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Photography Tips: What Lens Do You Use? | AZ Portrait Photographer

Michelle
October 21, 2018

Photography Tips

I’m here to help and am always willing to answer questions. There are no dumb questions, trust me, I’ve asked them all. What may seem like common sense to some is new to someone else no matter how long you’ve been shooting! Today I’m just gonna ramble a little about some basics and see what happens!

What Lens Do You Use?

Oh boy is this a loaded question! It is by far the most asked question that I get from both hobbyist and professional photographers. The answer is easy to give, but much harder to put into practice. Let’s start with the easy answer. What’s in my bag?

  • Canon 5D Mark III
  • Canon 70-200mm 2.8L
  • Canon 28mm 2.8
  • Canon 85mm 2.8
  • Canon 24-70mm 2.8L
  • Sigma 15mm 2.8

Clear as mud, right? I went through exactly the same thing! I used to get so frustrated when I’d ask and the photographer would reply with “well, what are you trying to do?” Uhhhh, get awesome pix like you? LOL! No joke, we all thought like that as beginners and we are ALL beginners at some point! Worse yet I would ask and they’d tell me. I had asked for a great lens for sports and bought my 70-200mm 2.8L which I bought in 2009 and is still my baby. Over the years I took portrait classes and one webinar in particular really had me stumped. I had the same camera and same lens, but VERY different results.  Mine were, well, not great. Hers were amazing! Then I started to notice something. While we were both using the 70-200mm lens, my focal length was all over the place. Hers was at 200mm nearly all the time.

So What? Bokeh vs Compression

So think of focal length as if you stand in one spot facing your house. The smaller the focal length, the more of your house you’re going to get in the frame. Nearly everything will be in focus, due to the compression (or lack thereof). Just stick with me and stash that in your brain for now.  Everyone seems to think that bokeh produces those beautiful creamy images, and that is one part but not the whole picture, so to speak. So now go stand in front of your house using an 85mm. You’re gonna get maybe half of your house. Next, use a 70-200mm lens, 135mm, or long focal length. If you’re still standing on the sidewalk, you’re likely get a window and front door. Why? Because of the compression.

Now let’s put that into practice. For years I shot all my sessions with my 70-200mm getting nice portraits and creamy backgrounds. This image was taken with the 70-200mm at a focal length of 140mm. All that color behind him? That’s sun and trees at Tumbleweed park. All compressed into a gorgeous, creamy background.

Photography Tips Mesa AZ

Too many photographers think that creamy backgrounds come from shooting wide open with an aperture of f/2.8. That’s only part of the equation and honestly, that thinking will often result in one eye that’s in focus and another that’s out of focus. Again, speaking from experience.  So in order to get a shot like Jalen’s and get that creamy background, I knew I needed to use a long focal length. So this was taken with a focal length of 140mm and an aperture of f/4. Not even f/2.8! I could have closed down even more if necessary and still had this compressed background. Say for example, if Jalen’s parents were standing behind him. I’d want them in focus too, so I probably would have closed down to f/5.6 and adjusted the shutter speed and/or ISO accordingly.

When I’m with a client, I keep my 70-200mm lens on most of the time. It’s an amazing portrait lens!  So here’s Adrienne which was also shot with the 70-200mm lens, but this time at a focal length of 75mm and an aperture of f/4. See the difference? Still get the upper body, but the background isn’t all compressed. You can see the lake and tall grass, get some sense of the surrounding and Adrienne still fills a good part of the frame.

Photography Tips Mesa AZ

Now let’s get serious. What happens when you want those gorgeous eyelash shots and you want all the lashes in focus? Well, following the thought that shooting wide open will give beautiful bokeh just doesn’t work in this case. This is really the perfect example of using the right lens to get the background compression but still keep your subject in focus. This image was taken with the same lens, focal length set to 110mm, and an aperture of f/4.5! Yep, 4.5 not 1.8 or 2.8. If I had used my 85mm @ f/1.8 the result would have been very different. See, she’s not perfectly straight. Think of aperture as a thickness, like a piece of glass. Using an aperture of f/1.8 would have resulted in one eye being more in focus or her eyes being in focus but not her nose.

