How to Control Your Portrait Backgrounds With a 70-200mm Telephoto Lens

No matter if you photograph headshots, weddings, portraits, or sports, one of the most important skills you can have as a photographer is picking out interesting yet non-distracting backgrounds. Many photographers prefer shooting with fast prime lenses but in today's short photography tutorial, I'm going to show you why I prefer the power and versatility of a telephoto lens.

When photographing people, it's often desirable to blur out the background and make your subject stand out as much as possible. You might be photographing a model for her portfolio, the bride and groom during their wedding day, a commercial shoot for a clothing line, or even a product hero shot for a brand. In most of these situations you are going to want to remove the distracting elements found on your location or set and accentuate only the most interesting elements. This can be extremely difficult when shooting outside of the studio and in real world situations where you have little control over your environment. 

Since I started my career as a photographer shooting weddings, I found myself having to make quick decisions on what my background would be over and over again. During this time I experimented with popular prime lenses like the 35mm, 50mm, and 85mm. Despite all of these lens' unbelievable sharpness, ultra fast apertures, and less expensive price tags, I found that for me the most useful lens in controlling my background was actually the 70-200mm telephoto zoom lens. Of course my favorite tool for weddings is the 24-70mm f/2.8 lens for many of the same reasons, but if I have the space and can carry only one lens, the 70-200mm f/2.8 lens is the first lens I will reach for in my bag. In fact, even today, if I am booked for a simple photo session and I only want to carry one camera and one lens, this telephoto is the main lens I will take with me.

Recently I did a real-world shootout review on the two latest Tamron and Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 lenses, and for the money I found the new Tamron 70-200mm f/2.8 VC SP G2 lens to be the best lens of the bunch (granted all four lenses are really pretty spectacular). Since I also shoot a lot of video, I was also drawn to Tamron's superior Vibration Compensation which was easily the clear winner when handholding at slower shutter speeds. Needless to say, this is the lens I wound up keeping and you can see that review below. For this new video I paired the Tamron lens with the brand new Nikon D850 DSLR which is one of the best cameras I have ever used. I hope to have my review on that camera out very soon.

Versatility

The number one reason why I love the 70-200mm lens is because it gives me a lot of options. Having a full range from 70mm on the "wide" end and 200mm on the telephoto end means I can quickly change the field of view without having to physically move. This might not be a big deal if you have unlimited time and are in a fairly quiet location, but if you have ever had to shoot a wedding portrait on a busy street within a 10 minute window, you know how important it is to quickly be able to frame up clean shots without distracting people in the background. With a prime lens, you have a fixed focal length which can be a great tool for really locking in a perfect composition, but it can be very slow and limiting when you have to suddenly change that composition. Aesthetically, you might not see a huge difference in the "look" of your photos taken at 85mm and 200mm but if you have ever used both on location you know just how big of a difference that extra reach can make.

Below you can see a few images of my friend Kirsten Nappi taken at different focal lengths.

Tamron 35mm at f/1.8 and Tamron 70-200mm at f/2.8.

Depth of Field and Bokeh

One of the most powerful tools a photographer can have is having a fast aperture. Fast apertures allow you to control your depth of field and ultimately control the blurriness of your background (bokeh). Fast apertures also help maintain fast shutter speeds when the light levels are low so you can have sharp photos without motion blur. For the sake of this article though, a fast aperture is primarily used for the shallow depth of field look. 

Zoom lenses come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, but if you are buying any zoom, I would suggest getting one with a fixed maximum aperture. These lenses come in two varieties: f/4.0 and f/2.8. The lenses with a fast f/4.0 aperture are great because they give you much of the blurring power of the faster lenses but in a smaller and lighter overall lens design. I, however, would recommend taking the plunge and invest in a powerful f/2.8 lens because it gives you even more control over the blurriness of your background. 

Faster apertures can give you even shallower depth of field, and this is where prime lenses can actually outshine a f/2.8 zoom lens. The most widely used prime lens for portraits is probably the 85mm lens which is commonly designed with an f/1.8 aperture and an f/1.4 aperture (Canon even has the massive f/1.2 85mm lens which people love). When compared to the 70-200mm lens set to 85mm, these primes can produce even more background blur. However, in my opinion, sometimes this ultra shallow depth of field becomes sort of a novelty and can quickly become a crutch for many photographers. As I learned from Headshot Photographer Dylan Patrick, sometimes you can even get a more shallow depth of field by shooting at 200mm at f/2.8 than you can with an 85mm at f/1.8. 

All that being said, having any telephoto lens with an aperture of f/2.8 or faster is generally going to give you more control of your scene simply by blurring the background and making distracting elements more abstract. However, as I just hinted at, fast apertures are not the only thing that makes a background less distracting.

