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  • Writer's pictureAbdul Qudoos

Focal Length Comparison: A Guide for Photographers




Want to take eye-catching photos? You don't need fancy cameras or trips to faraway places. 


The key is right on your lens - the focal length. Those little numbers make a big difference in your images. 


This article explains how focal length works and alos about focal length comparison. Learn to use it, and boring snapshots will become striking photos. 


Get ready to understand focal length for the first time. We'll unlock the secrets so you can see the world in a new way. 


Read on for tips to take your skills to new heights!


What is Focal Length?

Focal length is defined as:

The distance between the optical center of the lens to the camera sensor when the lens is focused on infinity.

It's represented in millimeters (mm) and printed on every lens.


But what does that technical mumbo-jumbo translate to for real-world shooting?


Focal length impacts two key aspects of your images:


Field of View

Field of view simply refers to how much of the scene can be captured in your photo's frame.


Lenses with short focal lengths capture more of the scene in your frame, thus having a wider field of view. Meanwhile, long focal-length lenses capture less of the scene, giving you a narrower field of view.


This means:

  • Wide angle lenses allow you to get more into the frame

  • Telephoto lenses enable you to zero in on details


Perspective Distortion

The second major impact of focal length lies in how it renders perspective.


Depending on the optics, objects at various distances can appear distorted in their spatial relationship with one another.


In particular:

  • Shorter focal lengths exaggerate depth

  • Longer focal lengths compress depth

This affects the apparent relative size and position of subjects from foreground to background.


Focal Length Categories



Lenses get categorized based on ranges of focal lengths, each with their distinctive use cases:


Ultra Wide Angle (Below 24mm)

The shortest focal lengths that provide an extremely wide perspective. Enables fitting expansive scenes in the frame. Often shows noticeable perspective distortion.


Use cases:

  • Sweeping landscape vistas

  • Exaggerated perspective for creative effect

  • Capturing cramped interiors


Wide Angle (24-35mm)

Provides a wide field of view that's wider than the human eye. Enables capturing grand, immersive scenes by exaggerating depth.


Use cases:

  • Spacious landscape scenes

  • Heightened drama from foreground to background

  • Group shots, events, real estate


Standard (50-60mm)

Focal length mimics natural human vision. Provides an intuitive, normal view without much distortion. Extremely versatile.


Use cases:

  • General photography like travel, street, documentary

  • Natural perspective for portraits

  • Walkaround lens


Medium Telephoto (70-135mm)

Narrows the field of view compared to standard lenses. Allows focusing on centrally framed subjects and compressing depth.


Use cases:

  • Portrait photography

  • Sports, concerts, events

  • Compressed landscapes, abstracts


Super Telephoto (300mm +)

Extremely narrow field of view to focus on distant details. Compresses scenes dramatically. Requires specialty gear for handling.


Use cases:

  • Wildlife, birding, sports action

  • Astrophotography details

  • Compressed abstraction

To summarize the different focal length categories and their typical use cases, refer to the following table:

Focal Length Category

Focal Length Range

Characteristics

Ultra Wide Angle

Below 24mm

Extremely wide perspective, noticeable distortion

Wide Angle

24-35mm

Wide field of view, exaggerates depth

Standard

50-60mm

Mimics natural human vision, versatile

Medium Telephoto

70-135mm

Narrower field of view, focuses on centrally framed subjects, compresses depth

Super Telephoto

300mm +

Extremely narrow field of view, focuses on distant details, dramatically compresses scenes

Comparing Focal Lengths

Let's now dive into some real-world examples across common genres to truly grasp focal length behavior.


Landscape Photography

Landscape photos aim to capture the grandeur, depth, and expansiveness of environments. Focal length choices determine exactly how much of the scene gets included.


  • Ultra Wide Angle Lenses

Focal Length: 14mm


Perspective: Strongly exaggerated


At 14mm, straight lines visibly bend outwards while objects close by look gigantic. The near foreground gets emphasized for an intensely immersive effect.


