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

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Telephoto lenses and shallow depth of field

The other thing we haven't talked about yet is telephoto lenses and their use in portraiture. Now it's pretty well known that they're a favourite with portrait photographers because they flatten the facial features making them look more appealing.

But another reason they're so popular is because of the way they really blur everything in front of and behind the point of focus. Now to get this effect the first thing you need is a wide open aperture (small f number say f2.8, f1.4 etc). And a full frame SLR camera is going to give you a shallower depth of field than a crop dSLR or a point and shoot.

All that being said, if you like to have blurry backgrounds the longer the lens you use the better it is. Take this shot here above. While the light on my aboriginal guide Vera isn't too bad for the time of day (middle of a sunny day in Aurukun, Cape York) the background is a mess.

Look at the light and shadows, gnarly branches and tree trunk, burnt out rocks on the ground. Just a really big mess that would relegate this picture to the junk pile. It was taken at a reasonably wide angle setting - 34mm on my zoom. Yuck.

Now look at what happens when I walk back a few paces and stick a longer zoom lens on and dial in 100mm.


Instantly that messy background of burnt out ground, jumbled branches and tree roots is a blurry, insignificant nothing. There are a couple of branches up in the top right hand corner that are a bit distracting but nothing as bad as the shot above.

So here the telephoto lens has done a couple of things. The narrower angle of view has cropped out the burnt out ground just behind Vera's body. The messy branches way off in the background appear closer but because they're so blurry they're not anywhere near as intrusive as the shot above.

And by having Vera larger in the frame she actually becomes the dominant feature. Plus the flattening effect of the telephoto lens makes her appear more natural.

Usually I like to move myself around to find a cleaner background but in this case we were in the middle of the forest and it was all as bad everywhere I looked. So I took the lesser evil and looked for trees that were far enough away to be blurred by the shallow depth of field. Just one more way that the background becomes really important in using your telephoto lenses.

Well that's covered the differences between wide angle lenses and telephoto lenses which should keep you lens fiends busy for a little while. Please if anybody has any questions or would like me to post on a particular topic write your comments after this post and I will help out where I can.

Have a great weekend and see you next week.

Telephoto lenses - when your foreground is boring!

People often ask me when they should use a telephoto lens for landscape photography. In fact it's a common misconception that you should only use your widest angle lens for landscapes - particularly those from famous lookouts.

There's a problem with that. Do you remember last week when we talked about how wide angle lenses really emphasise the foreground? What happens when your foreground is really, really boring? Or worse still what happens if it's ugly?

Take this shot here. Taken on the picturesque Mt Moiwa in the centre of Sapporo, it's looking from a cablecar down to the city. Now I could just as easily have waited until the cable car in the frame got closer to me and photographed it with a wide angle lens.

The only problem was that everything in the foreground (ie directly below me) was a boring, neverending forest. Sure it was quite pretty in a monotone green kind of, wrong time of day kind of way. I didn't need to show lots of it to let the viewer know that it was there. In fact by just showing a bit it lets the viewer imagine how much might be there.

So the foreground had to go. It would only take away from the impact of the picture. So I waited until the cablecar had gone whizzing past me and was headed down the mountain and waited with a long telephoto lens.

Firstly it had the effect of bringing the background city in nice and close to show that the cable car went over the forest from the city - no need to show acres of forest to get that effect. It also made the cable car nice and big as well. The narrow view meant I got rid of not-so attractive features to the left and right of the frame (which would have appeared in a wide angle shot) and, most importantly, I got rid of the boring foreground.

So if ever you end up looking at a beautiful landscape look down at your feet first. Is it interesting? Would it contribute to the story you want to tell? Grab the wide angle. Is it boring, lifeless or just plain ugly? Then reach for the telephoto lens and look out towards the horizon.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Telephoto lenses - the simplifying lens

Yesterday we talked about how a telephoto lens really brings the background in nice and close. As I mentioned that often means moving your camera position around until you find a nice, complementary background.

The other thing about telephoto backgrounds, and foregrounds as well for that matter, is that they happen on a very narrow angle of view. What you see is your subject and what is directly behind it in a straight line from your camera angle and nothing else.

That's why your camera position can have such an important effect on not only your background but also what appears to the left and right of your subject. And with a telephoto lens this is often nothing.

The telephoto is a great cleaner-upper (is that a word?) of the frame. Photography is the opposite of painting or drawing. Where those working on canvas start off with a blank sheet and fill in the important details, we start off with a busy mess of irrelevant stuff and have to get rid of most of it until all that's left is the important part of the picture.

