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Understanding Focal Length: Which One is Right for Your Subject?

Whether you just picked up your first camera last week or you’ve been shooting for years, focal lengths can still be tricky. Not only is it important to understand the difference between them visually, but it’s also important to understand which one to select for each subject you’re shooting. Let’s see if we can break it down some.

We’ll start by comparing a few of the most popular lengths. I stood in the same place (roughly 4-5 ft from my subject) for each shot so you can see how focal length affects your field of view and your relation to the subject you’re shooting.

Understanding Focal Length Lightroom Presets


 Understanding Focal Length: Which one is right for your subject?


A wide angle focal length (in this example, 24mm and 35mm) captures more of the scene and would therefore be a great choice for storytelling or lifestyle photography. It’s also used often for landscape photography. It gives the perspective that you’re farther away from your subject than you actually are. Remember, I was only standing 4-5 feet away but this makes it feel more like ten. Keep in mind that the wider the lens, the more distortion you’ll have, especially around the edges.

Understanding which lens focal length to use for different subjects


A standard or medium telephoto focal length (in this example, 50mm) has often been considered the most versatile and is usually the most popular. It has a somewhat “zoomed in” perspective but doesn’t create any distortion. You can get an up close picture without having to be quite so up close. This gives the image a more intimate feel.

I only used those three focal lengths myself but the same rule applies across the board.  Now that you have a better understanding of how focal length affects your overall image, let’s talk about some practical application, shall we? I enlisted the help of the team here at Pretty by giving them scenarios and asking them to choose the focal length that best fits that scenario and tell us why they selected it. Should be fun. Here we go!

A First Look with a Bride and Groom 

Zach: You’re photographing a first look between a bride and groom, prior to their wedding ceremony. You want an intimate feel to the images. Which focal length do you choose and why?

Hmm...this is a great question!

If you don't mind me ad-libbing a little bit, I think I would actually approach my scenario with a two lens approach.  

For a "First Look" with an intimate feel, I'm probably going to go with an 85mm focal length.  This tackles a few key elements of a good first look:

1. The focal length forces me to foot-zoom far enough out that the bride and groom feel as though they're alone.  This allows their true emotions to come out in the photos, rather than me being up in their faces, interrupting the moment.

2. With an 85mm focal length, I'll get plenty of background separation and creamy bokeh.  It will be able to get that "Foreground/Bride in-focus, Background/Groom out of focus" look that makes a cute "First Look".

3. 85mm is one of the most flattering focal lengths for people, and who doesn't want to look flattering on their wedding day?

The only other focal length I would consider using, and this is a very special case, would be 35mm.  I would probably use this as a supplemental focal length to give me an image BEFORE the couple has come together.  Taking this shot would allow me to create an image that shows how these two people are the only two people in this great big world at this exact moment in time.

Photographing Busy Children

Tina: You’re photographing siblings, 3, 5 and 7 years old. They’re running around like banshees in their backyard, chasing each other with water guns. Which focal length do you choose and why?

Kids running around with water guns in the background is the perfect opportunity for a bit of lifestyle work, so I would grab my 35mm for a wider view of the backyard and kids.  This will give me enough room to move around without being in the direct line of water guns and it will also enable me to tell a complete story of sibling summer fun.

Depending on how long this water fight goes on, I might be tempted to step way back from the action and throw on an 85mm in order to capture some of the intensity of the faces involved along with details such as fingers pulling the trigger.

Lifestyle Family Photos

Jessica: A sweet new family of three just got home from the hospital and asked to you come to their home for relaxed family pictures. Which focal length to you choose and why?

If a sweet new family of three just got home from the hospital and asked me come to their home for relaxed family pictures I would choose my 50mm for sure. It's a good focal length that doesn't require me to be too far away (this is important especially if you don't know how small the home is) and it's wide enough to be able to capture the baby's environment, like their nursery which is a place I love to shoot in.  With this focal length you are able to get in close enough to get the details (a 35mm would be great for this too), like the baby's feet and hands etc, but you are also able to stand back far enough to get some good family shots where the family is able to forget you are there for a moment and just focus on their new little bundle of joy. I love the versatility of the 50 and think it is a good safe choice for most scenarios especially this one. 


A big thanks to the Pretty team for helping me out! Understanding focal length and how it can be used to better tell stories is a great tool to have under your belt. And when all the words you’re reading start to jumble together and your eyes get kind of hazy, just pop a lens on your camera and go try it out for yourself.

Lea Hartman Photography

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