Different focal lengths can completely alter and give new interpretations to your images. Let’s learn the basics behind the concept.

If you aren’t too familiar with focal length, we have the insight for you. In brief: A short focal length will have a wide field of view, and a long focal length will have a narrow field of view.

The Lenses

Commonly, lens groups are broken up into the following bands:

  • Extreme Wide Angle: Less than 21mm (short focal length)
  • Wide Angle: 21mm – 35mm
  • Normal/Standard: 35mm – 70mm
  • Short/Medium Telephoto: 70mm – 135mm
  • Telephoto: 135-500mm+ (long focal length)

As different cameras have different sensor sizes, you will need to adjust the lens groups accordingly. This handy calculator will let you know what field of view you have with most consumer and professional cameras.

The Effects

Here are three shots with the same relative framing and subject: A woman sitting in a chair, filling almost two-thirds of the composition.

Wide Angle: 24mm

Example of image captured with a 24mm lens. A brown-haired woman in a camel coat sits in a lawn chair in a paved back yard. A stove, a storage shed, and a door are visible behind her.

Standard: 50mm

Example of image captured with a 50mm lens. A brown-haired woman in a camel coat sits in a lawn chair in a paved back yard. A storage shed and a window are visible behind her.

Telephoto: 180mm

Example of image captured with a 180mm lens. A brown-haired woman in a camel coat sits in a lawn chair in a paved back yard. A blurred storage shed is visible behind her.

Each lens changed the dynamic of the composition, and most importantly, they also changed the image’s psychological values. To understand how to use this to your advantage, let us first look at what has happened.

Comparison of closeups of the subject's face from the three portraits.

Every lens has a unique voice and will alter how the audience perceives the image they see.

Objects appear to be farther apart on a wide-angle lens, depth perception is greatly exaggerated, and movement along the z-axis is enhanced. The shorter the focal length, the more perceptual distortion of objects—in particular on the objects that appear closest to the lens.

Human foveal vision (this is the angle of view in which we can clearly see detail) extends to around 40°. A standard lens (commonly 50mm) is the lens that produces the closest representation to our field of view. A 50mm lens has around a 39.6° field of view when used on a 35mm sensor, hence the term standard lens.

Telephoto lenses, unsurprisingly, have the opposite effect to wide-angle lenses. The entire composition becomes compressed, foreground objects become a blur, and distant objects appear closer. There is less emphasis on movement on objects moving to or away from the camera.

Telephoto Lenses

An example of a telephoto lens from Canon on a white background.
Image via B&H.

The compression of space through the utilization of a telephoto lens can be applied for inspired instances. A telephoto will heighten the intensity of action and movement head-on. It compresses space through the z-axis and makes objects in the foreground, mid-ground, and background seem closer together.

For example, with the correct camera placement, a car swerving to miss a man standing in the middle of the road could look like it missed him by inches when, in fact, it missed him by a safe distance. Take a look at the following shot from Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (featured in this clip from Vashi Nedomansky):

This shot was achieved through DP Hoyte Van Hoytema’s use of a 2000mm telephoto lens. The compression throughout the composition keeps the actors and the plane at their relative size and decreases the space between the actors and the plane, creating a sense of tension and fear. It looks as if the aircraft is going to collide with the two characters. The man on the left also shares this concern with nervous body language. In reality, the plane was a safe distance away.

As previously stated, the compression of the z-axis slows down anything moving toward or away from the camera. This is ideal for isolating a character that’s moving toward the camera.

Take the scene below from The Graduate. Benjamin Braddock is sprinting to the church to stop a wedding. He is running out of time, and he needs to get there fast.

Using a telephoto lens visually increases the distance Braddock has to cover and raises the audience’s psychological distress. Will he get there in time, or will he fail? If you just focus on Benjamin’s head for the first few seconds, it almost looks as if he is not covering any ground at all.

A telephoto lens is ideal for isolating and freezing subjects. Let us use the example images. The image shot on the 24mm is a lot more personal and inviting. Although the image shot on the 180mm has the same framing, it isolates the character and puts her at a distance from the audience.

Side-by-side comparison of the portrait photos captured on a wide-angle lens and a telephoto lens.

With the wide-angle, it’s almost as if we are part of the conversation with the character; we are in her inner circle. The image shot on the telephoto lens completely cuts us off as an audience member. We are no longer part of this character’s inner circle. We are almost intruding on her space, and we should not be there.

The space around her has also become claustrophobic; we can no longer see the surroundings or location. The change in the field of view has suddenly made this character very much alone, despite the fact that her size and placement have stayed the same throughout each image.

Wide-Angle Lenses

An example of a wide-angle lens from Samyang on a white background.
Image via B&H.

A wide-angle lens has a wider field of view, which exaggerates the size and distance of objects near and far. The enlargement of objects closer to the lens can add importance to objects in the foreground. At the same time, because of the perspective distortion, it can be an excellent tool to add surreal characteristics to an actor’s face when the camera is extremely close. (See below: The City of Lost Children).

Screenshot from "The City of Lost Children" showing surrealist distorted closeups of Dominique Pinon's characters.

A lot of what we have discussed with wide angles falls on the use of psychological methods to affect the audience. What about practical on-set applications?

Using an 11mm over a 50mm can help you a lot with camera movement. You might not always be in a position to use a track and dolly; perhaps the location is too small or you physically can’t bring one, but a one-meter slider will be no trouble.

As a wide lens distorts the distance of objects near and far, it also increases the amount of movement with the use of a slider. Suddenly a one-meter slider becomes a good few seconds of tracking. A standard lens will show a slight amount of movement, but a wide-angle lens (wider the better) will show a noticeable amount of movement using a one-meter slider. A telephoto lens will show little to no movement.

It’s important to remember that if you were to track in towards an object or character, there’s a chance you would see the slider within the frame. Therefore, it works best when you track from left to right or right to left.

Lenses are more than just tools to get you closer to a subject or fit more of the landscape within your frame. A different lens can give your image an entirely new meaning with the correct application.

If you have three minutes to spare, I highly recommend checking out the snippets in the embedded video below. It’s from the documentary Cinematographer Style (2006), and the section below has a segment from Cinematography maestro Roger Deakins.

I have a very strong feeling about lenses. I’m here talking to you, and personally, I’m sitting here talking to you, and you’re filming me from over there probably on a single. Where I rarely do that, see I shoot singles inside of here [gestures to close proximity]. Unless it’s for effect. I think it’s a totally different effect for someone in the audience, looking at something on the end of a 100mm lens, opposed to something that’s been shot on a 27mm up close.

Learn even more about essential gear for filmmaking:

Cover image by bogdandimages.