Sometimes you don’t realize how much you know until you try to teach someone else. You wouldn’t think I would be in the role of teacher, but recently I took on a couple of apprentice photographers, to whom I try to impart some of my limited wisdom on photography.
There I am with an eager student and a bagful of camera equipment, and I ask, “What do you want to learn in the first lesson?”
The answer was quick: When and why do you use each of the different lenses?
Seems my new student has a phobia of cameras with interchangeable lenses. This would be an easy lesson: what we use, and why, to take pictures. Three lenses, three answers — should be easy, right? Think again.
The best thing about a single-lens reflex camera, whether it be digital or film, is the option of using different lenses. A vast array of lenses is available in zoom and fixed focal lengths that can test the bank account of any photographer. My student is set with an arsenal of three lenses: a 17 to 35mm zoom, an 80 to 200mm zoom and 300mm telephoto lens. It’s a good assortment and almost exactly what I carry on assignment every day.
So, back to the question, which lens to use for picture taking? The answer is complicated, but it pretty much boils down to one thing: What are you trying to show?
The photo above was shot with a wide-angle lens at eye level. The photo below was shot with a 300mm lens and 1.4x extender to get all the focal length. Depth of field is nonexistent, and trees and buildings in the background appear much closer than with the wide-angle lens.
Each of the three lenses I mention brings something different to the picture-taking party. A wide-angle lens gives a broad view of the subject; it can encompass a large portion of a scene. It can hold a great amount of depth of field — the apparent portion in focus in a picture at a given f-stop. It can induce a slightly to highly distorted perspective, especially with parallel lines. It can exaggerate the apparent distances between objects. Of all the pictures I take, I would estimate about 80 percent or more are shot with my wide-angle zoom.
Using a wide-angle lens, this was shot off center to exaggerate the length of the runner’s body.
A short- to medium-telephoto — anything in the 80mm, 100mm or 200mm lens range — has a narrower field of view. These lenses allow you to stand farther away from the subject and still fill in the frame a reasonable amount. A photo taken with a telephoto lens tends to have has less depth of field — the objects appear flatter and more natural in perspective, and the lens compresses the apparent distances between objects.
A long telephoto lens of 300mm or more creates even less depth of field, compresses distances between objects more and allows you to fill the camera frame while standing further away from the subject. This lens is most commonly associated with shooting sports and with the hard-to-reach subjects of wildlife photography.
Now that we know the characteristics of each lens and what they enhance and detract from, when is the right time to use each of them It depends what you want the picture to look like.
A wide-angle lens can give a large amount of depth of field, but the distortion is sometimes too much, as in the case above, with the runner’s arms. The wide-angle lens lets the photographer keep all the track in focus for this version of a portrait, below.
Let’s look at an assignment I shot with the different lenses to achieve different looks.
I was assigned to get a picture of a West High School track athlete for a story on his trip to the state finals. I was given free rein to take whatever type of feature picture I could. I thought of a few poses, and I knew which lenses I needed to make the pictures I thought of.
I was going to have two basic shots. I wanted a pose of the runner in his starting-line stance and a regular portrait. What would make or break the pictures was which lens I used.
The West High track isn’t the most photogenic, so I first thought of using a long telephoto to blow out the background. That would make for a very clean-looking image. I used my 300mm lens, and for more focal length, I added my 1.4x extender. Shooting wide open, I would have the minimum depth of field I could create.
The shot of the starting stance was OK with the telephoto lens, but I wanted something more dramatic. I switched to my wide-angle zoom and got in as close as I could and shot from a low angle looking up. This exaggerated the pose, and the low viewpoint cleaned up my background with a plain sky as most of my background. A small aperture gave me sharp focus from his shoes to the top of his head, but I held a little too much depth of field and focus down the track for my liking.
The portrait idea I had was simple. I would have the runner in the middle of the track with his running cleats around his neck and a tough-looking expression on his face. I shot the pose with the wide-angle lens first. I liked the effect and even tried a high viewpoint to show the track receding into the distance. It worked, but it was a little too cluttered for my liking. Having the subject hold the same pose, I switched to the long telephoto lens and was rewarded with a pleasantly soft background that let the athlete stand out in the picture. Shifting my shooting position to the side let me line up a group of out-of-focus trees as my background to add a little color to the scene.
Switching between lenses with the same pose gave me dynamically different views of the same scene. The subject stayed in the same spot, but I changed my shooting position nearer and farther to match the change in focal length.
I don’t go through that many lens changes on assignment that often. With a portrait, I had the time to experiment and a subject kind enough to let me try a few things. Shooting the first day of summer football practice, on the other hand, I found myself bouncing between the wide-angle lens for dramatic low-angle views and the telephoto lens for tight action sequences. It all depends on the look I want in the picture.
I gave my student a weekend homework assignment to try all three different lenses. My new photo student came back with a collection of portraits and landscapes that showed the different characteristics of all the lenses.
So who is my new student? Tracy Press Editor Cheri Matthews wants to brush up on her photography skills. She didn’t do too bad a job; I gave her a passing grade!