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Julian Stocker, Norway
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Elaine Flournoy, USA
January 14, 2021
There are a lot of things to consider when you're choosing a new lens for your camera. We’ve talked a lot in previous articles about the importance of understanding aperture, ISO and shutter speed to get a great composition but many factors go into an awesome photo, one of them being focal length.
So what is focal length? You’ve probably heard this term tossed around casually when describing lenses and perhaps you nodded along like you knew exactly what you were talking about. (Don’t worry, we’ve all been there). But if you’re not 100% sure what focal length is and why it’s important to understand, today’s the day to learn!
The focal length will help you decide how “zoomed in” your photos will appear. A long focal length is important for subjects that are far away and a small focal length is good for capturing a big scene (aka wide angle). The focal length will determine not only how close you need to be to your subject but how the subject and background are perceived in your image.
Photo by Carl van den Boom
In short, the longer the focal length, the more compression caused the image. In a photo, compression looks like a faltered out background and subject that has been pulled closer. This compression can enhance bokeh and create background blur for your images so if you’re going for the classic portrait shot, you’ll need a long focal length (i.e. a larger number).
The focal length is the distance between the point of convergence in your lens to your camera sensor. But you don’t need to get hung up on the technical aspects of focal lengths. Just keep in mind that a big focal length = zoomed-in frame and a small focal length = zoomed out frame.
Ultra-wide lenses with a focal length of 14-24 are used when you want to capture a large scene, such as landscape photography or architecture photography. These lenses can fit a lot into the frame without having to physically move far away from your subjects.
For zoom lenses, anything below a 24mm focal length is considered wide-angle, even if it has the capability to exceed 24mm with a zoom, so a 16-35 mm lens would be considered a wide-angle even though it has the capability of shooting with a 35mm focal length.
We already know that aperture can affect the depth of field but focal length also plays a role when it comes to depth of field. A wide-angle lens with a short focal length will have a wide depth of field, even if you use the widest aperture setting. Wide-angle lenses are best for scenes where you want the foreground and background to be in focus and sharp.
Fisheye lenses also fall under the category of wide-angle because of its ability to capture a large percentage of a visible scene. Fisheyes are known for their signature curvilinear barrel distortion. You can recognize these lenses because the shot will show the sides of the frame curving up. The opposite of a fisheye lens is the rectilinear lenses which project an image with straight lines.
A wide-angle lens with a focal length of 24 - 35 is considered a standard wide-angle. Most kit lenses will be in this range and this focal length is great for general shooting. With this focal length range, you’ll notice the distortion around the edges of your image less. This type of sense is great for landscape photography and is commonly used in movie production because the field of view can capture a good portion of the scene without appearing distorted.
This range of focal length is common and does a good job of covering most subjects and is referred to as “standard” or “normal” because it somewhat mimics the focal length of the human eye (except the human eye is way more complex and has loads of other contributing factors that affect the way we see things.) This range also includes the 50mm which is the focal length many photographers will start off with. If you’ve heard of the “nifty fifty”, this is the lens they are referring to. This focal length gives a natural perspective and field of view to the photos.
When you have a lens with a 70+mm focal lengths, you’ve officially entered telephoto lens territory. Telephoto lenses with a focal length from 70-105 are great for portraits where you want some separation between your subject and the background but you don’t totally want to isolate your subject.
Photo by Carl van den Boom.
When you start going above 105mm, you’ll notice that the background begins to almost totally blur making your subject stand out even more. These lenses are great for wildlife photography where you want to keep a good distance between you and the animal.
Photo by Espen Hellend.
When you start experimenting with telephoto lenses, you may notice some image shake. This is a side effect of long focal lengths and no matter how steady you think your hands are, your image may still have some blur in it. The shake seems worse in telephoto lenses because the field of view of the lens is smaller than a wide-angle or normal lens which means it’s difficult to get a star image. To combat this, you can use a tripod and a remote shutter to make sure your image doesn’t have any blur.
Below are some of our recommendations for ideal focal lengths for popular photography types;
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