Do you all have your thinking caps on? For those of you who’ve been following along with our Photography School series, taught by resident expert Mike Bullock, today we’re taking a dive into the technical side of things. As an aspiring digital photographer who fears investing in the wrong equipment, I’m constantly inquiring about lens types: which is best for the subjects I like to shoot? And which is the most versatile? So at a recent cocktail party Camille hosted for our contributor team, we invited Mike over to snap some photos and break down for us some of the basics of focal lengths. He’s joining us today to talk a little bit more about the subject, so without further ado, here’s Mike…


Photography has a split personality. On one side, you have a very creative discipline that provides your artistic side with unlimited possibilities for creating imagery to tell a story. On the other side, you have a very technical discipline that constantly challenges your understanding of physics, mathematics and equipment. My observation is that most photographers lean heavily to either side. Creative  shooters tend to capture compelling images that are flawed technically, while technical shooters can nail beautiful lighting and sharp focus but their images generally lack depth or story.  No side is wrong; it’s just different.  My tendency is to straddle the middle, and my goal is to develop the ability to reach deep into either side when needed.

It’s probably a safe assumption that most of Camille’s audience leans on the creative side.  It’s certainly been the target for this series to date.  I can only imagine the response to sharing my perspective on inverse-square light law and radio frequency TTL lighting.  That said, it’s challenging to help an aspiring photographer improve without dipping into the technical side from time to time — it’s just too integral to growth. So today I thought I’d give a lesson on focusing on focal lengths, after the jump.

Focusing on Focal Lengths

If you’ve purchased a DSLR, you’ve most likely been exposed to this form of measurement for your lens(es).  Zoom lenses have a range, like 24mm-70mm.  Prime lenses have an assigned number, like 50mm.  Laymens terms equate this to your ability to “zoom” — which is true — but it’s glossing over an incredibly important aspect to photography. Each focal length value excels in certain types of situations and does very poorly in others.  The better you understand this, the more likely you will capture a great image.

Take a 50 mm length. It’s a photographer’s bread and butter because it is said to most closely resemble the view of the human eye; so people inherently have a sense of familiarity when they see the image.  The iPhone has the equivalent to 33mm lens, which is a little wider and thus perfect for environment portraits.  The majority of images on Instragram show how effectively that was chosen.  Many of the great early photographers had simple cameras with either a 35mm or a 50mm prime lens, which is what I shoot with 90% of the time.

See below for a simple chart for the entire focal range.

Super Wide Angle
Landscape or environmental shots
Wide Angle
Street photography or environmental portraits
General purpose
Entry Tele
General portraits, headshots
Fashion portraits, Macro/Product, Sports, Wildlife
To show this in action, I recently took some portraits of Camille’s team.  Claire was kind enough to hold a  pose while I took headshots at various focal lengths (see above).  Each shot was composed the same, but notice the dramatic difference in their effect.  At 24mm, Claire’s facial features are overly-dramatized in a very unflattering way and the background spills into unwanted areas creating more distraction.  As you move up the focal lengths, her features become more “compressed” and, ultimately, more flattering.  Plus the background closes in so that she becomes the center of attention.  This is why many consider 85mm to be the optimal portrait focal length, although increasing focal length from there can work very nicely.

See…that wasn’t that bad, was it?  Hopefully, this gives you some appreciation for this technical aspect of photography.  Googling the topic will lead you to lots of sources that can elaborate on it further.  Ultimately, I encourage you to experiment with focal lengths in your own photography and add it to your bag of tricks to pull out great shots in whatever situation you are in.  Enjoy!

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Chanel Dror