Lesson from the Shot: When You’re Not Close Enough

by Stanley Leary


Robert Capa once said, “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” Capa wasn’t advocating the use of longer lenses; he was telling us to physically get closer — to become more involved and intimate with our subjects. In fact, a wide-angle lens is often a better choice than a telephoto lens when you want to “zoom in” on your subject.
Photograph - Courtesy of Dave Bartruff
Telephoto vs. Wide-Angle Lenses
Most people choose a telephoto lens when they want their subject to appear closer to the camera. These same people choose a wide-angle lens so they can “get it all in” the picture, usually a landscape picture.  Professional photographers take a different approach. A pro chooses a lens based on what that tool will allow him to do. It’s the same for a professional carpenter; he picks a tool to carry out a specific task.
A telephoto lens and a wide-angle lens help us to tell the same story in different ways. The choice of which lens is like a writer choosing which words to use. It depends on what needs to be said.  A telephoto lens not only brings subjects closer to the viewer; it makes objects in the photograph appear closer together than in reality. A wide-angle lens does the opposite. Objects appear farther apart than in reality.
The Power of the Wide-Angle Lens
One of the most creative, powerful uses of a wide-angle lens is when you are especially close to someone. It allows the viewer to see not only the subject, but the subject’s environment as well.  By using our feet and not just our zoom lenses to approach our subjects, we are able to make “environmental” portraits. We can show what they look like, where they are and/or what they are doing. It is now easy for our viewers to relate to our subjects. The photo carries a great deal of information.
I love to show where someone works and what he or she does for a living. When I’m up close, the subject is predominant and not a little speck in the middle of a photo.  I can have the person pause whatever they are doing and just casually look at the camera. If I time it just right, I can show them at ease with a pleasant expression. Being so close, the photo becomes personal with the viewer, because I became personal with the subject. You can’t communicate what you do not experience with the camera.
Why is a wide-angle photo usually better when you are closer to the subject? Because it gives you the feeling of being there.
Dealing with Distortion
There are a couple of problems to be aware of when using wide-angles very close to a subject.
First, it is difficult to use a wide-angle lens in tight without distortion of people and the surroundings. The wider the lens, the more pronounced this problem. A moderately wide lens like a 28 mm is much easier to use than an extreme wide-angle like a 20 mm or wider. Of course, the wider lenses seem to help with creativity –- when used correctly.  We’ve all seen shots where the walls look as if they are falling forward or backward or the clock on the wall is an oval instead of a circle. This type of distortion, converging lines, can be used for good, but rarely; the general rule is to avoid these distortions.
Practice helps.  Keep the subject out of the corners of the picture to avoid bending their head or body out of shape. Keep them out of the center as well, since this creates a negative tension (unless that’s what you want). Using the super wide-angle lenses is a real balancing act. Nothing is cut and dried in creative work and that’s why two photographers can cover the same story and their pictures will be nothing alike.
Too Close for Comfort
Another challenge with up close and personal wide-angle shots has nothing to do with technical issues. Being this close physically to your subject can be awkward for both of you.  To avoid this “in your face” quandary, tell your subjects what you are going to do up front, and get their permission before you move in for the shot. A funny thing happens when you do this — they usually get a little excited, are cooperative and feel like they are a part of the making of the photograph rather than just the subject.
Using a telephoto lens, you can make a great head and shoulders portrait with good perspective, but it can be too selective, too narrow a view, to tell a story about a person. Working close to people with wide-angle lenses tells their story in an intimate and personal way.