Focal Length Matters

 
I made a portrait of my pup, Leila, with an 85 mm lens on a full frame camera.  The result would not have been the same if I’d used a wide angle lens.

I made a portrait of my pup, Leila, with an 85 mm lens on a full frame camera. The result would not have been the same if I’d used a wide angle lens.

Once upon a time, photographer me was chatting with a non-photographer about making photos at an event.

She wanted me to use a zoom lens so I could “take photos of people further away.” My internal voice thought, “no, no, no.”

Why were my thoughts so contrary?

Well, because most non-photographers don’t actually know what focal length does. In this post I’ll go over a few key points that will leave you much happier with the photos you make.

 
My first favorite lens was a normal lens with a super wide aperture.

My first favorite lens was a normal lens with a super wide aperture.

 

Normal Lenses

I’ll start this discussion with normal lenses, because people often speak of photography as moments in real life.

Well, a normal lens is what can get us closest to this.

A normal lens is 50 mm for full frame cameras and 35 mm for cropped-frame cameras.

There is no type of distortion, and is a favorite among some street and documentary photographers. That’s what you often hear it called the nifty fifty.

 
This was made with an 85 mm lens on a full-frame camera. The shadow in the background is brought much closer, so you cannot see what is behind the fire hydrant.

This was made with an 85 mm lens on a full-frame camera. The shadow in the background is brought much closer, so you cannot see what is behind the fire hydrant.

 

Telephoto Lenses

Telephotos lenses may be the most misunderstood of this bunch. Beginner photographers often think they are good for making photos of something that’s further away.

But when they do this, they often don’t like their photos, and may not figure out why.

Telephoto lenses are anything longer than 50 mm for full-frame cameras and 35 mm for cropped-frame cameras.

They compress the length in a photo and make whatever is in the background seem much closer.

This can be used to manipulate what the viewers sees to make a not-so-crowded scene seem very crowded.

Portrait photographers often use a slight telephoto lens so that they don’t show as much of the background, and combined with selective focus, they can put the emphasis on the subject of the photo.

 
This photo was taken with a 35 mm lens on a full-frame camera. You can see where the fire hydrant is located in relationship to the house.

This photo was taken with a 35 mm lens on a full-frame camera. You can see where the fire hydrant is located in relationship to the house.

 

Wide Angle Lenses

A wide angle lens is my personal favorite. As I write this, my heart feels a bit warmer, because it takes me to the days when I wander the streets of my favorite city and make photos of scenes that I come across.

Wide angle lenses are anything that is shorter than 50 mm for full-frame cameras and 35 mm for cropped-frame cameras.

Wide angle lenses make the distance between the subject and the background seem further apart. This puts the emphasis on the subject, but still shows the background of a scene.

This aspect make wide angle lenses popular with photojournalists and documentary photographers.

 
In all honestly, I’ve never shot with a true fisheye lens. This was made at 18 mm on a cropped-sensor camera. But even here you can see how the edges can curve out with a super wide lens.

In all honestly, I’ve never shot with a true fisheye lens. This was made at 18 mm on a cropped-sensor camera. But even here you can see how the edges can curve out with a super wide lens.

 

Fisheye Lenses

Fisheye lenses are what make me say “Wow!” They show life as you do not see it, and make me and many others keep on looking with wonder.

Fish eye lenses are super wide angle and start at 20 mm for a full-frame camera.

They are characterized by being so wide that the edges of a photo curve. They are most commonly uses in landscape and cityscape photography.

If you want to use a fisheye lens with people or animals, do not place them in the center and you can minimize distortion.

Focal Length Matters

One of the most common first questions that photographers get is “What kind of camera do you have?”

But the real question should be “What’s your favorite focal length?”

With the different types of photos that you can make with the different focal lengths, you can probably guess what I commonly ask other photographers.

So, what’s your favorite focal length?

 

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better photosBryn Boninoc