#978. The long(er) view: go long, young man!

By philberphoto | Opinion

Mar 13

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.

 
What can be simpler than that? A subject, dead centre, and some bokeh…
Long lenses create long images, right,
 

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.

 
Longer lenses are for portrait only, right? (1)
 

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?

 
Longer lenses are for portrait only, right? (2)
 

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.

 
Longer lenses are good for bokeh-only shots, right?
 

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.

 
How a longer lens can make good use of trivial details…
 

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!

 
Simple can be beautiful IMHO (1)
 

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.

 
Simple can be beautiful IMHO (2)
 

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….

 
Longer lenses compress perspective, right? (1)
 

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?

 
Longer lenses compress perspective, right? (2)
 

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.

 
The background matters IMHO, even if very much out-of-focus
 

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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  • jean pierre guaron says:

    ROTFLMHAO – well Pascal tells us he has no interest in macro, and here he is promoting it through his introduction to your article.

    Three of us (at least – are there any more?) have Jonathan already, and being recidivists, there are at least two Makro lenses (courtesy my old friend Carl Zeiss).

    But that wasn’t the reason for the unchecked laughter on reaching the end of your comments, Philippe. It suddenly occurred to me that we are a rather unusual group, and that some at least – me, for example! – should donate our brain to medical science! That’d give them a bit of a scare!

    You’re hereby awarded the prize for the most original thought anyone has uttered in my presence in the past 12 months! For you paragraph commencing “What if . . . .” What if, indeed! So with trillions of photos being taken each year, how come nobody else has come up with such a brilliant suggestion before?

    Cellphones? – puke! They’re bad enough as substitutes for a real telephone. They’re perfectly foul, for messaging – the keypad is designed for children’s fingers! Hopeless for surfing the net. Far too big to be pocket size. and you have NO control over the process of creating an image with them – it’s all done in Silicon Valley, by AI.

    I was vastly entertained to see a cartoon in my Italian crossword magazine, of a prehistoric lady pointing a cellphone at a giraffe, and telling the giraffe to stand further away, because it was too close to her cellphone, and wouldn’t fit in the image.

    Nuts!

  • Nancee Rostad says:

    Philippe, once again you’ve shown that no matter which lens is attached to your camera, you are a true master! A telephoto lens is my personal favorite and go-to lens for many of the same reasons that you mentioned: zeroing in on a subject, easier composition due to fewer objects within the frame, narrow field of vision, compressed perspective, etc. I suspect that your images would be stunning no matter which lens you use, but it’s nice to see essentially macro shots taken with a telephoto lens. Thanks for sharing.

  • Paul Barclay says:

    Phillippe

    As a self-proclaimed lens snob, I would say that you should refer to your Laowa as a L***a, so people like myself can continue to delude ourselves that the label matters. These images certainly make it look like the lens does not inhibit the operator.

    All of these images are worthy of a long look, and a print.

  • Patrick says:

    Very nice “longer” and macro shots indeed.
    I’m going to take out the longer lenses from the dry box and give it a try.

  • Mel says:

    You lovely photos brought back a few memories for me. In the early 1970s when I was starting out in photography, I owned a Konica SLR (remember that one?) with a 50mm lens. It was fine, but not right for me. I wasn’t motivated by the 50mm perspective.

    Luckily, I discovered that a school roommate had three unused Nikkor F lenses rolling around in his sock drawer. One of these was a Nikkor 105mm f/2.5. When I mounted this lens on a Nikkormat camera to try it out…WOW!

    Suddenly, I was “transported” across space (and time, it felt like). I have never forgotten that feeling.

    The Nikkor 105/2.5 was (and still is) my favorite all-time lens. Newer versions may boast better optical performance, but they lack the original’s iconic look and feel. This telephoto lens opened up a new world of “seeing” for me. Thanks for the remembrance.

  • Dallas says:

    Philippe, what an interesting article. Less than 12 months ago you only shot with with your Loxia 25 now Jonathon is your new go to lens and how you make him perform, well done sir. I agree totally that getting great and interesting compositions with a longer focal length is harder that a wide angle. You show that you are a master of this length.

    • philberphoto says:

      Well, your comment shows I didn’t do such a good job of making my case. I thought I explained how composition would actually be easier. Apologies for the lack of clarity, and thanks for the kind words.

  • Pascal Ravach says:

    Very, very nice pictures, Philippe !
    And totally with you on this once: since I took my good old Olympus Zuiko 90F2.0 Macro out of the bag where it was sleeping since the 80s and stcked it on the Sony A7RII last year, I rarely took it of… magic combo, and it reminded me why, from the 16mm fisheye to the 500mm mirrow, that 90 was always like a magnet for me 😀
    I do use the 50F2 Macro too, but the next 2 most used are the 135F4.5 Macro, then the 75F1.8 M43 (150mm équivalent)… we must have the same fascination for what they do; I too use that focal a lot for anything… including portrait 🙂

  • Pascal Ravach says:

    Gee, I keep staring at your pics 🙂
    I must add something: you master “depth” like few do with that focal… I have so much to learn still!

  • Several years ago I bought an 80-400 telephoto lens to photograph critters in our backyard. That lens turned out to be so much fun to use that I started stretching my uses for it. I’ve used it to photograph not only birds and squirrels but also flowers and available light portraits. One surprise I got was discovering how useful it was for street photography, especially for my umbrella shots on rainy days. Another surprise was when I found how absolutely wonderful it was for photographing water lilies that I couldn’t get close to. I also used it to photograph dragonflies around the shoreline of the pond as well as butterflies and other insects. Just this week I put it back on my camera to photograph ragged cattails in a marsh. I was ready to take it out for a few minutes this morning but it started raining…..again. My gear can stand the cold rain but I can’t.

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