Focal lengths are grouped into three main categories:
- Wide focal lengths are between around 16mm and 40mm on a full frame camera or roughly 10mm and 28mm on a crop sensor camera. Anything wider is considered a fisheye lens, which has specific uses.
- Strictly, the normal focal length is around 50mm on a full frame camera or 35mm on a crop sensor camera. In general, the normal range is considered to be about 40mm to 65mm on a full frame camera and 28mm to 45mm on a crop sensor camera.
- Long focal lengths are anything longer than about 70mm on a full frame camera and 50mm on a crop sensor camera. The longest lenses you can buy go up to 1000mm, but there are crazy, longer lenses out there in research labs.
Let’s take them one at a time.
Wide Focal Lengths
Wide focal lengths have a huge field of view. This makes them great for when you want to include a lot of anything in your images. If you’re trying to photograph the front of a building, a group of people, or a landscape, and don’t want to stand two miles back, then you probably want to use a wide angle lens.
The other big thing about wide focal lengths is that they distort the perspective in your images. Objects closer to the camera appear bigger than they do in everyday life and things further away feel smaller. You can see that in the image below. The front of the car is huge, but it looks super weird further back.
When people first encounter it, they often consider this distortion to be a bad thing. This isn’t always the case. As long as you anticipate the effect, you can have some fun with it, like in this shot below. The distortion adds to the image.
The more you want to show in your image, the wider your focal length needs to be, but the more distorted everything will look. Landscape photographers love to work in the 16-24mm range (10-18mm on a crop sensor camera) while street photographers go for the 24mm-35mm range (18mm-24mm on a crop sensor camera).
Normal Focal Lengths
Normal focal lengths are defined by one thing: what you see in the photo looks pretty much the same as it does to your eye. In other words, it looks normal. This is their real strength. You can see it with the car below.
A normal focal length should probably be your default unless you’ve got a reason not to use one. You get a wide enough field of view to include a fair chunk of a scene in your image without any distortion—especially if you step back. Step in close and you can start to isolate details.
Some street and landscape photographers use the normal focal lengths at least some of the time. A lot of portrait photographers use it too because you can include both your subject and their environment.
The only two times a normal lens doesn’t work well for most subjects is when you want a super wide shot and can’t go back very far or when you want a super close shot and can’t get near your subject.
Long Focal Lengths
The long focal lengths have two main uses: getting a close shot of your subject even when you can’t physically get close and isolating your subject from the rest of the environment. They’re popular for sports, wildlife, and portrait photography for this reason.
Wildlife photographers generally work at the longer end of the range, using 200mm+ lenses (135mm+ on crop sensor cameras). With these focal lengths, you can get close-ups of small birds, even from a distance.
Sports photographers use the whole range since they normally have to be able to take photos of most of a pitch or stadium from one corner. When the actions at the other end, they’ll use a long lens. When it’s closer, they’ll use a shorter one.
Portrait photographers normally use between 70mm and 135mm (50mm and 85mm on a crop sensor camera). At these focal lengths, you’re not so far away from your subject that you can’t communicate with them. The small amount of distortion from a long lens is also flattering in portraits.
One other, somewhat surprising, use of long focal lengths is for landscape images. They can compress multiple distant objects into the same image. In the shot below, you can see how the towers and the mountains are both in the shot. I was about five kilometers from the towers when I took it. The mountains are another ten kilometers away.
There’s not one right focal length that results in perfect images, but different lengths are better suited to different tasks. Choosing the right one is a big part of setting up a shot.