Lens Choice: How Changing Your Focal Length Affects Your Look - Part 2

August 29, 2017

This article was originally published on August 18th, 2017 and has been updated to include current information.

In my last article, we learned about the effect that focal length can have on our imagery, and took a close look at focal lengths ranging from 11 to 70mm. Here, we'll continue the discussion of focal lengths with special attention to focal lengths ranging from 85mm to 200mm. We'll also take a look at the effects you can achieve with a tilt-shift lens.

Short Telephoto Lenses

Lenses that are anywhere from 85mm to 135mm are short telephoto lenses, when you’re using a full-frame digital camera.  The 85mm focal length is quite a thing of beauty, compressing the background into lovely softness. The focal length combined with a maximum aperture of f/1.8 or even f/1.2 makes for an amazing portrait lens and is a favorite among portrait photographers.

Canon EOS 5D Mark II, EF 85mm f/1.8
1/400 sec; f/2.2; ISO 500

Canon EOS 5D Mark II, EF 85mm f/1.8
1/640 sec; f/1.8; ISO 200

Look at that lovely soft background.

Canon EOS 5D Mark II, EF 85mm f/1.8
1/640 sec; f/2.0; ISO 400

Moving to longer lens lengths finds us at 100mm. I'm going to talk a little bit about the 100mm f/2.8L Macro lens. I've had a chance to play with it a bit, and it's AMAZING. You have the ability to take a close-up macro shot and also use it as a portrait lens.

My nephew has ridiculous eyelashes. So unfair.

Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, EF 100mm f/2.8L IS Macro lens
1/100 sec; f/4.5; ISO 1000

Even though this lens goes to f/2.8, when I am taking macro shots, I make my aperture smaller to get more in focus. Depth of field with macro shots can be extremely shallow due to how close you are to the subject. This eyelash image was shot at f/4.5 and still, you can see that some of the eyelashes are out of focus. I could have closed down my aperture even more but I was already shooting at an ISO of 1000 and shutter speed of 1/100 and didn't want to introduce more noise into the image with a higher ISO, or risk camera shake with a slower shutter speed, so I left it at f/4.5.

With this same lens, I'm able to get great portraits due to both a longer focal length and larger aperture. Here's one of my beautiful daughter. She's wearing my clothes now. I have yet to find a camera that can actually just freeze the age of my kids. Hey Canon engineers...you'd make a KILLING if you could figure that out. Could you get to work on that? Thanks.

Canon EOS 5D Mark III, EF 100mm f/2.8L IS Macro lens
1/250 sec; f/2.8; ISO 250

Canon EOS 5D Mark III, EF 100mm f/2.8L IS Macro lens
1/200 sec; f/2.8; ISO 400

Medium Telephoto Lenses

Medium telephoto lenses have a focal length of 135 through about 300mm. Most portrait photographers aren't shooting portraits at a focal length greater than 200mm, so our discussion of lenses will end at the focal length of 200mm.

One of my all time favorite portrait lenses is the Canon 135 f/2.0L lens. This focal length renders absolutely gorgeous portraits. I often gasp after taking a photo with this lens. This lens does not have image stabilization, and I'm not the steadiest when I photograph, so I try to keep my shutter speed higher than 1/500 sec — unless I have a very cooperative model.

Canon EOS 5D Mark II, EF 135mm f/2L lens
1/200 sec; f/2.2; ISO 800

Canon EOS 5D Mark III, EF 135mm f/2L lens
1/320 sec; f/2.8; ISO 1000

Canon EOS 5D Mark III, EF 135mm f/2L lens
1/500 sec; f/2.8; ISO 250

Canon EOS 5D Mark III, EF 135mm f/2L lens
1/640 sec; f/2.2; ISO 250

If you're loving the buttery goodness of the foreground and background of images shot with a longer focal length, you might want to consider the 70-200 f/2.8L lens; or if money isn't an option, go for the 200 f/2.0L lens. These two lenses are typically considered to be sports lenses, and they certainly are wonderful for capturing sports when you can't go running out onto the field! But they make beautiful portrait lenses too, as you're about to see. But keep in mind, both of these lenses are heavy. The 70-200 f/2.8L lens is 2.9 lbs. and the 200 f/2.0L lens is 5.6 lbs. That doesn't include the weight of your camera, so just be prepared if you opt for one of them!

There's a reason photographers will cart a heavy lens around with them. The images produced by these lenses are absolutely lovely. If shooting at 200mm, though, you do have to make sure you have enough room to back up! This flower patch is right at the edge of a street, and to get the focal length of 200mm, I had to stand in the middle of the street. As a photographer who likes to be closer to my subjects, backing up so far to get the composition that I want takes some getting used to, but the results are worth it. It’s a gorgeous look.

Canon EOS 5D Mark III, EF 70-200mm f/2.8L at 200mm
1/640 sec; f/2.8; ISO 640

Another nice advantage of a longer lens is the ability to sort of "peek" into someone's life. By not being right next to your subject, they are more likely to forget you're there.

