In photography, there’s a common misconception that focal length determines the perspective of an image, but the only thing that really determines perspective is where you put the camera.
For example, the telephoto lens is often said to “compress” your scene and make everything look flat. But, it’s not the focal length that’s doing this. It’s actually because you’re so far from the scene you’re photographing (which is how telephoto lenses are commonly used: to photograph something far away). And, it’s because of this great distance that the scene looks “flat” in the final image.
As you move farther and farther away from something, you lose visual depth. For example, if you stare at someone’s face when you’re only a foot away from them, you’ll be able to see all the curves of their face pretty clearly, but as you step farther away from them, their face will begin to look “flat.”
So, when you decide to photograph a particular subject, choose your perspective carefully. The perspective you choose will determine the feeling you communicate with the image. If your image has foreground elements AND background elements, then also consider how you want that foreground to relate to the background. Remember that as you get closer to foreground elements, they’ll get larger at a much faster rate than elements in the background.
Once you find that perfect perspective, your next step is to find the appropriate focal length to fill the frame with your desired image. As you take more photos with different focal lengths, you’ll be able to instantly determine the lens you need, but if you’re not quite at that stage yet, here’s a brief overview of the different ranges of focal length and how their angles of view capture a scene:
The wide-angle lens is the classic landscape lens because the short focal length allows you to capture a very wide angle of the scene in front of you. It’s great for capturing scenes like this:
Normal lens (50mm on full frame, 30mm on crop sensor)
The 50mm lens is called “normal” because it represents the approximate angle of view (about 55 degrees) that our eyes have. So, a 50mm lens will capture a scene as our own eyes see it. Note that on a crop sensor camera, a “normal” lens would be at about 30mm. Most camera manufacturers make an inexpensive 50mm with a wide aperture, so these lenses are also useful for astrophotography or for getting a wide aperture at a low cost. Here’s an example of an image that was taken with a 50mm at f/2.8:
The telephoto lens is great for photographing distant landscapes, like the one below. Although this scene looks “compressed,” remember that it’s not the focal length that’s causing this–it’s only because I was standing so far away from those boulders in the foreground. I could have made this same image with a wide angle lens, but then I would’ve had to significantly crop the image later. With a telephoto lens I was able to fill the frame with the area I wanted.
Super Telephoto (300mm or more)
Due to it’s very small field of view, the super telephoto lens is great for isolating a subject against a specific part of a background, like with wildflowers. They’re also obviously useful for photographing distant objects that you can’t get close to (e.g. wildlife). Here’s a shot that was taken with a 300mm lens to isolate the flower against a green background:
For more information on perspective…
For more information on perspective and how it affects your final image, I highly recommend reading the Wikipedia article on perspective distortion, as well as Ansel Adams’ great book The Camera (particularly the chapter called “Basic Image Management”).
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About the Author: Steve Berardi is a nature photographer, software engineer, and founder of PhotoNaturalist. You can usually find him hiking in the beautiful mountains and deserts of southern California.