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Focus on Focal Length: A Photography Tutorial

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Good Morning!! It's Tamara here, back from a long, and much needed writing break! Have you ever had those times when life seems to overwhelm you and no matter what you do, you just sink deeper and deeper? Well, that has been my last year! Between a sick parent, a graduating child, going back to school  and a new job, my life has been a little bit overwhelming, but I am happy to say that I am finally getting my life back under control once again! In saying that, I decided that it was time for me to start teaching once again and what better way to start then right here where I began writing  40 some-odd tutorials ago.

When I started digital scrapbooking back in 2007, I had never picked up a "real" camera in my life. I had many point and shoots, but a DSLR was WAY out of my league. Of course, I quickly realized that a digital camera was what I needed if I was going to scrap digitally...so I proceeded to hound my husband until he invested the money in my first DSLR. Once I got over the frustration of learning the camera, I have never looked back. I LOVE shooting in manual, knowing that I have complete control over the outcome of the photo. I also love learning new things about my camera and the whole process of actually taking the photo. Over the next few weeks/months, I am going to share with you everything I learned about photography over the past few years! Of course, I DO NOT profess to be a professional and the lessons I write for you will probably skip over the big scary words and the technical jargon because, as beginners, those words can be soooo confusing, but I promise that the next few months will give you a heads up on digital photography and, in combination with some of my scrapbooking tutorials,  will help you in creating some GORGEOUS layouts for you to enjoy for years to come!

The most important part of being a photographer is becoming comfortable with your camera and its settings.  You really need to know the ins and outs of the exposure controls so that you can really  focus on the composition of the photo.  After all,  composition is a large part of what makes a photo worth scrapping! This tutorial, and the tutorials that will follow, will hopefully get you to the "comfortable" stage of photography and your camera quicker than it took me! Over the next few weeks, we will be focusing mainly on the actual taking of the picture and not on composition. We will save composition for a WHOLE NEW tutorial as it deserves its own focus!! So let's get started!

Camera Basics

 I am sure that many of you have already read a thing or two about your camera and, if you are anything like I was, you sat in a mummified stupor and cried yourself to sleep because you spent a LOT of money on a camera that you are SURE you will never be able to use properly!!  However, one of the things I love most about my DSLR  is that what you see is what you get.... meaning that you can look through your viewfinder and the picture you see is pretty much exactly what you will get when you take it. That is a great concept as you will eventually be able to look in that viewfinder and compose a beautiful picture based on all the lessons you will learn here!

There are a few basic parts to your camera that you need to know before we begin. The body is the main part of your camera. It is where all the controls and the flash are housed....it is the hard drive so to speak!  Most of the bodies look similar to this Canon.

Next, is the lens. The lens plays an important part in the role of photography because the lens is what allows the light into your camera. Unlike point and shoot cameras that have a lens permanently mounted on the body, DSLR cameras allow you to change the lens. With a change of the lens you can completely change the look of the photo based on different variables of that lens. We will discuss, in depth,  the different types of lenses and what they do in the next  few weeks.

Once the light enters into the camera through the lens, the image sensor, which contains all these wonderful light-sensitive cells, then records that image.  The amount of light that you allow in is called exposure. Getting the correct exposure  is the part of photography that  takes the longest to learn,  but once you understand how exposure works the rest just falls into place!

Now that you understand the basics of your camera, lets look at some of the ways that the lens will affect the look of the photo.

Focal length

Focal length is THE  most obvious way in which a lens affects a photo because  it controls how much of the scene is included in your photo. There is a  highly mathematical diagram that would explain how this works, but I promised you I would keep it real, so if you REALLY want to know...you can do a little bit of extra homework and look that one up yourself! More than anything, it's because my mind is small and can't handle the explanation of the highly mathematical diagram.

The best way for me to explain focal length is to just SHOW you.  That is how I learn, so I am hoping you are the same way!

Below, I took a quick picture of the beautiful Japanese Gardens in Oregon.  I shot it at the 18mm setting.  You can see that I got a large part of the gardens but nothing really stands out.

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However, by changing my focal length and shooting at 85mm it allowed me to focus in on one part of the landscape. (this photo was taken when I was first learning my camera...so pay NO ATTENTION to the poor composition of the picture...PLEASE!!!)

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Changing your focal length is kinda like cropping in Photoshop only without the loss of resolution. This is why you will hear photographers say they crop "in camera". You get a much better photo by choosing the correct focal length and cropping "in camera" than you do by cropping in Photoshop.

Everything about these photos was the same EXCEPT the change in focal length. The lighting was the same, I stood in the same spot and I used the same camera body.  All I did was change the focal length of the lens.   If two photos are taken from the same position  as mine were, and at different focal lengths, then the longer focal length photo (85mm) will look like a crop from the middle of the shorter focal length photo.(18mm)

Wide Angle Lens vs. Telephoto Lens

You cannot talk about focal length without also touching on wide angle lenses and telephoto lenses. Using a wide angle lens means that the camera is much closer to the subject than the subject is to the background. This exaggerates perspective and makes the background seem small and distant. For instance, in the picture below, I was standing about three feet from my daughter. In the photo, she looks up close and personal while the background seems small and distant.

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Again, this was a pic I took when I was LEARNING about photography, so...not so great. But I wanted you to see that you have to START somewhere to get where you WANT to be!  I took this photo at about a 20mm focal length.

The reverse is true with the telephoto shot, which includes less of the background while making it appear closer to the subject. The following pictures were shot with 2 different focal lengths using my 70-300mm lens.

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The focal length is also determined by the type of the lens that you put on your camera. For instance, the pictures taken above were shot with my 70-300mm zoom lens.  This particular lens lets YOU stay in the same place and IT does all the work for you.  So while I shot the  pictures from the same spot on the bridge, by changing my focal length from 115mm to 260mm I got a closer version of the same scene. Notice that by changing the focal length you really change the focus of the picture. by "zooming in" I brought the focus of my photo onto that great piece of dead wood. I made IT the subject of my photo and totally changed the feeling of the photo and made it more personal.

However, the pictures below were shot with my 50mm prime lens.  A prime lens will ONLY shoot at its particular focal length so if I want to frame a photo different, I have to move my feet.  Both of the photos below were shot using the same 50mm lens but in order to get a closeup, I had to move closer to my subject.

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Each type of lens has its pluses and minuses and each has its place in a photographers bag! I LOVE my 70-300mm for all my outdoor sports shots, but when it comes to my portraits, I want my 50 or 85mm. You will learn yourself what works best for you. I suggest renting a lens before you buy one as this will help you determine if it meets your needs BEFORE you spend the money and believe me they CAN BE pricy so you want to make SURE it is the lens you want and need before you buy.

Focal length is just one of the many aspects it takes to master picture taking.  This week, for homework, (yes, there is homework because that is THE BEST way for you to get better at photography) pull out that camera and start taking pictures using different focal lengths. If you have a DSLR then you probably got the basic kit lens so shoot photos using those varying  focal lengths (usually from 18-55mm).  Place your subject about three feet from you and start taking pictures. Notice the difference in the cropping of your photo based on the focal length you choose. Note the focal length that you like best and which ones look the "sharpest".  These findings come in handy a little later on.

Next time, we will discuss the basics of f-stops and exposure settings and how that affects your photography. If you liked this lesson...the next one will blow your mind!!

Until then,

Happy shooting!