The Francisco Peaks and Wupatki National Monument using a 300mm telephoto lens.

Telephoto Camera Lenses: 3 Essential Techniques For Producing Powerful Images

Text & Photos by Chuck Place©

One of my favorite lenses is my Canon 300mm f2.8 telephoto. Sure, it’s big, it’s heavy and it’s really pricy. And although I only occasionally photograph sports or wildlife, the most popular subjects for these big telephotos, the images I create with that lens are always captivating. Let me walk you through the 3 techniques I employ most often when shooting with a telephoto lens. Let’s see if you agree?

Reach, Isolate or Compress—those are the 3 main reasons to own a telephoto lens. 

Long lenses, or telephotos, have a narrower field of vision than a normal lens. This narrowing or cropping of our normal field of vision effectively magnifies the objects or main subjects in our image.

Bull rider in a rodeo captured with 300mm lens
Bull rider action in a rodeo photographed with a Canon 300mm f2.8 lens

This, of course, leads us to the main use of telephoto lenses—reaching out to fill the frame with our main subject. This creates the effect of placing the viewer right in the action, whether it is a young bull rider in a rodeo hanging on for dear life or a sailboat crew hustling to set a spinnaker during a race in San Francisco Bay. 

sailboat race photographed with 70--200mm f2.8 zoom lens
sailboat race action photographed with 70–200mm f2.8 zoom lens

Telephoto lenses come in a range of focal lengths and in both fixed focal lengths, like the 300mm lens, and various zoom configurations. My go-to telephoto lens for events like the Tournament of Roses Parade is a Canon 70-200mm f2.8 zoom lens. It covers short to medium telephoto ranges and gives me the ability to change the degree of magnification so that I can move in tight on an amazing parade float while cropping out distractions like the parade crowds.

Tournament of Roses Parade photographed with a 70-200mm zoom lens
Float in the Tournament of Roses Parade photographed with a 70-200mm zoom lens

It is also possible to increase the focal length of a telephoto by placing a teleconverter between the camera body and lens. Mine converts my 300mm to a 420mm telephoto that can transport a viewer twenty feet up in a tree to view, up close, one of the Monarch butterfly migration roosting sites here in California.

Monarch butterflies photographed with a 300mm telephoto lens
Monarch butterflies photographed with a 300mm telephoto lens and teleconverter

Having that kind of reach for a photographer is invaluable.

Reach is only one aspect of a telephoto, however. The ability of a telephoto to isolate a subject is not only a function of reach but often depth of field as well. It’s no accident that both of my telephoto lenses are f2.8 lenses, capable of creating images with very shallow depth of field. Picking out a single dancer at a Cinco de Mayo celebration has more impact if the surrounding area is softened with very shallow depth of field. 

dancer photographed with a 300mm telephoto lens
Cinco de Mayo dancer photographed with a 300mm telephoto lens

Also keep in mind that the longer the telephoto focal length, the softer the background becomes. For this very reason, telephoto lenses are often used to produce portraits with very soft, buttery backgrounds, creating a wonderful separation between subject and background.

portrait created with a 300mm telephoto lens
portrait created with a 300mm telephoto lens in a grassy meadow

The third creative technique for which I employ a telephoto lens is compression. 

Unlike a wide angle lens, which creates a feeling of greater depth in a scene, a telephoto lens has the ability to pull the distant components of a scene closer to the foreground subjects, compressing the distance between near and far objects. I find this technique especially powerful for visually linking two distant subjects into a single storyline.

A 300mm telephoto lens was used to connect the ruins of an ancient pueblo in Wupatki National Monument, see the featured image above, with the distant San Francisco Peaks near Flagstaff, Arizona. The San Francisco Peaks are one of four peaks in this part of the Southwest considered sacred to the Navajo and other Native American groups. Located many miles apart, the long telephoto compressed the scene, producing a dramatic image with a strong storyline connecting the two sites.

Golden Gate Bridge photographed with a 70-200mm zoom lens
Golden Gate Bridge photographed at 200mm setting with a 70-200mm zoom lens

Use a telephoto lens to combine the Golden Gate Bridge and the skyline of San Francisco or a snowy Sierra Nevada Mountains Peak and the Alabama Hills framing the foreground. In each case, compressing the distance between near and far subjects creates the dramatic visual storyline that we strive to produce.

Sierra Nevada Mountains was photographed with a 300mm telephoto lens
Sierra Nevada Mountains with Alabama Hills in foreground was photographed with a 300mm telephoto lens

Next time you are out shooting with your telephoto lens, keep in mind that your lens can do much more than just reach out to capture a subject. Open your aperture to its widest setting and try separating your subject from the background with shallow depth of field. 

And don’t forget the compression effect. Line up two distant but related objects in your frame and stop down the aperture for maximum depth of field. Use your telephoto’s ability to compress a scene and create a unique storyline.

If you are only using your telephoto to reach out to a subject, you are missing out on much of the potential of that lens. Try these techniques to expand the creative possibilities of these long lenses. You may be surprised at what you can create.

