I'm ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille!
Gloria Swanson's famous line to director Cecil B. DeMille provided the inspiration for my discussion of telephoto lenses. Close-up (CU) shooting is definitely where it's at if you want impact in your films.
In fact, close-up shooting is a big challenge for everybody-videographer, director, scriptwriter, editor, actor, and, of course, makeup and hair design. Think of it this way: Every possible flaw or error is blatantly obvious at close range, and this fact is magnified in the HD/DSLR era. It's easy to see how the actor and his or her makeup and wardrobe attendants have a major stake in how the close-up looks. For the young and beautiful, the tiniest wrinkle is a grand disaster. A mature actor generally wants to appear in the best light. And if playing a very old character, both actor and audience want the magic of brush and pencil to be seamless and believably real, even at a distance of just a few inches.
Close-ups can be compared to golf. The long drive, or beautiful wide shot, is all for show. Putting the ball a few inches from the hole is akin to shooting a meaningful close-up: It's where you make your money or come up short.
A great example of the importance of close-ups is James Cameron's Avatar. Just like DeMille's sweeping epic views that made similarly huge box office success, Avatar's panoramic scenes put on quite a show. But when it comes to the close-ups, or extreme close-ups (ECUs), the "eyes have it." All my still photo colleagues say that the "eyes are the window of the soul." I don't think I've ever seen a super-close portrait of a child with big, liquid, innocent eyes fail in competition. Cameron's insistence on real eyes with depth and reflection is a technological marvel, and an insane budget buster. The eyes alone are worth double the price of admission. But for me, the top adorability factor from the film has to be the twitchy little ears, followed closely by the synapse-y (and equally twitchy) tail feathers.
Using Telephotos and Super Telephotos
There's telephoto and then there's super telephoto. In the first category, you find the ubiquitous 70mm-200mm zooms, which are available in ƒ/2.8 and the much lighter ƒ/4, preferably the more expensive stabilized models. There are also the fixed-focus 135mm and 200mm, and several other zoom lengths. You'll most likely be interested in the 70mm-200mm due to its relative ease of use and reasonable price. You'll see photographers most frequently with the ƒ/2.8, and it's definitely the workhorse. But at 3.24 lbs., it's a pretty big boy. I certainly use it when working on a tripod to get the benefit of the extra ƒ/stop, but you'll usually find me with the ƒ/4 model, which is half the weight and two-thirds of the cost.
Super telephotos are another breed of cat at 400mm, 500mm, 600mm, and 800mm. If you look at the higher end of super telephoto lenses, you'll see that you can spend less money on a new car. A usual job tends to demand that I be physically close, mixing right into the action. If you have the funds, buy a super telephoto, but be aware that you may not use it all that often (unless you're a wildlife shooter), and you'll have to learn an entirely different method of support for your camera and tracking of your subjects. Think lions and tigers and bears!
Back to how and why we use tight shots for the best visual payoff. Getting right in the face of the character and action creates the strongest emotional reaction from the audience. As a child I was so terrified by the warty witch filling the screen of Snow White that I hid under the seat. The scene had an undeniably effective impact! But close-ups have to be used sparingly and at just the right moments. If you use too many tight shots, viewers can easily be put off-not just with the sensation that their personal space is being invaded but, worse, that the overall meaning of the action is unclear because the wider picture is not shown. Dialogue and action must be supported by the blocking of the shot, precise movement and positioning, as well as such technical matters as the angle, lens choice, and distance of the camera. This is a problem for the screenwriter, director, DP, and editor alike.
Extreme close-ups that pick a pretty face out of a crowd are the reward of a telephoto lens, bokeh focus, and the happenstance of beautiful existing lighting combined with bounced flash using the Ultimate Light Box.
Unfortunately, the technical side is not so easy. Using telephoto lenses can be just plain difficult. They're heavy, unwieldy, and harder to use when tracking the action. They have a higher ƒ/number than shorter, prime lenses. Especially at close range, a given ƒ/stop effectively covers a smaller slice of sharpness. We have all had the experience of zooming in only to find the action has moved and there was absolutely nothing in the viewfinder! Here's where practicing technique with some fast-moving sports photography will stand you in good stead-and make you feel very humble. Check out popular speaker Joe McNally's tutorials (www.joemcnally.com) for some creative ways to handhold these lenses by using your arm and elbow for greater stabilization when there's no tripod or guerrilla support in sight.
