Using wide angle lenses creatively Nathan Weiss
These are very popular lenses for street photojournalists because they create a sense of intimacy between the viewer and people photographed. Used effectively, wide-angle lenses can also help you catch people unaware. Although that’s an easy thing to abuse, it can also lead to some incredibly natural looking photos. I personally hate posed photographs. It’s much more important to me to show the reality of an event or gathering. Wide-angle lenses help me do that. When shooting candid shots with a wide-angle lens, remember not to violate anyone’s privacy. If you’re shooting for personal use, you have more leeway in terms of the shots you can get. Working pros, however, must follow stricter guidelines. Wide-angle views also help create separation between your subject and a cluttered background. Just as telephoto lenses compress apparent foreground to background distance, wide-angle lenses expand it. This can be a wonderful tool for giving your subject primacy, while still keeping enough information in the background to be useful, without being distracting. I once created an environmental portrait of a high school football player in which I posed him on the sidelines. His teammates were on the field in a huddle, and I wanted to include them in the shot. By choosing a wide-angle lens (a 20mm extreme wide-angle), I was able to make my subject fill up a large amount of the frame, while putting enough distance between him and his teammates. The entire football team was reduced enough in size to fit the small space over the athlete’s shoulder. They were part of the image, but not a distraction.
Telephoto lenses are tremendously popular, and with good reason. Whether you’re trying to photograph your kids on the athletic fields, attempting to catch a bird in flight, or want to document activities that are just a little too far away, these lenses help us get closer to the action. Just like their wide-angle counterparts, telephoto focal lengths have their own strengths and weaknesses:
Reach: Brings you closer to the action
Magnification: Makes little objects bigger. This means longer focal lengths can be very effective close-up and macro lenses. Ever try photographing a spider with a short macro lens? Two points to consider:
1. Squish! (Trust me, cleaning a crushed spider off the front of a lens element is not good for your gear.)
2. You have to get a lot closer to a creepy-crawly than any normal person would like. If you use a telephoto for macro photography, you can keep a nice, safe distance away from the critters.
Portraiture: Remember how wide-angle lenses elongate and distort facial features? Telephoto lenses do just the opposite. These optics tend to flatten facial features and make them look much more appealing .
Tracking problems: On the downside, because long focal lengths have such a narrow field of view, it can be difficult following a fast-moving subject with a telephoto lens.
Vibration: Telephoto lenses not only magnify your subject, they also magnify every little shake and shudder. This means you need to use substantially faster shutter speeds than you do with wide-angle lenses.
Minimal depth of field: This is both a plus and a minus because there are times when having shallow depth of field is good. (I’ll explain in a couple of paragraphs.) On the other hand, because these lenses provide so little depth of field, focus needs to be perfect. If the focus adjustment is off by just a foot or two, your subject will be unacceptably out of focus.
Cost: Point-and-shoot digital cameras with longer focal lengths are actually quite reasonably priced, but they still cost more than those with less powerful optics. DSLR users on the other hand can easily spend more on just a decent telephoto lens than on a good point-and-shoot digital camera with long range. Professional telephoto lenses cost thousands of dollars.
Generally you can find point-and-shoot digital cameras with telephoto ranges of 300mm to 380mm for less than $500. An inexpensive 400mm f5.6 third party lens (from manufacturers like Sigma, Tamron, and Tokina) can be found for about $300. A professional quality 300mm f2.8 lens (by Canon) may run more than $4,500 brand new.
Long focal lengths are an invaluable tool in the photographer’s bag. As noted earlier, these lenses can be very useful for macro and portrait photography. One of their strongest benefits is that they’re wonderful tools for isolating your subject. Experienced photographers turn to longer focal lengths for a variety of creative uses:
Selective focus: Set your camera to its largest possible lens opening and fastest shutter speed, and then focus on your subject. With the lens wide open on a longer focal length (200mm or longer), depth of field is extremely shallow. If you’re framing your subject tightly (say a head shot, or head and shoulders composition), your subject will be in focus and the background will be a blur.
Compression: Telephoto lenses compress the apparent distance between foreground and background objects, so these focal lengths can be used to make objects appear closer to each other than they really are.
Isolation: Telephoto lenses are wonderful for picking out a tiny slice of a large (and frequently cluttered) scene.
