We often spend time choosing a lens for its technical qualities but there’s something more important. The sharpest lens in the world isn’t going to save you if you can’t convey something to your viewer with it.
Most photographs contain a story in some form or another. Fashion images often contain the brand story, landscape images can contain the story of our earth, and even family snapshots convey the story of the moments our families experience. No matter how simple your story, as a photographer, you should still consider how it will be told and select the best tools to tell that story. In this article (the first installment of two), we’re going to look briefly at lenses and how they contribute to story.
For the purposes of this article, I will use “lens” and “focal length” interchangeably. All we really need to be concerned about are the properties of the focal length we’re using. I’ll also be talking in terms of 35mm full-frame focal lengths. For crop or larger sensor users, please make the necessary conversions.
What is the story you want to tell?
The best place to start when considering your lens for storytelling is the story itself. What is it you are trying to say? What is your photograph going to be about? No lens is going to convey this for you, but it can help you tell the story in the way you want to. So, consider what you are trying to say as the photographer before breaking out your lenses.
This doesn’t necessarily have to be a lengthy process of weighing up pros and cons. You don’t need to spend hours deliberating. Go with how you want your scene to feel and choose the appropriate focal length. In order to consider this, let’s take a look at a few of the constraints you might face and how your lens can help you tell the story within those boundaries.
Once you’ve given some time to consider the story you want to tell, think about the location you’ll be working in. What are the visual elements you might be working with? Are there converging lines that could be accentuated with a wide-angle lens? Is there a lot of space to work or will you be restricted in your movement? Are there messy backgrounds that could benefit from being blurred using a narrow depth of field?
If you’re working in a wide open space without any particularly relevant backgrounds, you might choose to work with a longer lens and a shallow depth of field. That way you can focus your story on the subject directly and make sure the viewer gets to see only them.
You might find yourself working in a space like the one below with converging lines that can be used to draw the eye of your viewer to the subject while still ensuring they get enough supporting detail from the environment. Here a wide angle lens (15mm - actually a Fujifilm XF 10-24mm f/4) works to turn quite a small space into something visually interesting that tells the story of the barista. Thankfully, I had enough light to allow an aperture of f/5.6 which gave detail throughout the frame.
I could just as easily have switched out to my 35mm lens and made a tight shot of the barista at work or my 85mm to get just her hands and the coffee, but that was not my story here. The choice of the ultra-wide angle allowed me to gather all the information I needed to tell the story of this local business. It also gave me the inherent depth of field I needed to show all the elements of the environment.
Above, you saw that I used an ultra-wide-angle lens for a photograph of a person. Some might warn you against his, but I would caution you to experiment. You need to be very aware of how close they are to the camera and whereabouts in the frame they are. Closer objects will appear much larger than they do when viewed with our eyes and subjects near the edges of the frame may suffer from the effects of barrel distortion. If your goal is to flatter your subject, you may need to work extra hard to ensure they stay distortion free. However, if they are simply part of the story, as above, you have a little more freedom with where you place them in the frame.
If you are trying to flatter a person, this is most easily done with a longer focal length such as 50mm or 85mm. These longer focal lengths will generally not result in visible distortions that might render the subject in a non-flattering way. You can then focus your mind on the other parts of the scene and story, rather than worrying about how the lens might affect the subject.
Of course, you’ll want to be aware that a longer focal length is going to necessitate a longer working distance and come with an inherently shallower depth of field. Two things could result from this when you’re working on a storytelling image. The blur from the shallow depth of field may affect the way supporting elements in your frame tell your story. Illegible objects could add to or detract from your story. Also, the additional distance between you and your subject may not only affect your rapport but can be visible in the final image, giving the viewer a perceived distance from the subject as well. These are, again, not rules. They are things to be aware of when trying to tell a story.
Below, the Fujifilm XF 50-140mm f/2.8 (a 70-200 "equivalent"), gives a sense of distance from the couple. There is a gap between us that would not have been present had I used a shorter lens, like a 35mm.
What sort of lighting will you be working in? Will that be a concern for you? If your story demands you work with the available light and it’s not plentiful, you may need to work with a very wide-aperture lens in order to gather enough light for your picture. However, if you’re working with strobes and can control everything, this may not be a concern for you.
In the example below, which is fairly common in an evening wedding ceremony, I would have required a much higher ISO value than I used to get an image with both sets of people in focus. ISO 12800 would have allowed me f/4 in this case, but f/1.4 (using Fujifilm’s XF 16mm f/1.4) allows me to make two cleaner images. One image of the bride’s father and one of her mother. These tell separate emotional stories and allow me a technical “advantage” in my storytelling.
Focal length and aperture can help or hinder in your visual storytelling. Today we’ve looked at some of the concerns you’ll face and how lenses can help you overcome them. We’ve looked at location, subject matter, and light as drivers for your lens choice in visual storytelling. Next week, we’ll focus more deeply on the story you want to tell, intimacy, and more on how focal length will determine the story you tell. Thanks for getting this far and see you next week!