Besides the obvious difference between a wide vs a telephoto lens, that being the focal length, what are some other characteristics of the two that set them apart?  Also, what should we keep in mind when deciding which focal length to use when shooting portraits?

For me, I find that understanding magnification, perspective, vignetting and lens distortion allows me to choose the right focal length for my creative purposes.


Change in magnification is the obvious difference between shooting wide vs telephoto.  If I am standing from one spot, using my zoom, I can achieve different levels of magnification simply by rotating the focus ring.  Although you can get the same effect by cropping your image in post processing, getting the right focal length will save you time on the computer but more importantly you will preserve the resolution by not cropping.

Zoom In - Pre

Zoom In - After

In the example above, I cropped rather than zoomed in but the effect is essentially the same. You may have noticed that in the cropped photo, the resolution is not as good and the noise is more prevalent. So, if possible, try to zoom in rather than crop.


Perspective, in photographic terms, is perhaps one of the most drastic differences between shooting wide and shooting long.  A telephoto can help isolate your subject from their surroundings while wide angle allows you to bring in more of the environment or surroundings in your shots. Understanding these effects can help you achieve the perspective you desire in your shots.

To demonstrate the change in perspective, take a look at the two images below.

Focal Length: 70mm

Focal Length: 24mm

In order for my subject to remain relatively the same size in the frame, after shooting at 70mm, I physically moved forward to fill the frame with my subject so that it would be roughly the same size. I did this to show how the perspective changes at different focal lengths. Although the subject is the same size, you’ll notice that less of the background is visible at 70mm compared to the wider shot at 24mm.

Why is this information useful? Well, if I want to hide a cluttered background and keep the emphasis on my subject, I’d zoom in as in the example above. On the other hand, if I want to include the landscape around my subject in order to give it a greater sense of scale or space, I would use a wider focal length. This is different from magnification since here, I am physically changing my distance from the subject so that my subject remains close and yet more of the background is visible.

Focal Length: 24mm


I won’t go into too much detail about vignetting but you may want to know there are three types of vignetting. Optical, natural and mechanical. And I’m not talking about the vignetting we do deliberately in post processing.

Optical vignetting occurs when you use a wide open aperture. For example, if you have a 50mm f/1.4 lens, shooting at f/1.4 may cause a bit of vignetting at the corners whereas f/5.6 will not.

Natural vignetting, or light falloff, is more difficult to understand but simply put, it will occur more in wide angle lenses compared to telephoto. You can read about it more here.

Mechanical vignetting is caused by an object placed in front of your lens (e.g. filters, lens hoods etc.) and when shooting wide, may be visible in your frame.

I’m not too concerned about vignetting because, frankly speaking, I usually add a little bit of it to my photos anyhow to bring more attention to my subject. However, it’s still useful to know that using a wide open aperture, wide focal lengths or lens add-ons may cause some vignetting in your photos. Good to keep in mind!

Lens Distortion

Being aware of lens distortions can help you fine tune your images if need be, unless that is the effect you want. There are two types of distortions exhibited by lenses: barrel and pin cushion.

I used the image of the teddy bear above and applied two types of distortion on it in Photoshop to demonstrate what I’m talking about.

Barrel and Pin
I did apply the distortions quite heavily just make it obvious. Pin cushioning isn’t quite so visible in photos but the barrel distortion can be very obvious when using wide focal lengths. The amount of distortion you get depends on your lens as some lenses have more distortion than others.

I affectionately refer to barrel distortion as the big-nose effect when used for portraiture. Although adults might not appreciate this look, I find it amusing to use for kids and animals. To avoid getting the big-nose effect, shoot your subject from further away and zoom in.

Focal Length: 58mm

Looks pretty normal doesn’t it? Now compare it to the one below:

Barrel Distortion
Focal Length: 24mm

The barrel distortion is pretty obvious.

So, while formal portraits might require you to zoom in, trying a bit of wide angle can add an element of intrigue and fun.

In Summary

  • Use your zoom to change the magnification of your frame without having to physically move forward or backward.  Save time and preserve resolution by not cropping on the computer.
  • Zoom in to isolate your subject from the background and hide clutter.
  • Go wide and get in close, physically, to include more of the background and to show scale and setting
  • Be aware of vignetting caused by wide open apertures, wide angle or mechanical obstructions.
  • Zoom in for portraits to avoid the big-nose effect.
  • Get in close and wide to achieve the big-nose effect and add a little fun to your portraits.

Hopefully you now have a greater understanding of the different characteristics of shooting wide versus long. Knowing these qualities can give you greater creative control over your images. Now get out and shoot!

Laura is a Vancouver wedding and portrait photographer. Visit laurahana.com.