What’s Your Focal Length?

We all see the world through different eyes – each with our own unique view of the environment around us. Nothing makes this point hit home more than running some photographers through the exercise of putting them all in the same place at the same time and assigning them the task of making 10 images in the next hour. When you look at the results, the diversity of images is often incredible. After all, the photographers stood in the same place and in front of the same scenery, the same objects. And yet the images they produce could lead you to believe that they weren’t all in the same place at the same time. It shows how the creative process is indeed, by default, like a fingerprint – unique to the individual.

Given that we each see the world differently, what are the tools that we each choose to use to make our images? The reason I ask is that whether or not we are aware of it, we all have tendencies towards not just certain kinds of images (e.g. landscapes, portraits, wildlife, etc.) but towards using certain focal lengths to make these images. Do wide open landscapes – the vast expanses and vistas – tickle your brain and so that’s what you shoot most? Or what about details? Do you like to be in up close with a macro lens? Sure, we use certain kinds of tools (lenses) for certain kinds of photography. Smaller focal lengths for landscapes, mid range for portraits. At least that’s what conventional wisdom leads us to believe. But in fact, it isn’t always true. Think about which lenses you most often pull out of your camera bag. Which ones are they?

For me, it’s all about isolating details. My camera kit covers a wide range of focal lengths. I shoot Nikon and have a 12-24mm, 18-200mm, 105 mm micro, and a 600 mm. Which lenses do I use most? Well, I try to make a conscious effort to use different focal lengths during my shooting. I try to mix it up, different focal lengths and framing shots in the portrait or landscape orientation. I aim for diversity. I’m constantly switching lenses during my shooting. But when the shoot is done and I go through my catalogue and look at what I think are my best images, by far, most are made with either my 105 mm micro or my 600 mm. I seldom produce much that I really like with my wide angle lens. And when I do use my 18-200mm zoom, I noticed that the vast majority of my images are made near the 200 mm end of the zoom, not the 18 mm end or something in the middle. Interesting….

Further evidence of my preference can be seen in my landscape. I do take landscapes and use a variety of lenses, but my best landscapes are made using either my zoom at 200 mm or my 600 mm. Yes, I use my 600 mm for landscapes. I love isolating a specific part of the landscape with that lens. It’s a beautiful piece of glass and it functions as well as a landscape lens as it does as a wildlife lens.

A fall landscape made using a 150 mm focal length.

Beachscape at sunset. No wide open vistas here!

I also look at my macro images. More and more, I find myself using a wide open aperture and isolating a small part of the ‘scene’ by selectively focusing. This tends to isolate one particular part of the image (e.g. an insect) from the background. The background can still be in focus enough to provide some context about the environment the insect is in. But the shallow depth of focus puts the emphasis on the insect.

Shot with my 105 mm macro lens. The focus is on the main subject - the ladybird beetle - and the rest of the background is thrown out of focus. But you can still tell what the background is. It isn't completely abstracted.

Alternatively, you can throw just about all of the image out of focus and still get a beautiful effect. Forget the rules you were taught – always make sure at least something in the frame is in focus. Forget that! Just make sure that when you do break the rules, you break them well.

Nothing in this image is truly in focus. But does it matter? I think this image works well without it. Don't be afraid to break the rules. Just do it well.

I also find myself, more and more, using my 105 mm micro to shoot what I call, ‘microscapes’. These are landscapes, but on a miniature scale. For example, I love making images of fungi or mosses, but shooting them as if they were vast landscapes. I mean, after all, whether they are macro shots or vast ‘microscapes’ depends entirely on your perspective. To us, a collection of mosses is not a vast landscape. But to a collembolan, a tiny little invertebrate a few millimeters long, it is a vast landscape.

Shooting 'microscapes' at the bug's eye view.

It’s all about perspective. Try keeping the ‘bugs eye view’ in mind next time you have your macro lens out. What view would an insect see?

What's the view like from the insect's point of view?

Is it bad to shoot primarily with certain focal lengths? Does this limit our photography? In my opinion, no. I think we tend to gravitate toward the things we like most. And I think we tend to produce our best work when we are shooting what we love most. We each develop a bit of ‘expertise’ that way. I think it’s part of our style that we develop – you know, that thing where someone looks at an image and says hey, that looks like a Freeman Patterson shot. Or that’s definitely an Ansel Adams. As we gain experience, we each develop our own style that becomes recognizable by others.

Using a macro lens to abstract nature

I have no problem with unconsciously gravitating toward certain focal lengths. I think I do my best work when I let that happen. But knowing what my preferences are, I also force myself outside my comfort zone now and again, making sure I use different focal lengths. I think this keeps our skills well rounded and sometimes we surprise ourselves with what we produce. But ultimately, do what you enjoy most and you’ll be rewarded with your best images.

Use your macro lens to isolate a small part of the 'microscape'

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