Get Your Creative Juices Flowing with Different Focal Lengths
I’ve gone through periods of low creativity in my photographic journey. Times when I don’t have compelling ideas or nothing seems new. When the excuses why not to go takes pictures (“It’s too cold, it’s too hot, the light isn’t right, it’s too cloudy, it’s not cloud enough”) manage to outweigh my need to photograph, and I go into an unproductive slump. It can be hard to break out of these slumps, but there are lots of ways to get the spark back including everything from: getting on dPS to read articles; to looking at galleries of other photographers’ images online for inspiration; to choosing a slightly different route or time to work, in order to see the world in a different way.
In this article I’m going to touch on just one of those “creativity sparks”, specifically, getting creative with focal length, even the point of breaking the “rules.”
Before I get to the meat of the article, please note I’m not saying you have to go spend thousands of dollars on new lenses. If you can afford to, want to, and need to, then by all means do so – new gear is one more method of lighting the creativity fire in your soul again. Instead, however, I’m suggesting you work on finding new ways to shoot with the gear – the lenses – you already have.
When it comes to lenses, most new photographers learn the typical applications of different focal lengths pretty quickly. Here are a few examples of what I learned, when I was first teaching myself this complicated art, about how different focal lengths *should* be used (Note: all focal lengths list here refer to 35mm full-frame format – for more information on crop factor read full frame or crop factor: which is for you):
- 10-14mm: distorted fisheye, not really for ‘serious’ photography
- 14-24mm: landscapes, seascapes, waterfalls, starlight and astrophotography
- 24-35mm: street and architecture photography
- 35mm-58mm: “normal” and most closely approximates our natural view of the world, useful for portraits and still life photography, etc.
- 85mm: the classic, flattering portrait length lens
- 90-105mm: the province of macro lenses (close ups)
- 135mm: the other classic portrait length
- 200mm: the other, other classic portrait length also getting useful for nature and sports telephoto shots
- 200-500mm: sports, wildlife and birds
- 500-800mm: for wealthy and/or partially crazy Antarctic nature photographers who want close-ups of polar bears
Are there problems with the above gross simplifications? Sure, tons! Even novice photographers will understand the above list is just a shorthand, a way of reducing a radically complicated subject into more easily digestible chunks. More experienced photographers will be able to name a dozen exceptions to the list above. But, that’s also where the fun – the creativity spark – can begin: in the exceptions, in shattering of rules.
Breaking the “Rules”
I’m going to re-write the list from above, presenting just a few alternative ideas. This is also hardly a comprehensive list; instead, I’m trying to get your creative juices flowing with regard to what you can do with those different focal lengths, how you can go about breaking the rules and producing something new, unusual and outside the expectations.
- 10-14mm: still life, product shots, cityscapes, purposefully distorted architecture, sports, hiking
- 14-24mm: pet portraits, street shots, extreme close-ups (thanks to the design of many ultra-wide angle lenses you can actually get really close to the subject, and, thanks to the wide angle, still show a lot of the surroundings), flowing architecture, cloudscapes
- 24-35mm: babies, landscapes, cityscapes, portraits
- 35-58mm: anything anti-“normal” with these “normal” lenses – get close, get far, turn the camera, close down to f/16 even with your expensive 50mm f/1.4 because it’s different, because it makes you think
- 85mm: landscapes (start to pick out specific areas to focus the viewer’s attention), cityscapes (ditto), architecture (same again), still life, street scenes
- 90-105mm: more of what I offered for the 85mm; just because you have a macro doesn’t mean it won’t happen to make a great landscape lens (e.g. the Zeiss 100mm f/2 Makro Planar) or a great portrait lens (e.g. Nikon 105mm f/2.8 VR)
- 135mm: street scenes where you really separate a subject or object from the crowd; detail shots of antique or expensive cars; clouds (picking out the special parts to focus on), light trails, long-exposure shots of the sea (at 135mm? Crazy talk! But that’s the idea!)
- 200mm: waterfalls, mountains, sunsets and sunrises, fog in the trees, autumn leaves on the long roadway, the shadows cast by that old oak tree on the fence in the neighbour’s yard
- 200-500mm: rolling plains and wide open vistas; sections of the Grand Canyon at sunset; night life in the city, your pets
- 500-800mm: polar bears
Just kidding on that last one. I think you get the general idea, though: take the stereotypical, “classic” uses of any given focal length, and turn those ideas on their head. Have a go at something you’d never thought would work for that lens. You might be shocked by what you come up with, and if nothing else it will get your conscious and subconscious mind churning and that creative flame burning.
The “You Should Never” Rules
These are one step beyond the regular rules. You’ll find these on Flickr sometimes, as well as other online photo communities, where someone will passionately argue that a given photo (or set of photos) is utter garbage because the photographers in question “misused” their lenses and “you should never do” whatever it is that they did.
For example: “You should never take a portrait with a fisheye lens.”
This might even seem reasonable at first glance – after all, fisheye lenses are defined by their hefty distortion that is not generally considered a good look by most models. But here’s the thing: as long as you are using your lens on your camera to take a photo, you aren’t “misusing” it. Especially if you are experimenting and learning new ways of seeing the world, and stoking that creative fire a bit.
You can take a portrait with a fisheye lens. I guarantee it. And a good portrait, no less. It might be harder, more challenging than firing away with that 85mm, but that’s the point: it’s new, it’s different, it’s outside the norm and it’s outside of the rut in which you can sometimes find yourself.
So, if you are in that creative rut, search out the “You should never rules” online, and then do whatever it is “they” say you should never do. Within the bounds of the law, of course!
One Last Idea
I’ll end here with one last idea to make creative sparks out of focal length – check out some popular or famous photographs, consider what focal length the photographer used and why, and then think about – and experiment with – how that photograph would have turned out differently with another focal length.
I’m sure there are many other ideas to spark creativity, please post your thoughts in the comments below, and help us all spark our creative fires.
500px can be a great site for inspiration. Check out the “Popular” or “Editor’s Choice” streams for the latest and greatest to find some photographs you love, and then investigate. Often the focal length is included in the photo’s information so you don’t even have to guess what they used. Think: why did the photographer pick that focal length? Ask yourself; “What if I used the extreme opposite in that exact situation?”.
Then, of course, go out and take some pictures!
Remember, it’s the experimentation and thought process behind it that is worth the effort, even if none of your photos that break the focal-length “rules” end up working out. It will get the creative juices flowing and that’s the goal.