Let’s talk about focal lengths. Well first, what is it? Focal length refers to the calculation of the optical distance from where the light rays of an object in focus hits the camera’s sensor. It determines how much of what is presented in front of the camera will be in view. The lower the focal length, the more the lens will catch in frame, while a higher focal length will have a narrower field. What does this all mean? Basically, the lower the number, the wider the lens field of view and the higher focal lengths will begin to have a “zoom” effect. When I got in to photography, it wasn’t something that was really discussed very in depth, especially for landscapes. In this article I want to discuss different focal lengths and how to use them so that you can get different looks to your photos. Some photographers seem to stick to one general focal length and that’s it, which can really make your images become one dimensional.
Experimenting with focal lengths can really open up possibilities. When you go out to shoot, you really don’t want to be limited to one field of view. For example, what if you need to capture something that’s far away from you? A wide angle lens won’t work for that, you need a higher focal length. What if you’re standing on a cliff and want to capture the expansive view? Then a really wide angle lens is needed. I know this all seems really basic, and it is, but what happens when you shoot wide angle with something close to you? Lens distortion. Whatever is closest to you will become exaggerated and appear much larger than it is, while things farther away will appear much smaller. It actually exaggerates the distance. Many photographers that shoot landscapes are well aware of this and use this effect often to create interesting foregrounds. With a very wide angle lens (12-20mm range) you can shoot expansive views and capture things close to you in the foreground making them appear much larger than they are as in the photo below.
This technique is really useful in creating detail and interesting composition elements in the foreground. However, the downside to using wide angle lenses is that objects at greater distance will appear smaller and smaller the greater the distance than they appear to the eye. Sometimes this isn’t the most desirable effect. Looking at the photo below, I shot this in Iceland at 17mm so that the shoreline movement would appear much larger and it would increase the size of the foamy waves. The foreground got the desired appearance I needed, but look how small the mountain is the background. The wide angle lens dwarfed the size of the mountain making it look very unimpressive in my opinion. It was too far away with this focal length. To correct this I should have walked down the beach closer to the mountain.
Now that we have discussed using the wide angle lens, let’s talk about what you can do with the higher focal lengths. We know that a wide angle lens will exaggerate distance, so what does a higher focal length do? It compresses distance. This lens compression is very useful in many ways. Not only can it clear distances to be closer to a subject in case you can’t get closer, but it can compress the distance between the foreground and background. In the photos below I am showing you basic examples of compression.
In the first photo, the focal length is 17mm and I am standing only about 3 ft (1m) from the palm tree in the foreground which we will use for our subject. As you can see the tree fills the frame and you can capture the entire scene in the background with the ocean including the dirt pathway. This works great in many situations, but it doesn’t really show the true scale of the ocean since the subject appears so much larger than the background due to the lens exaggeration from shooting so wide angle. The ocean seems very far away, just a shallow strip, and kind of weak. The second photo I used a long lens, shooting at about 110mm. To get the subject completely in frame at this higher focal length I had to step back around 30 feet (10m) away from the tree. Now look how it changed the background. The ocean appears to be right in front of the tree, which helped catch the scale of the view better and completely changes the mood of the photo. It looks more like a lone palm sitting right over the ocean. Let’s look at another example of lens compression.
Same concept above but for this one notice the small brown house in the background across the canyon in comparison to the plants in the foreground. It looks really small and pretty far away. Now look at that same house in the second photo in comparison to the plants. The long lens compressed the distance and now you can see clear across the canyon to the brown house.
If I had shot the above photo with a wide lens at that distance, the photographers in the foreground would have been tiny like ants and the canyon would seem massive and wide open. If I had walked closer to them to tighten the frame of the background canyon, they would have seemed normal size or too large even, while the background canyon would have seemed small and distant. Using a longer lens allowed me to show off the scale of the canyon with the photographers in it. Experimenting with focal lengths will open up new possibilities in your photography. The greatest advantage in my opinion is just the knowledge you will gain from forcing yourself out of habits. A lot of time we tend to fall in to using the same lenses over and over, which can cloud your vision of shooting a scene. Once you have gotten experience with all the different focal lengths, your creativity and eye open up so much more.
Using higher focal length can also help you simplify a busy scene by focusing only on what you want. In the photo below I was standing on the rim of a canyon in Arizona and I really wanted to show off the scale of the rock formations without making the distant background seem weak and it also allowed me to focus on specific areas, rather than a jumbled up mess of the entire canyon. So instead of using the rocks directly in front of me with a wide angle lens viewing over the entire canyon, I found some aesthetically pleasing formations that were across the canyon and shot with a lens at 130mm to frame it all. This allowed me to fill my frame with only what I wanted and kept the scale of the place much better.
Every photographer should have a range of lenses to cover all the focal lengths needed for what they are shooting. In landscape/travel photography, I think 3 main lenses will serve you. FIrst, a wide angle ranging from 12-20mm that will cover all your wide needs for catching expansive views and intricate foregrounds. Second, a good “walkaround” lens that covers the mid ranges from about 24-75mm. These lenses are amazing for street photography and catching those on the fly shots while traveling. Last, a good long lens that covers all your range needs. Anything that can reach from around 70mm all the way 300mm will be enough to capture mountain peaks, wildlife, and detail work. Good luck out there!