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I'm a Cairns, far north Queensland, Australia professional photographer specialising in travel, editorial and environmental portraiture.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Wide angle vs telephoto

One of the most important things I do before starting to photograph is to think about what I want to achieve. What emotion I want to provoke in the viewer. What it is about a scene that I find compelling and how I'm going to show that in the best way.

The first decision is pretty much always what focal length lens I'm going to use. Am I going to stick the wide-angle or telephoto lens on the camera.

Keeping in mind that the wide-angle lens opens up the perspective and makes things that might actually be close together, appear far apart from each other. When you use this type of lens in a big crowd of people the effect you get is that, yes there are quite a few people there, but they are spaced out and there's plenty of empty footpath between them. A large group of people but hardly a scene of 'packed like sardines.'

You literally couldn't move for people. At one point I was stuck standing in the one position for five minutes as a giant human traffic jam ensued. Using the wide-angle lens just wasn't showing this perspective at all. It wasn't showing the feelings I was having being in such a mass of people.

So away went the wide-angle (in the photo above a 16-35mm) and out came the telephoto lens.

Right idea, wrong perspective. With the telephoto lens I've now got that compressed perspective. The people look as close together as they feel when you're right in the middle of them.

The interaction of the little girl on her father's head is a nice little moment but the people in the foreground are distracting and it's not really a picture of a crowd anymore. It's more a picture of a little girl and her Dad in a crowd. The emphasis is slightly different to what I was aiming for.

But what do you do when you're only 171 cm tall. Yes I know the Japanese aren't very tall (on average) either, but I'm not tall enough to shoot over the heads of the people in the foreground. So I spent the next half an hour looking for a way to get up higher. I spotted a block of apartments looking down the street which would have been perfect but they wouldn't let me in to take a picture. Back at a fork in the road I found a tree with a low hanging branch which might do the trick.

So up I went. Hanging on to the tree with one hand and cradling the camera with a big 70-200mm f2.8 lens in the other and trying to hold myself steady enough to take a photo.

And this is what I was aiming for. The telephoto lens compressing that perspective to make it look really crowded (as it was - nearly 1 million people packed into a very small park in central Sapporo), and a nice high position so I could shoot down over the heads of the people and really look along the street to fit as many people as possible.

It's vital to have an idea in your head of what you want to achieve in a picture. You usually have to spend a bit of time and thinking to achieve the effect you want but the journey is half the fun. Just remember what your different focal lengths do on your lenses and you'll be taking a big step towards achieving what you want from your pictures.

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