InFusion | Medium Telephoto Lenses: You're Gonna Like the Way You Look
Posted Jun 2, 2010

The darlings of my photo bag are my medium telephoto lenses. And no, I’m not bowled over by just any shiny piece of glass that comes along. Being a people photographer at heart, odds are you’ll most often find me behind an 85mm or a 100mm optical device. Medium telephoto lenses can generally be considered the range from 75mm to about 135mm. Almost all are prime fixed focal length. I should mention the Canon 24mm–70mm and 70mm–105mm zooms, which have slight variations of mm from other manufacturers. At ƒ/2.8 and ƒ/4 respectively, they’re certainly handy, but I find I use them less often and, instead, opt for the superior sharpness of fixed focal length, lighter weight, and far better ƒ/stop—in fact, 2–3 stops better to help out with low light and the constant demand for bokeh. But beware of progressive zoom lenses that look like a bargain but don’t serve the pro well.

Why are medium telephoto lenses the classic portrait photographer’s choice? Simply because they make everyone look good and in proportion. But wait! Didn’t I say in last month’s column that normal-angle lenses reproduce the same relationship, proportion, and size of objects the eye sees? True enough, but when photographing people in head-and-shoulders or waist-high poses, a normal lens must be used at such close range that it takes on some of the negative characteristics of wide-angle lenses, namely that foreground or closer objects will seem disproportionately large. Would you want your nose to seem wide and long, a shoulder facing the camera bulky, or giant hands grasping heavy knees thrust out in front of you? I didn’t think so!

Try this phenomenon for yourself by filling the frame with your subject, first with a 50mm and then with a 100mm lens. In real life, we hardly notice this phenomenon. But in two dimensions, we all feel we look better when our features are compressed and effectively slenderized into greater harmony in the eye of the telephoto lens.

Here’s what moderate telephoto lenses are good for:
• Beautifully proportioned classic portraiture
• Superior isolation of a person or object that is not too far away
• Allowing you to politely stay back a bit rather than invading a speaker’s comfort zone during the presentation
• Easy bokeh at lower ƒ/stop range
• Picking people out of a crowd
• Achieving a characteristically tight, cinematic look
• Speed, lightness in weight
• Allowing photojournalists to remain inconspicuous

And the cons are as follows:
• Not being able to back up far enough to get several people in a crowd in the frame
• Not getting close enough to small objects (unless you select a heavier, macrocapable lens)
• Incrementally more difficult and mistake-ridden to focus on-the-fly
• Often, not really long enough for some PR applications and contemporary close-up portraiture
• Heavy and pricey for the lowest ƒ/stop in this category

I’m very definite in my requirements when it comes to the lens’ weight. Yes, I’m ready to buy the best glass available. And since dim lighting is prevalent in most of my public relations jobs, I demand that my lenses focus the quickest and most accurately as possible. Here’s how you can see what works for you in just a few moments: Compare store demo lenses, one very fast and expensive, and another not quite as fast. Use your own camera body to test because you are more familiar with its sound and function. Focus on something close, then something far, and back and forth, taking turns with both lenses. Note how long the autofocus takes to grab sharpness in the lower light of the store or trade show. And note the lenses’ physical weight. My arm would begin to ache with the length of time it takes for the heavier yet faster ƒ/stop lens to focus, and the expression or fleeting moment I was striving to capture would be long gone. Not to mention the fact that it’s five times more expensive than the medium telephotos!

That’s why I’ve chosen the cheaper, more nimble lenses over the finest quality.

Shooting-Style Philosophy
The current fashion calls for very tight composition. Wedding and portrait instructors used to recommend giving your subject some “room to breathe” in the image. That’s not bad advice, and we certainly do this for all environmental family portraits.

But this style is only one facet of complete event coverage. Thanks to the influence of TV and music videos, close-ups are hugely popular—even super close-ups where a portion of the face or head may be cut off. It’s now OK to show people larger than life in two dimensions—up close and personal, in the midst of the action.

It’s always possible to crop stills in post, but quality can suffer when you do this. If you work hybrid like I do, it’s a much better idea to compose by means of your lens choice in-camera. And medium telephoto lenses have been great problem solvers for me in these scenarios.

Platform speaker programs provide another place to take advantage of medium telephotos. You’re not doing portraits; you’re showing dynamic presenters in action, performing for a crowd. There is often a stage and a lectern, and you can’t get too close, maybe 8'–10' away. The worst thing, however, is to get in the way of the audience’s appreciation of the program. If you do that, you’re just another rude photographer/videographer—not a good reputation to foster. Crop the extraneous in-camera with a 100mm, but get the entire gesture of the speaker, with just enough looseness to the composition to lay in type for the speaker’s name, program title, and logo. This kind of carefully crafted image makes first-class PR and plays well on social media and as blog illustrations. You can’t have too many! Post a new one every few days.

Tips for PR and Speaker Program Shooting
These jobs move so fast that you often find yourself in a guesswork situation for exposure and white balance; guess wrong and the postproduction will kill you. Why? Because you’re often working at very high ISO in low-light conditions. Contrary to popular belief, and even with today’s high ISO-capable cameras such as my Canon 5D Mark II and capturing in RAW, you actually can’t fix everything in post. Level the playing field with better capture technique. Even a few extra minutes in advance will give you time to make a test exposure or two in a seminar room before the speaker gets on stage. Then you know you’ll be close.

It’s exasperating that hotels and facilities that host presentations aren’t necessarily the same in exposure and color tone, digitally speaking, from one event to the next. There are all manners of little variables to contend with. And if you need to cover five or six concurrent sessions in different rooms, like I do at WEVA Expo, even though those rooms may look similar, they have a different color response. Test your camera and make notes so you don’t have to try to remember the correct start numbers each time you visit that particular room. Remember too that lenses will have a bit of color variation. If you’re depending on ambient light only, these factors will drive you a little crazy in the quest for accuracy.

Add Some Flash
No groaning please! The philosophy is no different than lighting for video—it’s not “if” or “how” or “when” to light, but rather using the light to control the effect. As no videographer would consider going out without a kit, I would not consider going without my flash. And flash is much simpler than you think. All it takes is an Ultimate Light Box (ULB) flash modifier from Harbor Digital Design (www.ultimate lightbox.com or B&H, Dury’s, etc.). If you’ve been to WEVA Expo the last few years, you’ve seen me using it, and I must tell you this flash modifier has changed my professional life. There are other units available, but only this one comes with 10 interchangeable parts. The modular design allows modification of the light output in so many different ways that I have not met a situation it could not handle.

Sara Frances trade show shots
These popular video conference speakers were all photographed with medium tele lenses and flash modified with the Ultimate Light Box.

And why flash? (Those of you who do strictly video, just think about hot lights and fluorescent banks. The approach and advantages really are similar.) The lighting you bring in is a known color. When you add flash or hot lights to ambient, the color evens out, and you get much more uniform, repeatable results; no unattractive color crossovers. Gels can be used to their best advantage. You get better volume of light for exposure, less variation from different camera positions on set, and the appearance of crispness to details. You get sparkle to the eyes and features. With the ULB flash modifier, it’s even possible to achieve directionality to flash on camera. Amazing? You bet! Visit the video tutorials on the ULB site to see how it’s done.

Next time I’ll talk about those handsome long lenses and specialty applications.

Sara Frances (studio at photomirage.com) with husband/partner Karl Arndt collaborate in their own unique brand of Fusion as “Foto-Griots” whose work has evolved past photojournalism into what they call 'Storytelling from the Heart."