I was photographing animals at a local zoo whenI came to the flamingos. A crowd had gathered, and lots of people were photographing the flock.We were tripping all over each other. I decided to back up a bit and pulled out a 170–500 zoom lens, which I used to isolate one flamingo from the crowd, zooming in until I’d created an almost abstract view of a bird we’re all used to seeing photographed in a very different manner. This view becomes even more abstract because of the power of the lens to compress elements of an image and make them less three-dimensional. Finally, because I was shooting with the lens wide open and comparatively close to my subject, the background is rendered completely out of focus. The average photographer either can’t afford or isn’t interested in buying a professional quality, super telephoto lens. Most photographers just get by with whatever options fit their wallet. How many people actually need extremely long focal lengths for everyday photography? Well, it turns out that there’s at least one group of people that doesn’t necessarily fall into the category of avid photographers but that wants to be able to take photos of small objects a long way off: bird watchers. Many “birders” have a passionate interest in the hobby and see photography as a way to provide a record of a particular sighting. It may be difficult, however, for these folks to justify the purchase of a $4,000 or $5,000 lens when they’ve already invested a bundle on high-quality binoculars or spotting scopes. Well, one day a birder tried positioning his point-and-shoot digital camera to shoot through his spotting scope to photograph a bird in the next county. And hey, it worked! The results didn’t match what you could get from even a lower quality telephoto lens. But they were encouraging enough that the same inventive types who gave us pine cones smeared with peanut butter as do-it-yourself bird feeders have gotten better and better at making their cameras and bird-viewing optics work together. The result is known as digiscoping, which the birding community decided sounds a lot better than sticking a point-and-shoot digicam up next to a spotting scope. The process of mating camera and binocular or scope has become more refined. Top practitioners get some amazing images these days, at least of birds at rest. Many individuals have machined adapters to hold the camera in position and make it easier to swing out of the way when they need to refocus the spotting scope. This technique has grown in popularity so that at least one company now manufactures these adapters.
Lens choice becomes a key part of the creative process once you start to understand the way each focal length can be used. Because each type of focal length produces a specific sort of effect, it’s possible to make your lens choice a prime factor in the way a photograph looks. This is where that old saying “the camera doesn’t lie” really gets shown to be misleading. You can photograph the same subject with two different lenses and create two very different photographs. One day the postman arrived and brought me two very special bundles of joy: a 300mm f4 telephoto and a 14mm f2.8 extreme wide-angle lens. Of course, the first thing any sensible photographer does when acquiring new equipment is play with it. (What? You think I’m any different than you?). Needless to say, I needed something to photograph. Spotting our Maine Coon cat, Smudger, resting on his kitty condo (his wonderfully soft fur provides a great lens test), I put both lenses to work. At the time of the photo, Smudger was only about an inch or two from the front lens element. Cats have a tendency to want to sniff the front of the lens. Anticipate this, get the shot, and then back off before you end up cleaning nose prints off your brand new lens. I shot the image on the right from a safe distance a few minutes later with the 300mm telephoto lens. Even though it’s the same cat (no make-up, no tricks with the hair brush), the images and the moods the two photos evoke are remarkably different. I knew before I made these photos that I would get the results I did. This is simply because any telephoto lens compresses facial features in a flattering sort of way and any wide-angle lens (particularly the extreme versions) distorts facial features, especially when used close to your subject.