Canon EOS 5D Mark III, EF 70-200mm f/2.8L at 200mm
1/500 sec; f/2.8; ISO 500

Canon EOS 5D Mark III, EF 70-200mm f/2.8L at 200mm
1/250 sec; f/2.8; ISO 800

These two images, photographed with the same 70-200 f/2.8L lens, really show the difference that focal length makes. The image on the left shows much more defined trees, while trees in the image on the right have just blurred into pretty shades of green and brown.

Canon EOS 5D Mark III, EF 70-200mm f/2.8L, 70mm on the left; 200mm on the right
1/200 sec; f/2.8; ISO 320

The Canon 200mm f/2.0 lens is a whopper of a lens. You might want to work out your arms a little before getting it! This is a lens you may want to consider using with a monopod, especially if you shoot for long periods of time. But dang, if the photos aren't incredible. When the subject is far away from the background, and you shoot with a long lens and large aperture, the background just becomes a blur, really making your subject pop. And uh, Canon peeps, I am REALLY needing that time-stopping device.

Canon EOS 5D Mark III, EF 200mm f/2.0L
1/320 sec; f/2.0; ISO 250

Canon EOS 5D Mark III, EF 200mm f/2.0L
1/400 sec; f/2.0; ISO 250

This is a great illustration of the difference between a wide-angle shot and telephoto shot. Do you see that little cloud in the image on the left? Looks rather insignificant, huh? Just a small part of the sky. Now look at the SAME cloud on the right. The 200mm lens compresses and magnifies the background to make it look like the cloud is right next to her and HUGE. I simply backed away with the 200mm lens, until she was about the same size in the frame as in the wide-angle shot. Pretty cool!

Canon EOS 5D Mark III
On left: EF 16-35 f/2.8 lens; right: EF 200mm f/2.0 lens

Tilt-shift Lenses

We've talked about a lot of different lenses and hopefully by now you have a much better understanding about how focal lengths and lenses can impact your final image. I wanted to give a quick "WOW" to the 24mm TS-E f/3.5L lens. This lens is not typically a portrait lens. It was originally designed for architectural photography, where having completely straight lines in buildings is important. In portrait photography, it is used to skew the plane of focus. It also can give some tremendously cool sun flare.

In this image, check out the line of focus that goes up the middle of the photo. This was achieved by tilting the lens. The grass, my daughter, and the tree behind her are all in focus, while the rest of the image, on both sides is blurry. If I had had another person in the photo, that person could have been placed in that same line of focus and would have been sharp! Be warned that the tilt-shift lens does not have autofocus. You have to manually focus, which can be challenging to do. I used Live View on my Canon EOS 5D Mark III to zoom into my daughter's face, so I could be sure that I had gotten focus. And even with my best efforts, only half of her face was actually in focus. I still need to practice!

Canon EOS 5D Mark III, TS-E 24mm f/3.5L II
1/320 sec; f/3.5; ISO 800

One of the coolest things for me about the tilt-shift lens is the amazing sun flare you can achieve. It makes everything extremely dreamy. Pretty sun flare, unexpected blur... I love it!

Canon EOS 5D Mark III, TS-E 24mm f/3.5L II
1/250 sec; f/3.5; ISO 400

Prior to August 2017, Canon had four tilt-shift lenses in the lineup.  There are two wide-angle Tilt-Shift lenses, the ultra-wide TS-E 17mm f/4L, and the wide-angle TS-E 24mm f/3.5L II, which I used here.  Canon has just introduced three new Tilt-Shift lenses which should be outstanding for portraits -- the TS-E 50mm f/2.8L Macro, which gives a normal-lens perspective on a full-frame camera;  the TS-E 90mm f/2.8L Macro, which gives a traditional portrait-length telephoto perspective;  and the entirely new TS-E 135mm f/4L Macro, which should be tremendous for portraits, with its longer telephoto perspective.

Canon EOS 5D Mark III, TS-E 24mm f/3.5L II
1/400 sec; f/4.0; ISO 500

Choosing the best lens for your needs can be a daunting task. There are so many different choices, all with their own set of pros and cons. I have found that I can't live with just one lens. I love the 16-35mm f/2.8L lens for fun, wide-angle shots and am always bummed out when I don't bring this lens. I also adore the 24-70mm f/2.8 lens. You get pretty good wide-angle images as well as the ability to zoom in and get a more compressed background. For portraits where I want a blurry, compressed, magnified background, I love the 135L f/2.0 lens. I'm definitely a fan of the 70-200mm f/2.8 lens but find the weight of it to be too much, and since I pretty much can never leave home without at least a couple of lenses, the weight of the 70-200mm f/2.8L doesn't work for me. If I needed a 70-200mm focal length in my bag, the EF 70-200mm f/4L-series lens (IS or non IS) is definitely an option. Either works great for portraits as they're both very sharp and about half the weight of the f/2.8 versions. 

I know photographers who almost exclusively use the 70-200mm or even the 200mm lens, and their work is incredible. For me, I can't narrow down which lenses to use. I sometimes will force myself to only shoot with one lens so I can appreciate all the fine intricacies that a lens has to offer. And that's the beauty of photography. There is always more to discover. Always new ways to be creative. What a gift photography is! We are so lucky!

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