Photo Composition: Lens Choice

composite image of boat from wide angle and telephoto lenses

Differences in Lens Choice: Telephoto and Wide angle

One of the most important aspects of composing a photograph is choosing the right lens for the job. Most beginners understand that (from the same distance) telephoto lenses will make their subjects appear larger, and wide angle lenses will make their subjects appear smaller, but there’s a common misconception about how lens choice affects the image as a whole. Many people believe that if you shoot a photo with a 200mm lens, you can recreate the same photo with a 100mm lens by simply getting closer to the subject.

But that’s not quite true.

Different lenses don’t just change the size of the elements in your photo, they change the relationship between elements that are closer to the camera and those that are further away. When shooting with wide angle lenses, objects that are close to the camera appear large, but as they get further away, they appear to get smaller very quickly. If, for example, you’re using a wide angle lens to take a full-body shot of a person (with his/her head at the top border of the frame, feet at the bottom border), a person standing 10 feet behind the first one might only appear to be half the size.

weird example with wide angle lens

Illustration 1 : Perspective from shot with wide angle lens.

Illustration 2 : Perspective from shot with telephoto lens.

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(I made these weird illustrations with stock photos from dreamstime. Not mine.)

If you used a telephoto lens to take the same photo, though, and composed the shot so that the first person filled the frame the same way, someone standing 10 feet behind them would appear much closer to the same size, and therefore they’d appear to be closer together. In fact, the longer the telephoto lens (eg., a 400mm instead of a 100mm), the closer together they would appear to be. This phenomenon is known as compression. Telephoto lenses allow you to compress your subject and background together so that they are both large and prominent in the image. Similarly, if you have multiple subjects that are close together horizontally but at different distances (think about a receding view of fence posts/street lights/columns or athletes on a field), those objects can all be brought together in the frame as important compositional elements.

Lens Perspective Example, two photos with sunflowers

In the first image, a telephoto lens was used to emphasize the storm in the background (by compression), while the focus remains on the sunflower in the foreground. In the second example, shot a few minutes later of some nearby flowers, I used a wide angle lens to separate the plant in the foreground from its surroundings. The storm is still visible, but the falling rain is much smaller in the image.

This is especially effective with objects that are very distant but large, like clouds, or the moon. If you photograph the moon with a 600mm lens, it will be a large, prominent part of the photograph. Therefore, if you compose a shot with your subject in the frame and the moon in the background, the moon will appear very large and close to the subject. The potential drawback of shooting this way is that it requires you to be very far away from your subject.

illustrations of photos with moon in background

If you were photographing the moon, you'd use a telephoto lens. Naturally, if you placed a model in the same frame at moonrise, the moon would seem very large in comparison to the person. These are simply illustrations that I drew, not actual photographs.

Wide angle lenses, on the other hand, have the opposite effect. Using a wide angle lens allows you to emphasize a subject,  making it appear very large in the frame while objects in the background appear very small and distant. Working this way requires you to be very close to your subject, and indeed, it requires the subject to be very close to the background if you want the background to be an important compositional element. Because wide angle lenses increase the apparent distance between objects in the frame, they’re very useful for highlighting a diminishing perspective in an image.

In the video example above, I shot a series of photos of a rowboat with wide and telephoto lenses. I started with a telephoto lens, and stood perhaps 100 feet away from the boat. As I zoomed out, I walked towards it to keep the boat the same size in the frame. In the final shot, I was no more than 2 meters away from the boat, using an 18mm lens (at which point the barrel distortion was so great that I was no longer able to correct it completely in post processing). The progression shows how choosing a different lens and shooting from a different location can dramatically affect your overall image.

Finally, it’s important to mention that the focal length of the lens has a dramatic impact on how out-of-focus the background of the image appears. All of the photos in the video example above were shot at the same aperture, but the background looks pretty blurry in the telephoto shots, but relatively sharp as it gets closer to wide angle. The reason for this is simple: the objects in the background are much smaller in the wide angle shots, so even though they’re just as blurry as they are in the telephoto shots, it’s very hard to see the blur (for the same reason, small prints look sharper than large ones). Conversely, when you use a telephoto lens, the blurred background is magnified, giving you a much smoother, more distinct blurring effect which is suitable for portraits.

