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.

 


Line of margaritas with soft background

Shallow Depth Of Field—Photography’s Most Powerful Technique

Text and Photos by Chuck Place

It has always seemed ironic to me that, as a professional photographer, the technique I use most often is something I can not see with my own eyes. Shallow depth of field is a product of camera optics and I can only “see” it as I previsualize an image and on the back of my camera, of course, after I shoot.

Powwow dancer photographed with shallow depth of field
Powwow dancer photographed with shallow depth of field

Shallow depth of field is such a powerful effect that I carry my camera with the lens set to f2.8, no matter what focal length lens I have mounted on my camera. I can always stop down the aperture for more depth of field if I need it—see my previous post—but most of the subjects I like to photograph appear best with shallow depth of field. People, food, flowers, wine—they all “pop” with shallow depth of field. 

Let’s start with “Why” we would use shallow depth of field and then get to the “How To”.

Shallow depth of field separates a vendor from the background
Shallow depth of field separates a vendor from the background of a busy Farmers Market

Shallow depth of field is used to separate our main subject from the background and sometimes even from the foreground. This sharply defined subject forces our viewers to focus on our main subject first and understand that the softly focused environment is secondary in importance to our main subject. It helps create a visual storyline, something I strive to create in all my images. 

If everything in the frame is sharp due to great depth of field, as in a landscape, a viewer tends to wander around the image visually and decides for themselves what is important and what isn’t. Leading lines and forced perspective can guide the viewer to some extent, but the photographer is telling their viewers that everything in the frame has equal importance. 

It all depends on your storyline!

Shallow depth of field portrait of a young kitten sleeping
Very shallow depth of field portrait of a young kitten sleeping on a chair

The first step in creating shallow depth of field is setting your lens to a wide aperture or f-stop. F2.8 to f4 or so will do the job and because these settings let in lots of light, a fast shutter speed is often necessary for a proper exposure. This is a bonus when photographing people, wildlife or sports.  

Snowy egrets photographed with a 300mm lens at f2.8
Snowy egrets photographed with a 300mm lens at f2.8

Shooting a longer focal length lens also help soften the background behind your subject. The longer the lens, the softer the background becomes. Keep in mind that wide angle lenses have built in depth of field and it is pretty tough to do a wide angle shot with shallow depth of field, even with your aperture wide open.

Orchids photographed with a 100mm macro lens at f2.8
Orchids photographed with a 100mm macro lens at f2.8

The last step is rather counter-intuitive but makes sense if you think it through. Move closer to your subject. As the camera to subject distance gets shorter, the camera to background distance becomes relatively greater and the background becomes softer. Try it and see. Keep in mind the focal length should remain the same and because of that you will need to crop tighter on your subject as you move closer.

Roasted chicken photographed with very shallow depth of field
Roasted chicken photographed with very shallow depth of field to separate it from the background dish

There you have it. For sharp subjects with soft, buttery backgrounds, open your aperture wide, shoot with a longer focal length lens and move closer to your subject. 

Whether you are photographing people portraits at a busy Farmer’s Market, creating the perfect image of a margarita in a crowded restaurant or capturing an intimate moment with the kitten your kids just brought home, shallow depth of field pulls your main subject out of the background with great visual  impact.  

Don’t you wish your own eyes could work that way? Give it time. They will.


When You Want It All–3 Steps To Maximize Depth Of Field

Text and Photos by Chuck Place

Back in the day when my students actually shot on location together, pre-virus, discussions on depth of field were a continual topic. This was partly because some my students had just moved away from full camera automation, the dreaded “P” setting for Program, and had tasked themselves with taking control of their camera. Using the class  recommended “Av” or “A” setting, Aperture Priority, photographers have to manually set the aperture, or f-stop, and the camera picks the shutter speed for the exposure. The “A” setting not only controls exposure but also depth of field and that is where the confusion often erupted.

Keet Seel Ruins, Anasazi Indian, Navajo National Monument, Arizona

Now, if you have ever taken one of my classes, you know I stress the need to create a storyline with each image we create. Photography provides a wide range of tools with which to fine tune our storyline, including light quality, composition, lens focal length and many others. Arguably the most powerful tool in our shop, however, is the ability to control depth of field.

