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Lenses and Seeing

Lenses and Seeing article

The lens is the ‘eye’ of the camera. The selected focal length and aperture determine the look of the photo. The lens you are using may also have other characteristics that contribute to the look.

These influence your approach to composition. The idea is to work with the visual characteristics of the lens you are using rather than fight against them. Ask yourself how you can get the best out of the lens you are using.

To start, you will need to understand why a telephoto lens is different from a wide-angle, and how depth-of-field is affected by aperture choice and focal length.

Let’s look at some examples taken with lenses that I have owned:

Sigma 50-150mm f2.8 lens

Lenses and Seeing article

I created this image by setting the focal length of the lens to 150mm and the aperture to f2.8. I focused on the grass in the foreground to throw the setting sun out of focus. By the way, I didn’t look through the viewfinder at the setting sun. That’s potentially dangerous. I used Live View to compose the image instead.

This is how the lens and aperture choice affected the photo:

Narrow depth-of-field: The combination of wide aperture, long focal length and close focusing means the depth-of-field is extremely shallow. Anything other than the blade of grass I focused on is out of focus, including the setting sun.

Compression: The long focal length appears to compress perspective, making the sun look bigger and closer to the foreground than it really is.

Narrow field-of-view: The telephoto lens has a narrow field-of-view and captures just part of the subject. This focal length is good for capturing detail, but not for including the entire scene.

Canon 18-55mm f3.5-5.6 kit lens

Lenses and Seeing article

I set the focal length of the lens to 18mm, its widest setting, and the aperture to f11 when I made this image. These are the effects:

Depth-of-field: The small aperture was required because of the bright sun, but it also ensures that the entire scene is in focus. Every detail has been captured by the camera.

Perspective: I was drawn to this scene by the holes cut in the salt, and the lines created as they disappear into the distance towards the mountains. The focal length emphasises the lines and pushes the horizon into the distance, making it seem further away than it really is.

Wide field-of-view: The 18mm focal length has a wide field-of-view, which enabled me to capture the entire scene.

In many ways the focal lengths used to create the photos above are opposites. The telephoto lens brings the subject closer. Only part of the scene is in focus thanks to the wide aperture.

The wide-angle end of the kit lens, on the other hand, captures the entire scene and creates a sense of space by making the horizon seem further away that it really is. A narrow aperture ensures everything is in focus.

Canon 85mm f1.8 lens

Here’s a portrait taken with another of my favourite lens, an 85mm prime set to f2.8:

Lenses and Seeing article

Depth-of-field: My model is in focus, and so is part of the background. There is more depth-of-field than there is in the photo taken with the 50-150mm lens set to 150mm. And there is less than in the photo taken with the wide-angle lens.

Perspective: The 85mm lens is a short telephoto lens and it records perspective accordingly. Again, it falls somewhere in-between the 150mm and 18mm focal lengths. Like the telephoto lens the 85mm lens is good for capturing details. You cannot capture as much of the scene as you can with a wide-angle.

Holga lens

Finally, I’d like to show you a photo taken with a Holga lens. You can buy these plastic lenses for digital cameras from Holga Direct. This really is a good example of how the lens determines the look of the photo:

Lenses and Seeing article

Holga lenses have the following characteristics:

Lack of sharpness: A Holga lens is made from plastic and is not intended to give a good quality image.

Vignetting: Photos taken with this lens are characterised by heavy vignetting at the edges.


Hopefully the examples in this article have drawn your attention to how the focal length of the lens you are using and the aperture affect the look of the photo. The lens is the camera’s eye, and the characteristics of the focal lens you choose determine the look of the photo. With practise, you will learn to make the best use of your lenses.

Mastering Photography

Lenses and Seeing article

My latest ebook, Mastering Photography: A Beginner’s Guide to Using Digital Cameras introduces you to digital photography and helps you make the most out of your digital camera. It covers concepts such as lighting and composition as well as the camera settings you need to master to take creative photos like the ones in this article.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Andrew S. Gibson
Andrew S. Gibson

is a writer, photographer, traveler and workshop leader. He’s an experienced teacher who enjoys helping people learn about photography and Lightroom. Join his free Introducing Lightroom course or download his free Composition PhotoTips Cards!

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