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How to Make Cinematic Shots With a Telephoto 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

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

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

tight angle
A tight shot with a long lens.

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

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. 


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.

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.

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

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

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.

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

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. 

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

Tips for Using a Long Lens

Make Sure You Have a Foreground and Background

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.

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

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

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. 

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

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

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

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.