Which Lens Focal Length Is Right For My Photography?

Learn how to choose the right camera lens for your photography.

Fuji XF50mm1.0 Lens Review

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.

Screw it on with ease.

A wide 18mm lens.

What Is The Focal Length of a Lens?

The focal length refers to 100 mm). In contrast to what many creatives believe, a lens focal length is not the lens’s physical dimension, and it almost has nothing to do with its physical size.

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.

How To Find Focal Length of Lens?

Finding the focal length of a lens is relatively simple. Grab your lens and peek at its outer barrel; you’ll see a number next to the millimeter indicating the focal length.

What Is a Prime Lens?

If you’re unfamiliar with these terms, prime — or often recalled as “fixed” – lenses are exactly what it sounds like one focal length that cannot change.Prime lenses are designed with versatility, crafting the perfect focal length for creatives that prefer a minimal setup.

The 50mm prime "fixed" lens.

Cropped vs. Full-Frame Lenses

Full-frame and APS-C formats indicate the sensor's physical dimensions, entirely different from pixel count. A full-frame sensor has 36mm by 24mm in size based on the traditional 35mm film format. An APS-C sensor is 1.5 times smaller, 25.1mm by 16.7mm, and named after the Advanced Photo System type-C film format, hence its abbreviation.

35mm film has historically been the more popular format due to its near-perfect size for capturing almost anything under the radar. In the analog world, it's much easier to carry a 35mm camera than a medium or large format camera, no? While more compact, they're seemingly large enough to produce high-quality photos making them a highly desirable piece for professional and amateur photographers alike.

This term – full-frame – was defined in contrast to more minor, or APS-C, camera sensors. A full-frame lens is roughly equivalent to a 35mm film frame, while an APS-C sensor is slightly smaller. When you mount a full-frame lens on a camera with an APS-C sensor, you will get a crop factor; your camera's APS-C-size sensor magnifies the scene to produce an image that will match the lens's full-frame image circle.

The effect is that a 50mm full-frame lens mounted on an APS-C body with a 1.5x crop factor will capture a field-of-view that is the same as a 75mm on a full-frame body.

Three popular APS-C lenses from Sony.

What Is a Telephoto Lens?

shallow depth of field. In short, they help photographic subjects appear closer than they actually are, achieving a beautiful compression for that desirable blurred background. There are a wide range of various 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’re able to 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 mimic 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.

Moment Sony SEL70200 G FE 70 200mm f 4 G OSS Lens thumbnail

Sony

FE 70-200mm f/4 G OSS Lens

Shooting far and wanting to keep it stable? Capture distant subjects while keeping your camera lightweight with the FE 70-200mm f/4 G OSS Lens from Sony

Buy for $1,498.00

Image on a 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 Lens

Image on an 85mm f/2.8 Lens

Image on a 70-200mm f/2.8 Lens

The Purpose of a Wide Lens

A wide-angle lens is often characterized as 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 be able to easily 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 wanting the first lens for a camera camera, it’s wise to go with a wide 35mm lens.

If you’re wanting something extra wide, any lens between 24mm to 16mm is a great option. 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 or 28mm. 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 offer a distinctive, hemispherical type of lens distortion. They cram in as much information as possible, Thus, they don’t produce straight lines. These are awesome to use for creative, experimental photography projects; especially within fashion portraits or skateboarding content.

Moment sony SEL1635 GM FE 16 35mm f 2 8 GM Lens thumbnail

Sony

FE 16-35mm f/2.8 GM Lens

Looking to get a fast wide angle zoom lens for your Sony camera? The Sony FE 16-35mm f/2.8 GM Lens delivers constant shallow depth of field on all focal lengths

Buy for $2,198.00

Image on a 35mm f/1.4 lens.

Image on a 24mm f/1.4 lens.

Image on a 35mm f/1.4 lens.

Long vs. Wide Lenses

Wide angels are a fan-favorite among most lifestyle bloggers and everyday shooters; they’re perfect for capturing an entire scene, as well as 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 are those that 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 that’s 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 100ft away.

As a general rule, it’s wise to choose a long focal length lens, like 70mm, 135mm, or 200mm 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.

Image shot on the Moment Fisheye 14mm lens.

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