Here's what longer telephoto lenses are good for:
• Capturing ultra close-ups for best impact
• Compressing distance for special effect
• Creating bokeh with selective focus and superior distance layering
• Bridging distance in specialty situations such as in a large hall, across a street, or over a pond or a playing field to move in on action
• Shooting theater, political, or platform presentations where you have to operate far back in the audience
• Photographing wildlife, doing surveillance, or shooting in other dangerous situations
• Working in restricted venues
And the cons:
• Difficult to handhold in lower lighting, even with image stabilization: tripod preferred; monopod possible
• Higher ƒ/numbers only, more limited light-gathering ability
• Atmospheric effects such as heat waves rising affect focus, just as much as camera shake
• Action can quickly move outside the frame
• Pinpoint accuracy of focus required
• Heavy and bulky: difficult to carry comfortably on your person by yourself
Except when locked down on a tripod, I'll admit to having trouble handling telephotos. Unless I'm shooting in very bright light where I can take a fast shutter speed, I can't hold still enough. The old rule is never use a shutter speed slower than the millimeter length of the lens. Even with stabilization, I find that most people overestimate their ability to hold steady. Video is, of course, much more challenging than still capture in this respect-an instant recipe for unusable shaky cam. You can't afford this kind of failure.
Tip to Fool the Camera Into ECU
I often find that rather than fight the potential for image failure with longer lenses, I'll choose the 100mm. Remember, I mentioned that's my favorite, and with good reason. Sometimes I have to work so quickly that I don't know how I will use a shot later, and I want to preserve my options for subject size and angle. With still capture, the chip of the Canon 5D Mark II is so big that I can plan to crop a close shot to an attractive ECU without much harm to the photo.
In video it's a different story. My husband and partner, Karl, feels comfortable cropping about 10% in post with his Sony EX3. He notes that cropping flexibility without damage is a great reason to move up to a 3,000, 4,000, or 5,000 capture in a much more expensive camera. Of course, my advice is to use guerrilla tactics to save or improve shots after the fact. It's always better to get the right blocking and framing in the can to start with. If it sounds like I'm telling you that telephoto lenses can create more problems for you than they solve, you're right! Chasing the action will instantly make your capture look amateurish and jumpy; brides definitely prefer smooth and steady. You've probably heard the prebroadcast controversy over the upcoming, entirely 5D Mark II-shot episode of House and the negative comments about jumpy and out-of-focus capture. Zooming and moving the center of the frame is very difficult to execute; even with lots of practice this is still a challenge every time. And it's even less forgiving if your lens is at the longest telephoto extension. It's safer to leave off the zoom and pan and/or reframe.
Before (left) and after (right): close-up with a 100mm lens on a company executive allows the hands to add expression to the words spoken. Cropping in post brings a different meaning with facial intensity and still shows the colorful but soft-focus corporate logo as subtle identity recognition in the background.
Lighting and sound will take on challenges of their own with telephoto capture. Unless you have a crew to take care of these aspects while you direct, distance from the subject is not your friend. Stuff tends to get in the line of the camera view, and it is so far away you fail to notice it. Plan on wireless mics and lighting that can be hidden. Double-check for shadows, scene, and prop continuity. Otherwise voiceovers, story narration, or a wild music soundtrack will be your only options. The end advice is that CU and ECU are specialty setups in themselves, and they require a very different approach than wide or normal-angle scenes.
That said, the power of CU and ECU shots is undeniable. This is one of the best ways to create impact and lasting storytelling-not to mention billable effects.
Tip for Moneymaking at Weddings and Events
In some communities, it's common to invite hundreds of wedding guests-500, 700, even 1,000-and those guests like to have pictures of their own. Photographers often hire a second crew to create a quick portrait studio set just to photograph guests and their families on spec. Our Western brides generally plan much smaller numbers, but they are equally interested in guest portraits.
Reaching with a telephoto lens across a 10-person round table at a wedding reception produces a party atmosphere, bokeh, and charming expressions of the bride’s favorite aunt and uncle. In my personal dictionary, I’ve expanded the meaning of bokeh to include levels of light and dark that make a subject stand out from the background, just like levels of sharpness.
Here's where your telephoto lens will do wonders. At least for the VIPs, I like to make casual close-ups, often at the table. These are not general overall table pictures or wedding wishes, which can be terribly awkward. Move in tight; eliminate most of the table clutter; be careful that the background blurs out with bokeh but still shows that there's a party going on. Take just a moment to get guests comfortable so they can smile and look their best for the camera.
The bride will buy these images as live video or as a still-image slideshow chapter with music/video overlay. As one bride told me, "I was so glad to see all my friends and family, close-up and attractive."
Sara Frances (studio at photomirage.com) and 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.”