Now that you’re aware that lens choice makes a difference in how a subject can look in a photograph, here’s how to use that knowledge to your advantage. Telephoto lenses compress things. Wide-angle lenses expand them. Place two people side by side but about 10 feet apart from front to back. If you photograph them with a 200mm telephoto lens, for example, the subjects look like they’re much closer together. If you photograph them with a 20mm wide-angle lens, on the other hand, they appear as if they’re much farther apart. Telephoto lenses are a good choice for portraiture because their ability to compress elements of a composition flattens facial features making people look more attractive. Telephoto lenses also provide less depth of field, making it easier to blur the background completely out of focus and to isolate your subject from a distracting background. (This trick works better with DSLR lenses than point-and-shoot telephoto lenses because DSLR lenses are so physically small that their tiny lens openings produce greater depth of field.) It’s difficult to produce pleasing traditional style portraits with a wide-angle lens because of the type of distortion created by these optics. Because you need to get very close to your subject to fill the frame, the parts of the face toward the edges of the frame become distorted in a most unflattering manner. Of course, for certain family members, this can be the perfect way to photograph them. I have a couple of nephews who are pretty goofy. Photographing them up close with an extreme wide-angle lens as they mug for the camera captures their personalities perfectly. Sometimes a given focal length can be used strictly for its artistic effect. Each category of lens—fisheye, wide-angle, normal, telephoto, and super telephoto— plus all the zoom lens variations, has its own meaningful characteristics. Telephoto lenses tend to compress elements of a scene, making them look closer together than they really are. Because these lenses magnify and isolate, they can be wonderful tools for making reality look a little bit different. Red Bank Nation Battlefield is located in the little town of National Park, N.J. Site of a Revolutionary War fort that defended the Delaware River and located across from Philadelphia, the battlefield is an interesting local site for photographers and other artists. People like to stop by here to enjoy the beautiful sunsets, watch ships and boats navigate the river, and sometimes catch a glimpse of local wildlife such as the occasional Great Egret fishing along the riverbank or the Canadian Geese flying overhead. While working the park one evening, I began photographing an observation pier at the water’s edge. I thought the combination of pier, pilings, water, and late-day light had some interesting possibilities. Taking advantage of the light from a beautiful sunset, I started exploring the compositional possibilities of the scene.
Although I liked this image, I knew I needed to keep exploring. One habit that good photographers develop is to mine a scene to its fullest. It’s often a mistake to create only one composition, even if you do come up with a great shot. There’s frequently more than one interesting image to be found in a scene like this. You just have to take some time to study your surroundings and consider the possibilities that different focal lengths might offer. The process of creating winning photos involves walking around a scene and considering it from different angles and directions. It also means trying different focal lengths, both from the same distance, and also from other distances in order to take advantage of various lens characteristics. In the case of the pier, I was drawn to the two pilings in the water. Switching from wide-angle to telephoto, I framed a tightly composed image of just the two pilings with a 300mm telephoto lens (a focal length increasingly available in point-and-shoot digital cameras these days or achievable by using an add-on tele-extender). My camera was mounted on a tripod. Shooting with my camera set to 400 ISO, I chose a shutter speed of 1/90th of a second and an aperture of f2.8, giving the fastest possible shutter speed under the conditions. This tight composition of two pilings in the Delaware River makes the objects look closer together than they really are due to the telephoto lens’s ability to compress foreground depth. This same characteristic also made the ripples in the water seem closer. Although this image is certainly different from others I shot that day, I wasn’t that happy with it. I decided to try something different.
Choosing the fastest possible shutter speed with a long telephoto lens helps reduce the likelihood of blur from camera shake. Because I was using a tripod, I had the luxury of picking very slow shutter speeds. (Keep in mind, tripods aren’t magic. Shooting with a tripod still requires excellent technique.) I decided to try a shot with a very small aperture and very slow shutter speed to see how that would turn out. For my next attempt, I set my camera controls to a shutter speed of one full second, stopping down my lens to f19 and leaving my ISO settings unchanged. By shooting at a slower shutter speed, I was able to create an image that is rather impressionistic in effect. Because the shutter was held open so long (a second is a very long time in photographic terms), the movement of the water blurred and became indistinct, as did the shadow from the pilings. Although you can’t tell it from this grayscale image, the water picked up the blues and reds from the sunset adding some nice color as well. I felt that this last image was much more interesting than the earlier shots, and I decided that I was satisfied with this particular element of the waterfront. I was working during a period of rapidly changing light, so it was important to work quickly and move from composition to composition. Back when photographers had to worry about film costs and processing expenses, it was normal to be conservative while taking photos. Digital cameras make it a lot easier to try extra shots because there’s no added cost. You can take advantage of this by making an effort to create the same photo several times trying different focal lengths each time. Experiment. As you do, you’ll learn more and more about what a focal length does and how you can make it work for you. Lens choice is one of the basic elements of photographic composition. Modern optics are amazingly versatile and capable. They can do so much more than zoom in close or back out wide; they can become an important tool in your creative arsenal. You don’t have to spend thousands of dollars on a lens for it to have a huge impact on the quality of your photographs.