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Understanding Lenses: Part II, and is part of a series of lessons about camera lenses. Links to the others are at the bottom of the article.
I first became aware of the pictorial power of short telephoto lenses when a friend of mine at college bought one. He had a gig shooting tests for a model agency in Manchester and he created some amazing images with an 85mm lens.
The beautiful models helped, but the way he used the compressed perspective and shallow depth-of-field had a little touch of magic. He had talent, and wherever he is now, I hope he’s doing something special with it.
For years I preferred using wide-angle lenses (and I still love them). Then a couple of years ago I bought a Canon 85mm f1.8 lens. Finally I had the same lens that my friend from college used so well back in the day.
It changed the entire way I shoot. I’ve enjoyed using it ever since, especially for portrait and close-up photography. I’ve even taken a couple of landscapes with it.
A short telephoto lens (for a full-frame digital or 35mm film camera) is one with a focal length between around 80mm and 100mm. On an APS-C camera, the crop factor means that a 50mm lens also effectively becomes a short telephoto. While I tend to think of a short telephoto as being a prime lens, there are plenty of zooms that cover these focal lengths as well.
Why would you use a short telephoto lens instead of a normal or wide-angle lens, or one with a longer focal length?
Let’s look at the answer in terms of two of my favourite subjects: portraits and close-ups.
I’ve taken plenty of portraits using wide-angle lenses (and still do). They are ultra-cool if you want to include plenty of background to make an environmental portrait. The only thing you have to watch out for is that you don’t get too close. Otherwise distortion becomes an issue.
I took the above photo with a 17-40mm zoom lens set to 22mm. The style of the photo is completely different to that of those taken with my 85mm lens. The most obvious difference is in the background – the girl is part of a wider scene rather than separated from it.
I’ve also taken portraits using longer telephoto lenses. I used to own a Sigma 50-150mm zoom lens that I used a lot. I created some great images with that lens, but found that the weight made it hard to hold steady, especially at 150mm.
My 85mm gives me the freedom to get as close to my sitter as I want. It always takes a distortion free portrait, even if her face fills the frame. I can also step back to include her entire body in the frame.
These three photos were all taken with my 85mm lens. You can see how it lets me move in close or step back to include more.
I like the compression I get with this lens. The above photo shows the effect. The lens pulls the background closer to the model. You can only see a small part of the background compared to what you would with a wide-angle lens.
The sea is also slightly out of focus. This comes in useful when the background is a potential distraction, and you want to concentrate attention on your sitter instead.
Short telephotos are good for isolating the model from the background. You can get some extreme effects by using the widest aperture settings of a prime short telephoto lens (the photo above uses an aperture of f2). This is a different approach to wide-angle lenses, where the model becomes part of the scene.
You can do this with a longer lens, but I find these are more difficult to work with. For one, if you take a full-length portrait with a lens that has a focal length of 135mm or more, you have to step back some way from your sitter to fit her all in. This makes communication more difficult.
The other reason is that as focal length increase, so does the shutter speed you need to take a photo free from camera shake. This may limit your options in low light.
Telephoto lenses are also heavier than short telephotos, and that can make a difference on a long shoot. The physical strain is less with a lighter lens.
That doesn’t mean you should never use a longer telephoto lens to take portraits. There are plenty of photographers that use focal lengths of 200mm and 300mm to great effect. It’s just that I find short telephotos much easier to work with.
I really like my 85mm lens for close-up photography. I use it with a 500D close-up filter (there is more on that technique in this article). It doesn’t get me as close as a macro lens would, but it gets me close enough to take some interesting photos of details, or small objects such as goods in a market or flowers. The following photos are good examples of that.
Another advantage of short telephoto prime lenses is the price. My 85mm lens retails for less than $400 in the United States. Yet the optical quality is superb – in terms of image quality alone it is a professional lens. You get a lot of bang for your buck with these lenses. There’s no need to go for the most expensive models unless you really want to.
So that’s the story of how my 85mm lens became my favourite. The only regret I have with this lens is that I didn’t buy one ten years earlier.
These are the previous articles in the series:
If you liked this article then take a look at my latest eBook, Understanding Lenses: Part II – A guide to Canon normal and telephoto lenses. My next lesson will explore ways of getting to know your lenses, so that you can take better photos with them.