Focal Lengths Explored (also includes various exercises)

In this post I am going to explore the differences between long, short and standard focal lengths. I have used the exercises; ‘Standing back’, ‘Close and Involved’, and ‘Standard Focal Length’ as a base for this research, and you will find all three of these exercises here.

The focal length of a lens is defined as the distance from the middle of the lens element to the digital camera’s imaging censor.(1)” There are three main varying focal lengths; Wide angle, Standard, and Telephoto. However, all these focal lengths affect portraits in very different ways. Therefore I am researching; which focal length is truly the best for portrait photography?

“Lenses of different focal lengths affect images of the human face quite radically. When taking portraits it is important to consider the effects that lens focal has on the proportions of the face.(2)”  Let’s take a look at the varying ways in which focal lengths affect a portrait.

Wide Angle Lenses:Wide angle can cause unflattering distortions when used for portraits, especially when used close to your subject…(3)” Wide angle lenses force the photographer to be physically closer to the subject in order to get the portrait filling the frame. This then emphasises the part of the subject that is closest to the lens; resulting in unflatteringly images.

Standard Lenses: “Lenses… in the range 75-105mm are ideal for portraiture and when a human head and shoulders is framed in-camera they give a good natural perspective.(4)” This lens allows the photographer to stand about 12 feet away from the subject, which results in a much more comfortable distance than a wide-angle lens. This enables the photographer to capture an intimate portrait without invading the subject’s personal space, in comparison to the wide-angle lens, which would ultimately result in an awkward and uncomfortable portrait session.

Telephoto Lenses: “Lenses with a longer focal length than ‘portrait’ lenses will foreshorten the perspective and give faces a flattened ‘pancake’ look.(5)” Longer focal lengths cause the features on the subject’s face to compress, which actually causes a more flattering appearance. Therefore a telephoto lens is a good portrait choice, however, the luxury of a large space needed for a long focal length is not always available to photographers. I decided to take my telephoto lens, along with my 18-55mm lens and capture some street photography to note the advantages and disadvantages of each different focal length. I used the following exercises in order to do this:

Exercise: ‘Standing Back’ Specification: Select a medium-long focal length, ideally between 80mm and 200mm full-frame equivalent. What practical difficulties do you note? What special creative opportunities do you find that a long focal length and distant position have given you?

Exercise: ‘Close and Involved’ Specification: Adjust focal length to the widest angle that you have. Here concentrate on using it close to people, and try to achieve a sense of putting the viewer right inside the situation. Note down both the problems and advantages created by working with a wide-angle of view.

Exercise: ‘Standard Focal Length’: If you have a full-frame DSLR the focal length should be between 40mm and 50mm.

Let’s begin with the Telephoto Lens. One of the major disadvantages of using a long focal length is the obstacles that can come between the lens and the subject that the photographer is aiming to capture. I found this to be one of the most frustrating aspects of using a long focal length. For the image below, I was aiming to capture the lady crossing the road, but as you can see I came across some obstacles. There is a lady and her daughter to the right of the frame, as well as a large sign which blocked parts of the lady out. These objects could not be moved, and unfortunately, I did not have time to readjust myself in order to cut them out of the framing. Therefore, this is definitely one disadvantage to longer focal lengths.

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I noted that the problem of obstacles blocking my subject did not affect me whilst using a standard and wide-angle focal length. These lenses enabled me to capture the subjects I wanted without having other people or objects in the way. This highlights the advantages of a wide angle and standard focal length in comparison with a telephoto lens. We see this in the images below- (image one being standard, and image two wide angle) where there are absolutely no objects blocking the frame.

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Let’s move on to the pros of using a long focal length in comparison to a wide angle. Firstly, it enables the photographer to capture the subject unaware. For the image below,  I used a zoom lens with a maximum focal length of 200mm. I think a focal length with 200mm plus is necessary to ensure total anonymity. In the image below, I used a focal length of 200mm; this has enabled me to capture this lovely old lady completely unaware. However, we see here that there is a great sense of distance and disconnect between the subject and photographer; which is the main negative of this shot; and indeed the telephoto lens itself.

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In the book, Train Your Gaze by Roswell Angier, it highlights this point, showing how different photographers use telephoto or shorter focal lenses, each to their advantage ; “Beat Streuli uses a long telephoto lens so that he can track his subjects on the street without them being aware of his presence. This is a departure from the practice of street photographers such as Henri Cartier-Bresson or Garry Winogrand, who used shorter focal-length lenses, thereby creating a potent feeling of possible contact or interaction between photographer and subject.(6)” We see this technique used in Henri Cartier-Bresson’s image below entitled Derriere la Gare Saint-Lazare.(7)

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Therefore, whilst the telephoto lens is ideal for capturing portraits without subject’s being aware of your presence, it lacks the intimacy needed to provide a strong feeling of interaction with the subject. So we see that what is the main strength of a long focal length, is also its main weakness. Whilst a long focal length enables us to capture the subject from a distance; this large space between the photographer and the subject removes the sense of interaction that a shorter focal length provides so well. A wide-angle or a standard lens provides that intimacy.