Depth of field is defined as the area of an image in front of and behind the plane of focus that is sharp. By changing the aperture setting, or f-stop, we control how much of our image is sharp and how much is soft. Because sharp detail is one of the components of an image that attracts a viewer’s attention first, this ability to guide the viewer’s eye gives photographers a powerful tool with which to show an audience what we feel is the most important aspect of an image. Every photographic decision we make impacts our storyline.

Spanish Church of San Buenaventura, Gran Quivira, Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument, New Mexico, United States of America

So, why would you want to make sure everything in your image is sharp? Landscapes are a popular subject where pretty much everything in the image has equal value, from the foreground to the background. Composition may be used to emphasize some component of the scene, but if everything is sharp, the photographer is indicating to the viewer that every aspect of the scene is equally important. Architecture is often handled the same way.

Mission Santa Barbara and the Rose Garden, Santa Barbara, California

Maybe you have a subject within a larger environment. If everything is sharp, you are telling the viewer that both the main subject and the environment are equally important to your storyline.

Let’s look at the 3 techniques we use to create extreme depth of field.

#1 The first, and most obvious step, is stopping down the lens aperture. Remember how apertures work? The higher the aperture number, say f-16 to f-22, gives you the smallest lens opening and the greatest depth of field. This is why we need to take over setting the aperture on our camera so that we can control the amount of depth of field created by our aperture or f-stop setting. In this case, stopping down to f-22 gives us lots of depth.

Piedras Blancas Light Station, San Simeon, California

#2 The second step is choosing a lens focal length. Wide angle lenses have depth built in and the wider the lens, the greater the built-in depth of field. This is not to say that a normal or telephoto lens can not achieve extreme depth, but a wide angle lens can achieve this depth even at midrange aperture settings of f-8 or so.

cow skull on The Racetrack, Death Valley National Park, California

#3 The third step is a little trickier to understand. The greater the camera to subject distance, the easier it is to achieve great depth of field. As you move farther from your main subject, the difference between camera to subject distance and camera to background distance becomes less, making it easier to get maximum depth of field. If you move closer to your main subject, the difference between the two distances becomes greater and both smaller aperture and wider lens may be necessary to achievee the proper depth.

Santa Ynez Valley, California

There you have it. The three tools for creating extensive depth of field in an image are smaller lens aperture, wider focal length lens and greater camera to subject distance. But remember, you need a reason to keep your background as sharp as your subject. Know what you want to say about a subject or location and then create the necessary amount of depth of field. This is a fluid system in which depth of field is almost always your first decision. Take control by setting your camera to “A “ or “Av”, Aperture Priority, and set your lens aperture appropriately. All of this is just a bunch of words, of course, until you set your camera to “A” and start adjusting your depth of field as you shoot.

“You don’t take a photograph. You make it.” Ansel Adams

Our next post will be geared towards creating shallow depth of field, a great technique for separating your subject from the background. Coming soon.


Sunsets are often underexposed when shooting in Aperture Priority exposure setting.

Aperture Priority–The Auto Exposure For Photographers

Text and Photography by Chuck Place

I almost always have my camera set to “Manual” exposure. I admit it. I’m a “Manual” snob. Taking full control of my camera’s shutter speed and aperture, or f-stop, gives me perfect exposures no matter the subject or the lighting.

Making the leap from “Program”, where the camera makes all the exposure decisions, to full “Manual”, where the photographer is in charge, is a big step however. Let’s face it, “M”, or “Manual”, can be rather intimidating.

Are all the auto-exposure settings a waste of time? No, of course not, but one is better than the others.

Back lighting for Aperture Priority exposure of sailboarding

Back lighting of sailboarder in Aperture Priority exposure can be tricky.

Let’s break down exposure. Assuming a proper exposure is the final result, shutter speed usually just needs to be fast enough to produce a sharp subject. Whether 1/500, 1/1000 or 1/2000—they all will look the same, assuming you aren’t photographing a hummingbird. Shutter speed is generally used to freeze motion—and give you a proper exposure, of course.

