Why You Need to Rethink Your Camera Lenses

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If I were to poll 100 people and ask them what focal length they'd use for a landscape photo, my guess is that the vast majority of them would offer up a wide-angle lens.

Similarly, if I were to poll the same 100 people and ask them what focal length they'd use for a portrait, I'd bet that a lot of them would say something in the standard range, like a 50mm.

And that's perfectly fine - those are great focal lengths for those subjects.

But they aren't the only great focal lengths for those subjects...

Use a Long Focal Length for Landscapes

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When I go out to shoot landscapes, I typically use my 12-24mm zoom lens more than anything. I also enjoy my 35mm lens and my 50mm lens, too, as they let me get a little closer detail than the wider angle lenses.

But a few years ago, a friend of mine was raving about using his 85mm portrait lens for landscapes. And you know what? He was on to something!

I gave it a whirl, and I really liked how the 85mm focal length helped me zero in on more specific areas of a larger landscape (as shown above), but without feeling as restricted as a telephoto image.

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Speaking of telephoto lenses, I don't mean to infer that they're restrictive in a bad sense.

Quite the opposite, really...

With a telephoto lens like a 70-200mm or a 200-400mm, you can frame out all the elements that you don't want in the shot, and more easily create intimate landscapes of a single feature like a mountain peak, a group of trees, a lonely house amongst the hills, and so forth.

Naturally, another benefit of using a longer focal length lens for landscapes is that they compress the scene, making distant features seem much closer.

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This is advantageous because those mountains in the distance that seem so large to your eye, but seem so small with your wide-angle lens, have a much more prominent place in the photo, as seen above.

Though there's something to be said about portraying the vastness of a landscape with a wide-angle lens, I really enjoy how a longer focal length gives me a little more creative freedom, if you will, to generate landscapes that don't look like a typical landscape shot.

Here's a tip, though: lenses have a different effective focal length on a crop sensor camera than on a full frame camera. That means an 85mm lens on a full frame camera creates a different angle of view than it does on a crop sensor camera. Check the learn more links below for a detailed guide the differences between full frame and crop sensor cameras.

Learn More:

Go Wide for Portraits

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As noted in the introduction, a 50mm lens is an ideal choice for portraits because it offers a natural, pleasing view of the subject.

The same can be said of 85mm lenses as well.

In fact, both lenses allow you to easily fill the frame with the subject without being right in front of their face.

That's nice from the model's point of view because they might be a little uncomfortable with you shooting just a few inches from their nose.

It's also nice for you because you can get up-close shots with gorgeously blurred backgrounds, as seen in the image above.

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But there's nothing wrong with taking a wider perspective, either.

Using a 35mm lens or even a 24mm lens allows you to get that wider view and show the subject as part of the surrounding environment.

Now, you might not want to go this route if you're shooting in a location with an ugly or a busy background.

But as you can see in the image above, incorporating a bit of the surroundings by using a wider lens can get you beautiful results.

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On the other end of the spectrum, you can use one of these wider focal lengths to create portraits that have a unique vibe.

For example, you might use a 35mm lens to get in close to your subjects to create a very intimate portrait.

That feeling of intimacy results from having to be very close to them in order to fill the frame with their faces.

Alternatively, you can use a 24mm lens (or an even wider one) to create a portrait that's slightly distorted and offers a fun take on what a portrait can be, as seen above.

Here's another tip: if you shoot with a crop sensor camera, take the focal length multiplier into account. Check the Learn More links below for more details on that, but in a nutshell, you'll need an even wider lens (i.e., a 14mm lens) to get the same effect as a 35mm or a 24mm lens on a full frame camera.

Learn More:

Final Thoughts

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Part of what makes photography so exciting - and part of what allows you to create unique images - is breaking the rules.

Whether that's using a telephoto lens for landscapes, a wide-angle lens for portraits, or something in between, don't be afraid to rethink what you've always been told about what you should do with your camera and lens.

And if you're thinking, "lenses are so expensive," think again...

You just have to know where to look to find good deals on excellent pre-owned lenses. There's tons of deals out there, and that means you can stretch your budget, fill out your kit with a greater variety of lenses, and become the rule-breaking photographer you always wanted to be!

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