With a wide angle and standard focal length, the photographer is forced to stand no more than 12 feet away from the subject. This results in a connection between the viewer and the subject that a longer focal length lacks greatly. A wide-angle lens would most definitely provide this connection, but at what cost? The photographer will need to stand extremely close to the subject in order to fill the frame. This will ultimately result in a less-than relaxed atmosphere, and therefore an awkward appearing photo. Subjects have to be completely at ease, and so therefore, I have learnt from this research that wide-angle lenses are not the way to go for portrait photography. A standard lens is perfect for providing that important connection between subject and viewer. The photographer is close enough to the subject to enable this, whilst still far enough away to ensure the subject has their own personal space. In the shot below I captured this old lady with a 50mm focal length. We see that she is too distracted to notice the camera; and is therefore very relaxed. The shallow focal length has provided that vital connection, and the resulting image is very pleasant.

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We have seen the cons of a longer focal length are the lack of connection with the subject, and obstacles getting in the way of the frame. However, let’s look at the huge pro that comes with using a telephoto lens. A longer focal length makes the subject appear more attractive. “A telephoto lens is great for portraits because it provides a flattering perspective and allows you to isolate your subject from the background. The spatial relationship in the scene is flattened, so noses don’t look larger than normal.(8)” We briefly touched upon this point earlier in this post. Longer focal lengths do indeed provide a flattering appearance for the subject, and therefore they are an attractive option when capturing portraiture, as everyone wants to appear as attractive as is possible. I noticed in the image below that this technique even worked when capturing this dog! When he started to get closer to the lens, I consequently reduced my focal length, and upon reviewing the shots, I noticed that the shorter focal lengths were far less attractive and interesting to look at. This is because a longer focal length produces an image that is starkly different from how the human eye would normally perceive a scene. Therefore making it more interesting and appealing to look at. This is possibly a slight negative aspect of the standard lens. It is closest to how the human eye sees the scene; so whilst it may be a pleasant and good lens choice for portraiture, the results are far less interesting to view than that of a long focal length.

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Whilst long focal lengths provide a flattering portrait, we see that wide-angle focal lengths provide very unflattering portraits and even distortion. The close proximity of the lens to the subject emphasises the part of the subject that is closest to the lens; resulting in unflatteringly images. For portraits, this part of the subject would be the nose. Large noses are not something that portraits want to stand out in their photos. We see that in the image below, I have captured a couple on the street walking towards me. There is definitely a slight distortion in this image, with the entire scene appearing a little off balance, and simply not quite right. This is due to the distortion caused through the wide-angle of the focal length. Hereby highlighting once again that wide-angle lenses are less than ideal for portrait photography.

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In conclusion, I have learnt a great deal through this research, and now understand much more of how focal lengths affect portraits. I have learnt the following main points:

– Wide-angle lenses are far from ideal, causing distortion and discomfort for the subject.

– Standard and long focal lengths are the ideal choices for portrait photography, and both hold certain advantages and disadvantages.

– Standard focal lengths are a good choice, causing pleasant portraits which have a strong connection between subject and viewer.

– Long focal lengths are another good choice which provide attractive portraits, but the connection between subject and viewer is compromised, and obstacles can easily come between lens and subject.

Below you will find a few more images taken for these exercises, captured and reviewed as a base for my above research.

‘Exercise; Standing Back’

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Exercise; Standard Focal Length’.

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Exercise: ‘Close and Involved’

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(1) MANNING, ERIC (2012), Portrait and Candid Photography: Photo Workshop, John Wiley and Sons

(2) PRAKEL, DAVID (2006), Basics Photography 01: Composition, AVA Publishing

(3) HESS, A. MCLERNON (2012), B. Photography Techniques Digital Field Guide, John Wiley and Sons

(4) PRAKEL, DAVID (2006), Basics Photography 01: Composition, AVA Publishing

(5) PRAKEL, DAVID (2006), Basics Photography 01: Composition, AVA Publishing

(6) ANGIER, ROSWELL (2007), Train your gaze; A Practical and Theoretical Introduction to Portrait Photography, AVA Publishing

(7) ERIC KIM STREET PHOTOGRAPHY (2011), 10 Things Henri Cartier-Bresson Can Teach You About Street Photography, Available from: http://erickimphotography.com/blog/2011/08/10-things-henri-cartier-bresson-can-teach-you-about-street-photography/, [Accessed: 09/05/13]

(8) MANNING, ERIC (2012), Portrait and Candid Photography: Photo Workshop, John Wiley and Sons

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