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How to Make Cinematic Shots With a Telephoto Lens

This post is part of a series called Cinematic Shot Choices.
Visual Expression: The 8 Basic Ways to Frame Shots in Your Videos
Cinematic Shooting Principles: Using a Short Lens

Using a telephoto lens changes the way you shoot video: there is no better way to get close-ups and cinematic looks, such as shallow depth of field. This lesson will show you how to get the most out of the long lens.


Visual Effects

Long lenses can be used almost as telescopes, but it’s not normally a good idea. If you want to get closer to your subject then you should get closer. The long lens has very specific effects on the image and you should choose which lens you use to get one of those effects.

A Tight Angle of View

If you look at the image below, you can see that the subject in the background is quite small but, around her, we can see about five or six trees on the right, one tree on the left, and it all looks quite close together. 

tight angle
A tight shot with a long lens.

Zoom further out, and you can see we have a much wider angle of view. More trees have appeared on the left. We can see the fence on the right, and we now have a foreground of blurry grass. We're seeing a lot more. 

wide angle
A wider shot with a long lens.

This is still a long lens and we're a long long way back from the subject here, but we're getting a much wider field of view. 

A Shallow Depth of Field

Long lenses normally have a shallower depth of field than short lenses, which means only a narrow part of the image is in focus. It’s one of the most beautiful things about long lenses.

You can see here we're focused on the subject in the background and the trees in the foreground are very blurry. This is a beautiful effect that we often look for. It's one reason to have foreground objects—you can create a really cinematic look. 


Another effect of the long lens is foreshortening, which means that objects appear closer together than they actually are. The longer the lens, the more extreme the effect.

foreshortening in action
Foreshortening in action.

In the image above, the trees are about five metres apart and the actor is standing directly in the middle of them. Because we are using a long lens, she appears quite close to the trees. 

This foreshortening can be used to your advantage. If you want to make actors look as though they're closer together, a long lens will do that for you.

You also have to be aware of this though; if you keep your actors still and use increasingly long lenses through a scene, it will look as though they're shuffling towards each other.

Reasons to Use a Long Lens

Slowing Movement

If an actor moves towards or away from a long lens, it won’t look as if they’re really making much ground even if they walk at a decent pace: relatively, as they move they don’t get that much smaller in the frame. 

This can be useful when you want to make it look as though someone's not really making progress. This can even work for nightmarish shots, where someone runs towards camera but doesn't seem to be getting as far as they would want to. 

Focusing on Expressions

For some reason, there seems to be a safe sort of framing that we aim for. You walk out on set, and you set the lens somewhere in the middle and you stand a sort of middle distance from the actor and you get an OK sort of look.

If you actually want to shoot the actor's expression, why not put on a longer lens from exactly the same position and get a much closer shot? Then you can really see the actor’s expression. It’s a much more beautiful and cinematic effect.

If the actor’s face over-fills the frame, move the camera further back. This will also give you a shallower depth of field too. 

Drawing Attention

As the intensity of a scene increases and you want to draw more attention to the actor, you can use progressively longer lenses. That’s exactly what I did a scene from my film, The Sculptor’s Ritual.

Watch the full scene in the video that accompanies this post, above. 

It opens with a medium lens shot as the actor approaches a gate, then we cut to a much longer lens so that the focus is really on her. No matter how much color or interest there is in the frame, we really only look at her and her eyes. We’re forced to focus on the actor and her expression because everything else is pushed into blurriness. It looks beautiful too.

Tips for Using a Long Lens

Make Sure You Have a Foreground and Background

It's very common for beginners to only have one subject in the scene when really you should have a foreground, middle-ground and background. The long lens makes this easy for you.

foreground middle ground background
This shot is well composed with a foreground, a middle-ground and a background.

If you look at the still above, we have the actor in the middle-ground—she’s the subject. There are trees in the foreground and trees in the background. In this shot, I track her movement with a simple pan. The trees in the foreground are out of focus and the background objects move past at great speed. This effect works really well.

This didn’t even have to be shot on a dolly. It’s a simple pan as the actor moves through the scenery. If you’re ever stuck for a strong image in the middle of a scene, get a long way back, put on the longest lens you’ve got and pan with the actors as they move through the scene.

It's easy to fall into using medium lenses and staying close to the actors so you can talk to them without walkie talkies and assistants, but getting this good sense of distance really builds the cinematic look. 

Hand-Held and Focus Problems

There are two main challenges with long lenses: focus and hand-held. 

You can get away with some small hand-held movements when you’re using a long lens but any slight mistake will show up as a massive wobble on the camera. 

If you try to simulate a dolly move by pushing in you have two problems. One is that it's very difficult to get the focus right and the other is that any hand-held wobble will show up really badly. 

It’s OK to pan with the camera but moving it forwards or backwards or doing hand-held is very difficult. It is possible to simulate dolly moves and keep the focus throughout but, because the long lens foreshorten the distance, you have to cover a lot of distance to make the slightest change to the image. It's very difficult to do this hand-held and hold the focus.

Learn More

Long lenses are just one of the ways you can frame your shots. There are seven more key ways. To learn more about other techniques, check out the learning guide.

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