What focal lengths do I need for different subjects?

Question: Could you tell me which focal lengths are best to work with for the different types of photography? 

Answer: You’ve probably read or heard lots of advice about which lenses you should be using for a certain genre of photography. Often the advice is delivered as a hard and fast rule that must be followed if you want professional results. In fact, pro photographers regularly use a very wide range of focal lengths in virtually every genre. This gives them a varied and creative portfolio that can stand out from the crowd. For example, a landscape photographer who uses a 17mm lens to shoot every single image is going to end up with a very one-dimensional body of work. So they may sometimes use a telephoto lens instead.

All that said, there are some focal lengths that generally lend themselves best to certain types of shot, so you’re likely to use them more regularly. Head-and-shoulders portraits, for example, are usually taken at around 85mm (or 50mm on an APS-C camera) as it’s deemed that this gives the kindest perspective for the human face. Actually, the focal length doesn’t alter perspective, but it does dictate where you stand to get the best composition. It’s this changing distance between the camera and subject that has the effect. For this reason the majority of your head and shoulders portrait images, though by no means all, will look best if taken with an 85mm lens. To the right we examine the focal lengths that generally work best for a handful of popular genres.

Fit the focal length to your genre...

Landscapes
Most landscapes are shot wide-angle, which means around 15-25mm on a full-frame body or 10-18mm on APS-C. Longer telephoto lenses are also used to get a ‘compressed perspective’ look, which gives an attractive layered effect.

 

Portraits
As previously mentioned, a classic portrait lens of 85mm (50mm on APS-C bodies) provides the most flattering perspective. 50mm is better for full-body shots. Wide-angle or even fisheye lenses can also be used to create really quirky results.

 

Wildlife and sports
Unless you can get very close to your subject, a long telephoto of at least 300mm is usually required. 600mm is ideal for very skittish subjects. If your camera is very near the subject, perhaps being fired remotely, any focal length can work.

Street and reportage
Most street shooters opt for a 35mm lens, or 24mm on an APS-C camera. This gives them a slightly wider field-of-view than the human eye. However, others like to work from a distance using a 70-200mm, ensuring their shots are completely candid.