Making a long story short is the ability to tell a story in less time and fewer words without the audience losing the plot. This is what long(er) lenses do in photography. They let you make a long story short.
Long lenses get something of a bad rap. Compared to “normal” lenses, they are said to be harder to focus, to require more light to sustain faster shutter speeds, to offer only a compressed perspective… And so their use is somewhat specialised, for portrait for example.
So if all this not only is true, but tell the whole story, why on earth would I find myself with my 100mm macro lens glued to my camera? Because I am some kind of a masochist? Because I enjoy the flattening/compressing of subjects? Because of the reverse snobbery of sporting a Laowa lens when my pals flaunt Hassy, Leica and Zeiss? Or none of the above?
What if, instead of being a hard lens to shoot, a long-ish one were actually a lot easier? Look at it this way: with a longer lens, the field of vision is narrower, thus there are fewer “objects” to arrange in the picture in order to achieve good composition. Furthermore, as subjects go, it is easier to find a smaller “good subject” -meaning one that fits the field of view of a longer lens- than of a larger one. To wit, how often do you have in front of you a vista that makes you wish you had an ultra-wide angle lens? On the other hand, any stroll, be it through nature or in a city, teems with the smaller details that a longer-lens shooter can happily feed on, even when the light is meh.
I must add that longer lenses traditionally also require longer minimum focusing distances, which mitigates the second point above. Which is why what I posit applies to short teles designed for close-up or even macro use. All major players in the FF sensor format have such 90mm and 100mm offerings (Canon, Nikon, Sony, Leica), as well as a gaggle of third-party vendors (Zeiss, Laowa, Voigtländer in the MF space, Tamron, Tokina and Sigma in the AF one). The same for Hassy and Fuji with a 120mm f:4.0 macro for medium format, and 50mm-65mm lenses for APS-C.
So, once you do have a lens between 85mm and 135mm, composing becomes easy. You mostly have 2 components: the subject, a.k.a. foreground, and the bokeh, or background. Because, even if you stop down to, say f:5.6, you are still going to have the majority of your image out of focus, unless you are shooting at a flat-ish subject, or at infinity. Just think of how many components feature in a 25mm image, and you will see why composing with a short tele is easy by comparison. One might even say that beginners should be encouraged to shoot longer lenses before they go wide!
Another major aspect of shooting long is the role played by depth in the image. Obviously there will be more depth in a wide picture, all the more so as wide lenses can usually get very close to their foreground subject. It is thus easy to get spectacular depth effects. But the first impression is always one of width, as the viewer absorbs the image. With a longer lens, width is just not there, so, either the photographer manages depth well, and the focal length doesn’t exactly help in this respect, or the resulting image could be quite flat and boring.
With a longer lens, unless you engage in focus-stacking, the more distant part of the image is going to be sharply out-of-focus. This does not mean that it is enough to blur the background by opening up your aperture to get depth. So much for bokeh s***s who think that “real ‘togs do it wide open”. In effect, if you have, say a head shot with background totally reduced to cappucino foam, you will have less depth than if you stop down the lens to f:5.6 and have some structure in your bokeh….
The other skill a longer lens teaches you is good storytelling. Because there is so little in the image, weak storytelling cannot be hidden. What is more boring than a subject shot head-on in the centre of a picture, with nothing to show for it, except sharpness and detail, and no story in the background?
In many ways, an image taken with a longer lens is an easier task than with a wider one from opportunity and composition standpoints, but more demanding for storytelling. So starting one’s learning curve on the long end does seem to make sense, at least to me.
By the way, that is the exact opposite of what smartphones offer. No learning curve, all-sharp, minimal storytelling except in a very small minority of the huge number of such pictures… Just sayin’….
PS: all images with the Laowa 100mm f:2.8 Super Macro. But, in line with the narrative, I have chosen not to show macro shots this time around.
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