How to Simplify and Improve Composition with Normal or Long Lenses


Telephoto lenses and composition

Andrew S. Gibson is the author of Understanding Lenses Part II: A Guide to Canon Normal & Telephoto Lenses, special deal on now 40% off at Snapndeals for a limited time only.

Wide-Angle Lenses

A potential issue with wide-angle lenses is that you try to include too much information in the frame. It takes real skill to create a strong composition with lenses that have a wide field-of-view. It is easier with normal and telephoto lenses, because you can utilise their narrow field-of-view to compose strong yet simple images with little in the background to distract the viewer.

Let’s take a look at how that works:

Field-of-view diagram

Angle of view from a wide-angle lens (left) and long lens (right)

This diagram shows the difference in field-of-view between a wide-angle lens (left) and a telephoto lens (right). You can think of a wide-angle lens as a lens of inclusion: it enables you to fit a lot of the scene in a photo. You can get close to the subject and still fit in a lot of the background.

The telephoto lens is a lens of exclusion. You don’t get so close to your subject and there is less in the background.

Here are a couple of examples:

Portrait taken with wide angle lens

I took this portrait using a wide-angle lens (24mm on a full-frame camera). I was able to get fairly close to the model and still include a lot of the background.

Portrait taken with telephoto lens

This portrait was taken using a short telephoto lens (85mm on a full-frame camera). I was able to get in close and exclude most of the background. The effect is emphasized by placing the model against a dark background.

This effect seems to kick in at around 50mm on a full-frame camera (the equivalents are 35mm on an APS-C camera, and 25mm with the micro-four thirds format). Here’s a photo taken with a 50mm lens on a full-frame camera to illustrate:

Photo taken with a normal lens

This means that you can use this technique to simplify composition even if the only lens you have is a kit lens. Just set it to the longest focal length and move in closer to your subject.

There are other ways to simplify composition – you can’t rely just on focal length:

  1. Pay attention to the background. Does it contain bright highlights or anything else that pulls attention away from the subject?
  2. Are the colours in your photo harmonious? If the colours don’t work well together this can also weaken the composition.
  3. Experiment with depth-of-field. Using a wide aperture helps simplify composition by throwing the background out of focus. This works best with prime lenses as they have wider apertures than most zooms.
  4. Move in as close as you can to the subject. One of my favourite techniques is to use a close-up lens (it’s called a lens but looks like a filter and screws to the front of your lenses the same way) to reduce the minimum focusing distance of my 85mm lens and get in really close. Another benefit is that depth-of-field becomes narrower in close up photography, helping create images with beautiful bokeh.

Here’s an example taken with an 85mm lens fitted with a Canon 500D close-up lens:

Photo taken with 85mm lens plus close-up lens

What are your thoughts? Do you use normal or telephoto lenses to simplify composition the same way? What are your favourite focal lengths? Let us know in the comments.

Understanding Lenses Part II: A Guide to Canon Normal & Telephoto Lenses

Understanding Lenses ebookMy ebook Understanding Lenses Part II will teach you how to get the most out of Canon’s normal and telephoto lenses. It contains a buying guide, takes a deep look at aperture and bokeh, and shows you how to focus accurately with telephoto lenses. It’s now 40% off at Snapndeals for a limited time only.

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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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