Set Aperture Priority exposure for great depth of field in landscapes

Set Aperture Priority exposure for great depth of field in landscapes

Aperture settings, or the f-stop, also control exposure, but determine depth of field in an image as well. Depth of field, or how much of the image in front of and behind the plane of focus is sharp, is one of the most powerful tools in photography. Changing from great depth of field to very shallow depth of field completely changes how a viewer “reads” your photograph. The storyline of an image changes dramatically with a change in depth of field.

Aperture Priority works well for dusk images

Aperture Priority works well for dusk images but a tripod may be necessary for the long exposures.

Aperture, or f-stop, is the exposure setting that a photographer must control absolutely!

Conveniently, there is an auto-exposure setting on most cameras that allows a photographer to set the proper depth of field while the camera picks the appropriate shutter speed for a correct exposure—“A” or “Aperture Priority”.

Photographing people often requires shallow depth of field to separate the subject from the background.

Photographing people often requires shallow depth of field to separate the subject from the background.

If you want to separate your subject from the background of an image, set your aperture, or f-stop, to a wide opening of f2.8 to f5.6 for a shallow depth of field. Conversely, if the background or environment is as important as the subject, pick an f-stop that creates greater depth of field, say f16 or f22. The photographer must make the decision on how much depth of field is appropriate, then the camera picks the shutter speed to create a proper exposure.

Aperture Priority for travel subjects

The Aperture Priority exposure setting is perfect for travel photography under changing light.

“Aperture Priority” is especially useful in situations where the lighting changes quickly, like sports, weddings, travel, concerts and street photography. It’s fast and eliminates half the work of “Manual” exposure.

Is it foolproof? Well, no.

Pick shallow depth of field for food shots using Aperture Priority exposure settings

Pick shallow depth of field for food shots using Aperture Priority exposure settings

Your camera may still underexpose sunsets like the one above, light-colored buildings and backlit subjects just like it did on “P”. Much of the time, however, the exposures will be great and each image will have the depth of field that you want, rather than what the camera “thinks” is correct.

Even in the tricky lighting environments listed above, the exposure will be close and can be corrected in post-production. Not that I advocate fixing everything in post—quite the opposite—but the “A” exposure setting makes setting exposure relatively fast and painless. Take control but make it easy. Shoot in Aperture Priority and relax!


Forced perspective photograph of Taos Indian Pueblo

Forced Perspective: Add Drama And Depth To Your Photographs

Text and Photography by Chuck Place

Standing in the middle of Taos Pueblo, I was trying to decide how I would photograph the impressive five-story North Building. I knew I would use a technique called Forced Perspective to emphasize the scale of the building and create an exaggerated feeling of depth in the image. Ideally, the photograph would also illustrate the materials used to build this ancient pueblo—mud and straw.

Forced Perspective is a two-step process. First determine your main subject, in this case the North Building of Taos Pueblo. That’s the easy part. The next step involves picking a foreground subject that gives the viewer more information about the main subject and creates a strong sense of depth between the two.

That can take some searching.

Forced perspective photograph of fall aspen grove

Forced perspective photograph of fall aspen grove on San Francisco Peaks, Arizona

I settled on a large outdoor oven, or horno, to provide the foreground. Sunlight lit the oven from the side, emphasizing the texture of the mud and straw adobe used to build the entire pueblo. Placing my camera with a wide angle lens close to the oven made it look larger than it really is and made the North Building look smaller than it does to the naked eye.

Forced perspective photograph of Wukoki Ruins

Forced perspective photograph of Wupatki National Monument, Arizona

This wide angle distortion is at the core of this technique, producing a greater appearance of depth in the scene than actually exists. Stopping down the lens to its smallest aperture guaranteed everything from front to back is sharply focused.

This technique works equally well with landscapes.

