Portrait Photography With A Telephoto Lens

We all enjoy taking photos of people.  Unfortunately the majority of photos are just snapshots taken with a cellphone where people put very little thought into the outcome of the image.  But that’s not you because you are a student of photography and want to know how to improve the images you capture. 

There are so many variables to capturing a fantastic image, and one of those is the focal length of the lens you choose. It is important that your photos of people pop and are flattering.  The best way to do that is with a fast f/2.8 telephoto lens.  Remember, the key to great photographs is shooting with great glass.

The Importance of Focal Length

The reason you are shooting a portrait is to create a personal image that is flattering to the subject.   Wide angle lenses create distortions whereas shooting with a long focal length removes distortions by compressing the image and blurring the background to make your subject pop.  The longer lens compresses facial features so noses stick out less, foreheads are not as prominent, and everything else in the image is more compressed when shooting from a distance.

A long lens also removes distracting backgrounds.  With a fast wide angle lens such as a 24mm f/1.4 it is difficult to separate your subject from the background unless you focus really close.  Even if you can get great background bokeh with a fast lens wide open your focal plane is so narrow that the nose and ears can be blurred while the eye is sharp.  This would not make for a nice portrait.

Another reason that you would not want to use a wide angle lens for portraiture is that you need to be well within the subjects personal space in order to fill the frame.  If this is your spouse or a close friend, shooting from 2 feet away may not be a big deal.  However, when I was shooting Uncle Fuggles at 17mm (24mm on a DX sensor), he was a bit uncomfortable with me standing so close.

Separate Your Subject From The Background

Blurring the background is important with portraits because it allows you to isolate the subject from the background.  When everything is in focus the background is too distracting and your eye is not drawn to the subject.  A great photo leads your eye to the subject in the image.  Below are two images that are similar.  One has a more depth of field while the other has less and is more compressed.

Disappear Into The Crowd

A long focal length lens allows you, the photographer, to blend into the background.  Standing further away allows you to get great candid shots.  When you are up in someone’s face with a 35mm lens they know you are there and will react as such.  When you are shooting from 10 to 20 feet from them they will act more natural.  

Shooting across the room when children are playing is great because their attention is on having fun rather than on the camera.  It helps you capture them in their natural state.  Shooting at a distance with a fast long lens can also help isolate someone from a group of people.  Imagine you wanting to photograph a girl singing in a choir.  You can separate her from the rest of the crowd.  Unlike photos where you play 'Where's Waldo' blurring the crowd will help lead your eye to the subject adding interest to the photograph.

Photos In Space

Shooting with a long lens can remove spatial distortions.  When shooting close you may be above or below the subject and wide angle lens will show your spatial difference.  But when moving further from the subject the differences in height vanish.

Finally, shooting with different focal lengths keeps your brain working by causing you to think about each photo you take.  Know your lens, and put your camera in manual mode.  Think about your settings.  Then predict what you think may work for the lighting conditions.  Take the shot and see how accurate your guess was.  Think about the exposure triangle and make any corrections in stops of light to improve the image. 

One caveat when shooting with a long lens is that you don't want to shoot with a shutter speed lower than the length of the lens.  So a 200mm should have a shutter speed 1/200 or greater.  Remember, the crop factor.  If you are shooting with a cropped sensor Canon at 200mm you need to have your shutter speed no lower than 1/320 of a second (1.6 x 200mm = 320mm).

Uncle Fuggles was kind enough to step in as a portrait model. The images below were taken with the Nikon D7100 , the Sigma 17-50mm f/2.8 EX DC OS HSM , and the Sigma 50-150 mm f/2.8 APO EX DC OS HSM . The camera settings remained constant for each image and I only changed the focal length. The camera was set to 100ISO, f/4.5 at 1/1000 shutter.

Why does the background change while the subject remains the same?

The two images below demonstrate the difference between the 17mm and the 150mm focal lengths.  Using your imagination you can see how the wider lens captures more of the background when compared with the longer telephoto lens.  The longer lens is more narrow, so it gets right in the face of the subject without any ancillary noise from the background.