beats than risking your life.


One of the most creative tools a photographer has is controlling depth-of-field. Depth-of-field is simply the area in focus in front of and behind the point focused of focus. Telephoto lenses have shallow depth-of-field as compared to wide-angle lenses. With either lens the smaller the f-stop (f/16 vs. f/8) the deeper the depth-of-field. Of course, the reverse is true. With either type of lens the depth-of-field is shallower the more open the f-number (f/4 vs. f/5.6).
Nikon D3S, ISO 200, f/1.4, 1/1600, & 85mm using a Nikon SB900 off camera triggered by Nikon SU800 for fill flash.
This is a crop of the above photograph.  You can see the tip of the nose and just behind the eyes are out of focus.  This is what we call a shallow depth of field.

By controlling (limiting) the depth-of-field you can force the viewer ‘s attention to only what you want them to see. Take a picture of a football receiver catching the ball. If everything was sharp (large depth-of-field) it would be difficult to distinguish the main subject from everything. However, if the same picture were made using a telephoto lens with a shallow depth-of-field The player and the ball would "pop."  You would have isolated the player and the ball from the rest of the picture, thus calling attention to what you want the viewer to see.

Portrait photographers use medium telephoto lenses to call attention to the face and not the background both in indoor and outdoor portraits.

When you increase the depth-of-field with a telephoto lens, more in focus from front to back of the photo, it will make things appear close together from foreground to the background. The wide-angle lens makes things appear farther apart. Objects in a photograph made with a telephoto lens make those objects appear closer together than in “real life.” The longer (more powerful) the lens the closer together they will appear as well as closer to you. It’s a powerful tool. You can use it to make all kinds of statements.


Nikon D2X, ISO 200, f/4, 1/1000, & 840mm

A sports photographer may use this technique to show a baseball pitcher in his windup; the scoreboard in the background shows a full count and the bottom of the 9th; You can see, again from the score board brought up close behind the pitcher that it is a no-hitter. Now that’s a story telling and powerful photograph all because of the creative use of telephoto lenses and selective focus.

If the photographer had used a shallow depth-of-field you couldn’t read the scoreboard or if a wide-angle lens was used the scoreboard would have been too far away to read.

Nikon D2X, ISO 400, f/6.3, 1/2500, & 840mm

In portrait photography a medium telephoto lens shows faces in a normal perspective as compared to the distortion a wide-angle lens. A moderate telephoto lens of say 80mm to 100mm lens on a 35mm camera will put you about five to seven feet from the subject for a head and shoulder’s photograph.


When photographing wildlife the rule of thumb is to use a minimum of 300 mm lens to fill the frame. You don’t want to be five to seven feet from wildlife. That’s why wildlife photographers use 400mm, 500mm, 600mm or even as long as 800mm lenses.

When you begin to shop for a telephoto lens you’ll find many choices for the same focal length lens. Nikon makes lenses that cost a few hundred dollars on to up to $25,000. The ƒ-stop (aperture) is a big factor in the cost. The lower the number (faster the lens) the more expensive and heavier the lens. 

Fast Lens

There are two advantages to the faster lenses. First of all the faster lenses, like ƒ/2.8, allow taking photos in less light. This is important for the wildlife photographer in the woods at dawn or dusk when the animals are out. 

Nikon D2X, ISO 400, f/2.8, 1/1000, & 400mm

The second advantage of the faster lenses – they allow for more shallow depth-of-field.

It is possible to rent these longer, faster lenses from some rental houses in major cities instead of buying them.

Before mounting a lens on your camera ask yourself, “What do I want to say with this picture? What effect will help me to communicate this message to my audience?

What lens will it be?

When you reach for a telephoto lens, it may be for more than just to make the subject appear closer. Just as wide-angle lenses not only include more stuff, any lens is a tool that can be used to make your point.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

The Psychology of the Wide-Angle Lens

Some folks choose a telephoto lens to see how close a subject can appear to be - to say a bear, for instance. These same people doubtlessly chose a wide-angle lens so they can get-it-all-in the picture, usually a landscape picture.

