Which Focal Length Should You Use?
In this episode I will be talking about wide angle lenses, standard lenses and telephoto lenses. They all have different focal lengths but which focal length should you use for your photography? We are going to be getting to grips with that today.
Last episode I talked about what focal length actually means and I explained that the focal length changes depending on whether you have a full frame or cropped frame sensor in your camera. Now if you have no idea what I am talking about then pop over to Episode 14 and have a listen before diving into this one. I wouldn’t want you getting confused!
Before we get started let’s address something;
The focal length you choose to use for a scene is entirely up to you and the effect you want.
There are no rules here! For every photographer you meet you will hear a different preference and a different opinion about which focal length to use for what. As you gain more and more experience working with different focal lengths you will start to develop your own ‘style’ and preferences. That’s when things get really interesting!
Photography is subjective.
However, for the sake of this episode allow me to be quite ‘general’ with my focal length advice.
I am not going to go into lots of detail about each type of lens. This is a beginner’s overview. I will go into more depth about each of them in future episodes. Let’s start with wide angle lenses;
What are wide angle lenses best used for?
Lenses with a focal length of 35mm and shorter are considered ‘wide angle’. When you look through a wide angle lens you are presented with a wide angle of view. Because of this wide angle, sizes and distances are exaggerated.
Things near to the camera will appear to be much bigger than they actually are and things at the back of the scene will be smaller and appear much further away than they actually are.
Capturing much more of your scene.
The most obvious use for a wide angle lens is to capture land, sea or cityscapes. With this type of photography, usually the more of that vista you can get into your image the better. Pretty self-explanatory.
A wide angle is also great for large group shots. So for example, imagine you are trying to capture an image of a bride and groom with all of their guests. If you didn’t have a wide angle you might end up having to walk backwards a great distance in order to get them all into the image. With a wide angle you can stay close enough to them so that you can still communicate with them and you can fit them all in without them being just tiny dots in the distance!
Distorting size and perspective
A good example of this is cars. You will see wide angles used a lot in car photography. Because the wide angle allows you to distort size, you can make the closest part of the car (often the front) appear much larger and this makes it look more powerful and imposing.
Portraits? Probably not…
Now let’s think about the whole ‘closest to the lens appears larger’ thing. This fact means that a wide angle lens is not a great choice for a close up portrait. Because what is the closest thing to the lens? The nose! Taking a close-up portrait with a pretty wide angle will distort your subject’s face and will make their nose look particularly wide. They are not going to thank you for that. You will see this done intentionally for effect, but not for beauty that’s for sure!
Providing a context
Wide angle lenses are also amazing for shooting the ‘everyday’. A lovely lady called Vicki White attended one of my beginner’s workshops a couple of years ago. Since then she has never stopped learning and now has her own photo blog on facebook and she is a very talented photographer with a real knack for seeing a photograph in everything. She very much favours a wide angle lens to document her family life. Far from minimising her background, she totally embraces it and doesn’t try to blur it out of all recognition. Using a wide angle allows her to capture the whole scene and it gives the image proper context. It makes it more real somehow.
Now remember that this label ‘wide angle’ can be applied to a lens with a focal length of 35mm and it can be used to refer to a lens with a focal length of 14mm. The effect is obviously much more extreme the shorter your focal length gets. I have put some examples in the show notes so that you can see this for yourself. I am going to go much deeper into the world of wide angle down the line a bit but for the purpose of this episode I will leave it there.
When should I use a standard focal length lens?
Lenses with a focal length of around 50mm on full frame cameras or 35mm on cropped frame cameras are considered ‘standard’ or ‘normal’. These give us a perspective that pretty much matches the human eye.
Images shot with a standard angle of view have a more natural feel. They can make us relate more to the scene. Almost as if we are there seeing it for ourselves.
This makes a standard lens great for capturing candid moments day-to-day or at a special event. This also makes it a great lens for street photography or photojournalism. Just capturing everyday life as we would see it with our eyes.
You could say that is what it does best but a standard focal length is arguably the most versatile. You can use it for almost any kind of photography. You can capture portraits, landscapes, food, architecture, the list goes on. Of course there will be some instances when you just can’t get close enough to the action or you feel that you have to go too far back to capture something. However, for the main part, a standard 50mm lens will rarely let you down.
