What Lens to Get? Part One: Subjects and Spaces

Every newcomer is faced with the question: What lens to get?

Do you go for the 18-55mm kit, the 18-300mm kit, or a 50mm (the nifty fifty), or a 24-105mm f/4, or what? Why are there so many options, and how do you know which one you’ll need?

After all, you can’t be expected to know exactly what you’ll find useful unless you have some experience under the belt. This article is written for the absolute beginner, who is out to purchase his or her first camera and lens. If you are that person, then read on as I show you how you can find exactly what you need right now.

Exclusive Bonus: Download my free guide (with examples) on how to find the best camera angles for dialogue scenes when your mind goes blank.

Canon 50mm f/1.4

I’m writing this article with a slight emphasis towards video shooters, though these concepts are perfectly valid for still photographers as well. I’m also going to be referring to DSLR lenses, even though the same principles can be applied to any other kind of lens.

The four parts of a shot

Hopefully, when you aim your camera, you’ll be aiming it at something worthwhile. This something is called the ‘Subject’. It could be a human being, a tree, a cat, a bird or insect, a building, a car or whatever strikes your fancy. It could even be something abstract, like a bunch of colors.

The point is, you should have an idea of what subjects interest you. If more than one subject interests you, make a list of them on paper and then sort them according to the order of importance.

Once you have your subject in mind, it’s time to see how it relates to a frame or shot. The four parts of a shot are:

  • How big is the subject within the frame?
  • How much of the subject is visible?
  • How close can you get to your subject?
  • How far can you go before your subject can no longer be shot?

E.g., if you want to shoot a tiger in a jungle or forest reserve, you won’t go very close. You’ll have to decide how far you can go and still get the tiger (your subject) in the frame.

On the other hand, if you’re shooting photographs at a crowded cocktail party or wedding, you can’t go very far. Yet, you can’t stick a camera into somebody’s face, too.

Understanding the four parts of a shot can give you strong indications on what lenses might serve you well. For starters, ask yourself these questions:

  • How big do you want to show your subject? Does it fill the frame or is it smaller?
  • What parts of the subject do you want to show?
  • How close can you practically get?
  • How far can you practically go before the subject is too far away?

The answers to the above questions are tangible things. Let’s look at them one by one.

How big is your subject?

For the purposes of this article, I’m going to choose the most popular subject: human beings. You can apply the same principles to any subject. If you’re into videography and filmmaking, you’re most likely shooting humans over any other subject.

For simplicity’s sake, I’m assuming our human subject is 6 feet tall and 2 feet wide (width of shoulders can vary from 15″ to 25″ for adults). Again, I’m going to assume the same width forwards as sideways, so it looks like this:

Human Subject

Which parts do you want to see?

Typically, video frames are categorized as follows:

  • Close up
  • Mid Close up (Bust Shot)
  • Mid Shot
  • Mid-long Shot (Cut off just before the knee)
  • Long Shot

Don’t get hung up over the names. Here’s what it looks like on our human subject:

Shots of Body

Real humans can, of course, be taller or shorter than our test subject, but we have no control over that. It is important to understand what we’re doing here. This is a process of simplification. There’s no need to be precise.

If you’re wondering why the second image has a length of 7 feet while the first is 6 feet, it’s so that we can leave a small gap at the top and bottom. It’s not very important, but it makes our life a little easier.

What about motion and other important stuff?

Humans move. Luckily for videographers, they move sideways a lot more than they do up and down, even if they are basketball players.

Similarly, when we have more than one human as a subject (Two-shot, group shot, whatever), it is highly unlikely they will be on top of each other! They usually stand next to each other.

It is probably for this reason, and more, that the video frame is rectangular, with the length almost twice the size of the height. Here are some common aspect ratios:

  • 4:3 or 1.33:1
  • 3:2 or 1.5:1
  • 16:9 or 1.78:1
  • 1.85:1
  • 2.39:1

It is obviously in our interest to use the height has the standard measure, because it is unlikely to change much. More humans? Sure, go sideways. He wants to move? Sure, go sideways.

How do we benefit from this exercise? We have a standard vertical size for each shot. Once we have the distance, we can calculate the angle (basic trigonometry, anyone?). The angle will give us the focal length.

Will this work? You just wait.

How close can you practically get?

Most lenses cannot focus closer than one foot (unless it’s a macro lens). In any case, you don’t want to get that close to any human.

Here are some typical shooting scenarios:

  • Portrait, beauty or glamor
  • Interview
  • Drama
  • General Action – Doing something, doesn’t have to be dramatic
  • Fast Action – Sports

You could be shooting a wedding, a sports event, a fashion shoot or a fictional piece. Most of the time, you’ll be confined to one of the above scenarios.

Each scenario places its own set of demands on the shooter, one of which is the minimum distance you can be from your subject.

If you’re shooting beauty, you won’t go any closer than the point where a lens might distort your subject. If you’re shooting interviews, you won’t go any closer than the point after which your subject will become intimidated by the camera.

If you’re shooting drama or general, you won’t go any closer than the circle of motion – the area over which the talent move during a shot. This is dictated by the blocking or the nature of the activity. You can get a lot closer to a woman writing your name on a grain of rice than you can to a man studying deadly bacteria in a sealed lab.

When it comes to sports, your minimum distance is dictated by the size of the ground or arena. We all wish we can run along with our heroes in their moment of glory, but we can’t. Shooting weddings or documentaries is the exact opposite. You have to go where the action is, it won’t come to you.

Office Space

How far can you go?

Not very far, unless you are spying on your subject. Usually, they are aware of being shot. This means you are likely to be within earshot.

Unless you are documenting a scene from far away, or if you’re shooting birds or wildlife, you’ll want to record some kind of audio with your visuals.

A Sennheiser G3 series wireless lavalier microphone can transmit to about 200 to 300 feet when everything’s perfect. At line-level voltages, amplified, you could transmit audio via XLR to about 200 feet. At mic-level, you can’t go more than 30 feet.

Generally, I’d fix the upper limit for most human-based shooting within 200 feet, with most of it being within 100 feet. That’s good for starters.

Right! So we have a general idea of our subject, and how close or far we can get. Well, not quite. We need to get more precise with these numbers.

How can we do that? Read on. In Part Two we’ll look at common locations, and how they can help us determine what focal lengths will be most useful to us. Finally, I’ll give you my recommendations on what lens to get.

Exclusive Bonus: Download my free guide (with examples) on how to find the best camera angles for dialogue scenes when your mind goes blank.