If these people studied the work of professional photographers they would probably be surprised to find that the pros do just the opposite. A professional photographer picks the lens (tool) to use based on what that tool will allow him to do. It is the same for a professional carpenter; he picks a tool to carry out a certain task.

Get Closer 

Robert Capa, a famous war photographer once said, “If you pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” Mr. Capa wasn’t advocating the use of longer lenses, he was telling us to physically get closer, to become more involved and intimate with our subjects.

A telephoto lens and a wide-angle lens help us to tell the same story in different ways. The choice of which lens is like a writer choosing which words to use. It depends on what needs to be said.

A telephoto lens not only brings subjects closer to the viewer, it makes objects in the photograph appear closer together than in reality. A wide-angle lens does the opposite. Objects appear further apart than in reality.

Keeping the rendition of special reality in mind consider perhaps the most creative or powerful use of a wide-angle lens; when you are especially close to someone with a wide-angle lens a lot of the surroundings are included. This is great. The viewer sees not only the subject, but their environment as well.

Move closer with your feet
By using our feet and not just our zoom lenses to approach a subject we are able to make “environmental” portraits. We can now show what they look like and were they are and/or what they are doing. It is now easy for our viewers to relate to our subjects. The photo carries a great deal of information.

I love to show where someone works and what he or she does for a living. By getting close, the subject is predominate and not a little speck in the middle of a photo.

I can have the person pause whatever they are doing and just casually look at the camera and if I time it just right I can show them at ease with a pleasant expression. Being so close the photo becomes personal with the viewer because I became personal with the subject. You can’t communicate what you do not experience with the camera.

Why is a photo usually better when you are closer to the subject? The wider the lens the more you get this feeling of being there.

Problems to avoid
There are a couple of problems to be aware of in working with wide-angles this close to a subject.

1) It is difficult to use a wide-angle lens in tight without distortion of people and the surroundings. The wider the lens the more pronounced this problem. A moderately wide lens like a 28 mm is much easier to use than an extreme wide-angle like a 20 mm or wider. Of course, the wider lenses seem to help with creativity – when used correctly.

We’ve all seen shots where the walls look as if they are falling forward or backward or the clock on the wall and the place on the table are ovals instead of circles. This type of distortion, converging lines, can be used for good, but rarely; the general rule is to avoid these distortions. Practice helps.

Keep the subject out of the corners of the picture to avoid bending their head or body out of shape. Keep them out of the center as well since this creates a negative tension (but may be that’s what you want). Using the super wide-angle lenses is a real balancing act. Nothing is cut and dried in creative work and that’s why two photographers can cover the same story and their pictures will be nothing alike.

2) Another problem, if these weren’t enough, with up close and personal wide-angle shots has nothing to do with technical evils. Working this close to someone can make you awfully uncomfortable. This feeling will transfer to the up close person causing another problem.

To avoid this “in your face” quandary, remember some of these tricks to keep you comfortable while close.

Tips on getting people to relax
First, tell them what you are going to do and get their permission before you move in for the shot. A funny thing happens when you do this—they usually get a little excited, are cooperative and feel like they are a part of the making of the photograph rather than just the subject.

Second, they understand that you (and/or your client) consider them valuable and that you think enough of them that you want their picture. You want to include them in the project.

Third, most people (regardless of what they may say) are flattered when they are asked to be in a photo, however, they need help to make it enjoyable.

Using a telephoto lens you can make a great head and shoulders portrait with good perspective, but it can be too selective, to narrow a view, to tell a story about a person. It is possible and it depends on what you want to say and the circumstances of the shoot.

Working close to people with wide-angle lenses tells their story in an intimate and personal way.

Watch the distortion, the composition, the projecting of uncomfortable feeling to your subject as a result of working so close, use the background to help tell the story, keep your eye on the ball, your shoulder to the wheel, tote that barrel, lift that bail, load sixteen tons and if all this seems to freak you out—call me. When the pipes are clogged or the water heater leaks I get freaked out. That’s why I call a plumber.