Art of Photography

Rob Townsend

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Exercise – Focal lengths and different viewpoints


Find a scene that has enough space in front of it to allow a choice of viewpoint, from near to far. Start with the longest telephoto lens and make a tightly framed composition. Then walk forwards in a straight line until you can fill the frame with the same subject at the widest angle setting, and take a second shot. Compare the two.


Canon EOS 650D with EF 18-200mm f/3.5 lens.


I chose the fountain in the grounds of Castle Howard and followed the straightforward instructions in the brief.


The first shot was at 200mm focal length, and it had the effect of dramatically compressing the distances between parts of the image; in reality the backdrop of the house itself was as far away from the fountain as I was on the other side, but in this image it appears to be immediately behind. Similarly, the water cherubs on each side look to be adjacent while in fact they were positioned one on each corner – so the true front-to-back distance was equivalent to the left-to-right distance you can see here.

200 mm


Filling the frame with the same subject with my lens at its widest focal length of 18mm gives a very different feel. The subject has gained more depth and more closely resembles its real-life dimensions. The cherubs are clearly spaced on each corner of the fountain base, and the house has receded into the distance, allowing a backdrop of sky. The relative position, size and distances in this image are much truer to life and therefore easier to assimilate.

18 mm


What I’ve learned:

Zooming in to a long focal length has a significant effect on the perceived depth in the image; it can produce a very flat image where the all parts of the image from foreground to background seem to be very close together. Wide-angle shots, on the other hand, more strongly convey a sense of depth. The resulting pictures from these two extremes are very different in feel and character. This is something I must start to take into account when deciding the focal length to use and the viewpoint from which I want to take a picture.


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Exercise – Focal lengths


Choose a view that is open and at the same time has some details in the distance in the middle of the frame. Take a sequence of photographs from the same viewpoint at different focal lengths by zooming and/or changing lenses.


Canon EOS 650D with EF 24-105mm f/4.0 L IS USM lens, EF 80-200mm f/4.0 lens, tripod.


I chose the war memorial in Nice and set up my tripod on a plinth at the opposite side of the road to take in the entire monument in the wide angle shot. Then I proceeded to first zoom in and then change lens to follow the brief.


The first shot was at the widest my lens could go, namely 24mm (actually 24mm equivalent; as the camera body has a crop factor of 1.6x). Here you can see the entire monument in context, built into the rocky hillside.

24 mm


Zooming in to a focal length of 35mm, some of the distraction (e.g. the road) is removed to focus more of the monument itself.

35 mm


At 50 mm the framing starts to go slightly off as I’ve cut off the top and bottom of the monument.

50 mm


Zoomed to 70mm the balance is a little better, as I am clearly focusing on the central part of the monument and the framing looks more deliberate.

70 mm


At 105mm I hit the limits of my main lens. This is the first shot without the context of the rocks around the monument and so focuses on the monument in isolation, a subtle but significant framing difference.

105 mm


I switched to my longer telephoto lens at this point. At 135mm the wording at the top of the monument is becoming legible, yet the dome is still visible so you still get a good feel for the shape.

135 mm


The full extent of my zoom range. At 200mm the image focuses much more on the top segment of the monument and the place names inscribed. This gives a very different feel to the picture than the wide shots with the full monument in frame.

200 mm


As a comparison, and as suggested in the brief, I took a crop of the widest shot (24mm) in the centre of the frame to compare it to the longest focal length shot (200 mm). As expected, the content of the frames are the same – albeit the lighting and sharpness are different.

24 mm centre crop

24mm centre crop

What I’ve learned:

I’ve picked up two clear lessons from this exercise. Firstly, the obvious one that changing your focal length will narrow or widen the view that you can fit in the frame. Secondly, that choosing a focal length can also mean choosing what you include and exclude in the frame, which in turn can have an effect on the message you wish to get across, and the response you are aiming to elicit from the viewer.