Tutorial: Focal Lengths
story with photos (23 photos) starring Ariel Anderssen
We recently hosted another member-turned-bondage-photographer, PaulMcRope, for a two-day tutorial at our house. He was kind enough to allow me to
use the photos here on Restrained Elegance as well.
The format of the tutorial was one day of teaching, concentrating on getting taking control of the camera settings for creative effect, followed by a day of rigging and bondage where he tied Ariel up and photographed several sets, with me there mentoring. On day one, we did a series of exercises to show the artistic effects of different photographic choices, so in this series of bonus updates I'll show you the photos Paul shot on the day to understand them.
Cameras are relatively simple objects, and there's not really all that many controls to play with. There aren't THAT many decisions to make when you take a photograph, no matter how confusing it might at first seem!
The first and most important decision you make is your choice of lens. Everything starts with the image the lens projects onto the sensor. Everything in the camera body and all the decisions you make in post-processing are really just capturing and then making subtle variations on that image the lens provided.
This is why I always advise people to spend their money on lenses, not on the camera body. The body does a less-good or more-good job of capturing the image projected by the lens, but you need the right lens to get the right image to start with!
How do you even know what the right lens to buy is, though? Luckily, a lens boils down to just three things.
- Focal Length
- Everything else (build quality, ultimate sharpness, MTF, bokeh, zoom or not zoom, optical stabilisation, and a whole lot of marketing buzzwords about crystal blue apochromatic non-spherical surfaces and so on)
I can explain physically what the focal length of a lens is, but that doesn't tell you anything artistically. To start working like a photographer, you need to get a visceral feeling for what each focal length actually looks like- what the choice of focal length does to the image you're going to be capturing.
So the first exercise I had Paul do was to take a full-length portrait and a head-and-shoulders portrait of Ariel in the garden, in natural light (using the sun as a backlight and relying on light bouncing up from the ground etc. to light her face, camera on auto everything). Take a look at the normal-sized images- I've added a caption in the bottom of each to show what the focal length was. The file "focallengthseries.jpg" shows what we did: shots at some "reference" focal lengths, i.e. 24 mm, 35mm, 50mm, 70mm, 100mm (ish), 135mm, 200mm.
These represent the most common focal lengths for prime lenses, and the far ends of the two most common work-a-day zooms that most photographers have (24-70mm and 70-200mm). These were all shot on a full-frame camera; see tutorials passim for converting those numbers to "effective focal lengths" on other sensor sizes.
Flick through the series, quite fast. Notice that the difference from one focal length to another is relatively modest, but that the image changes in character completely from one end of the range to the other.
At 24mm, full-length Ariel looks a bit distorted. Paul shot this from eye level, and Ariel's legs look shortened. Her head seems to be disproportionately large, almost like she is top-heavy. Note the wire on the telegraph pole behind her, and the distant hills. You're seeing a lot of the world. Its not very flattering. It could be made more so (the distortion would be a bit reduced shooting at waist height, for example) and it can be made passable for this sort of very wide establishing shot. But your model won't thank you for it.
At 24mm, the head and shoulders portrait is, frankly, horrible. Ariel is professionally gorgeous, yet this shot makes her nose come forward, her forehead seem bulging, and generally not look flattering. This is "perspective distortion". It's nothing wrong with the lens, and different from the "distortion" you might see talked about in lens reviews. It's simply an effect of where the photographer has to stand to get Ariel's head and shoulders to fill the frame- very close indeed. So close the tip of her nose is way closer to the camera than her forehead, so her nose appears bigger, and it produces this "looming" effect. Notice also how much of the rest of the world you can still see in this shot- brick wall, sky, hills, leaves, telegraph wire, the works.
At 35mm, the gross effects of standing so close to the subject have mostly gone away. The full-length portait looks much more natural, whilst still showing quite a lot of the world- we've lost the telegraph pole, but still have the wire. Ariel's feet and head look more in proportion. It's quite a natural look- not super-flattering, not unflattering either. The head and shoulders portrait is a LOT nicer than it was a 24mm- Paul was probably standing at least twice as far away to get this shot. There's still plenty of the world visible, it's quite clear Ariel is in a back garden with walls and trees and houses and hills beyond. 35mm is the widest I like to go, when I can get away with it. I might risk 28mm if I'm feeling racy, for wide establishing shots with the model in the full scene to show what's going on, or for closeups from dramatic angles where space is a concern and the inevitable perspective distortion looks dramatic rather than like a mistake. (I often shoot overhead shots this way, for example, where the model's legs and feet falling away into the distance works for impact).
