The Telephoto Lens in Portraiture and Art
When doing portraits of people—especially when they are Paying YOU—it’s important that they not be unattractively distorted. In portraiture I also use distortion, but it’s the kind that makes people look good—especially groups—Compression Distortion. This is the speciality of telephoto lenses.
I don’t use Wide Angle Lenses for traditional portraits because for adequate head sizes, using a wide angle lens, you must move in close to the subject(s), which causes very unattractive extinction distortion—especially in groups. All lenses distort in some way—but this type of distortion where the closest part of your subject to the lens becomes unnaturally larger happens naturally with all lenses, however, short lenses will amplify this effect. In group portraits where you have two or more rows of people a short lens will increase the head sizes (and body mass) of those in front and decrease head sizes of the people behind. To control this distortion I use the most telephoto I can given the room I have on my location. Telephoto lenses force you to back away from the group and the perspective change equalizes head sizes front to back.
My Go-To Focal Length for Portraits
Groups: 135mm to 150mm
Individuals: 200mm to 300mm
You may ask, What is a Wide Angle Lens? I consider 50mm and anything wider pretty much off limits for traditional portraits. I don’t even own a 50mm lens and haven’t had one for over 40 years! I did have one of the fad 85mm, f1.2, lenses for a year (when we were doing weddings) and sold it finding it merely a wimpy telephoto. When I want telephoto I usually want 200mm or more!
The other affect the telephoto gives me, that a “normal” or wide angle can’t is good depth-of-field, at wider apertures, while also creating nice out-of-focus (Bokeh) backgrounds.
f5.0 @ 1/400 sec., ISO 400; Lens @ 200mm
Here I have three subjects in layers (a near horse, the girl, and a horse behind her) and because I’m really backed-off, using my 200mm lens, the relatively wide aperture of f5.0 is giving me enough depth-of-field for this group and still knocking my background nicely out-of-focus.
Portraits of Individuals
My priority is always creating enough depth-of-field on all portraits to keep every persons’ entire head sharp. I find it distracting and unnatural when I see a portrait where the person has only One Sharp Eye or if the mask of their face is sharp, but their ears are soft because the photographer used too wide an aperture (like f2.8, 1.4 or 1.2) and made it worse by using a 50mm or wider lens!
Therefore, my preferred aperture on individuals is f4.5 to give me adequate depth-of-field, which when used with my lens at 200-300mm will still give me good background “Bokeh”.
f4.5 @ 1/200 sec., ISO 800; Lens @ 200mm
As you can see she’s completely sharp because I’m backed-off using my lens at 200mm, which gives me more depth-of-field than if I was in close using say a 50mm at the same aperture.
TECH NOTE: Did you know that by merely backing-up 10 feet you can Double your depth-of-field?
Great Bokeh at Small Apertures?
Getting great Bokeh is about more than just using wide apertures. In fact, you can get Larger Bokeh circles with more telephoto, at the same aperture, than with a “nifty-fifty”. Bokeh is more about the distance between your subject and the background. Keeping your subject, say 20-30 feet, away from their background is what defocuses everything so nicely.
NOTE: If you want really great Bokeh always have your background Back-Lit. Specular highlights in the background make the best Bokeh.
f8.0 @ 1/1000 sec., ISO 400; lens @ 200mm
Great Bokeh at f8.0 is possible with a longer lens (in this case 200mm). In addition my telephoto’s compression effect is pushing my subject (the leaf) into the background and yet there’s great separation between the two elements because the background is so defocused.
Telephoto for Landscape?
Aside from Ansel Adams there have been few photographers that could pull-off the huge landscape with a wide angle lens. And even then it took a genius in post-capture manipulation to make it work. So, what’s left for us mere mortal photographers to do? I do pieces of landscapes; I carve-up scenes with my telephoto often taking vertical slices of the usual horizontal view.
f9.0 @ 1/250 sec., ISO 800; lens @ 200mm
In this image, taken from our balcony, on one of our cruises, in the Caribbean the clouds over the sunset were the best compliment to that orange ball sinking into the ocean. So, I went vertical for a more dramatic composition.
In Part 3 I’ll show some creative wide angle (still slicing up scenes!) of architecture and icicles as art. ’Tis next week…
Author: Jerry W. Venz, PPA Master Photographer, Craftsman
Training site: http://www.LightAtTheEdge.com
Client site: http://www.TheStorytellersUsa.com
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