Wide Angle vs Telephoto Lens

No matter what lens you have on your camera, you can take full advantage of it once you understand certain basic attributes of lenses. Whether it is a wide angle lens or a telephoto lens, knowing how to take full advantage of it can make for incredible photographs. The key, if limited to one lens is to get into what I call, the “Pre-Visual Mindset” of that lens.

A good example of this is, when I was in college, I changed from Pentax to Canon cameras.  Since I was a student, I could only afford 1 lens for the new camera body that I had bought, while working at a well know camera chain.  It took a while to decide what type of lens would offer me a large enough range of visual adaptations that I could shoot most anything with it.  I decided on a wide angle lens.  Not just wide but very wide…a 24mm.

I figured that a 24mm was not too wide (not making images “fish eye”) because I didn’t always want to have that “fish eye” look to everything.  I also knew that the more I shot along the “horizon line”, would make my images look fairly “straight” or without perspective distortion.  I also knew that if I stayed on the horizon and moved in on my subject, the image looked like it was shot with a 35mm or even a 50mm lens, if I were lucky. Of course, I could get those really cool distorted lines and warps if I wanted for directional pointers or added dynamics,so off I went with my 24mm to shoot the world!

I quickly realized that to make the lens work properly, I had to get into a “Pre-Visual Mindset”.  In other words, seeing every shot in my mind first as a 24mm lens image.  I had to view everything in wide angle terms.  It didn’t take long and my images started to really look great!  To make a long story short…I shot with that lens for years and into my professional career, shooting corporate work with it too.  I remember my boss and mentor could not believe the scope of images that I got with that one single lens.  Once you understand the attributes of your lenses and don’t fight them, pre-visualization becomes much easier and your pictures will flow from you with more clarity and creativity.

So, let’s talk about the different lens attributes.  I’m going to generalize between wide angle and telephoto and let you put the pieces together depending on what millimeter lens your shooting with.

Wide angle lenses are inherently more sharp, rendering subject matter more “in focus” because of the compression of the image.  This makes the image sharper from corner to corner.  What that means is that you don’t need a small f-stop (large number) to render your scene in focus.  A telephoto lens is the opposite.  If you want the whole scene to be in focus, the smaller the f-stop (larger number) you will need.

That’s the up side. The down side is if you want to have a shallow depth of field (foreground/background blurry) a telephoto lens can give you that easily as you use a larger f-stop (smaller number), where as no matter what you do with a wide angle lens, other than moving the subject extremely close to the camera, the subject and foreground/background will be in focus. You can bring the subject close to the lens but expect what I call “the Crabby Appleton Effect”.  If you’re over 35 or 40 years old, you might know what I’m talking about.  If not, I mean that the subject will be rendered distorted…like the Crabby Appleton character of old…AND, the background will still be in focus somewhat.

Another attribute of lenses is perspective.  I remember in camera stores in the 70’s and 80’s a matt that was on the counters that consisted of an image of, like, Venice Italy, with the water canals and old architecture and boats.  It had concentric squares from the center of the picture (small squares) to the edge of the picture (large squares).  Most people ignored this matt mainly because they didn’t get the importance of it.  What it was showing was the relation to any given view as if you were standing there and you were to change lenses on your camera.  The squares representing the perspective of each lens relative to that exact spot you were standing in.  When shooting with a wide angle, you must see the scene with your periferal vision, represented by the whole matt image, As shooting the scene close to you.   On the other hand, shooting with telephoto, you have to see your box at a distance to see what your results will be and to shoot at a distance to get that result.

I know this sound really boring, hence the reason why most people didn’t really “see” the matt but by understanding this information, you could “pre-visualize” what lens to use to get a given effect while standing in any given spot.  OK, still boring huh!  “pre-visualization” is probably the most important tool a photographer can have.  Without it, your pictures can be like pulling teeth rather than flowing especially when you have to think on your feet and shoot at the same time.  Check out my blog on “Pre-Visualization” for more info on that.  Anyway, this chart and the understanding of the different perspectives is part of understanding the attributes on the different len’s millimeters.

Shoot portraits with telephotos to blur the background and to focus only on the subject and use wide angles for scenes that require edge to edge sharpness, rendering all of the subject matter in the image sharp.  Also, telephoto lenses compress the space where as the wide angle lens decompresses the space.  For instance, getting back to the matt…with a wide angle lens you will get the whole scene (open space) but with a telephoto lens, you will start compressing the space to the point that all the buildings or what ever far away will become compressed, looking flat. They will not show lines of perspective. That;s how shots if factories or rows of homes or mountains seem graphic.

The best way to understand all of these lens attributes is to run as many tests as you want and to shoot, shoot, shoot!

Happy Shooting!