Which Lens Should I Use? | Focal Length Comparison

At every one of my weddings and shoots, one of my primary considerations is which lens I’ll use for each shot. And a big part of that is selecting the appropriate focal length.

Most people probably learn focal length first as how “zoomed in” a lens looks. At 16mm, the lens is very “zoomed out” or wide. At 200mm, the lens is very “zoomed in” or telephoto. But beyond the reach of the lens, different focal lengths also have different feels.

At the wide end, things feel closer, more intimate. At the telephoto end, things are a bit more voyeuristic, removed. This is not only because of actual proximity, but also because perspective shifts significantly from wide to telephoto.

To demonstrate this, I borrowed my friend Diana and created this focal length comparison chart. The first two columns are really the same idea– just with Diana framed a little differently so you can see the exaggeration of the perspective shift. The third column on the right is the “behind the scenes” perspective shot by Kevin so you can see how close I am to the subject.

Focal Length Comparison Chart:

(click to view the full size)

16mm/wide:

By keeping Diana’s face relatively the same size even as I change focal lengths, you can see the shift in perspective, especially if you pay attention to the backgrounds of the images. At 16mm, it’s as if the entire background wraps around you. Diana looks very close, not least because she actually is very close (see the top right image in the chart– I’m only a couple inches from her face!). But you can also see the distortion that happens to her face, as everything around the edges seems pulled out. It’s not exactly a flattering look for portraits.

200mm/telephoto:

At 200mm, everything is pushed into a small angle of view. The back curb is the entire background for the 200mm photo, whereas you can see how small of a piece of the background it was in the 16mm photo. This provides less context since it only shows a small portion of the background. Also, as for Diana herself, the perspective on the 200mm focal length is a lot more flattering than the one at 16mm (unless you’re going for that special effect). This is why people refer to lenses such as the 85mm as great portrait lenses.

Focal Lengths in Action:

Below are examples of images from a real wedding (Ragini & Brandon’s Berkeley City Club wedding) and my thoughts/reflections on the focal length selections for each of them.

I don’t often shoot at 16mm at my weddings– in fact, I don’t have the 16-35mm lens with me most of the time. But when I do, it’s often for effects like this– capturing a whole room at once. Remember it’s not a great lens for actual portraits because it distorts at the edges.

Below is another example of the 16mm, again capturing a whole room.

I use the 35mm much more frequently than the 16mm as it’s a wide angle lens with less distortion. It has an intimate, close feel, but as you can see with Joseph’s face on the right, there is still a little bit of distortion at the edges. So while I sometimes use it for group photos, I still try to keep people away from the edges.

Below is a perfect example of the 35mm’s intimate feel. I use it often during “getting ready” time since the wide angle view is great for a tight space.

The 50mm is a typical “standard” focal length. It is basically the same view as your naked eye. There is no distortion so square things look square. At this medium length, you can see less of the background included as compared to the first 16mm photo for instance. This is the focal length I use the most at weddings.

The 50mm is also great for portraits while still including quite a bit of context from the surroundings, or for portraits while in smaller spaces (where you can’t use a longer lens because there’s nowhere to back up to). This is also my focal length of choice for group photos, unless I can’t fit everyone, and then I’ll go to 35mm.

For comparison, these two images below were taken in the same room as the photo above, from roughly the same distance away. But as I used an 85mm lens (slightly longer), there is a bit less of the background context framed in the images. The 85mm is a perfect portrait lens, as there is no distortion on the subject, and fewer distracting background elements are included.

Notice, however, that these portraits feel a lot more formal and removed than the portrait of Ragini taken at 35mm. This is not only because they’re posed differently, but also because of the perspective in the photo.

This is another example of the 85mm focal length, taken by my second shooter Kirsten Tamme during the reception.

Compared to the image above, the perspective at 200mm may seem fairly similar to the perspective at 85mm. However, there is still less background context to this longer focal length. Also, I’m standing much farther at the back of the center aisle while Kirsten is fairly close, at the side of the ceremony. My 70-200mm lens is an easy choice for ceremonies since I can shoot from afar and still frame images closely like this.

The 200mm is also perfect for standing from afar and going into “sniper mode.” Pardon the analogy, but the lens is perfect at isolating subjects from a crowd since it crops in so closely and since it isolates such a narrow angle of view. In this case, while the image does feel more distant, it also enables you to catch more intimate moments without anyone noticing.

I fear I’ve already typed too much. So I will leave it at that!

Two technical notes:

1. All focal lengths above are referenced as they appear on a full frame camera. Many entry level DSLRs (rebels, 60D, even the 7D) have cropped sensors, which means they do not see the focal lengths in the same way. Crop sensors have a “crop factor” such as x1.6. This means If you were to place a 35mm lens on the cropped sensor, it would appear like a 56mm  instead. (35 * 1.6 = 56).

2. To view my current gear list, visit the “FAQ” page.

Please feel free to leave helpful notes, questions, and comments below!

About Anna: I am a wedding photographer based in San Francisco but always willing to travel worldwide. Follow me on Facebook or Twitter.

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