Senior Pictures Photography Tips Mesa, AZ

Wide Angle Lens

Now let’s jump to the shorter focal lengths. This image was shot with a 28mm lens because I wanted the full picture. I wanted the background, the water, and the surroundings. Using this lens, I can be pretty close to my senior and still capture all of this. I could have easily been sitting in this exact same spot shooting, changed to the 70-200mm lens and taken a closeup of Adrienne! What would have happened? All that tall grass behind her would have been compressed. Results might not have been ideal due to the lighting, but that’s a post for another day.

Top photographer in Chandler, AZ offers beautiful outdoor photo shoots by the water.

Let’s get out away from the pretty backgrounds into urban downtown Phoenix. This image was also taken with a 28mm focal length. Notice how I got everything in the frame and was able to make Mercy take up a good part of the frame but still fit in all the urban landscape.

Downtown Phoenix Senior Photographer SunFlare

What lens do you use?

Let’s get back to the original question and answer. The answer is, it depends what I’m shooting and the look I’m going for.

When you might use a wide angle lens or short focal length, like a 28mm:

  • Want a large area
  • Landscapes
  • Tall buildings
  • Urban areas
  • Lots of surroundings

For me, 28mm let’s me get these fun shots like the one of Mercy. It let’s me catch gymnasts jumping or a football player throwing a football and I want to capture a lot of the field and stands. It also lets me create the illusion of something being larger or bolder, like a car. The closer you get, the more distortion you get. Play with it! Wide angle lenses can really bring variety to your portfolio!

When you might use a long lens and long focal length, like a 70-200mm:

  • Don’t love the background and want to blur it out
  • Headshots without distracting surroundings
  • You want the texture but want the focus on your subject
  • Creamy backgrounds

My 70-200mm is still my go-to lens for portraits. I get great headshots and people are always requesting those “gorgeous blurry backgrounds.”  It also lets me get further away so I’m not right in someone’s face. The downside of course, for those of you who have worked with me, is that I have to back up. Then back up more. And then back up a little more to get everything in the frame!

Next time we’ll talk a little more about aperture and bokeh. Have more questions or need clarification? Shoot me an email!

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Senior Photos Michelle Robetson

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14 Comments

  1. love this post. I’ll be saving this for later as well. Thank you

    Reply
    • You’re welcome! I tried to write it from the perspective that would have helped me when I was learning.

      Reply
  2. Awesome blog! I’m a Canon gal myself. Can’t live without my Sigma 50mm though 😉

    Reply
    • Oh yes, there are tons of amazing lenses out there! I’m looking into a Sigma Art myself, just not sure which one I “need” yet! LOL!

      Reply
  3. Your work is gorgeous! I love that you took the time to explain different lens choices when photographing a session!

    Reply
    • Thanks Susan! I hope it helps!

      Reply
  4. Nice writing, helpful information.

    Reply
  5. Love these tips! Very good explanation of how to get that creamy bokeh!

    Reply
    • I remember being so frustrated by this so I’m really hoping it helps explain it in another way!

      Reply
  6. This is a great article, so full of awesome information. Thanks for sharing!

    Reply
    • You’re welcome!

      Reply
  7. Wonderful examples! Lovely warm vibe I get from the way the piece is written too. Friendly tone.

    I’m a hobbyist photographer/videographer who has recently gone from prime lenses to zoom lenses and this advice is invaluable. I was falling into the “shoot wide open with ND filter” trap thinking that was the only way to get convincing bokeh but you just proved me wrong Michelle.

    What I also really like is seeing someone other than me embrace lens flares, too, and use them to add interest to already great looking shots. This is why I love vintage manual lenses and have several – the flares, the vignetting, the colour fringing. Modern photography lenses are great but I love the artifacts of the older ones, pincushioning and all, leaving 200mm shots uncorrected etc. I think more people should embrace that for a natural, rawer look rather than retouching everything because it looks great.

    Reply
    • Gary, you made my morning with your comments! I’m so glad you found this helpful. It just didn’t click with me when I first started and seemed like it took forever, but now I love it. Using one lens is just, well, boring! If you learn to use multiple lenses and when to use them for a desired effect, your portfolio becomes so much better! Hope you stop by again soon! I’d love to see your work!

      Reply

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