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

Friday, May 30, 2008

What a telephoto does...

is, well, we've pretty much covered it. If you want to make something look big - reach for the telephoto. If you want to make two things which are actually quite far apart from each other look close - reach for the long lens. And if you want to make it looks like there's a large group of people all packed in together really tightly - zoom in as far as you can go.

Just one last thing I'd like to warn you about when using your long lens. Be very careful of your backgrounds. Because these lenses compress things so much objects that look quite small to the naked eye will appear quite large in the viewfinder and become nearly the most important part of the composition.

Take the dancers up above. I was originally standing to the left of the white male dancers and when I looked through the long lens there was a big empty street behind them, the women dancers weren't in the frame. It looked as if these guys were all by their lonesome when in actual fact it was a mass duet.

So I walked to the right so that the women would form my new background. When using a telephoto lens you're often paying more attention to the background than you are the actual subject. With many things you can't actually change the position of the subject (I couldn't exactly yell out to those guys to shift it a couple of feet to the left!) but you can change your background merely by moving yourself left, right, up or down.

Try it next time you have the long lens on. Take a shot as you first see the subject and then see if you can't move around to get a better background.

Now that we've done telephotos to death we'll move on to wide-angles next week and by the time we've finished that you should know just which lens to reach for every time. :) I hope you all have a great weekend and see you next week.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Telephoto food

Now I'm not a specialist food photographer by any stretch of the imagination. My culinary tastes are eclectic and often really bad! But when you're a travel photographer you need to be pretty versatile and often get called upon to photograph restaurants and usually that involves taking a few shots of their main dishes.

This is where the telephoto really shines. It's a bit of a fad at the moment to have a very shallow depth-of-field for food photography. One part of the plate really sharp, the rest of it really blurry. You can achieve that a lot more easily with a telephoto lens.

When I photograph food I often prefer to put it in the context of where it's being eaten. In other words it becomes a bit of a food environmental portrait. So what I often do is set the food up somewhere where there's a nice background, or somewhere that will show the restaurant in a good light. Then I walk back from the table and shoot with a telephoto lens. Using a relatively shallow depth-of-field I have the food sharp and in focus and a blurry background, with still enough detail to show what's going on.

The photo above was taken on assignment for the in-flight magazine of the now defunct Australian Airlines. It was taken up at Port Douglas here in far north Queensland and all with natural light. The main thing I like about photographing food in restaurants is that they usually give it to me to eat after I've finished! By the end of the evening I'd photographed about five restaurants and was so full I could hardly move! Now that's what I call a fringe benefit.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Telephoto Portraits

The majority of portraits are done with a telephoto lens, the exception of course being environmental portraits where the subject is a person in the context of their surroundings.

Telephoto lenses pretty much get rid of the surroundings and they do this in a couple of ways. The first is that telephoto lenses have a very narrow point of view so you're pretty much focussed in on your subject and any distracting elements on either side of them are cut out of the picture.

Here the young mother and her son were actually surrounded on both sides by other people feeding the pigeons but by going to the 70-200mm zoom I managed to cut the other people out of the picture and produce an intimate portrait of just a mother and son.

The other thing that telephotos do is give you a small depth-of-field so that what you focus on is sharp but everything in the background and foreground goes very blurry very quickly. This also helps get rid of distracting elements in the background. In this particular case there was a big pile of junk (I can't remember what exactly it was now) behind them and you can see it in the top left hand corner but because it's so blurry it doesn't get in the way of the portrait.

And don't forget that with the compression perspective that telephotos give you the pictures are very flattering. Who wants their nose to stick out any more than it has to? Use a long lens and it will be flattened (as long as they're not side on that is!).

The other way a telephoto lens can help portraits is by giving you a little bit of distance if people are uncomfortable being photographed. When you've built up a rapport with someone you can often get up close to do some nice wide-angle, environmental portraits but before you get to that point you might find it easier for both yourself and the subject if you can stand back a bit and be as unobtrusive as possible as they get used to you photographing them.

So if you're taking portraits of people start off with a telephoto. Somewhere in the range of 105mm is a great focal length for really flattering portraits. I've heard a rumour that the Playboy photographers shoot their stuff with a 600mm but I'm guessing that has more to do with preventing accidental touching than it does a desire to flatten anything. :)

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Make things look big

The other thing that telephoto lenses do very well is to make things look big. Many people immediately reach for the wide-angle lens when taking landscape photos. But wide-angles have a different function. Things that are close to the camera look big, but things off in the distance look small and far away.

If you want the mountain on the horizon to look as large as it is you need to reach for the telephoto lens. Again, the longer the lens the more effective it looks.

When an object almost fills the frame, and is taken with a telephoto lens, it really gives a sense of the hugeness of something. Maybe not the greatest idea for the mother of the bride but perfect for big snow-capped mountain peaks.

Another thing that helps emphasise size is to put something else in the picture to show how big things are. To give it a sense of scale. In this photo on the left if you look carefully at the bottom of the frame you can see a trail of yaks walking along a mountain path.

Now as we learnt yesterday the telephoto lens compresses the persepective so even though the path looks like it's right at the base of the mountain it's actually a good 5 kilometres or so away. See the camera was able to lie long before Photoshop came along!

This mountain is known as Ama Dablam and it is one of the most picturesque mountains in the Himalayas of Nepal. This photo was taken just on the outskirts of the Himalayan town of Namche on the path towards Mt Everest. It was taken with a 300mm lens on Fuji Velvia.

So before you automatically reach for your widest lens when out photographing landscapes take a couple of seconds to think about it. Do you want to emphasise how big something is? Then leave the wide-angle in the bag and reach for your longest telephoto.

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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