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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
- 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!