Choosing the right focal length


Seems like an easy thing to do, just point the camera at your subject, frame your subject and if it fits; shoot. If not, zoom out or zoom in.

But, there is so much more to it than that. Different focal lengths provide different looks. Wide lenses will exaggerate distances, while longer lenses will compress distances and objects. The relationship of distance between objects will be compressed with longer lenses, and exaggerated with wide lenses. Now, most people will agree that longer lenses are great portrait lenses. They compress distances, framing the face in a very flattering way. Most, would also agree that wide lenses (especially very wide lenses) are not the most flattering for portraits. They tend to exaggerate the distances from the tip of the nose to the ears, etc, etc. They also tend to make people look   *ahem*….wider. Which if you are being paid to do a portrait, probably not the way to go.

Now, most will also agree that the best (and most common) choice for a lens when shooting landscapes and such would be a wide lens. Now, don’t get me wrong, I love my 14mm wide lens, but it is not always the lens I grab when shooting landscapes.

Many compositions can benefit from the compression that a longer lens will give to a scene. Most photographers think of lenses only in the ability to change the field of view, but there is much more to the look of a than just field of view.

Early spring we went on a short hike on the Rails to Trails Conservatory trail near the buffalo river. As we were walking the trail, I noticed a large boulder that fell in to the center of the trail. I took a few images of it, with several different lenses.

Both images show the same trail and the same boulder. Both images the boulder and trail are in essentially the same place, they are framed the same. The only real change is the perspective; one image made with a 300 from very far away, one image made with a 14mm very close. I personally think that the image with the 300 is the more interesting image, the distances between the trail and rock are compressed, and you can see more of the serpentine shape that the path makes. The background of the image is more compressed, where the relative distances in the wide shot are more spread out.


The next shot is the ruins of an old house on the river. The first image was made with a 85mm and the second was made with the 14mm. The first thing to notice, is the background in the one made with the 85, the mountains in the back look so much closer to the house. In fact, the mountains frame the house and become part of the narrative of the image. In the wide shot, the mountains are more of an after thought; they are there, but much smaller and distant.


I am not saying that the longer lens is the “right” choice, but it often gets looked over for stuff like this. As with any shoot, you should “work the scene” and come at it from multiple angles, different perspectives. Many times, I get an idea for a shot, and get there and find unexpected images that get worked from a scene are better. The key is to get out and shoot.





One thought on “Choosing the right focal length

  1. Hi Ben!

    That is interesting. I had always thought of using telephotos on to bring
    distant objects closer but I see what you are saying about using different lenses
    for different emphasis. I loved your picture taken down the road surrounded by
    the beautiful fall colors. Great Picture. Thanks, Dexter

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