At 50mm, the shots look sort-of "normal". All the perspectives seem about like what you'd see if you were there in person. There are technical reasons why that's the case but for practical purposes photographers use 50mm lenses for this natural perspective. It shows a bit less of the world than the 35mm wide angle ones do. It's still pretty clear that Ariel is in our back garden with houses, hills and power lines. The head and shoulders shot was out of focus but you can see enough to get the basic feeling. We're maybe starting to lose a bit of context - it's a bit less obvious what Ariel's surroundings are.
At 70mm, we're into short telephoto lens territory. Now the background is getting significantly more mysterious. In the full-length shot, Ariel's clearly in front of trees and flowers, but we've lost the sky and power lines, and we're starting to lose context of walls and houses and hills. The 70mm head and shoulders shot is notably more flattering and glamorous-looking.
At 100mm (ish), Ariel is now standing in front of a decontextualised mass of trees and flowers. It certainly could still be a small town back garden, but it is also starting to take on a dreamier quality, and if I told you this was a cover shoot for a country living magazine you might not thing that outrageous. She COULD be in the garden of a Stately home, now. In the head and shoulders shot, we've lost all sense of place. She's clearly in front of trees of some sort, but if I said we'd shot this in the south of Spain I don't suppose you'd have grounds to doubt me. It's nice on her features, too. This is why lenses of the 70-100mm focal length range are often described as "portrait" lenses. I love my 85mm lens and would take almost every shot with it if only the rooms in our house were a big bigger!
At 135mm, Paul was so far back that there was no way to stop foreground foliage intruding. We've now gone from seeing the whole world at 24mm to seeing through a telescope- there's no sky, no hills, no houses, no brick wall, no power lines, and even the trees behind her are starting to look like an impenetrable forest rather than a few scrubby bushes at the end of our garden. It's kind of magical, and it has a much more intimate and voyeuristic feeling. Ariel's relaxing in a secluded woodland glade, and we've happened to chance upon her- not a story you could really have supported with the 24mm shots! (Flick back and look at them, and see what I mean). The head-and-shoulders portrait is now pure magic. The background behind her has gone swirly glowy shifting shapes of light, and she looks heavenly. 135mm lenses are the people photographer's secret weapon for this sort of intimate head and shoulders shot for exactly this reason. (And I'll be buying a 135mm prime lens as soon as a really good one comes out for Sony FE mount).
At 200mm, it was hard for Paul to get far enough back to get the full-length shot. The perspective is starting to my eye to get a little over-flattened. I think the head-and-shoulder shot at 200mm looks OK- it's got even more of the background blurring thing going on. I think I prefer the 135mm version overall but the differences are subtle and it may be more due to the minutiae of the pose and the composition and the light. 200mm is fine, it's not really a big difference over 135mm and it's impractical to shoot for bondage photography in most cases anyway.
Now flick back to 24 mm. It's the "same shot" - remember I briefed Paul to shoot a full-length portrait and a head-and-shoulders shot- of the same model in the same location in the same lighting doing pretty much the same pose. Just look at the difference in the final shot between the 200mm version and the 24mm version.
The focal length of the lens drives the choice of where you stand to get that shot, and that has the single biggest impact of any choice you make on the look and feel of the resulting image. I think shooting a focal length series like this is the best way to get a visceral appreciation of that fact. I think it is way more effective than the usual demonstration of the effects of focal length, which is to stand in one place and gradually zoom out. You can see what that looks like in the last few shots in the sequence, and illustrated in "fieldofviewseries.jpg".
I got Paul to compose a waist-and-up portrait of Ariel at 200mm, then, standing in the same spot, shoot at 135mm, 100mm, 70mm, 50mm, 35mm and 24mm.
As you zoom out you see more of Ariel and more of the world, which is hardly a revelation.
We don't tend to start with the standing position in bondage photography anyway- we're not sports photographers constrained to one spot in the press-pit on the sidelines of a football match. We get to move around to get the shots as we conceive them! And for that reason it's more powerful to get to grips with how your focal length will interact with the sort of shot you're moving to get, like a closeup or a portrait or a wide shot of the whole scene. If you put the 85mm lens on the front of your camera, you are inviting a certain view of the world into your camera.
(P.S. I've only put the captions on the normal web-sized images, not the full-sized images. If you want to flick through with the full-sized ones, pop up an info window to look at the EXIF).
(Incidentally as an advert for our one-to-one tutorials, we design the curriculum and tailor the sessions to order to cover just the things you
want to know about, in the way that is hopefully most useful and memorable for you. If you'd be interested in a one-to-one tutorial session, email me at