The dancer above was on a tiny stage way off in the distance. Not only was the stage very tiny but it was cram packed with people dancing away and there were about ten heads between my head and the stage. From this picture to the right you can see what chaos it was.

Now this is the wide angle version of course. You can see how small and far away the stage looks. The shot above was taken from exactly the same position - mainly me sitting down while I ate my dinner and got off a picture every now and again.

You can see how the telephoto lens' narrow angle of view has highlighted the single dancer amongst a crowd of people. Anybody to the left and right of her are cut off by the edges of the frame.

The other thing working in my favour is the spotlight on the dancer. Because she is in such a bright area and the rest of the stage is so dark (relatively speaking) it fades to black, making it even more of a simple composition. In fact my eyes could see as much detail as you can see in the wide angle picture above but I knew the film wouldn't be able to record it. So the back of the stage would form a nice, clean, simple black background.

So remember that the telephoto lens will only see a narrow angle directly in line of sight of your camera position. Everything to the left and right of it will disappear like magic. So it's a great way of isolating a subject in the middle of a maelstrom.

Oh and just for the record, photographing the dancer without other people around her wasn't the hardest bit, it was keeping the foreground heads out of the frame as people moved left and right trying to get a better view!

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Telephoto lenses and backgrounds meet New Delhi

One of the most important things to be aware of when using a telephoto lens is your background. Which isn't to say that backgrounds aren't important with wide angle lenses but the difference lies in what your background is.

Or more importantly how far away your background is. With the wide angle lens increasing the apparent distance between objects, things that are a long way away from the camera appear small and insignificant. They basically fade away into nothing.

When you use a telephoto lens, however, all the background elements become large, close and major elements of your composition. In other words you almost need to be looking at your backgrounds before you start framing your subject.

And to do this you need to be looking off in the distance behind your subject. The longer the telephoto lens the closer that background is going to appear, and the bigger it is going to be.

Just walking a few steps in one direction or the other won't affect the subject too much but can completely change the background. Take this image here. I wanted to show the contrast between the ancient steps of the Jantar Mantar astronomical observatory in New Delhi with the modern shapes of skyscrapers in the background.

The skyscrapers were a long way away so I knew straight away that there was no point in getting up and close with a wide angle lens because that would make the buildings small and insignificant in the background. Yes the ancient Jantar Mantar steps would be huge but I didn't want just the one element - I needed both to be large.

So it called for a telephoto lens. Then the problem was where I needed to stand to get the background buildings in the right place. A few feet to camera left and the only thing in the background would be other Jantar Mantar buildings. A few feet to the right would give me the same problem. Too low and my only background would be overcast Delhi sky. So I needed to be at about the same height as the little girl and pretty much right where I was to get the buildings in the background.

In this way I chose my background first. I scanned behind me to find a place where I might be able to get up reasonably high and at the right angle to get my background in the scene. After I'd done that the subject pretty much took care of itself.

When I started climbing up the stairs of another Jantar Mantar object (building?) in what seemed like a good position I found that going too high would bring too much of the street in the background into view, too low and I had too much sky. Just like goldilocks I found that the middle spot was just right.

Only problem was there was nobody in my picture. So I just sat down and waited until somebody walked into the frame. Luckily for me this little local girl wandered about half way up the steps, directly opposite me. Now I had my modern background, my ancient foreground for contrast and my bit of human element to make it interesting.

So remember the first golden rule of telephoto lenses - your background objects may be farther away than you think and may appear larger than in real life!

Monday, June 15, 2009

Monday's Link

For those of us who grew up before IPhones, the internet and Satellite TV, we learnt about the world from the wonderful magazines that shaped our worlds. For me personally one magazine that had a profound influence on the way I viewed photography, and learnt about its masters was LIFE magazine. I'm not sure how many times it folded before re-surfacing but I seem to recall being disappointed when it disappeared, then ecstatic when it came back again. One of the all-time greats Joe McNally was one of their final staff photographers.

Anyway if you'd like to reminisce about some of the great images that LIFE published over the years, or perhaps even see them for the first time then head on over here where the entire archive is online for the whole world to see. What an amazing treasure trove of pictures. Don't blame me if you don't re-surface for a few days. :)

And tune in tomorrow where we'll continue our series on lenses and talk a little bit about telephotos.