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Please note: all focal lengths mentioned in this article are in reference to 35mm full frame sensors.
There are photographers that favor the convenience and flexibility of zoom lenses, and those that favor their sharper, lighter and cheaper counterpart, the prime lens. Note: some modern zooms do have prime-like optics. Often, it’s your line of work that will make that decision for you. Whichever variant you favor, you owe it to yourself to experiment with different focal lengths to learn where they each excel, and which ones mesh best with your style. You can achieve this with primes, or zooms if you can commit yourself to not touching that handy zoom barrel. Among the many options, five focal lengths you want to use are the: 24mm, 35mm, 50mm, 85mm, and 135mm.
Let’s look at each one at a time.
Areas it excels in: landscapes, astrophotography, group portraits, and event photography.
This one is easy to experiment with because not only are there many affordable prime options available, but you’ll find this focal length at the wide end of many full frame zoom lenses. The 24mm prime lens is sufficiently wide and remarkably sharp, making it an ideal candidate for landscape photography. Zooms are wonderful for landscape photography too, but the locked-in field of view (or a prime lens) will force you to think carefully about your compositions.
The 24mm focal length also excels in situations that don’t offer a lot of light. That includes astrophotography, where 24mm lenses with wide apertures (f/.8 or wider) will facilitate shots of the milky way, and in event photography, where you’ll have an ample field-of-view to shoot indoors and add context to your photographs. Additionally, the 24mm focal length is sufficiently wide to capture group portraits with minimal perspective distortion. Just don’t get too close, and watch the edges of your frame.
Areas it excels in: street photography, events, environmental portraits, and shooting-across-the-dinner-table photography.
35mm is a classic focal length for many photojournalists. Part of that reason is that the field-of-view requires you to be close to the action, but still maintains enough of the environment surrounding your subject to give an image context. This same philosophy applies well to wedding or event photography, and makes the 35mm focal length a great fit.
Another great thing about the 35mm prime lens is that it just so happens to be the perfect focal length for shooting a portrait from across the dinner table. Any wider and your subjects face will suffer from perspective distortion (exaggerating their facial features) and any narrower and you’d have to get out of your seat for the shot.
Areas it excels in: street photography, full-body portraits, walk-around shooting.
There are so many reasons to try shooting with a 50mm prime lens. Perhaps the best one is that they’re cheap. You can purchase a brand new 50mm lens for most DSLR systems for a little over $100. Also, they produce an image that is normal, or most-like the image that we see with our own eyes. There is a common misconception about this concept. The normal perspective that a 50mm lens offers refers to the perspective distortion (or lack thereof), not the field-of-view. For this reason, the 50mm lens is great for full-body portraits and walk-around or street photography.
The 50mm lens is another classic, and a large part of that reason is that often, the area in frame is just right. It’s narrow enough to create balanced compositions with ease, but still wide enough to create interest beyond your subject. That is why you will find a 50mm lens in the bags of most street photographers.
Areas it excels in: portrait, events, and sports photography.
The 85mm focal length is one that you will find in the bag of many wedding and portrait photographers. It creates beautiful portraits with the ability to flatten one’s features, which is generally flattering, and brilliant background separation. The field of view is not so tight that you’ll feel like you need to be outdoors to use one, but it gives you a nice working distance that allows this focal length to sneakily capture candids at a wedding or family gathering.
That working distance is great for full body shots when you’re on the sidelines of a sporting event, too. The 85mm prime is also a great working distance for photographing your kids or pets.
Areas it excels in: head-shots, portraits, and wedding photography.
When you need to get in close, or if you just love bokeh, the 135mm lens is a great pick. For details and head-shots that bring your subject to life, grab this focal length. The background separation is fantastic, due to the increased compression of the image. The flattering flattening effect (say that five times) from the compression, makes this lens great for shoulder shots, senior portraits, candids, and more. You’ll have fun shooting wide open to create magical separation between your subject(s) and their surroundings.
The drawback to this focal length is that you do need a lot of working room, and a lot of light. Remember the 1/focal length rule for shutter speed? In other words, you wouldn’t want to shoot a 135mm lens any slower than 1/135th of a second, without a very steady hand or a tripod. When light or space become a problem, it’s nice to have an 85mm lens to fall back on.
Chances are you will love some of these focal lengths and dislike others, but you’ll never know until you give them all a shot. Modern zoom lenses are remarkable in their optical-quality, but you do lose the connection you feel when you are truly in sync with your focal length. The more you shoot with a 50mm lens, the more you will start to see with a 50mm perspective. Good luck and happy shooting!