Which Lens Focal Length Is Right For My Photography?

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Getting into the art of photography? Just upgraded to a new camera body and need to decide which lens to purchase? Finding the right lens for your needs depends entirely on the focal length. Are you shooting portraits, weddings, sports, or wildlife? Street? Food?

Remember that all focal lengths depend entirely on the photographer’s vision or personal preference. Like all art forms, there are no steadfast rules to abide by. This article is merely a guideline for the purpose of each focal length, including some technical differences between the various offerings you see today.

Let’s dive in.

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1. What Does Focal Length Mean?

Focal length in photography refers to the distance between the lens and the image sensor when the lens is focused on infinity. It's typically measured in millimeters (mm) and is a key determinant of a lens's angle of view — the extent of the scene captured by the lens — and its magnification.

A lens focal length combines various elements that help to focus the light and minimize distortions. The location where all the light rays converge to form a sharp image is known as the optical center of the lens.

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2. How To Find the Focal Length of a Lens

Finding a lens's focal length involves understanding theoretical and practical approaches. Here are the main methods.

Check the Lens Itself

The simplest way to find the focal length of a lens is to look at its specifications. Most lenses have the focal length marked directly on them. For prime lenses, it will be a single number (e.g., 50mm), while zoom lenses will show a range (e.g., 24-70mm).

Lens Specifications or Manual

If the lens marking is unclear or you want more details, the lens manual or the manufacturer's website will provide specifications, including the focal length.

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3. What Is a Prime Lens?

A prime lens is a camera lens with a fixed focal length, meaning it cannot zoom in or out. This distinguishes it from a zoom lens, which allows you to change the focal length within a specific range.

Prime lenses often offer superior image quality compared to zoom lenses. With fewer glass elements inside, prime lenses produce sharper images with less distortion and chromatic aberration. The simplicity of their optical design allows for more precise light transmission and higher resolution.


They typically have larger maximum apertures (e.g., f/1.4, f/1.8, f/2.8), allowing more light to reach the sensor. This makes them excellent for low-light situations and for achieving shallow depth-of-field effects where the subject is in sharp focus against a smoothly blurred background.

Size and Weight

Prime lenses are usually more compact and lighter than zoom lenses, making them convenient for travel and long shooting sessions. Their smaller size and weight are due to the absence of the extra glass and mechanics needed for zooming.


While there is a broad range of pricing for prime lenses, they can be less expensive than zoom lenses of comparable quality, especially at wider apertures. This cost-effectiveness stems from the more straightforward construction and fewer materials required.

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4. Cropped vs. Full-Frame Lenses

The differences between cropped (APS-C) and full-frame sensors are significant in digital photography, influencing various aspects of image quality, field of view, depth of field, and camera system size and cost.

  • Full-frame sensors measure approximately 36mm x 24mm, the same size as a frame of 35mm film. This larger size can capture more light, improving image quality, especially in low-light conditions.
  • Cropped Sensors (APS-C) are smaller, typically around 22mm x 15mm for Canon and 23.5mm x 15.6mm for Nikon and Sony. This size can vary slightly between manufacturers.

Additionally, the larger size of full-frame sensors allows for better low-light performance and less noise at high ISO settings, enhancing image quality in challenging lighting conditions.

On the other hand, the smaller APS-C sensors come with a "crop factor" of about 1.5x to 1.6x, effectively increasing the focal length of lenses and providing extra "reach," which can be beneficial for telephoto photography such as sports or wildlife. Despite potentially higher noise levels in low light, APS-C cameras offer a more compact and affordable option for those seeking a balance between performance and portability. This makes them attractive to amateurs, enthusiasts, and even professionals who value a lighter system.

Lens compatibility is another consideration; full-frame lenses can be used on both sensor types, but APS-C lenses on full-frame bodies may result in vignetting. Finally, while full-frame cameras are more expensive, they are preferred for their superior image quality and flexibility in various shooting conditions. Conversely, due to the crop factor, APS-C cameras are favored for their affordability, compactness, and built-in telephoto advantage, making them a versatile choice for many photographers.

