Photo of a collection of lenses.

Using a long lens and using a short lens convey two completely different emotions. Once you understand what emotions each lens gives off, you will be better prepared and more confident in which lens to use and under what circumstance. I’ve learned a lot of these techniques from my film teacher, film director Gary Sherman, and his class Directing for Camera. Also, another good resource is Hollywood Camera Works. Now let’s dive in.

In order to understand why you should choose a certain lens, we must first know what our options are.

Zoom and Prime Lenses

There are two types of lenses, zoom and fixed, also known as prime. Most are familiar with zoom lenses. When you press the zoom rocker on your camera marked “t” you zoom in, and when you press the “w” you zoom out. Well, with prime lenses, you stay at one spot. You can not zoom in or out.

The length of the lens is measured in millimeters. So for a zoom lens, you may have the ability to go from, let’s say, 25mm by pressing the “w” as far as it can go, to 200mm by pressing the “t” as far as it can go. Different zoom lenses have different ratios. With prime lenses, again, they are set.

Once you understand what emotions each lens gives off, you will be better prepared and more confident in which lens to use.

For this example, we’re going to use three types of prime lenses, 25mm — wide — 50mm and 85mm — telephoto or long. Did you notice that? 25mm is wide and corresponds with “w” on a zoom rocker.  85mm is telephoto, or “t” on the zoom rocker. So when you zoom out, you’re getting wider and our lens is getting shorter, which means we can see more. When you zoom in, your lens is getting longer and you can see less.

For now, we’ll focus on when to use a wide, middle and telephoto. Whether you’re on a prime lens or a zoom lens, the principles are still the same, as long as you know roughly what mm you are at and/or if you are on the wide side, in the middle or on the telephoto.

50mm Approximates What Our Eyes See

When films are shot on 35mm, a 50mm lens represents what our eyes see. Even if you’re shooting digital, if you have a 35mm sensor, or adapter, keep the “50mm equals what our eyes see” as a rule of thumb. Now that we know that, let’s explore what happens when we go wider.

Why Wide?

The wider we go, the more we get that fisheye effect. We get to see more. More objects are in focus. Also, the wider we go, the more the image starts to distort and round off on the sides. You may have seen that look with a GoPro which uses an ultra wide angle lens. Wide lenses are great for capturing a lot of the environment. They are also good when there is not a lot of room for a longer lens. That is why GoPros use wide lenses.

In a narrative, wider lenses are great for giving off a surreal look because again, comparing it to the human eye, we are wider. Our eyes aren’t used to seeing that much information from left to right without turning our heads. The wider the lens, the more distorted the look, and the more trippy and surreal that image looks. So if you’re going for the trippy feel, explore using a wide lens.

Wider lenses also keep more subjects in focus. That is why, when shooting establishing shots or shots of nature where you want to include a lot of information, wide lenses are awesome.

Why Telephoto?

Let’s zoom in, or move to a telephoto lens like an 85mm. Now the shot is tighter. We don’t have as much information from left to right. We’ve also dramatically decreased our depth of field, so fewer objects are in focus. In comparison to our eyes, i.e., 50mm lens, with the 85mm we are more focused on a subject and less on the environment. We also don’t have that drastic distortion on the edge of our frame. Everything is flatter.

The longer the lens is, the more intimate the shot. It is perfect for beauty shots such as headshots; for example, a shot of a leading lady or alternating shots between a man and a woman who are saying something important. With the 85mm, we feel physically closer to them, and we want to relate with them.

For nature shots, these longer lenses are used to show detail and focus our eye. A wide shot of a plant gives us a lot to look at. A longer lens with a shallow depth of field focuses our eyes on the area that’s sharp. Our eyes are drawn to what’s in focus. When everything is in focus, our eyes wander. When a specific area is in focus, our eyes are attracted to that area. Every time our eyes try to wander, they’re pulled back to that area that is in focus.

Review

The general rule of thumb is this: If we want to draw specific attention to something or create a more intimate shot, we go with a longer lens or telephoto. If we want to show off more of the environment, give the viewer more breathing room, and let the eyes wander more, we go with a wider lens. And if we want to recreate exactly what the human eye sees, we stick with the 50mm.

Now, your framing may be the same when using different lenses, but the effect and mood will be different depending on the lens. For instance, a closeup is a closeup, no matter what lens you use. If it’s a person, you’re still framing mainly the head. If you use a wide lens, you will have to move closer to the subject to keep just the head in frame. The longer the lens, the further you would have to move back to keep the head in frame. So with a headshot or a beauty shot, you’re focusing on the face, not the background.

If you’re getting too much detail in the background and you want it out of focus but you like your framing, move the camera back and use a longer lens or zoom in. Your framing will stay the same, but the emotions and the effects you desire are dependent on the lens you choose.

Something to keep in mind, however, is that while your framing may be the same across lenses, the perspective of the lens changes. For example if you’re shooting a closeup with a wide angle, the person’s face will appear to have more depth, i.e., really big noses. On the contrary, the longer the lens, the flatter the subject’s face will appear. Again, to approximate the human eye, and therefore achieve a more realistic looking shot, stick with the mid, or 50mm.

Wide

  • More objects in frame
  • More subjects in focus
  • Greater distortion
  • Great for trippy or environmental shots
  • Fits in smaller places

Telephoto

  • Fewer objects in frame
  • Fewer objects in focus
  • Great for focusing attention
  • Shoot subjects from further away
  • Intimate shots

How to Improve

When looking at your favorite photographs or while watching a movie or a video, try to guess what lens they use. Use the clues. Is the image a little distorted on the sides? How much is in focus? Do you think the camera is far away or close up? Is the image flat?

Think of what emotions these images give you. You’ll start to see a pattern. You’ll also notice why some images don’t work. You may notice that the intent was to create an intimate feeling but the lens choice may have worked against it. You may not know the exact length of the lens, but just guessing wide, medium and long should do the trick.

Now that you understand which lens does what, apply it to your shoot and create the emotions and mood that you want your viewer to feel through the art of choosing the right lens.

JR Strickland is an award-winning director, filmmaker and musician. He specializes in strong, narrative storytelling.

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