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Professional Composition Techniques (3): Making Good Use of Lenses

We’ve learnt a lot about various composition techniques in the previous articles, but don’t forget that the lens/focal length that you use also plays a huge part in your composition! This article provides a brief introduction to wide-angle, standard and telephoto lenses and some composition techniques to make the best of them. (Reported by: Tatsuya Tanaka)


Wide-angle lenses

Wide-angle prime lens: Focal length below 35mm
Wide-angle zoom lens: Focal length range below 35mm
Wide-angle focal length range: Up to 35mm
Ultra-wide-angle lens: Focal length below 24mm

*All focal lengths at 35mm film equivalent

The wide-angle angle-of-view

Wide-angle angle-of-view

A: Angle-of-view
B: Lens

As the name suggests, wide-angle lenses have a wide horizontal angle-of-view that is generally between approximately 60º to 100º. In comparison, human eyes have a field-of-view of approximately 40º to 60º if you don’t move your eyes.

A larger angle-of-view means that wide-angle lenses can capture a large part of the scene in front of you, possibly even what you don’t immediately notice.

Fun fact: One reason why 24mm is such a popular focal length for landscape photography is because its angle-of-view (74º horizontally, 53º vertically) is around the same as that of human vision when looking at something in the distance.


Use wide-angle lenses to exaggerate distances

Due to the perspective phenomenon, nearby objects appear bigger and distant objects appear smaller. A wide-angle lens exaggerates this so that objects near the camera appear disproportionately bigger, and those further from the camera appear smaller. This is called the perspective exaggeration effect.

Ice on river

* Image courtesy of Canon

Ice on river (grid)

Floating ice on a river. The perspective exaggeration effect makes the ice look bigger and closer. Meanwhile, the land in the background looks smaller, further away and more vast.

Composition tip: Use the perspective exaggeration effect to emphasise your foreground subjects. Here, I placed the ice in the centre at the bottom third of the Rule of Thirds composition, where it carries more visual weight and is closer to the camera.


Use wide-angle lenses for shots with leading lines

The perspective exaggeration effect is especially obvious with roads, rivers, paths and other subjects with parallel lines due to the convergence effect. It can be used to create leading lines that guide the viewer’s attention to a vanishing point. 

Streetscape with leading lines

Streetscape showing diagonal leading lines

In this shot, the double convergence effect from the buildings and the road has created diagonal leading lines that direct our attention to where they intersect—in this case, the person in the middle of the scene.


For wide-angle lenses, a 2mm focal length difference matters a lot

The difference in horizontal angle-of-view between focal length 16mm and 18mm is around 7º (96.7º vs 90º according to this angle-of-view calculator), and results in the following difference.

16mm vs 18mm

However, the difference in angle-of-view is less significant at longer focal lengths (standard and telephoto lenses). For example, on a telephoto lens, the 50mm difference between 200mm (10.3º) and 250mm (8.2º) yields a difference in angle-of-view of only about 2º.

Find out more about composing with wide-angle lenses here: 
Exploring Wide Angle Lenses Part 2: Composition Techniques for Wide-Angle Lenses


Standard lenses

Standard prime lens: Focal length between 40-60mm* (50mm is most common)
Standard zoom lens: On Canon, lenses with focal range* 24-70mm, 28-70mm, 24-105mm, etc
Standard focal range: Between 35-135mm*
(Note: The 70-135mm range is also considered “medium telephoto”)

*All focal lengths at 35mm film equivalent

The standard angle-of-view

Standard angle-of-view

A: Angle-of-view
B: Lens

Generally, the horizontal angle-of-view of a standard lens is between 25º and 40º, which falls between that of a wide-angle lens and a telephoto lens. This angle-of-view is called “standard” or “normal” because it gives a field-of-view, depth and perspective that closely resembles human vision.

Note this: A standard zoom lens also covers focal lengths that are classified as “wide-angle” and “medium telephoto”. This makes them very versatile!


Use standard zoom lenses to capture subjects with no visible distortion

If you use a wide-angle to shoot subjects with straight lines, such as tall buildings, perspective exaggeration will distort these lines even if you are not tilting the camera upward. Using a standard focal length helps to eliminate these distortions. 

