Get creative with focal length for eye-catching results
Matt Taylor is the Marketing Assistant at Sigma UK. He has over 13 years of experience in the photographic industry and has a passion for macro, landscape and architecture photography.
Matt talks us through why shaking the bag when it comes to choosing focal lengths can produce creative and interesting imagery that can help your images stand out from the crowd.
Following the traditional, tried and tested rules of photography will help you to achieve balanced and attractive images. But occasionally doing the exact opposite can give you something different and help your work stand out from the crowd.
Breaking from the norm when it comes to focal length is a great way to get creative with your photography and will help you capture ordinary subjects in extraordinary ways. Most photographers (including myself) carry a range of focal lengths – often a standard zoom, a telephoto or super zoom, and usually a wide-aperture prime lens. Utilising what you have in new ways can reduce the amount of kit you carry and allow more creative freedom.
Use telephoto and ultra-telephoto lenses for landscape photography
Landscape photography is traditionally shot on a wide-angle lens with a focal length between 10-24mm. This is perfect when space is tight or when you want to exaggerate the scale of a scene for a more epic-looking image. But what happens when we use a telephoto lens for a landscape shot?
Telephoto lenses are often said to compress the perspective of a scene, although it’s actually the physical act of moving backwards away from the scene you’re photographing that causes the perspective to change. The result is that objects a long way apart appear to be closer together or ‘compressed’, and their relative sizes become more uniform.
It might sound counter intuitive, but background compression can emphasise the size and scope of your surroundings. This style of photo can be extended to street photography. Buildings and people will be brought closer together, creating a bustling atmosphere. With a traditional wide-angle lens, the same scenes may feel empty as the distant subjects would be harder to pick out.
Andi Campbell’s dreamscape like photo, shot on the SIGMA 100-400mm F5-6.3 DG DN OS | Contemporary shows this effect very well. The mountains in the distance have been flattened, allowing their heights to be easily compared, creating a sense of scale from where the photographer was standing.
The lens is compact and light enough for travel and it covers a wide focal range. Combining this lens with a standard telephoto zoom range can give great flexibility when shooting landscape images.
Try macro and wide-angle zoom lenses for portrait photography
An 85mm lens is a main-stay in many photographers’ kitbags, especially those who shoot portraits. 85mm is often cited as the most flattering portrait lens for head and shoulder compositions, because it means the distance a photographer is standing from their subject for the correct composition gives a pleasing perspective on the face, with little distortion to facial features.
But mixing up what lenses you use can lead to creative results. Portrait photographer Saint Aubyn uses his SIGMA 105mm F2.8 DG DN OS Macro | Art lens to great effect. Macro lenses might be intended primarily to shoot extreme close-ups, but they can double as very well as portrait lenses, with the added benefit of being able to get right up close to the subject, capturing details that may otherwise have been missed.
With their often slightly longer-than-85mm focal lengths, macro lenses can slim facial structures and compress backgrounds creating an intimate look. You can also isolate a person’s facial features to emphasise a model’s make-up and show the intricate details of the skin.
Storytelling is also a major part of photography. Using a wider focal length lens for what are sometimes termed ‘environmental’ portraits allows you to introduce a sense of place into a portrait and put the person in context with their surroundings. This can give a photo a narrative, or add meaning.
Also, because the background blur is less magnified by using a wide-angle lens (although depth-of-field is actually the same assuming the aperture and subject distance are identical), there is an apparently larger depth-of-field and a more detailed background, which shows more of the subject’s surroundings. By using a combination of techniques and mixing up what lenses are used will bring life and character to your portraits.
Use mid-telephoto primes for astrophotography
The most commonly-used lenses for astrophotography are either wide-angle, fast-aperture primes, which are ideal for milky way images and night sky landscapes, or telephoto zooms, which are perfect for photographing the moon. A far less used lens type is the mid-telephoto prime, which is ideal for detailed captures of smaller sections of the sky, or for shooting comets.
Fast aperture options like the 105mm F1.4 DG HSM | Art, allow huge amounts of light into the frame for maximum star detail, and exceptional optical performance. Actually this lens was designed by an astrophotographer!
Experiment with zoom and prime lenses for close-up photography
Zoom lenses can get overlooked when being considered for close-up/macro photography. Standard telephoto zoom lenses are generally considered a ‘jack-of-all-trades’ tool, and super-telephoto zoom lenses are usually used for sport and wildlife photography.
By taking a look at a lens’s maximum magnification ratio, you’ll be able to see how suitable is it for close-ups, and you may be surprised to know that you can often get quite detailed images using a non-macro option.
The 18-300mm F3.5-6.3 DC MACRO OS HSM | Contemporary has a close focus distance of 39cm with a 1:3 ratio. It is not quite the 1:1 ratio of a macro lens but can be really helpful when needing to get a shot that you would otherwise miss. Super telephoto lenses usually do not have a super-close focus distance, but options like the 150-600mm F5-6.3 DG DN OS | Sports will allow surprisingly intimate results for close-up work, offering an impressive magnification ratio of 1:2.9. And the 24-70mm F2.8 DG DN | Art also has a 1:2.9 ratio for marco-style shots.
Abi Riley’s photo of her dog and partner wasn’t shot with the 135mm F1.8 DG HSM | Art, which has a magnification ratio of 1:5. The super sharp optics captures the intricate details, and the 135mm focal length compresses the facial features showing more space around the eyes.
When a lens is made it is done with an intended purpose in mind. But there is nothing stopping you from experimenting and getting creative. The lenses mentioned are only just the tip of what can be done when exploring new shooting techniques. Some of my best photos have been shot with unconventional focal lengths and through experimentation you will find your own style that sets you apart. I’d advise you to take a look at what you have in your kitbag and work out if you can put your lenses to use in different ways. You might be surprised by the unusual and eye-catching results you’re able to achieve!