Choosing a Lens for Storytelling in Photography: Part II

Choosing a Lens for Storytelling in Photography: Part II

Welcome to the second part of Choosing a Lens for Visual Storytelling in Photography. This week, we’re going to look at the way in which lenses help you to express distance and intimacy and dive deeper into the story you want to tell.

Before we get started, head over to read part one of this article if you haven’t already. There, we discussed concerns such as location, light, and subject matter. Today, we’ll expand on those ideas by looking at a few more factors that may influence your choices of focal length or lens within that specific focal length. Let's jump right in.

Distance Between Objects

One of the easiest ways to see results of changing your focal length is how close together or far apart elements in your photograph feel to the viewer. Using your chosen focal length, you can manipulate how the viewer perceives space and thus the relationship between objects. Shorter focal lengths will render distance very differently from longer focal lengths, and you can use this optical rule to your advantage in storytelling. Let’s take a look at how this works. 

As we discussed last week, shorter focal lengths have the effect of making things closer to them seem larger than things farther away. With this, lines also become exaggerated when using a wide angle lens. This has the effect of making close objects seem much farther away from far objects. Thus, a wide angle lens can also be said to exaggerate distance. We can use this to our advantage when telling stories.

In the image below, I used a 13.5mm focal length (Laowa’s 9mm f/2.8 for Fujifilm) to emphasize this fisherman on the side of the Han River in Seoul. The added bonus I got for using such a wide-angle lens was to make the city seem a long way from where we were standing. This visual separation of the two also plays a role in emotionally separating him from the city.

Longer focal lengths do the exact opposite. Rather than rendering objects so they appear farther apart, they can actually give the impression that things are closer together than how we perceive them with our eyes. Again, this is also not a good or bad thing. It is simply a tool we can use to tell our stories. 

If I had wanted to show that the fisherman above was close to the city and fishing right in the thick of it, I would have chosen something more like a 200mm lens. By moving myself farther away and working with the longer focal length, I would have given the impression that he was much closer to the city.

I have used this technique to my advantage in the image below. Although we were more than 20 kilometers from the mountains in the background here, I was able to give the sense of proximity by using a 200mm focal length (Fujifilm XF 50-140mm) and backing away from the family when I made the image. 

Depth of Field and Story

What we show or hide can have a huge impact on the story we tell. One way to hide, reveal, or even subtly hint at things you want your viewer to read into is to work with depth of field. When choosing your lens for a storytelling image, it is important also to consider if you will need to work with an extremely narrow depth of field or not. This could also help determine your lens choice. 

Shallow depth of field can be extremely powerful in storytelling images. By making use of the right amount of blur, we can focus our viewers on exactly what we want them to look at and allow the blur to add supporting elements with details that are not clearly rendered. 

In this photograph of a trishaw rider in Yangon, Myanmar, the choice of depth of field is important. Using f/2.8 here allows me to blur the background elements to the point where they are not distracting but also remain legible. The shapes are recognizable, and we can gather some information about the place we’re in. However, they are not so detailed that we are led away from the rider’s face. 

Is It an Intimate Story?

We have looked now at many of the implications of the optics we choose, but there is one more important element when choosing the right focal length: how intimate do you want the image to feel? Do you want your viewer to feel like they are here with you, or would something more detached be appropriate for your story? 

Consider how close you need to be physically to make a head-and-shoulders portrait of a person with a 24mm lens. Now consider making that same portrait with a 135mm lens. The two will feel very different. Of course, there will be differences in the angle of view and perspective distortion will be a factor with the 24mm lens. But consider your physical proximity to the person and how that affects the way your viewer perceives the intimacy of the image. 

For this photograph, the 24mm focal length (Fujifilm XF 16mm f/1.4) was a key element in telling this story. If I had been farther back with a 50mm or 85mm lens, there would have been a disconnect between me and this moment. By getting myself physically close, I can bring you, the viewer, right here with me. 

In Conclusion

In this two-part series, we have taken a look at a few aspects you might consider when choosing which focal length to use in your storytelling. We have looked at optical factors as well as emotional ones to determine which lens we might choose. Of course, not all situations are going to allow us the time and freedom to pick and choose our lenses with so much deliberation. However, by understanding how lenses affect the way we tell our stories, we might just be able to have the right lens on at the right moment. Let us know below what lenses you use for your visual storytelling and when you choose to use them.

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Deleted Account's picture

This might sound like a chicken or egg question but, the articles are about choosing a focal length to tell a story, and I'm right there with you, but in the last photo in particular, it doesn't seem like you couldn't have had time to choose that lens but rather told the story in a way suitable to the lens you happened to be using. It doesn't really matter but, in my feeble mind, detracts from your point. Either way, that's my favorite of your examples. :-)

Dylan Goldby's picture

This went on for some time. It started with him enjoying his icecream. At that point he was wearing shoes. It was only when it started to melt that his shoes were removed and I moved to a wider lens. He was enjoying his ice-cream so much I could get right in there. This scene went on for almost 10 minutes before it ended in tears. Plenty of time.

Deleted Account's picture

Oh. Well, in that case, it was well worth the wait! I know this series is done but, perhaps in the future you could include that kind of detail. Not to satisfy me but to put the results in fuller context. Thanks!

michaeljin's picture

It really is amazing how much of a difference the choice of lens can make not only in the story being told, but the manner in which you find yourself telling those stories or even what stories are available to you. I've been trying to make it a habit lately to go out with only one lens and one camera at a time and it does take an immense amount of discipline to either try to "make it work" or let certain shots go because it's simply not right for the lens on my camera.

At first it was incredibly frustrating, but after a while it starts to become somewhat liberating not to wonder whether I should reach into my camera bag to swap out to a different focal length. It has also really brought to light how often telling the story we want means reaching for a focal length that greatly deviates from what our eyes actually see at any given point. Just for perspective, I did some research and discovered that the actual field of view of a single human eye at any given moment in time roughly matches a 22mm lens on a full frame body (this is not counting the fact that we move our eyes for our brains to stich together a scene, the fact that we have two eyes, or the fact that our brain has a tendency to focus our attention on specific details within a wider field of view).

Granted, to mimic our vision properly, we would have to have relatively simple lens with strong central focus that softens out to the peripheries, but still, how often do we pick up a lens anywhere near this focal length when we do some sort of photo essay or project involving our personal experiences? Some food for thought about how we choose to tell stories about ourselves and the things that we see.

Maximilian Sulzer's picture

It's not that our brain that does the focusing, but primarily the fact that the vast majority of color sensitive receptors are placed in the center of our retina, therefor forcing the brain to focus there. We can see everything around but not that sharp. But within milliseconds we can shift our focus and create the bigger picture you mentioned.

I think a lens that mimics that wouldn't look very pleasing.

Michael Kuszla's picture

As usual, excelent article Dylan!