Decide what your main subject will be, say a grove of fall aspen trees with the late afternoon sun shining through. Then move around until you find an interesting foreground, in this case a fallen aspen log in a meadow. Position your camera close to the log and stop down your aperture all the way for great depth of field. In this case, in addition to creating a feeling of great depth, the log also produced a leading line that our audience could follow visually back into the scene while backlighting emphasized the glowing colors of the fall aspen leaves.

See earlier posts on Leading LinesBacklighting and the compositional Rule Of Thirds.

 

Forced perspective photograph of brittlebush flowers

Forced perspective photograph of brittlebush flowers and cholla cactus, Joshua Tree National Park, California

One last tip.

Because your camera is positioned close to your foreground subject, move your plane of focus a little closer to camera position than you normally would. Make sure the foreground is tack sharp. If the distant background is a little soft, it looks like atmosphere. If the foreground is soft, the image should probably be tossed in the trash. Check focus on your camera back when you shoot, just to be sure.

Forced perspective photograph of sand dunes

Forced perspective photograph of sand dunes, Death Valley National Park, California

Forced Perspective takes a little practice, but it’s a great technique for creating powerful, dynamic images with an exaggerated sense of depth. Try it next time you’re photographing architecture or landscapes. I’m sure you will be pleasantly surprised by the results.


Focus stacked portrait of a lobster fisherman

Control A Photograph’s Depth Of Field With Simple Focus Stacking

Text and Photography by Chuck Place

The commercial fisherman was having a tough time holding up the struggling lobster. It was constantly trying to grab him with the sharp points at the end of each leg. In order to avoid being clawed by the large lobster, the fisherman was holding it out in front of him and that was a real problem for the image I had pre-visualized.

I was photographing a portrait of a commercial lobster fisherman at the Fisherman’s Market in Santa Barbara for a book on local cuisine. It was a foggy morning and I wanted to shoot using a shallow depth of field so that the commercial fishing boats and pier behind my subjects were softly out of focus. In order to separate my subjects even more from the background, I had lit my subjects with a warm, diffused flash.

Everything fell into place—except the lobster. With an aperture setting of f5.6, either the fisherman’s face would be sharp or the lobster would be sharp. If I wanted a soft background, I couldn’t stop down the aperture further and seemed to be stuck with only one of my two subjects being sharply focused.

I used a solution called focus stacking. Making sure that I had frames where the focus on the fisherman’s face was sharp and others where the lobster is sharp, I didn’t change exposure or composition. I merely shifted the focus slightly. This had to be done quickly so that the lobster and fisherman were in pretty much the same position, or in register, in matching images.

Back at my computer, I layered the two shots in Photoshop with the sharp fisherman on top. Setting up a mask on that top layer, I painted out the soft lobster with black, letting the sharp lobster below show through. Flattening the two layers gave me a sharply focused lobster in front of a sharply focused fisherman, all with a soft background created by a shallow depth of field at an f5.6 aperture setting.

Focus stacked photo of bass fishermen on a lake.

Focus stacked photo of bass fishermen on a lake.

Although focus stacking is usually used in macro work, where an extended depth of field is impossible with a single frame, I have found it extremely useful for controlling depth of field in a number of situations where I wanted either shallow depth of field or greater depth of field.

The image of the bass fishermen on Lake Cachuma is an example of layering two images, one focused on the fishermen and one focused on the mountainous background, to give me an image with great depth. Sure, I could have stopped down my lens for greater depth of field, but I had managed to forget my tripod that morning and shooting a 300mm lens hand-held required a wide-open aperture for a fast shutter speed and sharp subjects. Sometimes focus stacking helps me correct rather foolish mistakes. I must have missed my coffee that morning.

All types of focus stacking software can be found with a quick search on-line and some photographers stack multiple frames of the same subject to achieve startling depth and detail in a single image. It’s also a tool that can be applied in subtle ways using simple layering in Photoshop. Experiment with it and see if it doesn’t help in controlling depth of field and producing images that are impossible to capture in a single frame. Remember–mastering post-production tools will expand the photographic possibilities exponentially. As in the days of black and white negatives, digital image capture is only half the journey to a final image. Post-production is the other half. Have fun.


