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Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Compress Space with Telephoto Lenses

One of the interesting qualities that telephoto lenses have is that they compress space--and the longer the focal length is, the more the compressed space appears. We've all seen shots of a football player who is catching a pass and appears to be almost in the stands with the crowd. The reason they appear so close together is because the photographer used a very long lens and the space between the player and the spectators just evaporated.

In landscape photography compressing space can be a fun tool because it brings together distant elements in a very believable way. I photographed the sunset here outside of Tucson, Arizona using a 300mm lens (equivalent of 450mm on my Nikon D70s body because of the 1.5x cropping factor) and it appears that the saguaro cacti and the mountain range are relatively close. In reality the brushy hillside and the saguaro are about 100' from me but the mountain is probably 20 miles away (and the sun is millions of miles away!). But by using the power of the telephoto lens to shrink spaces, the three layers of the photo (hillside/mountains/sun) all appear incredibly compressed.

Next time you're out shooting landscapes, shoot a few frames of a scene with a normal lens and then either zoom in (using a built-in zoom lens) or, if you have a DSLR, switch to a long telephoto and compare the resulting images. It's great fun to see space compressed like this and the illusion is very convincing.

So if telephoto lenses compress space, what do wide-angle lenses do? Next time.

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