Focal Length Comparison

By Ian Middleton

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A Comparison of How focal length affects background objects in our photos

When it comes to getting closer to subjects in our scene, we all are familiar with the word “zoom”. In actual fact though, the word zoom refers to the ability to adjust the focal length of the lens. We know this gets us closer to subjects, but perhaps a lesser known effect of increasing your focal length is what it does to the background objects in comparison to the foreground objects.

What is focal length?

When we take a photo, light passes through the lens and falls upon the focal plane (sensor or film). In an optical zoom the distance between the lens and the focal plane is known as the focal length, as illustrated here:

The longer the focal length, the more the scene or your subject will be magnified. The standard field of view for a digital SLR, or 35mm SLR film camera is 50mm. This is equal to what we see with our eyes. Anything below 50mm = wide angle. Anything above 50mm = telephoto

The following diagram helps to illustrate this:

Focal length example
Focal length chart
Focal length chart

© Alhovik | Dreamstime.com

As you can see, the shortest focal length (fisheye) has the widest angle of view. What falls upon the sensor is what is seen between those two outer points. Therefore:

Increase the focal length: the angle of light narrows, and thus the narrower the field of view. So essentially you are compressing the scene and reducing how much of it falls upon the sensor, effectively isolating a part of it. Think of it as cropping part of the photo away.

Decrease the focal length: the angle of light widens, and thus the wider the field of view. So you are increasing how much of the scene falls upon the sensor.

The following photos illustrate this.

Photo at wide angle:

When the focal length is increased the angle of light will be reduced and only this much of the scene will fall upon the sensor:

rapeseed field in Brnik with Kamnik Alps in the background, Slovenia.

So the zoomed image will then look like this on the sensor. Essentially it is cropping the scene and only recording his part of it:

rapeseed field in Brnik with Kamnik Alps in the background, Slovenia.

But how does focal length affect background objects?

Often people talk about how long focal lengths can be used to render the background more out of focus, which is great for portrait and wildlife photography. As you can see from the focal length chart above, the illustrator has suggested that anything from telephoto to super telephoto focal lengths are used for things like portraits, children, sports, birds etc.

But, something which is often overlooked, is how you can use longer focal lengths for landscape photography and how it can make a dramatic impact on your background objects.

Wide angle and telephoto effects for landscapes

Wide angle makes foreground objects larger and distant objects smaller, telephoto has almost the opposite effect. When you zoom in you make everything larger.

In the following two photos, I compare 35mm & 105mm focal lengths on the same scene with long grass in the foreground and a church on a hill in the distance.

35mm

The following photo was taken with a wide angle. You can see that the foreground grass is large and prominent in the scene, but the church in the background is very small:

105mm

For this photo I moved back a bit and used a longer focal length. As you can see, the church is now much larger in the background and gives the illusion of being closer to the grass.

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By moving back to a distance and zooming in, I have made the background church more dominant in the scene.

So you can see here in this comparison that I have made a dramatic difference to the whole photo simply by changing my perspective, moving further back and zooming in with a longer focal length.

Watch the video

Here you can watch my YouTube video all about this:

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Disclosure:

This website and its articles contain links and adverts. The adverts and some links, but not all, are affiliate links. This means that if you click and buy something I will receive a small percentage of money, but at no extra cost to you. The price remains the same if you buy.

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