Shooting with Interchangeable Lenses

Wouldn’t it be great if you could get one lens that did everything? One lens that can zoom into a subject from far away, one lens to take those great wide-angle shots, one lens that would make shooting so much easier. Although there are all-in-one lenses that cover zoom-to-wide angle, unfortunately, there’s no single lens that covers the whole range well, from wide-angle to telephoto. Thanks to HDSLRs, you can now have the ability to swap out that ordinary lens for a wide-angle or telephoto lens. However, shooting with interchangeable lenses can be daunting and the variety of lenses available can be overwhelming. This feature looks at shooting with the different types of interchangeable lenses while our associated feature The Mechanics of Interchangeable Lenses: Working with 35mm Adapters and Lenses looks at how these lenses operate. Another associated feature, DSLR/HDSLR Buyers Guide, looks at the variety of cameras on the market today that give you options to use interchangeable lenses in your video production.


Wide-angle – The name is familiar and pretty easy to understand, however it’s not always easy to use properly. A wide-angle lens captures a much taller and wider view of the scene than standard or telephoto lenses. A wide-angle lens is a great choice for travel videos for capturing wide vistas or real estate videos when you have to capture an entire room. Standard fixed-video camera lenses can’t always capture wider angles well.


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Wide-angle lenses are usually the de facto choice for shooting sweeping countrysides or capturing breathtaking mountain views. While you see them used in travel magazines or shows, a few enterprising videographers and photographers use the wide-angle lens for more then just capturing grand scenes. By physically moving a camera equipped with a wide-angle lens closer to a subject the image changes drastically, bringing your foreground up close and personal. This makes the subject important and impressive by taking up the majority of the screen’s real estate or causing other areas in the scene to appear smaller and less important. Your viewer has no choice but to be grabbed by this type of in-your-face approach. However, using your wide-angle lens in this way requires some caution, since doing so can introduce distortion in facial features, and other objects.

When done properly a wide-angle shot can be breathtaking. However, like all good composition styles, while wide-angle shots are great for getting a lot of information into a scene, they should be sprinkled in only when needed and for effect.

Telephoto – The telephoto lens is like having a magnifying glass on a scene. You use these lenses to isolate something important in the scene. If you want to get a great shot of that lion’s face, but have no interest in being its lunch, you might use a telephoto lens. This way you can be a safe distance away from the lion and still get a great close-up of its face. But you don’t have to buy a telephoto lens and use it to only capture something far away. You can also use the telephoto lens to bring some details into sharper focus, adding depth to your scene by also blurring the background which then makes your in-focus subject appear more prominent and important. It is amazing how many interesting details and colors come alive when using a telephoto lens.

Telephoto lenses allow you to create the appearance that many subjects are crammed into one picture. Telephoto lenses bring the background closer to your subject, which can distort the perspective a bit, but can make for some really interesting visual images. A great example of adding emphasis to freeway gridlock is to shoot all the cars lined up using a telephoto lens. You’re crunching the distance between the cars, making them appear closer to each other illustrating a more dramatic scene. It is important to also realize that the telephoto lens has a very limited area of focus. This is where the camera’s autofocus can play havoc with an image. It goes without saying that you shouldn’t use auto-focus to assure that your camera is focused properly on what you want and not on what it thinks you want.

Zoom – The all important zoom. A zoom lens appears similar to a telephoto lens, but it usually allows you to zoom in to get closer to a subject, like a telephoto lens, or zoom out to get a wide shot, like the wide-angle lens. However, this typically comes at the cost of losing light as the image is magnified. Zooming the lens out allows more information into your picture. Zooming in closes in on a subject and makes it that much more important. The zoom lens tends to be a blessing and a curse to most inexperienced videographers. There is a natural tendency to zoom into an image and bring it into focus quickly. While this is good, there is the temptation to use it far too often. Watching a scene that employed shots of a camera zooming in and out can be nauseating and unpleasant to watch. Your viewers don’t want to see how the mechanics of your gear work, they want to see the images of the subject you are showing them. Use the zoom lens with discretion. The pros usually practice good zooming techniques by zooming in or out very slowly, beginning and ending without any movement at all. Focus is important as well. Again, the camera’s auto-focus can quickly get in the way of a good zoom, so practice the move in advance, making sure that the focus is set correctly.

Macro – A macro lens is perfect when you need to be close-up on something very small like a bug or detail on a flower. Good use of a macro lens calls for a counter-intuitive setup; you don’t need to zoom the lens in for a good macro shot, you just need to get closer to your subject. For macro videography, check out these tips.

Depth of Field Shots

The beauty of recording great depth of field shots is unequaled. Depth of field is the distance between the closest and farthest objects that appear in sharp focus. We’ve seen depth of field imaging on TV and movies. Soap operas are shows to watch for good examples in depth of field shooting, and rack focus shots. These scenes usually have two or more people in a room engaged in a conversation. As one person is talking the other person may be in the background. The person talking is in sharp focus and the person in the background is soft. The emphasis is on the person talking, because that is where the eye is drawn to and that is where the focus is. However, if the camera operator, or focus-puller, ‘racks’ the focus to the person in the background, even if the first subject is still talking, the viewers’ attention is drawn to the reaction of the person listening. This type of technique is called a shallow depth of field and is used to make sure that the most important subject stands out from the background.

A long or extended depth of field shot means that all of the subject in the scene are in focus. Movie makers and travel videographers use these shots with great effectiveness when they want to illustrate a sweeping landscape or a busy town square. One easy way to control depth of field is to physically move the camera closer to or farther away from the subject. If you move away from the subject you will be able to capture a deeper depth of field. On the other hand, by moving in closer, you can create a shallow depth of field.

Different ways to shoot a scene will change the way you want your viewer to perceive it. For example, you want to capture the scene of a lovely park in full seasonal color, using a wide-angle lens. You decide that the subject will be a maple tree in this park. Placing your camera as far back you can then setting your lens as wide as possible, with a high f-stop number, you will capture a deep depth of field shot. Everything will be in focus. But if you zoomed in on that maple tree, and set your f-stop to a very low number, the tree or portions of it would be in focus, and the rest of the park would be blurred giving you a shallow depth of field. Your typical video camera comes with a standard lens making it very difficult, if not almost impossible, to obtain shallow depth of field shots. Depth of field shots can make a stunning addition to all your shoots.

Shooting with interchangeable lenses has an immediate impact on your work. Being able to pick and choose the right tool for the job is a liberating feeling. Having choices can give you the ability to use lenses that let in more light, allowing you to lower the f-stop and get a shallower depth of field. It also allows you to upgrade your optics whenever technology improves, keeping your camera relevant for a longer period of time.

Getting used to shooting with interchangeable lenses comes with practice, patience and determination. No matter what your skill level you will be instantly rewarded when you begin to swap lenses for the proper occasion. Like all tools, you will need to practice in order to figure out which lens will be the right one for the job, but from family gatherings to commercials to your kids’ soccer game, creating interesting depth of field shots using interchangeable lenses is an artistic touch that can be mastered through time and practice.


  1. I did have the assumption that there would be more emphasis on buying (or covering) different inter-changeable lens camcoders (like the Sony NEX-VG30).  But the article did give decent explanation of some of the lens types and the examples.

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