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5. What Is a Telephoto Lens?

In short, they help photographic subjects appear closer than they are, achieving a beautiful compression for that desirable blurred background. There is a wide range of telephoto lenses on the market, including:

  • 70–200mm lenses are able to zoom to any focal length within the stated range, perfect for portrait photography to achieve a sharp subject with a lovely bokeh blur effect in the background. These lenses work great for long-distance event shots, like at a wedding or a sporting event, as you can capture just enough of the action shot without getting too close.
  • 100–400mm lenses are also zooms, pushing far their boundaries beyond what the 70–200mm lens can offer. Sports and wildlife photographers value these lenses’ long-range and handy ability to zoom with effective detail.
  • 85mm prime lenses have a shallow depth of field, making them ideal for portraits with sharp foreground subjects and blurred backgrounds. Today’s smartphones’ Portrait Mode often mimics the effect of an 85mm prime lens.
  • 135mm prime lenses have the same shallow depth of field as 85mm prime lenses, only at greater distances. They’re used for portraits, weddings/events, and more artistic experimental photography.
  • Super telephoto prime lenses usually start at around 600mm and are favored by wildlife photographers who take many shots of faraway animal subjects. These long-lens photographs are often characterized by an extremely shallow depth of field.
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FE 70-200mm f/4 G OSS Lens


Capture distant subjects while keeping your camera lightweight with the FE 70-200mm f/4 G OSS Lens from Sony. This full-frame lens is designed for use with mirrorless E-mount cameras where it delivers...

Add for $1199
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6. The Purpose of a Wide Lens

A wide-angle lens is often characterized by a focal length of 35mm or shorter, giving the photographer a wide field of view. The wider your field of view, the more of the scene you'll effortlessly capture in the frame. These lenses are ideal for many scenarios, and most photographers have at least one trusty wide-angle lens in their kit. If you’re a beginner photographer or want the first lens for a camera camera, it’s wise to go with a nifty 35mm lens focal length.

Any 24mm and 16mm lens is an excellent option if you want something extra wide. Focal lengths below 16mm are considered ultra-wide angles.

The most popular wide-angle zoom range is 16-35mm. Most kit or standard zoom lenses go down to 24mm or28mm. The widest lenses on the market are 10mm (rectilinear) and 8mm (fisheye).

Lastly, fisheye lens are a super fun addition to the camera bag if you’re into the widest view possible. Their angle of view is usually 180°, allowing you to see half of a full rotation and offering a distinctive, hemispherical lens distortion. They cram in as much information as possible; thus, they don’t produce straight lines. These are awesome for creative, experimental photography projects, especially within fashion portraits or skateboarding content.

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FE 16-35mm f/2.8 GM Lens


Explore the world in creative new ways with exceptional G Master performance in a 16-35mm F2.8 wide-angle zoom. This lens delivers consistently superb resolution from corner-to-corner, no matter what ...

Add for $1899
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7. Long vs. Wide Lenses

Wide-angle camera lenses are a fan-favorite among most lifestyle bloggers and everyday shooters; they’re perfect for capturing an entire scene and confined spaces if you want to show how the entire bedroom looks or the whole restaurant with the crowds of customers — the shorter focal length lens will be your best bet.

Long-focal length lenses range in the 100-600+ range and appear to bring far away objects close to the camera. Made swimmingly for the landscape photographers in mind, long lengths are perfect for wildlife, the bird on the backyard feeder, the child at the top of a water slide, or athletes on the other side of the football field. Lenses longer than 70mm focus on infinity after 100 feet. This infinity-focusing distance means a couple of different things.

  1. Everything 100 feet in front of the camera will be out of focus when focusing on the background.
  2. The background will be blurry when focusing on anything closer than 100 feet away.

Generally, choosing a long focal length lens, like 70mm, 135mm, or 200mm, is wise to isolate textures and distant features to create dramatic backgrounds. Wide focal length lenses, like 16mm, 24mm, or 35mm, thrive when you want the entire scene in focus, like when shooting simple landscapes with long leading lines.

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