Lens Choices, Subject Distances, and How They Affect the Visual Impact of Your Photographs

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If you ask the average photographer what a wide-angle lens is good for, the response will invariably be something along the lines of "they're good for photographing small rooms, large groups of people crammed into small rooms, and landscapes." Ask the average photographer what a telephoto lens is good for and the answer will be, "they bring distant things closer to you," or something along those lines. And normal lenses? They're for photographing… well… "normal things."

As true as all of the above may be, if you view these truisms as unquestionable gospel, chances are you've passed up many fine photographic opportunities along the way. My take on the subject is if you want to get your money's worth out of your lenses—not to mention increase the chance of capturing pictures that make people slow down and take a closer look, perhaps it's time to reconsider how you pair focal lengths and shooting distances when composing your pictures.

As an example, if you were to walk through a flower garden with a close-focusing 28-300mm (or equivalent) zoom lens on your camera, you could easily take close-up photographs of almost every flower you pass without even having to lean in for a tighter shot; the focal range of the lens is more than adequate to zoom in and fill the frame with bright, colorful flower petals.

Telephoto lens
Telephoto lens

Will the pictures be good? No doubt. Will people look at them and go “Wow,” or “Nice”? Sure, but think about it… they’re close-ups of colorful flowers… how can you possibly go wrong?

The truth of the matter is most of the time we do have the option of moving closer or farther away from our subjects, which enables us to frame our subjects from a wider range of visual points of view, compared to merely zooming in, taking a picture, and moving on. This might involve an extra measure of effort on your part, but if you take the time to study your subject from different angles, different distances, and different focal lengths, you can increase the likelihood of walking away with more visually exciting images than if you simply walked by, went "click," and sauntered on.

Wide-angle lens
Wide-angle lens

To illustrate my point, I took a series of photographs in which I kept my subject the same relative size within the frame lines while changing the focal length of my lenses and camera-to-subject distances. The differences between each of the resulting images have to do with optical compression and the spatial relationships between visual elements within the frame lines at different distances from the camera.

As for which of these combinations of lenses and distances produces the best photograph, that depends on the subject and the tastes and personal aesthetics of the viewer.

The aperture and shutter speeds were kept constant in each of the following groups of photographs. The only thing that changed was the focal length and subject-to-camera distance.

Photographs © Allan Weitz 2020

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A stand of trees lining a local road photographed with 25mm, (upper left), 50mm (upper right), 90mm (lower left), and 180mm lenses (lower right). My point of reference was the first tree on the left.

A stand of trees lining a local road photographed with 25mm, (upper left), 50mm (upper right), 90mm (lower left), and 180mm lenses (lower right). My point of reference was the first tree on the left, which I tried to capture in the same relative position and scale in each photograph by moving the camera position closer to the tree with the wider-angle lenses, or farther from the tree with the longer focal length lenses. The photographs are similar yet quite different. Which is the "best" photograph? That's up to the viewer.

When you approach picture-taking from this point of view, you open up a range of options in terms of filling the frame with visually strong imagery. When studying the image in your viewfinder, things to consider include varying focal lengths and subject-to-camera distances to determine what level of compression works best for your subject's features. If you add the effects of varying your aperture into the equation, you further expand your visual options.

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A cluster of spring flowers captured with 25mm, 50mm, 90mm, and 180mm lenses. As I increased the focal length of the lenses, I stepped farther back to maintain a constant subject size.

A cluster of spring flowers captured with 25mm, 50mm, 90mm, and 180mm lenses. As I increased the focal length of the lenses, I stepped farther back to maintain a constant subject size. The background angle changes dramatically, while the branch of flowers, while more compressed, is less so.

Much of this has to do with the differences of spatial relationships between people and/or objects situated at varying subject-to-camera distances. Longer lenses compress the perceived physical distances between people and objects, making them appear to be closer to one another than they actually are. Wide-angle lenses do the opposite—they expand or elongate the perceived distances between people and objects situated at different camera-to-subject distances. The reason real estate agents like wide-angle lenses is that they make rooms look larger than life.

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In the four photos shown above, I tried to keep the center post the same relative size in each of the photographs, which were taken with 25mm, (upper left), 50mm (upper right), 90mm (lower left), and 180mm lenses (lower right).

