Friday, July 1, 2011


Fifth Avenue Jumble, 2003

I wrote about negative space yesterday. While looking at some old pictures of New York last night it occurred to me that I should also say something about compressed perspective. (These are not related concepts. It’s just how my mind bounces around.)

The effect seen above in Fifth Avenue Jumble is something that’s hard to do with either of the short lenses I use most often. But with a long lens—this was shot with an 80-400mm lens set at the 200mm length—you can get all sorts of neat effects. The most noticeable thing is that a long lens brings objects closer to you, or you closer to them. Neither the photographer nor the subjects actually moves, of course. It’s all in the optics and I couldn’t begin to explain how it works because, among other things, I can’t remember which of convex and concave brings things closer and which makes them farther.

The effect of a long lens can be a lot of fun without being exaggerated or gimmicky. Long lenses are the everyday tools for most sports photographers, so we’re accustomed to seeing the compressed depth of field they create. A long lens that is not only well-built, sharp of focus and fast of aperture is worth its weight in gold (and frequently costs as much as if it were actually made of gold).

The photograph of the workmen on the Williamsburg Bridge, below, was taken using the same 80-400mm lens. I was on a street level sidewalk a good hundred yards away from where the men were working. The long lens, however, brings them close. If you look beyond the workmen you’ll see that this lens also creates the impression that the red brick apartment complex in the background is behind the men rather than a half mile or so across the East River in Manhattan.

The Williamsburg Bridge Repairmen, 2003

A long lens is one of those camera accessories a lot of new photographers want soon after getting into photography. For each generation of lenses I’ve bought through the years, a long lens was always the second or third lens I invested in. The 200mm Nikkor lens I bought in 1968 is still working, though it isn’t compatible with any contemporary digital cameras. (A few years ago I gave my 1967 Nikon camera and the lenses I used with it to a local grade school that still teaches kids how to work in the darkroom.)

When I changed over to digital photography I bought the aforementioned 80-400mm Nikkor lens. Although it’s always clean and ready to go in my camera bag, I find that there are relatively few times when I actually use it. It’s used mostly on occasions—say, when photographing a parade—when I’m carrying two cameras and the camera with the long lens is a backup or being used for a special purpose.

Some people swear by long lenses when they’re doing street photography because you can stay quite some distance away from your subject. But for the same reason that the long lens makes for an interestingly compressed scene in Fifth Avenue Jumble, I find it’s not unsatisfactory for street photography and candid photographs of people because 1) it results in such a “flat” image and 2) because even if I’m not very adept at doing it, I still feel like I have to be close enough to the people and scenes I’m photography to have a sense of what it’s like to be in their space.


  1. Wonderful contrasts in all those architectural styles in that first image.

  2. My Sigma 150-400MM OS lens was the third I purchased after a macro and a Canon 55-250 IS, the one that get's the most use. The long lens is great up here in the mountains but it's also heavy!