Buildings at 50mm

* Image courtesy of Canon

Showing close-up area at 50mm

FL: 50mm

50mm crop
Showing close-up area at 35mm

FL: 35mm

35mm crop

Buildings, bridges and other structures with straight lines feature heavily in cityscapes. Notice how, in the 35mm (wide-angle) example, the line formed by the side of the church seems to lean towards the centre? That's the result of perspective exaggeration. In comparison, the lines are straight in the 50mm example, which was shot from the same position.

Tip: Keep the camera level. Tilting the camera upward/downward will distort the perspective on any lens.

Standard lenses are also great for point-of-view shots. Find out more in:
Standard Lens Techniques: Using the Point of View to Draw the Viewer In

Telephoto Lenses

Telephoto prime lens: Focal length 200mm or more
Telephoto zoom lens: Zoom lenses with a telephoto end of 200mm or more
Medium telephoto focal range: Around 70-135mm (definitions say 85-135mm)
Super telephoto lens: Focal length more than 300mm

*All focal lengths at 35mm film equivalent

The telephoto angle-of-view

Telephoto angle-of-view

A: Angle-of-view
B: Lens

Telephoto lenses magnify distant objects, “pulling” them in to make them appear closer. This also makes the horizontal angle-of-view is also narrower, usually between 10º and 15º.

Know this: Many people associate landscape photography with wide-angle lenses. However, shooting landscapes with a telephoto lens can result in unique images too. The narrower angle-of-view makes it easier to isolate elements that you want to draw attention to.


Telephoto lenses let you close in on faraway objects​

A telephoto focal length draws in distant subjects so that they appear bigger and closer. This makes them useful for taking close-ups of a subject when you can't or don't want to physically move closer to it.

Sea and land at 50mm
Sea and land at 300mm
50mm with grid

FL: 50mm

300mm with grid

FL: 300mm

The two shots above were taken from the same position using different lenses. A focal length of 300mm allows a close-up of the ridge of land and the waves rolling into it, using the 6:3 composition.

Also see: Composition Tips for Making Mist Pop


Telephoto lenses can compress distances between subjects

A telephoto focal length doesn’t just make faraway things look closer to us, it can also make things look closer to each other. This is called the “perspective compression effect”, "distance compression effect" or "stacking effect". 

Mountains and moon at 500mm

Mountains and moon with grid

In this shot captured at 500mm, the mountains in the foreground seem to be "pressed" onto the same plane as the moon, when in fact the moon is far behind the mountains. This effect allowed me to place the moon at an intersection on the Rule of Thirds grid. You can use this effect for artistic purposes, or to make things look denser and more crowded.

Know this (1): Different telephoto length ranges are popular for different uses

- 85 to 135mm: Provides a comfortable sense of distance from the subject, which is why they are often used in portraiture.
- 150 to 300mm: Suitable for drawing attention to specific elements in landscapes. Popular among natural landscape photographers.
- Super telephoto (anything above 300mm): These lenses are essential for photographing wildlife, birds, and sports.

Know this (2): Telephoto lenses are more prone to camera shake

This is because they have a longer body than other types of lenses. Take precautions to stabilise your shot, such as by using a tripod, monopod or faster shutter speed.

Find out more about lenses in: Lenses 101

See other articles in this series:
1. Visual Guidance, Unexpectedness, and Subtraction
2. “Pattern & Rhythm” & “S-Curve”
4. Using Special Lenses


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Digital Camera Magazine

Digital Camera Magazine

A monthly magazine that believes that enjoyment of photography will increase the more one learns about camera functions. It delivers news on the latest cameras and features and regularly introduces various photography techniques.
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Tatsuya Tanaka

Tatsuya Tanaka

Born in 1956, Tanaka is one of the rare photographers who produce works across a wide variety of genres from an original perspective. These genres range from objects in our daily lives, such as insects and flowers, to landscapes, skyscapes, and celestial bodies. Besides photography, Tanaka has also developed his own approach in post processes including retouch and printing.