Choosing a Lens for Your Illustration: How Framing Affects Mood
by Taylor Slattery | November 18, 2019
When planning a composition for an illustration, there are a number of aspects to take into consideration. As we iterate, we test different arrangements of shapes, value and color until arriving upon the winning combination. One aspect that is often overlooked is the choice of lens. Unless you have experience with photography, grasping the concept of different lenses and their effects on the mood of an illustration can be challenging. That isn’t to say that without a comprehensive understanding of lenses replicating their effects isn’t possible.
Through exposure to films, photography and animation, we tend to understand these things on an intuitive level. Whether we realize it or not, we make these sorts of decisions unconsciously while planning our compositions. Bringing them to the forefront of our minds during the planning phases will add another degree of control and help our pieces to feel more intentional.
Many artists use cameras in their workflow to photograph reference images for their paintings and illustrations. This step typically follows a series of iterative sketches that result in a comprehensive rough draft that will be used to create the final. For those who are not yet comfortable with the concept of lenses, their differences, and when to use them, experimenting with a camera can help to reach a point of better understanding. Most DSLR cameras come with a kit lens that covers focal lengths that dip into both wide and telephoto ranges. A lens like this will allow you to rapidly experiment with different compositions and observe the differences between the different focal lengths firsthand.
The most obvious difference between wide-angle and telephoto lenses is the amount of information that can be fit into the frame. So the first thing you might take into consideration when choosing a lens for your piece is the subject matter. If your task is to depict an epic landscape, a wide-angle will be the obvious choice, but that doesn’t mean it’s your only choice. Maybe you want to crop in closely on a specific element of that landscape to give it special attention or make its location feel a bit more mysterious by omitting a wider view or blurring the background. In this case, you’ll want to aim for a longer focal length.
The lens you choose will determine how the elements of your piece relate to one another and how the viewer relates to the piece as well. By using a wider lens in the range from 18-35, you invite the viewer into the piece and they can experience it as if they were there. By using longer lenses, you remove them, which can cause the viewer to take a more analytical look at the design of the piece rather than the more guttural reactions wide angles can produce. It’s important to set clear intentions for the mood of your piece at the start to ensure your intentions are met.
Think about the kind of mood you’re trying to capture. It helps to ask questions to guide your thinking. What kind of story are you trying to tell? How do you want to make the viewer feel? If there are characters in your piece, with whom should the viewer identify? Are there any details you want the viewer to notice and should they notice them on the first read, or a second or third?
Wider lenses have a larger depth of field and will include more of the environment. They are great at communicating scale, providing context, and can lend the piece an epic feeling. They provide the opportunity for large amounts of detail which can keep the viewer’s eyes moving around the composition. They’re common choices for pieces depicting characters embarking on a larger-than-life journey in which the character is dwarfed by the environment. This can make the character feel insignificant or their undertaking monumental. Wide-angle lenses can also be used to emphasize a difference in size between objects in the foreground and those in the background. This trick is particularly helpful in making monsters feel more formidable in fantasy illustrations and bring the viewer into the shoes of the protagonist.
Telephoto lenses will have a tighter crop and tend to compress depth and flatten an image. They can be great for getting a close shot of a character’s face, which will convey a strong sense of their mental and emotional state, but the crop might omit the thing to which they are reacting. This sort of composition might be well suited for the cover of a suspense, thriller, or mystery novel. They remove the viewer from the composition which can give them an almost voyeuristic quality. Their tightly cropped compositions place more importance on the significance of elements and their placement. These sorts of compositions tend to feel more intentional and designed.
Conceptually, lenses are deceptively simple. A quick read-through of their characteristics can leave us feeling like we’ve reached an understanding, but putting them into practice is another story entirely. Understanding the hallmarks of the different lenses arms us to notice when they’re used in the work of others and making note of their successes, failures, and the moods they impart on us will better equip us to use them in our work.
Taylor is the Managing Editor of Notes on Design. Taylor is a graphic designer, illustrator, and Design Lead at Weirdsleep.