Author: Callum Keith
Let’s talk focal length. There are two important numbers that matter when choosing a lens - the focal length (FL) and the aperture. Another article will come in the future discussing aperture!
Starting simple: the lower the focal length number, the wider the angle of view, and vice versa. A 16mm lens will give you a massively wide vista, whereas a 600mm lens will give you a very, very, very zoomed in image. Some lenses (and cameras) can zoom, therefore covering different focal lengths, such as the Zeiss 24-85mm, allowing for one lens that does everything. Of course, these lenses are bigger and heaver than most fixed length lenses, so it is a trade off.
The lower the FL number, the smaller any object will appear in your frame (generally). The background will also appear further away from the subject. The higher the focal length, the larger the object will appear, and the closer the background.
There is no ‘one lens for one purpose’. A 600mm lens can be used for portraits, landscape, sports, street, just as a 16mm can do the same. What you do with your lenses is up to you, but some people prefer ‘a look’ that comes with using certain lengths.
Here are the common film focal lengths, and example pictures:
Generally 24mm is the start of most professional mid-zoom lenses, and allows you to get a wide view without much distortion. It allows for interesting portraits, whilst not changing the appearance of the subject too much. The wider the lens, the less 'natural' the subject looks. There are many wider focal lengths, such as 16mm & 21mm which are reasonably common, but for general purpose photography I would personally have 24mm as my widest FL. Both pictures taken inside King's College Chapel, Cambridge.
Moving up is the next ‘common’ focal length you will find - 28mm. This focal length is wide, but not ridiculously wide. It allows you to pack more in to your frame, giving your portraits context. Great as a travel lens, or all purpose. Generally 28mm lenses are compact & light, but due to its close proximity to 35mm, I would pick one or the other.
The next focal length is one of the two most common focal lengths. 35mm is an excellent halfway-house between being reasonably wide, yet being able to have your subject nicely fill the frame. It also is a zoomed enough FL to get some nice blurry backgrounds, especially when close to the subject. 35mm is just wide enough to get landscapes, but just tight enough to draw the viewers attention to particular things happening in frame. Love it. Pictures taken in truly photogenic Prague. Similar to the 28mm, lenses are generally quite small and light. 35mm is the FL of choice for some Fuji MJU cameras at the store, so feel free to check them out!
This FL is slightly in no-man's land between 35 & 50, but has its own unique look. I find it to be the closest thing to our eyes field of view, and therefore the most natural to look at. Most companies make fantastic small 40mm pancake lenses. Not too wide, not too zoomed in, my current go-to focal length.
The second classic FL. 50mm allows you to have a close view of a subject, and have them nicely fill the frame, whilst also providing a nice separation from the background. They are some of the most common lenses on the market, and provide great value for an all round lens. This FL is an excellent 'story telling' medium, allowing you to pick out subjects in a way that wider lenses wouldn't be able to. If you are starting out, a 28, 35, or 50 is an excellent place to begin.
The longer 85/90mm is your traditional ‘portrait lens’, great for getting those tight headshots and blurry backgrounds. It gives a ‘flatter’ picture, which can be flattering for facial features, and again further brings the background that little bit closer. 90mm is more common for older lenses, whereas 85mm is the new digital standard for this FL.
The big daddy of portraiture. I love this FL for people pictures due to the way it compresses the image and gives you an incredibly focussed view. It is useful for events happening further away, such as sports or anything where you want keep your distance / can’t get any closer. I love the way the background melts away, giving a very editorial look.
Similar to 135mm but on steroids, 200mm is generally used in the world of portraiture and sports, trying to get the extra reach. For film photography 200mm is a little niche due to the size of the lenses, but it gives a whole different perspective on things. Having the extra reach makes a huge difference! 200mm has a great way of blurring backgrounds and making the subject really 'pop'.
Finally the longest FL I own / use. I personally use a FL this long for distant subjects, such as boats on the tideway in London, or animals on the island of Lundy. Think 200mm but not only on steroids, but growth hormones as well. This is some serious zoom, but absolutely fantastic for landscape work, or wildlife. Obviously this is not a daily carry around lens, and is a FL you have to intentionally use, but the results are well worth it.