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

Monday, May 26, 2008

Telephoto Lenses

Judging by the number of people who stumble across this little ol' blog typing the words 'wide angle vs telephoto' into a search engine this seems to be a pretty popular topic.

And so it should be. Once you have decided how you want to photograph something the very first decision you will most likely have to make is what lens to use. After all nothing really affects an image as much as the focal length of you lens.

So which should you reach for? The telephoto or the wide-angle? That all depends on what you want to do and rather than go into a comparison of the two here I thought I'd spend a few posts showing you images taken with a telephoto lens to give you a feel for what they do. Then when we've done that we'll move on to wide-angles and take a look at what those lenses do.

First a bit of a technical definition. In 35mm photography a standard lens is 50mm. (In crop digital format about 33mm) Before the advent of zoom lenses whenever you bought a camera it usually came with a standard lens attached. It's called a standard lens because the image it captures is pretty much what you see with your eye.

Anything longer than 50mm (85mm, 135mm, 300mm etc) is considered a telephoto. The longer the telephoto the more pronounced the effect. And that effect is? Well one of the most noticeable ones is what we call a compression of perspective. It makes things that are actually quite far apart from each other look really close together.

Take the photograph above. This is the ancient Moroccan city of Fes. This is the old part of Fes inside the Medina, a labyrinth of narrow alleyways, mysterious shadows and intrigue round every corner. When you photograph Fes from the hill overlooking the city you pretty much have to reach for the telephoto lens because it's so far away!

But when you do it makes the city look like a huge, jumbled mass of buildings. The compressed perspective has taken away any sense of space between the houses. It makes everything look very dense, cramped and jam-packed into a tiny little area. And that's one thing a telephoto lens does really well. Think of photos of crowds of people where it looks like they're all piled on top of one another. Of course there's space between the people but using the long lens makes them look a lot closer together than they really are.

So when you want to make it look like there's a huge group of something (houses, people etc) packed into a really small area, stand a long way back and reach for the telephoto lens. Remember that the longer the lens the more pronounced the effect will be.

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