Lens Compression

Perhaps the most important and simplest way to control your background has to do with what we call lens compression. Lens compression is simply a phenomenon that makes a background far away look closer and larger than it looks to our naked eye. The way we accomplish lens compression is by standing further away from our subject and zooming in with our lens. The lens itself is not doing anything special (lens compression isn't caused by lenses themselves) but rather the distance from our subject to the background is changing. A zoom lens simply lets us "optically crop" into the scene which gives the appearance of the background being closer to the subject. A wide-angle lens has the opposite effect because they force us to stand closer to the subject which pushes the background further away.

Lens compression can drastically change your background.

Shooting with a telephoto lens helps narrow our field of view, and this lens compression phenomenon allows us to very selectively choose what abstract colors and patterns fall behind our subject. When you combine lens compression with a shallow depth of field, that is when the magic really begins to happen. Keep in mind, even if you frame up your photo from far away and zoom into 200mm, you can still get a very distracting background if your aperture is set to say f/8.0. It's also important to remember that in order for your background to be thrown out of focus, it helps to have some distance between your subject and the background. If you shoot at 200mm with the background a few feet from your subject, that background is going to be sharp and recognizable no matter what aperture you set your lens.

Minimum Focusing Distance

There is one more factor than can control the look of your background and that is minimum focusing distance. If you are able to place your lens close to your subject and still maintain focus, the background should be much more blurry than if you were to be standing further back. This technique can be extremely useful for headshots, product shots, macro photos, and other tightly cropped images. Photographers like Dylan Patrick and Dani Diamond take advantage of this technique a lot with their close-up portrait work. This technique doesn't work as well with full body or 3/4 length portraits because you need to stand further back in order to frame up more of the scene. If you do shoot a lot of close-up portraiture work though, take note of your lens' minimum focusing distance. The smaller the distance, the closer you will be able to focus your lens and the blurrier the background will become.

Increase the variety in your sessions by controlling your background.

Summary

As you can see, the 70-200mm lens is one of the most powerful and versatile lenses any photographer can have in their bag. By having a zoom lens that gives you a narrow field of view along with a fast aperture, you can easily remove distracting elements from your frame and then blur everything else remaining so that your subject stands out against your background. Taking control over your background is a fundamental skill every photographer should master, and one of the easiest ways to do that is with a telephoto zoom lens. As you can see in many of the examples throughout this article, I was able to completely change the background in many cases by only taking a few steps to my left or right. There have been many times when I have been faced with having to photograph someone in an extremely uninspiring location and I was able to produce awesome looking images simply by using these tips to remove the clutter and turn an otherwise awful background into something usable and interesting.

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11 Comments

Samuel Flores Sanchez's picture

Totally agree and nicely done! Beautiful model too! :)

David Love's picture

All of my images are done with the Canon 70-200 II 2.8. So much control. Another advantage to a long lens is you're not right on top of the model and backed farther away which gives you a larger viewpoint from your position to spot other things in the scene you might want to try.

Ricky Perrone's picture

Totally agree, my 70-200 2.8 the best lens I've ever owned. How do you like the D850 compared to the D810? I'm finding myself questioning the sharpness/resolution of the 850 compared to the D810 but haven't checked them against each other yet myself.

david squire's picture

Funny story, but short story is that I sold my 70-200 v.1 because I rarely used it. Just recently I started shooting with v.2 and will steadily use it until it's pretty much full time. There's a couple of things (talked about in the video actually) I'm still learning about it.

@PatrickHall - Excellent video! Nailed a couple of things I'm working on with the 70-200 (so I gotta watch this video again) and pretty much all the reasons I'm putting some distance from the 85 and more energy into the 70-200.

The model's great, charming and gorgeous; at WPPi a photographer (I forget the wedding photographer's name said, "... I'd shoot the shit out of her... " haha!

Patrick Hall's picture

I'll shoot the shit with anyone :) #smalltalk

Pawel Paoro Witkowski's picture

Am I the only seeing that blurring background is usually simple, but making photos look flat? For sure if you have to put all things in composition to fit properly on photo is hell difficult, but if you do it right you get a nice 3d feeling which I think is getting lost with those 200mm 2.8 shoots that can't get go wrong :)

I think that's the missing element from all these kinds of videos. Given the experience range of those reading these articles, there should at least be some mention of the reasons you might want different kinds of looks and different lenses to achieve them.

Jeff McCollough's picture

Wow this is an awesome video! It really was made well and it sure beats a lot of the other photography "tutorial" videos that are out there.

I agree with your premise on tele-lenses generally, but you can't compare the bokeh of f1.4 85 mm or 105 mm lenses, they are nothing alike. Bokeh is far more than just long lens compression. Also testing reveals the Nikon 70-200 is marginally better than the Tamron but is the huge price difference justified for the average photographer? To me it isn't.

A different way of getting rid of the fire hydrant is to place your model in front of it or better yet, don't shoot in front of a fire hydrant.

Carlos Santero's picture

The quintessence:

1. Knowledge of light is everything
Before you learn about cameras and lenses you have to learn everything about light.

2. Never stop learning from oher photographers!

It´s a very great video Patrick! Some photographers can learn a lot from it!

The right lens does not exist! The best lense is the one you own and the one that fits for your project and your own style.