Your choice of focal length will affect what you see. Would you agree with that? What if I also said that your choice of focal length will affect how you see? That’s a whole different story, now isn’t it? Instead of discussing how focal length affects your view when you look into the viewfinder, I want to talk about how focal length can affect how you look at everything around you before you ever even see it in the viewfinder.
Different focal lengths will have different fields of view. For simplicity’s sake, let’s just say that they will “see” the same scene differently. Here’s an example:
This 20mm lens gives a very wide view of San Francisco. There are different reasons why some people might prefer this focal length for a scene like this: it can show how vast the city is; it can be quite minimalist; it can include a dramatic sky to compliment the buildings.
Other people might prefer the tighter view I got from my 135mm lens. Again, there are different reasons why some people might prefer this focal length for a scene like this: parts of the city, even particular buildings, can easily be isolated; you don’t feel quite so removed from the scene; you can almost completely fill the frame with buildings, cutting out most of the sky if you’d like.
Of course, the wonderful thing about photography is that there is no right or wrong answer. You might not like either focal length or you might like both. You might have a completely different reason than the ones I listed above. And you know what? That’s fine!
But… let’s get back to the point of the article, shall we? If I put on a lens with a longer focal length (105mm, 135mm, 200mm, etc…) and walk around a city or a landscape, I’m looking for very different things than if I’m walking around with a lens with a shorter focal length (14mm, 18mm, 24mm, etc…). For example, with a longer focal length, I might be looking for interesting details that can stand on their own. I’m not even looking at entire buildings or scenes anymore. I’m looking at neon signs, doorknobs, engravings, tree trunks and small bunches of flowers.
With a wider focal length, I’m looking for more “big picture” scenes. The small details no longer interest me since I know they’ll get lost in the image. Now I’m looking at buildings, the sky and how everything works together in the frame. I’m looking at landscapes. Small groups of flowers don’t concern me, but entire fields of flowers do.
So here’s my challenge to you. The next time you’re out shooting for fun, limit yourself to one focal length. Ideally, the focal length you choose will be one extreme or the other (telephoto or wide) so that you’re forced to see the world through different eyes than normal. If you’re using a zoom, keep it set to one focal length the entire time.
Another option would be to grab a macro lens or extension tube and get up close and personal with your subjects. Suddenly, a simple garden has endless opportunities for photos. A city comes alive with texture. You think you ignored the big picture with a longer focal length? With a macro lens, you’re suddenly looking for a perfect individual flower to photograph.
This can be a very constructive (and challenging) exercise if you’re used to using a “normal” focal length like 35mm or 50mm. Getting your brain out of 50mm mode can be quite difficult!
This is an exercise that I’ve done from time to time and I’m always amazed at how I start to notice things that I’ve walked by a hundred times and never noticed before. Not only will you start to see things differently, you might even start to think differently!
A few months ago, Nasim was visiting San Francisco and he brought along the Tamron 15-30mm lens, so of course I had to take it for a test drive. I kept it at 15mm the entire time I was shooting with it and it took a while for my brain to adjust to how wide that actually is. While standing at a corner waiting to cross the street, a very stylish guy walked up next to me, stopped and started checking his phone. Immediately, my brain went into 15mm mode and I realized that I could photograph the guy, the city and even the overhead power lines that are draped over most major streets in SF! Even though he was only standing about a foot or two away, I was able to quickly grab this photo that simply wouldn’t have been possible with a tighter focal length. It’s an image that I’m rather proud of, not so much for the content or composition, but more because I was able to match a scene’s potential with the gear I had available and create an image in my camera that I initially envisioned in my head.
Here’s one parting bit of advice if you decide to try this and head out with only one lens (especially if you’re used to having a variety of focal lengths with you at all times)… Don’t worry about the shots you missed because you didn’t have the right focal length with you. That’s something that’s going to happen. Instead, just enjoy the experience of seeing your world in a different way than you’re used to. Chances are you’ll probably come back with different images than you’re used to as well. Happy shooting!
P.S. This is actually a topic that Nasim and I considered adding to our new video Photography Life Level 1 Photography Basics. Ultimately, it didn’t make the cut for this video, both due to time restraints and the fact that’s it’s a slightly advanced concept, but keep an eye out for it in a future video!