Benefits of a Longer Focal Length

Every photographer has their favorite lens. Some love the photojournalistic look a 35mm produces, others love the versatility of a nifty 50, while others love the flexibility of their 24-70mm. But lenses with longer focal lengths have some great benefits.

You may have heard the term Lens Distortion or Lens Compression before.  We won’t get into the science and techie stuff about barrel and pincushion distortion but if you want to know more check out the description found at Click It Up a Notch. Instead, we’ll talk about what a longer focal length means for you and your images.

Pros of using a longer focal length

There are many noticeable benefits to using a longer lens. This post will go over two: flattering your subject and creating less distracting backgrounds. These principles will apply with any increase in focal length, but you’ll notice the most benefit with 100mm and up.

Flattering to facial structures

Longer lenses are great for portraits, especially when you want to shoot a tighter crop. Wider lenses, such as the 35mm, distort faces in a way that’s almost cartoony. Check out the before and after below. Notice how my gorgeous friend’s smile looks more proportioned to her eyes when shooting with the 85mm. If I took this further and shot the same images with a 200mm, I may have gone too far beyond what looks most natural to her. But in this instance, the 85mm is the best fit.

Flattering from Other Angles

It’s a basic principle of portraiture to avoid shooting up at a subject. This is especially true when using a wider lens. As you saw above, wide lenses make objects that are closer to the camera (i.g. noses) look larger than objects farther from the camera (ears). But because longer lenses don’t have this same distortion, this rule-of-thumb is more flexible. In essence, the longer lens is more forgiving.

If there is a distracting element behind your subject, like a car or a messy floor, don’t be afraid to lower yourself to hide what you can. A longer lens give you the ability to shoot from a lower angle without causing unflattering effect. In the image below, the fountain needed to be visible but there were some elements below that could be distracting. By dropping down a few inches, we were able to avoid it all together but still maintain a flattering image for our subjects.

FI0A5175 copy.jpg

Great for Group Photos

When stacking for large group photos, a longer focal length is ideal to avoid a strange distortion in the back row. Again, with wider lenses, objects closer to the lens appear larger and objects farther away, even by just a few inches, will appear smaller. In a group photo, that means people in the back row will have tiny heads and people in the front will appear giant. Using a longer lens removes the risk of people in the back looking disproportioned.

93mm f4.0

93mm f4.0

Creating Separation

Sometimes you’ll want your subjects to pop out from their background.  There are a few ways to achieve this, though the most popular technique is with a shallow depth of field.  Obviously your aperture is the first thing to consider, but distance from your subject and your focal length are also a part of the equation.  Remember, the longer the lens, the shallower the depth of field!  When using a long lens, you can get a nice buttery smooth background even at a slightly higher aperture. In the image below, the gorgeous glow in the background needed to be showcased. The only problem is there were distracting elements and the setting sun was right behind them. Shooting this with a 135mm allowed us to hide the distraction and blur it just enough. Now, they are separated from the background and the focus is all on them.

135mm f3.2

135mm f3.2

Adding Depth

Think Foreground, Middle ground, and Background! Compression affects the foreground in the same way it does the background meaning the foreground and background appear closer together using a longer focal length. Because you will be forced further from your subject, there is even more opportunity to find things to include in your foreground. Using the 200mm in this photo, we were able to shoot through the bushes to show more interesting depth. Doing this completely changed the feel of this moment and pose!

135mm f/2.0

135mm f/2.0

Cons of using a longer focal length

Why not use the longer lens all the time, right? Well, we’ve covered the pros of using the longer focal length so what are the cons? It is often a style preference but below are a few reasons to reach for your wider lens.

Risk of losing the full scene

Longer lenses are not ideal for street, documentary or lifestyle photography. In these instances, the background can be lost in a few ways. Too large, too blurry, or it just doesn’t fit at all. In the sample photo below, it was all about the scenery for this bride so I knew she wanted their portait to be a part of this gorgeous view. A wider lens was my only option unless I planned to stand in the river that bended behind me. :)

35mm F2.0

35mm F2.0

Extra Space Required

I know this one is pretty obvious but it can’t be overlooked when considering whether or not to reach for a longer lens. You can only use a longer focal length if you have the space. You will have to stand far away from your subject which is hard if you feel that you need to interact or communicate with your subject without yelling. You won’t be able to easily adjust a pose, make a funny joke, or fix a fly away hair. 


Shutter Speed Limitations

When shooting in low light situations you’ll feel the need to slow your shutter to it’s limits. That limit could be 1/60th of a second when using a 50mm, but you’ll have to limit that to 1/200th of a second when shooting at 200mm. This is because camera shake is more likely at longer focal lengths. Generally, your shutter speed should match or double your focal length. Using a tripod, flash, or a lens that offers image stabilization allows some flexibility to this rule.

35mm f/3.5 OFC

35mm f/3.5 OFC

There are some instances when it’s not recommended or maybe not an option to shoot at a longer focal length.  But knowing lenses strengths and weaknesses will give you more technical edge and creative opportunity. Do you have a favorite telephoto lens?  What has it done for you?  

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