The best focal length for landscape photography depends on the desired perspective and the scene you want to capture.


Use it when: You want viewers to feel enveloped by an epic, almost warped perspective.


  • Wide Angle Lenses

Focal Length: 24mm


Perspective: Enhanced depth


The wide 24mm focal length stretches out the scene with a sweeping view. Visual depth gets extended from front to back for an immersive, grandstand perspective.


Use it when: You want to showcase the breadth of grand vistas.


  • Standard Lenses

Focal Length: 50mm


Perspective: Natural


A standard lens reproduces the spatial feel we see with our eyes. The scene appears balanced and true to life.


Use it when: You want a documentation-style landscape.


  • Medium Telephoto Lenses

Focal Length: 85mm


Perspective: Layered depth


As we zoom closer, background elements get compressed while objects up front look proportionally larger due to the compressed depth effect.


Use it when: You want to highlight subjects against layered backgrounds.


  • Super Telephoto Lenses

Focal Length: 200mm+


Perspective: Highly compressed


Super telephotos make scenes stack up in almost abstract ways, with objects appearing flattened. Excellent for picking details from busy scenes.


Use it when: You want to extract patterns, textures, and details from scenes in a graphic, flattened composition.


(For more tips on capturing stunning landscapes, check out our complete guide to mastering the art of landscape photography.)


Portrait Photography

For captivating portraits, focal length controls how much of the scene you wish to include around your subject. Shorter or longer lenses create vastly different renders.


  • Wide Angle Lenses

Focal Length: 24mm


Perspective: Exaggerated facial features


Get too close with a wide lens and facial features start warping unattractively. The plane of focus also makes only a portion of the face sharp.


Avoid it when: Shooting tight headshots and close-ups.


  • Standard Lenses

Focal length: 50mm


Perspective: Natural


A standard 50-60mm focal length reproduces the spatial sightline of our eyes. Facial proportions get accurately rendered for familiar-looking environmental portraits.


Use it when: You want to include some background context in headshots or half-body framing.


  • Medium Telephoto Lenses

Focal length: 85mm


Perspective: Flattened depth


Slight telephoto compression makes facial structure pop while smoothing textures. The perspective isolate subjects against blurred backgrounds.


Use it when: You want that coveted “portrait lens” look.


  • Super Telephoto Lenses

Focal length: 300mm +


Perspective: Extremely compressed


Super telephotos hugely magnify faces to appear flattened. They require big distances from subjects so are less useful for portraits unless going for extreme abstraction.


Use it when: You want a highly stylized, graphics-like portrait perspective.


(To dive deeper into portrait photography techniques, refer to our beginner's guide to portrait photography)


Sports & Wildlife Photography

Capturing dynamic, fast-moving subjects requires focal lengths that can rapidly reframe on key moments. The longer the lens, the tighter you can zero in.



Focal length: 50-60mm


Field of view: Normal


With a standard lens, you can capture a wider scene to place subjects in an environmental context. But rapid movements quickly leave the frame.


Use it when: You want to show sports scenes with more peripheral context.


  • Medium Telephoto Lenses

Focal length: 70-100mm


Field of view: Narrow


The narrower field of view allows focusing on the central action up close while providing some context. Enables cleaner framing and tighter crops.


Use it when: Closely following fast plays while showing some surroundings.


  • Super Telephoto Lenses

Focal length: 400mm+


Field of view: Extremely narrow


Only super telephotos allow tight shots of distant players while chewing up background distractions. The extreme magnification isolates the pivotal moments.


Use it when: Capturing definitive sports moments or timid wildlife from afar.


As you can see, focal length allows picking your desired crop on captivating moments while controlling depth and angles. It pays to invest in pro-grade telephoto zoom lenses covering wide focal ranges to always nail the shot.


Wildlife photographers can also showcase their work and gain exposure by participating in the best wildlife photography competitions.


