That long look

As you all know, there are three ways to get “blurry backgrounds”:

  1. Large aperture (“low f-number”).
  2. Get close.
  3. Use a long lens focal length (“zoom in”).

The first one is the one everyone thinks about – but the last one has a very recognizable look. Like this, yesterday, at 190mm at f/8:

Compare that look and that background blur with this, taken at 70mm:

Both nice, but the first one (viewed full size) has that distinct “long look”, and the background is blurrier. Reason I like the 70-200mm lens for fashion shoots if I have enough space!


Want to learn this? There are a couple of spots still open on my Oakville Photo walk, this coming Sunday from 1-5pm. Go to and follow the BOOK link.

Nature close up

Nature can be beautiful, as in the snap I made in downtown Toronto yesterday afternoon:

Bird, Fountain and Flowers (Toronto, 29 August) - photo by Michael Willems

Bird, Fountain and Flowers (Toronto, 29 August)

Sometimes, as in this example, nature is best seen close up; sometimes better using wide angles.

That is the kind of thing we will be going over in the upcoming full-day Nature Walk workshop, which, take note, has now been brought forward to 11 September. It is also one of the subjects I go through in the Henry’s “Creative Urban Photography” half day walkaround I do in Oakville.

Choosing the right angle is a very important part of making (not “taking”!) a photo, and it is one of many subjects covered.

Oh, the photo? A 70-200mm f/2.8L lens, set to f/4 (I wanted the bird to be sharp, and these birds never sit still for more than a moment). At 200 ISO, that gave me 1/250th second. I used the Canon 7D camera, because its 1/6 crop factor gave me a longer reach (the 200mm effectively became 320m).

Enlarging the moon

One aspect of wide versus telephoto lenses is how large the background gets. As in “If you want a large moon, use a long lens”.

Huh? What do you mean, Michael?

I shall illustrate with a couple of shots I took of a student during a “Creative Urban Photography” outing the other day. One with a long lens, and one with a wide angle lens.

Ignore the light (I was using a flash with a warming gel on one camera, and no flash at all on the other), and look instead at the size of the blurred-out car in the background:

Here’s picture one:

Student during recent CUP outing, Oakville

Student during recent CUP outing, Oakville

Now look at picture two (where by moving my position I have kept the subject the same size):

Student during recent CUP outing, Oakville

Student during recent CUP outing, Oakville

See how that car magically grew much larger in the second picture?

Do I need to explain which picture was taken with a wide angle lens, and which one with a telephoto lens?

So now imagine the person is a tree and the car is the moon at night, or the setting sun. So what lens would I be most likely to use if I want a large moon or a large setting sun?

Wide or telephoto?

I am going to repeat something I have mentioned many times before, but that never goes out of style: the difference between a wide angle lens and a telephoto lens.

Here is the same car shot recently with a telephoto lens from afar and then with a wide angle from close up:

Telephoto/far away:

A 1958 Dodge shot in Oakville by Michael Willems

A 1958 Dodge in Oakville (70-200)

Wide/close by:

A 1958 Dodge shot in Oakville by Michael Willems using a wide angle lens

A 1958 Dodge in Oakville (16-35)

You see the difference, yes? If ever the saying “a picture paints 1,000 words” is true, I imagine it is here.

Wide shows enhanced perspective/depth. Telephoto makes it look flat. This is not because of magic in the lens: it is simply because of the vantage point you take using each lens.

In addition,

  • Telephoto creates blurrier backgrounds more easily, while wide can easily have extensive depth of field
  • Wide is less susceptible to motion blur

Wide is better for situational portraits, low light shooting, and architecture, and much travel. Telephoto is better for flattering portraits.

Architecture tip

When you shoot architecture and you want a straight photo, with no distortion, like this:

…then you need to do the following:

  1. Step back. Way back.
  2. Use a long telephoto lens.
  3. Do not aim up or down: keep the lens parallel to the ground.
  4. Consider using a tripod if the lens length is long.

You will now get an “undistorted” picture where the background is enlarged and drawn in to the subject.