Understanding focal length in photography: a comprehensive guide

Understanding focal length in photography: a comprehensive guide

Focal length is a fundamental concept in photography that plays a crucial role in determining how your images will look. Whether you’re shooting portraits, landscapes, or street photography, understanding focal length and how it affects your photos can significantly enhance your creative control. In this blog post, we’ll delve into what focal length is, how it influences your images, and how different focal lengths can be used for various photographic purposes.

What is focal length?

Focal length is the distance between the lens and the image sensor when the subject is in focus, usually measured in millimeters (mm). It determines the angle of view (how much of the scene will be captured) and the magnification (how large individual elements will appear). In simpler terms, it’s the zoom power of your lens.

Short vs. long focal lengths

  • Short focal Lengths (wide-angle lenses): Typically ranging from 14mm to 35mm, these lenses capture a wider field of view, making them ideal for landscapes, architecture, and interiors.
  • Long focal lengths (telephoto lenses): Ranging from 70mm to 300mm and beyond, these lenses have a narrower field of view, making them perfect for portraits, wildlife, and sports photography.

How focal length affects your images

1. Field of view

  • Wide-angle lenses (14mm-35mm): Capture more of the scene, making them suitable for expansive landscapes, architecture, and large group shots.
  • Standard lenses (35mm-70mm): Provide a natural perspective that’s close to human vision, ideal for street photography and general use.
  • Telephoto lenses (70mm and above): Isolate subjects and capture distant objects, perfect for portraits, wildlife, and sports.

2. Depth of field

  • Wide-angle lenses: Typically have a larger depth of field, keeping more of the scene in focus. Great for landscapes where you want everything from the foreground to the background sharp.
  • Telephoto lenses: Create a shallower depth of field, which helps to blur the background and isolate the subject, enhancing portrait and wildlife photography.

3. Perspective and distortion

  • Wide-angle lenses: Can cause perspective distortion, making close objects appear larger and exaggerating the distance between objects. This can be creatively used in certain shots but should be avoided in portraits to prevent unflattering distortion.
  • Telephoto lenses: Compress the perspective, making objects appear closer together. This effect is flattering for portraits and useful for capturing distant subjects.

Choosing the right focal length for different purposes

1. Portrait photography

  • 85mm to 135mm: These focal lengths are considered ideal for portraits, as they provide a flattering perspective and help to isolate the subject from the background.

2. Landscape photography

  • 14mm to 35mm: Wide-angle lenses are perfect for capturing the vastness of landscapes, allowing you to include more of the scene and create a sense of depth.

3. Street photography

  • 35mm to 50mm: These focal lengths offer a natural perspective, making them ideal for capturing candid moments without distortion.

4. Wildlife photography

  • 200mm and above: Telephoto lenses are essential for wildlife photography, enabling you to capture detailed shots of animals from a safe distance without disturbing them.

5. Macro photography

  • 50mm to 100mm macro lenses: These specialized lenses allow you to capture extreme close-ups of small subjects, such as insects and flowers, with incredible detail.


Understanding focal length is key to mastering the art of photography. It influences not only how much of the scene you capture, but also how your subjects are portrayed within the frame. By choosing the right focal length for your specific needs, you can enhance your creative expression and achieve the desired impact in your photos. Experiment with different focal lengths, explore their unique characteristics, and discover new ways to tell your visual stories.

Written by AI