Architectural Photography

Photographing buildings and interiors poses a unique challenge - capturing immense structures within limited framing. Focal length handles the transition from the grandest vistas to the most intricate details.



Focal Length: 24mm


Perspective: Exaggerated depth


Wide lenses help take in fully tall structures by extending the perspective. Visual depth gets stretched from front to back.


Use it when: Capturing soaring exteriors, expansive interiors, and cramped room



Focal Length: 50mm


Perspective: Natural


A standard lens captures balanced architectural scenes without distorting surfaces and edges. It documents structures accurately.


Use it when: Showcasing buildingscapes at a “human” eye view level.



Focal Length: 85-100mm


Perspective: Layered depth


Getting closer with medium telephotos allows highlighting architectural details against blurred backgrounds and stacked surfaces for added depth.


Use it for: Drawing viewer attention to design elements and textures


As evident above, leveraging focal length's perspective rendering power lets you emphasize different aspects of architectural subjects to align with your creative goals. 


(Discover more tips for capturing impressive architectural shots in our article on architecture photography.)


And here's a quick reference table to compare the effects of different focal lengths across various photography genres:

Genre

Wide Angle (24mm)

Standard (50mm)

Medium Telephoto (85mm)

Super Telephoto (200mm+)

Landscape

Enhanced depth, immersive

Natural, balanced perspective

Layered depth, compressed background

Highly compressed, abstract

Portrait

Exaggerated facial features

Natural, includes background context

Flattened depth, isolated subject

Extremely compressed, stylized

Sports & Wildlife

Wider scene, environmental context

Normal field of view, some context

The narrower field of view, cleaner framing

Extremely narrow, isolates pivotal moments

Architectural

Exaggerated depth, soaring exteriors

Balanced, accurate documentation

Highlights details, blurred backgrounds

Not typically used


Choosing the Right Lens



Here are some key considerations when selecting an appropriate focal length:


Creative Intent

Identify the perspective look you desire. Wide for exaggeration? Telephoto for compression? Match the focal length accordingly.


Shooting Distance

Consider the camera-to-subject distance needed. Adjust the focal length to frame compositions given working room constraints.


Subject Framing

Determine the crop and composition for your subject size. Shorter for fuller frames? Longer for tight detail isolation?


Background Control

Choose focal lengths to control depth and determine if you wish backgrounds to appear blended or blurred out.


Practical Limitations

Factor in gear restrictions like your max aperture, stabilization, price, and weight-carrying capacity.


Getting intimate with the signature traits of focal lengths lets you deliberately leverage them as powerful creative tools for your photography vision.


The Flexibility of Zoom Lenses


While prime (fixed focal length) lenses provide quality benefits, zoom lenses bring indispensable versatility.

  • Covers a vast range from wide to telephoto in one lens

  • Smoothly transition between perspectives

  • Reframe compositions quickly by simply zooming


Pro photographers overwhelmingly prefer top-tier pro-grade zoom lenses for their unmatched convenience coupled with excellent performance.


But using zooms effectively means understanding focal length fundamentals rather than just randomly zooming. Consider deliberately varying focal lengths almost like switching primes.

Master the creative outcome at different marked zooms (24mm, 85mm, etc). Make zooms work for you creatively!


Final Words

Selecting the ideal focal length transforms from a technical compromise to an artistic decision as you evolve in visual storytelling. Leverage perspective attributes to immerse viewers, isolate focus, and guide eyes through compositions.


Experiment with an assortment of primes or pro-level zooms as you hone your creative voice and photography style. The right focal length isn’t always the one that merely fits people in or crops junk out - but the one that moves souls.


So venture beyond the norm. Explore wide angles’ exaggerated Lines. Marvel telephotos’ magical compression. Play with perspective to immerse audiences, not just show them slices of reality.


Only by introspecting within ourselves do we derive a vision to resonate with viewers. Use your lenses to translate not just what your eyes capture - but what your heart feels.


Ready to put your focal length knowledge to the test? Discover the best photography contests to challenge yourself and grow as a photographer.



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