In the four photos shown above, I tried to keep the center post the same relative size in each of the photographs, which were taken with 25mm, (upper left), 50mm (upper right), 90mm (lower left), and 180mm lenses (lower right). The differences between each of these photographs is the focal length and subject-to-camera distance. The visual differences are dramatic. Which is the best? I like the wider-angle photographs, but the more two-dimensional look of the fence captured with longer focal lengths no doubt appeals to others.

Keep in mind, the process of viewing your subject using different focal lengths at varying focusing distances is something that can be practiced regardless of whether you own fixed focal length prime lenses or zooms. Zoom lenses are quicker to use than fixed primes, but fixed primes typically focus in tighter than their zoom counterparts. Fixed primes are also available with wider maximum apertures, which makes them more valuable if selective focus is important to you.

Regardless, the trick is to avoid any preconceived notions you might have about which lens is best for the job when reaching into your camera bag. Think about visual elements alongside, behind, or in front of your subject you might want to include, not include, keep in sharp focus, or perhaps in softer focus. Your choice of lenses and the camera-to-subject distance should be picture-taking process. If you keep these thoughts in mind, a box of donuts says your pictures are going to be a lot more intriguing in the days ahead. 

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Even though the cars in the above photos look dramatically different from one another, they are one and the same.

Even though the cars in the above photos look dramatically different from one another, they are one and the same. What's different is that the photo on the left was taken a few feet from the front of the car with a 25mm wide-angle lens. The photo on the right is the same car photographed from a greater distance using a 180mm lens. The car fills the frame similarly in both photographs but, visually, the images differ dramatically. Which is the better shot? The photograph on the left might be more fun from an artsy or whimsical standpoint, but the photograph on the right is a truer representation of how the car appears in life.

Do you have any thoughts on the subject? If so, let us know in the Comments field below—we'd love to hear from you.

7 Comments

Good article Allan (big fan of the podcast). One caveat: I would not have used the words "Longer lenses compress", because many photographers still think the lens is actually doing something magical when you zoom it. Your previous sentence about the compression results from "the differences of spatial relationships between people and/or objects situated at varying subject-to-camera distances" is clearer: it's your EYES that compress the scene, because you have to get closer with wide-angle (and it looks like more DOF), and further away with telephoto (and it looks more compressed), just to get the same composition. Just look from both shooting positions and you see the compression, without the camera/lens to your eye. Yeah, it's just for us "have to get it right" types!

Hi Allan, interesting article. Although I am not a novice in photography and I've been taking pictures without any technic or knowledge-base,  I've always use my taste and common sense every time I press the button. Despite of that, I keep searching for information that helps me improve my photography and I find your article very appropiate right now. But I would like to ask you: in the pictures of the trees, aren't they switched? And, for comparison reasons, wouldn't be better to take the pictures from the same distance (the car's pictures for example) to understand the real usage and effect of the lenses? Thanks

Hi Alfonso,

I'm pleased to know you find my articles to be informative. As for the photographs of the trees - yup, the bottom two should be reversed (and will be shortly). Each of the other series are in the correct order. As for the camera-to-subject distances, my goal was to keep my subject(s) relatively the same size in each of the frames, which would require me to back up as the focal length increased. Same holds true for the car - I was about 3-feet away from the car in the wide shot and about 4-5 car lengths in the telephoto image. 

In your pictures of the stand of trees, it seems to me that the 90mm and 180mm pictures are switched.. Ditto the flowers. In any case, thank you for the information. G. Moore

Thanks for the interesting post. One of the things I find most interesting in the 4-lens comparisons is that my eye, one of the shots stands out as the "right one" for me in terms of composition, depth of field, etc. I realize that that's not always the case .. certainly some times there will be multiple choices that each have their own virtues and photographic aesthetics.

That's one of the challenges of editing photographs - especially one's own photographs.

-AW

You are correct with the trees (it's being fixed!) but not with the flowers. The clue is that as the focal length increases, in order to maintain a constant subject image size, you need to back up, and the longer the focal length, the narrower the field-of-view of the background gets. (Watch the size of the porch rails increase as the focal length increases.) As for the inconsistency of the flower positioning, the wind was blowing and I over-shot in a bid for consistency and this was the best of the take.

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