Portrait of San Juan Pueblo Deer Dancers

How To Manipulate Depth Of Field For Spectacular Portraits

Text and Photos by Chuck Place

During my years as a photography instructor, I have seen many great location portraits produced by my students. Great expression, nice lighting—they should be beautiful portraits, except for one major problem. The foreground, subject and background are all sharp. The images are so busy that the subject is overwhelmed by the surrounding details. It’s difficult for the viewer to know whether the subject or the location is the most important part of the photograph.

I think of this as the point-and-shoot camera effect where everything is in sharp focus.

There are subjects where everything in the frame should be sharp, such as the portrait of a Victorian couple in front of a Victorian building below, but portraits usually benefit from a shallow depth of field. Depth of field is defined as the area in front of and behind the plane of focus that is acceptably sharp. Human vision can’t actually see shallow depth of field. It’s an optical effect.

Portrait of Victorian couple, Cape May, New Jersey

Portrait of Victorian couple, Cape May, New Jersey, 28mm lens, f8 aperture

Shallow depth of field, however, is one of the most powerful tools in photography for separating a subject from its background. By capturing a sharp subject and letting the background go soft, you are telling the viewer of your image what is most important and what is less important. It’s a relatively simply effect to achieve, but you must take control of your camera and get away from letting your camera make photo decisions for you.

Portrait of vendor at Farmers Market

Portrait of vendor selling strawberries and lettuce, Farmer’s Market, 70mm lens, f2.8 aperture

First, set your camera to full Manual or at least Aperture Priority. The aperture, or f-stop, controls depth of field by changing the size of the opening in your lens. High f-stops numbers, like f16 or f22, create a tiny opening and lots of depth of field. A small f-stop number, f2.8 or f4, creates a large opening, or aperture, producing very shallow depth of field.

I know. It would be nice if big aperture numbers created big openings and small aperture numbers created small openings, but it’s the reverse. Blame the optical engineers. Maybe the easiest way to remember this is small f-stop, or aperture, numbers give you the least depth of field and higher numbers give the greatest depth of field. Once you start using this technique, it will quickly become second nature.

Portrait of young woman

Portrait of young woman, 100mm lens, f2.8 aperture

The lens aperture setting is not the only way to produce shallow depth of field in a photograph, however. The longer the focal length of a lens, the easier it is to get a sharp subject with a soft background as seem in the featured image of Deer Dancers above. A short telephoto has traditionally been the preferred portrait lens partly because of this ability to produce a soft background. A longer telephoto will produce an even softer background, making it easy to separate your subject from the background clutter. A wide angle lens, on the other hand, makes it difficult to soften your background.

Portrait of young Hispanic woman with flowers

Portrait of young Hispanic woman with flowers, 300mm lens, f2.8 aperture

 

One other technique for achieving shallow depth of field is moving the camera closer to your subject. It gets a little techie here. This is all about the relationship between camera to subject distance and camera to background distance. As you move the camera closer to your subject, the relative difference between subject distance and background distance becomes greater, producing a softer background. Check out this Depth Of Field Calculator, at http://www.dofmaster.com/dofjs.html, to see the effects of f-stop, focal length and subject distance on depth of field. Change the lens focal length and f-stop to see how depth of field changes.

Portrait of traditional powwow dancer

Portrait of traditional powwow dancer, 200mm lens, f2.8 aperture

If you are like me, all of this technical stuff gives you the shivers, but it’s all good to know. As a working professional, I tend to walk around with my lens aperture “wide open” or set for shallow depth of field. I shoot many subjects, from people to sports and even food, with a shallow depth of field. I need a reason to “stop down” my aperture and create great depth of field. When you have to tell a story with each image, shallow depth of field makes it easy to show viewers what is the most important subject in an image and what is secondary—usually the background. This approach keeps things simple and takes control of this powerful tool away from the camera. Your camera is, after all, just a computer with a lens hanging off it. The best camera is the one inside your head. Control depth of field and rule your world—photographically speaking.

For more on posing subjects for portraits, see our earlier post “Shy Photographer’s Guide To Putting People At Ease”.