Photography basics – part 6 – focal lengths and their suitability


When you read photography forums – especially the sub-forums containing buying tips – you notice straight away that many users ask the “best lenses for …” question. Beginners seem to struggle determining what focal length, in millimeters, is good for what application. Only when you know the right focal length for your needs, you can then google for specific models and reviews.


 (Weitwinkel = wide angle, Normalobjektiv = standard focal length, Teleobjektiv = telephoto)


First of all, I would like to say that nothing I’m going to write here should be seen as absolute truth. Keep in mind that photography is not a precise science; many decisions depend on photographer’s taste and personal preferences. There are many photographers who established a certain reputation by using unusual equipment (lenses among other things) to picture well-known motifs in a completely new way.

In the above picture you can see that less millimeter results in a wider angle of view. Wide angle is everything less than 40mm and this is where the standard focal length starts. All focal lengths up to 28mm create  strong effect of depth, meaning that objects in the foreground appear to be much larger in relation to the background; the shorter the focal length or, in other words the less millimeter, the stronger the effect. This particular focal length doesn’t really qualify for portraits, maybe with some exceptions, because it makes the nose look enormous and the ears very tiny. However, this characteristic makes them particularly suitable for landscapes. You can place the subject in the foreground and using leading lines your eye is drown to a focal point in the shot. Wide angle is ideal for interiors and architecture. Capturing the whole perspective may require a very specific short focal length. As an alternative, you can use a normal or telephoto lens. However, it’s rather time consuming and tricky to merge multiple photos into a single panoramic image.

“The” standard focal length owes its name to the perception of the subject which is similar to that of the human’s eye. The scope shifts from 40 to about 50mm, although the average focal length of the human’s eye is 43mm (FF equivalent). If the photographer doesn’t mind moving around while framing, standard prime lenses are the best solution. These lenses guarantee a lot of fun shooting and not having to worry whether you should change them or not. People are different and some may perceive their surrounding differently too.  So they take a 35mm focal length (the good old wide angle for documentaries) as a normal focal length.

You use telephoto lenses if you want to capture a distant object. In this case there is no set upper millimeter limit. Some expensive, large lenses go up to several thousand mm. Using such lenses you can picture landscapes, in order to emphasize certain details or create a panoramic image by stitching. These kind of lenses are typically good for portraits (shorter telephoto lenses, 85-135mm FF), sport (up to 400mm FF) and wild life (from 200mm FF it starts being really exciting).

If you have questions or comments, go ahead and share them below ;)

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