 


Forced perspective wide angle lens image

3 Exciting Ways To Use Wide Angle Camera Lenses To Capture The Adventure Of Life

My favorite lens is my 24mm-70mm f2.8 Canon Zoom Lens. I use it to create a vast majority of my images and often shoot at either end of its zoom range. It’s my “walking around” lens and the most versatile lens that I own. I tend to keep it set on a wide angle setting which I use more often than the longer focal lengths. Wide angle images are just more fun.

Vineyard photographed with a 24mm wide angle lens at sunrise.
Vineyard photographed with a 24mm wide angle lens at sunrise.

I work with full-chip bodies, meaning the sensor is the same size as original 35mm film, and a normal focal length lens on my camera is 50mm. This covers the same angle of view as human vision and anything with a wider angle of view is considered a wide angle lens. If you shoot a small-chip body, a normal lens is more like 38mm and anything wider is a wide angle lens.

Scenic 24mm wide angle lens image of Monte Alban Archeological Zone
Scenic 24mm wide angle lens image of Monte Alban Archeological Zone near Oaxaca, Mexico, during a storm.

OK. That gets rid of the technical definitions.

Personally, I don’t care about the technology. Everything in photography seems like magic to me. I only care that my equipment gives me the results that I visualized before hitting the shutter button. 

Vista Landscape Arch in Arches National Park, Utah, using a 28mm wide angle lens.
Vista of Landscape Arch in Arches National Park, Utah, using a 28mm wide angle lens.

Wide angle lenses do just what their name implies—they capture a wider angle of view than we can see without moving our head. The only part of this that captures my attention is how can that unique ability of the lens help me to create images with impact and a meaningful storyline? That’s all that matters, right? Let’s see what we can do.

You can break wide angle images down into 3 broad categories with the first being the most obvious—the sweeping scenic. 

28mm wide angle lens view of Badwater
28mm wide angle lens view of Badwater and the Panamint Range at sunrise, Death Valley National Park, California

Broad natural vistas such as National Park Viewing Points make beautiful wide angle images. The park terrain and features are dramatic and a wide angle zoom lens allows us to capture as much of the vista as we want. Add in great lighting or weather events and you have a great image. The same can be said for city views or even cloud patterns or lightning storms. This is often the first subject photographer’s capture using a wide angle lens.

28mmn wide angle lens is used to capture Island In The Sky
28mmn wide angle lens is used to capture Island In The Sky mesa at sunset, Canyonlands National Park, Utah

Because wide angle lenses have “built in” depth of field and most objects are distant in a scenic, it isn’t necessary to stop down very far to get everything in focus. This is another advantage of these lenses.

Scenics, however, are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to wide angle images.

A wide angle lens makes it possible to in tight spaces
A wide angle lens makes it possible to shoot inside of a hot air balloon.

Shooting in either a tight space, such as inside a hot air balloon, or in a situation where you can’t back up, such as a church plaza in a city in Mexico, often calls for a wide angle lens. This situation is especially common in architecture where it is often necessary to stop down your aperture further to get greater depth of field to keep everything sharp. 

Photographing a church plaza in Mexico with a wide angle lens.
Photographing a church plaza in Guanajuato, Mexico with a wide angle lens.

Another consideration is convergence. If you can keep your camera lens horizontal, vertical lines run straight up and down, but if you have to tilt your lens up slightly to capture the tops of buildings, vertical lines will converge. 

If this leaning in of buildings is too extreme, then it feels like the buildings are going to fall in on the viewer. Unless that is the effect you want, going to a wider focal length with its wider angle of view and stepping back a ways allows you to lower your lens into a more horizontal position reducing the effect of convergence. Conversely, if I am shooting down on a structure, like a huge multi-storied shopping mall in China, vertical lines will spread apart or diverge.

Shooting down on a mall with a wide angle lens
Shooting down on a mall with a wide angle lens in Guangzhou, China, creates divergence.

My favorite use of a wide angle lens involves the distortion properties of that type of lens. This is where a wide angle is really fun!

Forced perspective view of steam engines
Forced perspective view of steam engines at Golden Spike National Historic Site is created with a 28mm lens.

Forced perspective creates the illusion that a viewer can just about reach out and touch the foreground subject. This is especially effective in landscape photography, where desert wildflowers become huge in the foreground, or architecture, where the nearest structure becomes monumental relative to the rest of the scene. 

24mm image of dune primrose in desert.
24mm image of dune primrose in desert.

Forced Perspective is a powerful storytelling tool that I use often for impact and content.

Depth of field has a big impact in this kind of image. It is critical to pick the proper point of focus and stop down all the way to get maximum depth of field. Everything should be sharp, but especially the foreground subject. By exaggerating the wide angle distortion, you are telling a viewer that the foreground is the most important part of the image. Make sure you pick a dramatic foreground structure to support this effect. 

Victorian front porches are captured with a 24mm wide angle lens
Victorian front porches are captured with a 24mm wide angle lens positioned horizontally creating parallel vertical lines.

Practically every camera out there comes with a wide angle to short telephoto zoom lens. The wide angle range is much more than a tool to capture wide open spaces. Use it to create a sense of great depth or produce an image with a dramatic foreground. Work with the distortion and pump up the impact of your images. That is why wide angle lenses are fun, and in my view fun is the whole point of photography.

Try it out!