5 Important Focal Lengths to Know and the Benefits of Each

5 Important Focal Lengths to Know and the Benefits of Each

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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.

#1 – 24mm wide angle

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.

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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.

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#3 – 35mm focal length

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.

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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.

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#3 – 50mm (normal) lens

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.

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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.

#4 – 85mm slight telephoto lens

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.

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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.

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#5 – 135mm telephoto

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.

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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.

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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!

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Jason Checkla is a family, engagement, and wedding photographer from Glens Falls, NY, a small town in the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains. He is also professional hockey’s greatest unicyclist. You can see more of his work and connect with him through his Instagram or his blog.

  • Paul Brown

    The first article exactly like this that I read was 30 years ago when full frame ruled…for APS-C adjust accordingly.

  • A solid definition of the main focal lengths and thanks, but I can’t help think that anyone who has a full frame DSLR would pretty pretty well versed in these already. A 100 quid Nifty 50 equates to a 400 quid 35mm. Not so cheap.

  • As a Canon APS-C user, my zooms are invaluable.
    But then again…
    As a Canon APS-C user my primes are invaluable!
    Having grown up with the 28/50/135 lens formula on film SLRs, primes are nothing new to me. In practice I wouldn’t travel without my 17-50 f/2.8 and 70-300 go to lens combination. That can be a cumbersome setup at times, especially when travelling and just taking a walk without a photographic intent. That’s when the primes – 24mm pancake, 50mm nifty fifty and an old Cosina 100mm macro come into play. They make a much easier package to carry, make the camera a lot lighter, and allow for quick accurate shooting. None are expensive or fancy, but are sharp enough and deliver sufficient quality to be useful. The prime collection evolved, but is useful.
    Nice article for newer photographer used to kit lenses, etc. Primes can be a good alternative to expensive fast zooms in many situations.

  • Thanks for the comment, Jeremy! Hey, there’s room for primes and zooms in the camera bag! Some photographers will be predominately zoom/prime or mixed shooters and I think its important to experiment with it all to figure out what works best for your purposes. I think its convenient that primes tend to be a bit cheaper than their fast zoom counterparts for purposes of experimenting.

  • Peter Johnson

    Great article! I use the Fuji system and love my primes. There is a 1.5 crop so a couple of my lenses are a few millimeters off in length but they still give me a similar view that I love from my film camera at those lengths. These perspectives are truly unmatched. Thanks for taking the time to put this together.

  • Chaiwallah

    I’ve been shooting pretty much only with older screw mount (m42) prime lenses (I have about thirty of them, mostly Takumars but also some German and Soviet lenses.) mounted with a converter on a full-frame Sony Alpha a850. (I shoot in Aperture Priority.) My appreciation for the lenses combines an interest in the history of camera optical design, admiration for the craftsmanship involved in the lens’ manufacture, and appreciation of the qualities (sharpness, color, contrast) that each lens imparts to the image. My latest acquisition is a Super Multi-Coated Takumar 20mm f4.5 lens made in the seventies with eleven elements in ten groups, a complex design worked out without CAD, that’s sharp, has minimal distortion, and zone focuses from about two feet to infinity at f9. Examples of photographs can be seen at Pentax Forums Takumar Club, Andrew_Oid.

  • Kam Leung

    My D7000 and I are SO waiting for Sigma’s 50-100mm f/1.8—a versatile ‘prime’ to complement my closer point-of-view!

  • Cheryl Morvell

    Thanks Jason, I loved the article. I’ve only recently switched from my kit lens to some prime lenses on my micro four thirds camera. I love everything about them and the images I’m capturing. Regarding the 1/focal length rule for shutter speeds and considering I have a cropped sensor, which focal length do I use for the calculation, the actual lens focal length or the 35mm equivalent?

  • Ella5471

    Definitly use the 35mm equivalent.

  • Thanks Cheryl! Ethan Robinson is correct, you should do the conversion for the 35mm equivalent as a point of reference.

  • That lens makes me want to pick up a crop body.

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  • Trina Vickers

    Can you remommend which 50mm lens to purchase. Ive seen them from $300 to $1300 so I’m not sure which one to consider.

  • Maria R

    I have the nikkor 35mm f1.8 lens and it takes great pics. I love the bokeh on it. I have the D5300 and was wondering if it’s worth getting the 50mm f1.8 as well. I have the kit lens that came with it as well 18-55mm.

  • Aperture Images

    You can save money by getting a little closer to the subject! But, if you just want to spend the money, go ahead and buy the 50mm lens.

  • Scorpio

    I use my Nikon 50mm f1.8 from my Nikon 6006 on my D5300 in manual mode. I was about to upgrade to a newer 50mm but just decided against it and stuck to shooting manual and have never regretted it. My first camera was Nikon EM with a 50mm lens and a Rokinor 70-300mm this was way back in ’85.

  • Guilherme Palazzo

    Your comment was made a whole year ago, but I need to agree as I am in the same position. I have a Canon APS-C and ditched the zoom lenses to keep only a 24 2.8 pancake and the 50 1.8. It isn’t easy or practical to change lens in the middle of a scene but the lighter weight makes so more pleasant carrying the camera everywhere. Sometimes I think I’d give up the faster aperture of the 50 1.8 and change them both for a Tamron 17-55 2.8, but the weight keeps stopping me. And the worst: I’ve been thinking for ages in moving to Fuji, but their 16-55 2.8 weights a solid 650 grams, negating every positive aspect of a mirrorless, IMO.
    For a hobbyist like me, it would be great to have the flexibility of the zoom, but if it means to leave the camera behind because it’s too heavy it won’t make any good.

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