Examples?

Again, rather than filling this gallery with my own images, I’d like to see some of yours!  They don’t need to be artistically or technically perfect… simply email me your photo (any size) that is a clear example of how your lens choice played an important part in the composition, and I’ll add it to a gallery. Members can also attach them to comments below. Please also include how you’d like your name to appear in the byline, either as your username here, or your real name.

7 Comments

  • Mike says:

    Great article, Matt!

    One thing I’ve always thought was interesting about the compression phenomenon (apologies if you already mentioned this in the Vimeo video — I wasn’t able to view it with sound) is that if you have enough pixels you can get the same effect by cropping (i.e. if you had taken your telephoto shot of the boats and then –rather than walking forward with the wide-angle lens to make the foreground boat the same size in the frame– you just took a picture with the wide angle lens and then cropped in to the point where the foreground boat was the same size, then you would get the same effect as using a telephoto lens). In other words, a “post-processing optical zoom” creates the same compression effect as a mechanical zoom does when taking the shot. Of course, as a practical matter this is probably not very useful knowledge because of what cropping that much would generally do to image quality, but I still found it a helpful thing to keep in mind in understanding how compression works with different lenses.

    Regarding your request for examples, I’ve just uploaded a picture I took on my recent trip to Australia that I think illustrates well the blurring effect of using a longer lens.

    [img]http://www.lightandmatter.org/wp-content/uploads/album/19/nccu-australia-52-480×720.jpg[/img]
    (EDIT: Sorry Matt — I wasn’t able to figure out how to embed the picture. Please feel free to edit this comment to get the picture in if you want.)

    In this case, I had the 70-200 on the camera for taking pictures of animals; if I had been primarily interested in getting good shots of the kids I probably would have had a shorter lens. But it worked out well for me on this shot because the boy was fairly far away and I was able to get this shot with the background blurred out in a way that I really like. It was shot at 320mm full-frame equivalent (200mm on the 7D) at f4. If I had been close to him using a wide lens at f4 then I think the background foliage in the sunlight would have been very distracting.

    Thanks again for the article!

    -Mike

    • Hey Mike,

      The problem with your picture is the character between the 480 and 720.  It should be a lowercase x, but for some reason, it’s an ascii character 215 (instead of 120).  Did you type that, or copy & paste it?  Matt will probably be interested if you got that via copy/paste.

      Very cute picture by the way.  I’ll try and paste it below for reference.

      • Hey Bill,

        Thanks! I’ve been going crazy trying to figure out what the difference was between that URL and the working one :) Mike, you should be able to attach photos to article posts now… with the “Attach a file” button, below, too.

        – Matt

      • Mike says:

        Thanks Bill. That is very strange indeed. I copied and pasted the link from L&M after I uploaded the picture. The odd thing is that when I went in to edit the post just now and replace that ascii “x” with a regular lowercase “x” it didn’t work! I deleted the x that was there and typed “x” on my keyboard and when it updated it had gone back to the other “floating” x. Then I went to Microsoft Word and typed “480×720″ and then cut-and-pasted that 7-character chunk into the edit post box here … and it still turns into the floating x when it updates. Oh well. Thanks for figuring out what the problem was. Next time I’ll try using the “attach a file” button.

  • Hey Matt,

    Thanks for the good read. Very clear. I wish I would have had you for calculus.

  • This may be a dumb question, but is it actually the lens, or just the focal length that makes the difference?  In other words, would a 50mm prime and an 18-135mm lens at 50mm look basically the same, or would the latter apply the equalization of things simple because it is a telephoto lens?

    • Hey Bill,

      A 50mm lens is a 50mm, whether it’s a prime or just part of a zoom. Obviously there would be differences from available apertures, and a zoom may not be as well corrected for distortion and other image quality issues, but as far as size relationships go…. they’d be the same.  (Keep in mind, though, that lens manufacturers sometimes mis-report their lenses’ actual focal lenths; a lens listed as 24-70 mm might actually be 25.3mm – 71.2mm, etc).

      – Matthew

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