How Focal Length Affects What (and How) You See

The focal length that you select will have an effect on the image that you view. Do you feel the same way about that? What if I told you that the focal length you choose for your camera would also alter the way you see? That’s an entirely separate chapter; isn’t that the case? I want to speak about how focal length can change how you look at everything around you before you even see anything in the viewfinder. Rather than addressing how focal length affects your vision when you look into the viewfinder, I want to talk about how focal length can affect how you look at everything around you.

When you change your focal length, you’ll notice that your field of view changes as well. For the purpose of simplicity, let’s assume that each will “see” the same sight differently from their perspective. This is only one illustration:


The vista that this 20mm lens captures of San Francisco is really expansive. This focal length may be fairly minimalistic; it can have a dramatic sky to complement the buildings; there are a variety of reasons why some people would choose this focal length for a picture like this. Some of those reasons include the following: it can highlight how vast the city is; it can include a dramatic sky to complement the buildings.


The more confined perspective that I was able to get with my 135mm lens might be more appealing to other individuals. Again, there are a variety of reasons why some individuals would like this focal length when photographing a picture such as this one: You don’t feel quite as distanced from the picture; you may almost entirely fill the screen with buildings, shutting off much of the sky if you’d like to do so. Certain sections of the city and even specific buildings can be easily separated from one another.

The nice thing about photography is, of course, that there is no correct or incorrect response to any question. Either of the two focal lengths may not appeal to you, or you may find that you prefer both. It’s possible that you have a purpose that has nothing to do with any of the ones I named above. And, you are aware of what? That’s not a problem!

But… if we’re going to circle back around to the main premise of the post, shall we? When I go around a city or a landscape with a lens that has a longer focal length (105mm, 135mm, 200mm, etc.), I am searching for very different things than when I walk around with a lens that has a lesser focal length (14mm, 18mm, 24mm, etc.).

If I put on a lens that has a longer focal length, I am looking for very different things. For instance, when using a longer focal length, I can be looking for fascinating features that might function as standalone subjects in the photograph. I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t even look at whole buildings or scenes anymore. I’m taking in the sights around me, which include neon signs, doorknobs, carvings, tree trunks, and a few clumps of flowers.


Because my focal length is so much longer, I’m on the lookout for more “big picture” situations. The insignificant particulars no longer pique my curiosity since I am aware that they will be obscured by the overall picture. My focus right now is on the buildings, the sky, and how the various elements of the frame interact with one another. I’m gazing at landscapes. My interest is not with individual flowers or even little groups of flowers; instead, it is with entire flower fields.


Now, I’m going to issue a challenge to you. When you go out shooting for pleasure the next time, challenge yourself to stick to just one focal length. To get the most out of your photography experience, you should select a focal length that is either extremely wide or highly telephoto. This will push you to look at the world in a different way than you usually would. If you are using a zoom, you should make sure that it is always set to the same focal length.

Get intimate and up close and personal with your subjects by making use of a macro lens or an extension tube, which are both additional options. A straightforward garden all of a sudden offers innumerable potential photo ops. Texture gives a city its vitality and character. Do you assume that by using a greater focal length, you have overlooked the bigger picture? When you have a macro lens, it feels like all of a sudden, you need to find the ideal individual flower to the picture.


If you are accustomed to shooting with a “normal” focal length, such as 35mm or 50mm, this might be a very productive (and challenging) practice for you to do. Getting your mind out of the 50mm mode might be a very challenging task.

I’ve done this practice on occasion, and each time I do it, I’m always shocked at how quickly I start to see things that I’ve passed a hundred times without noticing in the past. This is an activity that you can perform on your own. Not only will you begin to view things differently, but you may also find that your thoughts begin to shift in a new direction!

A few months back, Nasim was in San Francisco, and he took the Tamron 15-30mm lens with him. Naturally, I had to put it through its paces by giving it a try myself before recommending it to anybody else. Throughout the entirety of my time shooting with it, I maintained the 15mm setting, and it took some time for my head to acclimatize to exactly how wide it indeed was. At the same time that I was waiting to cross the street at a corner, an extremely dapper gentleman strolled up next to me, stopped, and started checking his phone.

Instantaneously, my thoughts shifted into 15mm mode, and I had the epiphany that not only could I picture the man but also the city and the overhead power wires that cover the majority of San Francisco’s significant thoroughfares! I was able to swiftly snap this picture despite the fact that he was just standing a foot or two away, which is something that would not have been feasible with a more focused focal length. It’s a picture that I’m really pleased with, not so much for the subject matter or the composition, but rather because I was able to match a scene’s potential with the gear I had available and produce an image in my camera that I had first envisioned in my brain. This is an image that I’m rather proud of.


If you are accustomed to carrying lenses of varying focal lengths with you at all times, the following piece of parting guidance is for you in the event that you want to experiment with this technique and go out with only one lens: Don’t worry about the images you couldn’t take because you didn’t have the correct focal length with you at the time.

This is something that is going to take place at some point. Enjoy the sensation of looking at the world around you in a way that is different from how you usually do so instead. There is a good chance that when you return, you will find that the pictures you have in your head are rather different from what you are used to seeing. Have fun at the range!

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