Filmmaking: Use the Lens to Tell Your Story

by Tom Barrance

  • Use different lenses or lens settings to help tell your story
  • Use wide angle lenses for handheld shots, cramped spaces and dramatic perspective
  • Use longer lenses, and wide apertures, to blur the background
  • Don’t zoom while you’re filming

The first rule of using the lens is don’t zoom. Keep your finger off the zoom button while you’re filming. Just use it to set the lens before you start shooting.

If you have a basic camera, it probably has a button with ‘W’ and ‘T’ settings on it. Or it might have a picture of a landscape and a picture of a portrait. W stands for wide angle and T stands for telephoto. (Some cameras have fixed lenses, and many pro filmmakers use prime lenses – these don’t zoom, you swap the lens to get wideangle or telephoto shots).

Wide angle 

Two shot of woman and man

When you shoot on a wide angle setting, the camera takes in a wide section of the scene in front of it. This means that it’s easy to fit a lot in. It’s good for filming indoors. It also means you have to get much closer to the subject to make them look big. It’s easier to hold wide angle lenses steady, and if you do get close to the subject it makes the perspective look more dramatic. It makes closeups of people look wacky, though.


Telephoto shot of face

The telephoto setting is like looking through a telescope. It’s hard to handhold, so you will probably need to use a tripod. It’s good for making subjects that are further away look bigger. It seems to flatten perspective, and it usually makes for flattering closeups.

You can see how different lenses affect a closeup of a face on this page.


If everything in the scene is in focus, like the shot at the top of the page, it’s called a deep focus shot. This is easier to do with a wide angle lens and a small camera. You can change the amount that’s in focus – the depth of field – by changing the size of the aperture*. This is the name for the hole in the lens that lets light in. When the aperture is smaller, the lens lets less light in but more of the scene is in focus.

Shallow focus shot

In a shallow focus shot only part of the scene is in focus. This is useful for putting distracting backgrounds out of focus, and for making individual things or people stand out against the blurred background. Telephoto lenses on bigger cameras (such as DSLRs) naturally have shallow depth of field so they are useful for shallow focus shots. You can reduce the depth of field by opening up the aperture, though you’ll need to make sure the shot isn’t overexposed. More about exposure

pullfocus from Tom Barrance on Vimeo.

Some filmmakers use pull focus or rack focus to change focus during a shot. This can change the emphasis from one part of the scene to another. To do this effectively you need a system still camera or a large sensor video camera with a lens that is easy to focus manually. You can buy follow focus attachments that make this easier. It’s not worth trying to do this if you have a small automatic camera.

*Just to confuse things, aperture is a fraction, so a larger number means a smaller hole. F2.8 – which should properly be written f/2.8 – lets in twice as much light as f/4.