If you could only shoot at one focal length for the rest of your life I would argue that this would be the one to choose, simply for its versatility.
Now remember if you have a 50mm lens at home and a cropped sensor camera then you have to multiply that focal length by 1.5. So your 50mm lens actually behaves like a 75mm lens on your camera. This means it is a telephoto lens for you. Listen to Episode 14 for an explanation of this.
That brings us nicely on to;
Telephoto lenses – what are they good for?
Lenses with a focal length longer than 50mm are considered telephoto lenses. When you look through a telephoto lens the angle of view is much narrower than you can see with your eyes. Because of this your scene is magnified. Your subject will appear closer to you than they really are.
When you can’t physically get close enough, your telephoto lens can bring the action to you.
Let’s say, for example, you are shooting wildlife and you need to stay as far back as possible so as not to startle the animals you are trying to photograph. Or perhaps you are watching a football game and you can’t get close to the action without actually stepping on to the pitch. A telephoto lens in these situations will come in pretty handy.
But that’s not all!
Bringing subjects closer is not the main reason photographers choose to use a telephoto lens. In fact there are lots of examples when a photographer can easily get close enough to their subject using their feet and a standard lens. But they don’t. They choose to use a telephoto lens instead. And here’s why;
A long focal length does something pretty awesome. It actually compresses your scene. What I mean by that is it not only brings your subject closer to you, it makes distances from front to back appear closer than they are. So it brings the background closer to your subject and makes the distance between them seem much less. When a background is compressed like that the result is a beautiful blurred effect.
The longer your focal length is the more compression you will have in your image.
There are lots of instances in which this can come in very useful but probably the most common is for portraits.
I took a couple of photographs of my son, Joe, to illustrate this for you. The first is taken with my 50mm lens. I have placed him in front of a tree in the park. I have put some distance between him and the tree and I have opened up my aperture to f/2 so that I can blur out the background and focus entirely on him.
I have definitely managed to create a nice out-of-focus background (bokeh) but look now at the second image.
The second image has been taken with my 85mm lens. Now in order to frame this image in the same way with this lens I had to move further away from Joe. I hope that makes sense. If I stood in the same place as I did with my 50mm focal length I would have ended up with just a close-up of a head and not much else due to the magnification. So I moved far enough away so that I had him framed in exactly the same way.
My aperture, shutter speed and ISO are exactly the same. The only thing that has changed is my focal length. Because the longer 85mm focal length compresses the scene, the trees now look like they are much closer to Joe and bringing them closer has also made them appear even more blurred. This time there is a creaminess to the blur. Much more pleasing than it was with the 50mm.
So you see, it’s not just a wide aperture that gives you that blurry background effect. Focal length contributes a lot to this too!
This compression effect is why lots of photographers, including myself, favour a longer focal length for people photography.
With a long focal length you can completely blur out a background ensuring that only the subject is the focus of that image. This comes in very handy when a background is distracting or when you want to capture a true portrait – all about that person and nothing else.
Let’s think about this compression effect a little bit more in relation to portraits. You will hear lots of photographer talk about telephoto lenses as ‘portrait lenses’. This isn’t just because they can completely blur out a background. In fact, some studio photographers will use a telephoto lens for portraits even though their background is completely plain and doesn’t need to be compressed.
So why is this?
Well remember a telephoto lens compresses everything in your scene. Not just your background. Some call this ‘flattening’ because you are making everything appear closer together. This also applies to your subject.
When you use a long focal length to take a portrait you make features like the nose and chin appear closer to the rest of the face. This makes them look a bit smaller and less pronounced. Although it probably doesn’t sound like it, this effect is usually pretty flattering to your subject!
So as well as getting your closer to the action, a telephoto lens also compresses your scene. That is very important and we will definitely explore it in much more detail in the future.
So there you have it – a very brief overview of wide angle, standard and telephoto lenses and how you might use them. Hopefully you can garner from this that the lens you choose very much depends on what you want to shoot and the style you want to shoot in.
The focal length you select is very much a personal choice.
Next time we are sticking with lenses and focal length and I am going to talk a bit more about prime lenses and zoom lenses and why you might choose one over the other. I hope you will join me!