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How to Make Advanced Shots With a Long Lens

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This post is part of a series called Cinematic Shot Choices.
How to Make Advanced Cinematic Shots With a Short Lens
How to Use Aperture and Focus to Make Cinematic Shots

The long lens can be used to enhance location shoots, create extreme changes of focus and strengthen your compositions. This lesson builds on the previous lesson and includes tips on lighting and controlling focus. These advanced techniques give you powerful ways to open scenes, direct attention and beautify a shot.

Use a Long Lens to Hide Bad Backgrounds

For low budget filmmakers in particular, we often end up on the edge of a park and the last thing you want to do is make it look like that's where you are. You can solve this problem by using a much longer lens.

This isn’t just a trick for budget film makers, it’s absolutely used all the time to enhance locations. If you ever get the chance to visit locations where films have been made, you’ll be amazed at what’s been hidden. Often, in really beautiful locations, there’ll be something awful and shot-ruining just across the road: most often, a long lens was used to hide it.

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This shot looks like it was taken at the edge of a park.

Rather than using a medium lens or short telephoto lens like in the image above, step back from your subject and use the longest lens you can. Below, we haven’t changed the framing but the background is pulled so much closer and out of focus. 

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The framing is the same here, but it looks way nicer.

We no longer have that cheap feeling of being on the edge of a park.

Use a Long Lens to Hide Light Sources

Long lenses can also be used to hide light sources. Below, I’m using a stadium flood light to illuminate the actor. It just happened to be at the location. By using a long lens, I’m able to hide the light and get this lovely rim light.

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The stadium light is hidden by the actor's head.

You can use this technique with your own lights too. If you need to hide a stand or other hardware, you may need to go a little lower with your shot. That way you won’t see the lamp or the stand which would ruin the shot.

Introduce Scenes By Pulling Focus

Pulling focus from a foreground object to a background object is a great way to introduce new scenes. It works best when you stand as close to the foreground object as the focusing distance of your lens allows. That way, the background will be completely hidden and can be revealed. In the image below, the camera is a few feet away from the light pole. The subject in the background is completely hidden.

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By focusing on the close light pole, the subject is hidden.

Pull focuses work best when there’s some camera movement to the side, or up and down. Both is even better. It has a much more interesting feel than when the camera remains static and only the focus changes. It also hides the focus change from the audience; they don’t notice it and just feel the reveal.

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And now the subject is revealed.

A variation on this is to let the background show through a little right from the beginning. It doesn’t have the same revealing effect but can be beautiful. It’s helps if the foreground subject and background subject are somehow related.

Here, a girl in the background is playing with the tree and in the foreground we have a little twig. This technique works best when, like here, the foreground object is small and delicate. If you’re going to have things happen in the background, it’s best not to have the foreground object filling half the frame. 

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The girl in the background isn't completely hidden.

Pull focus is easiest if you have a follow focus unit attached to your camera.

If you don’t, or aren’t using cine lenses, then here’s a handy trick for pulling focus. Focus on the background object and place your thumb in a comfortable position on the focus ring. Get a feel for where it is. Next, focus on the foreground object. When it comes to make the shot, let your thumb return to the comfortable position where you were focused on the background object. It’s a lot more natural than trying to do it by eye.

Let the Subject Move Through the Frame

A really good use of the long lens is to keep the camera still and let the subject move through the frame. Below, the path cuts across the frame twice which creates a really strong composition. The dark sky in the top third also helps. To get a composition like this, you often need to go a long way back and use the longest possible lens. 

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This strong composition would be impossible without a long lens.

By using a long lens and keeping the camera absolutely still, we get a really strong sense of motion and of the subject moving through this space. It can be a bit counter-intuitive; usually to create a sense of motion we try to follow an actor through a scene but sometimes, but this can sometimes work better. Try it out.

Reveal Locations with a Camera Tilt

Another great way to reveal locations is to use a simple tilt. Below, the shot starts with a long lens focused on the actor's feet. 

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This shot starts focused on the actor's feet.

As she moves forward all we do is tilt up and it's her motion that's guiding the camera up to reveal the location behind her.

And finishes revealing where she is.

It doesn’t feel like a random, stuck-on-camera move. If the audience feels the move, you’ve drawn too much attention to it. You want them thinking about the character and what they’re going through. 

Create Mystery With a High Long Lens

Camera height has an enormous effect on any shot. With a long lens, it’s tempting to keep it level with the subject and reveal everything. By raising the camera up, like in the shot below, you can create a much more mysterious feeling. 

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This shot creates a lot of mystery.

We don’t see the road at the end of the alleyway or any other details. There’s a lot more tension and mystery. If you reveal everything, the audience won’t be intrigued about what the character is going through.

Use a Long Lens for Closeups

Long lenses are often used for close ups. A better technique than just zooming in, is to also include something else in the frame. Below, is an example. Rather than just looking at the leaf, you can also see the person holding it. This is a lot more interesting.

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By showing the actor in the background, this is a much stronger shot.

A long lens isolates things so if you just shoot a close up on its own, it can look like something from a nature documentary. By including some other details, it becomes a much more human shot.

Keep Learning

Even though this lesson has looked at advanced techniques for the long lens, we're still just scratching the surface. Check out the rest of the lessons in this series and get out their and start experimenting.

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