Before we discuss how to select the right focal length for your digital camera, let us try to have a working definition. A focal length, in simplest words, is the distance between the central point of a lens and its focus. It is measured in millimetres, and longer focal lengths result into bigger projections of the image on the lens. The ideal focal length for your digital camera depends on what you are trying to shoot, because with shorter focal lengths you need to be closer to the target object.
Focal length and the distance from object
Without going in the scientific jargon and diagrams, we can say in the layman's language that if you want to shoot a far-off object without physically nearing it, you will need a longer focal length. On the other hand, if you want to have a wide angle snap similar to the views of human eyes, you will require a shorter lens focal length. Again, with a longer focal length you can blur the object background, while a shorter focal length will give you a normal snap. While most beginners and amateur photographers feel comfortable with a standard 35 mm focal length, professionals love to play a bit more with varying lens ranges for varying objects.
How does the focal length of your digital camera relate to your subject and object of photography? Let me give a practical example. If you want to shoot a flower vase, you can stand close to it and click. You cannot do the same if you want to shoot a beautiful bird on a tree on the other side of the waterfall. You can go close to your pet dog to shoot it, but not if you want to capture a wild lion. Check the ideal lens focal lengths for varying subjects below.
The ideal focal length of camera lens depends on the object
Unfortunately, the mankind is yet to have its first do-it-all lens with a focal length range from 11 to 500. Therefore, you need to decide first what you are going to shoot and accordingly select the ideal focal length for your digital camera.
Ideal focal lengths for landscapes, indoor photos - The 28 mm or lower wide angle lens is the best for landscape photography or indoor snaps. If you want to frame everything that you see in front of your eyes, a 28 mm wide angle lens is the ideal lens for your digital camera. It is also good for indoor photography (for example if you want to shoot a painting hung up in the wall, a flower vase in the corner, or your cute doggy sleeping on the sofa) since you can capture a wider space despite a narrower working room. However, shooting portraits with a 28 mm wide angle lens can distort the faces. Anyway if you are not particularly bothered about the clarity and shoot for fun, you can still capture faces with a 28 mm wide angle.
Ideal focal lengths for portraits & standard photography - The name makes it clear. These are the standard lenses that can cover a wide range of subjects. While these 35–85 mm standard lenses are most popular for portrait photography, you can also capture landscapes and close ups with these. While standard lenses do not have the ideal lens focal length for landscape photography like their wide angle counterparts, they can still produce a handy photo.
Ideal focal lengths for sports events, far off objects, blurred backgrounds - Telephoto lenses with a focal length range between 80 to 300 mm are the ideal choices for capturing objects at a distance. Whether it is a splendid bird on a distant tree, a fickle deer at the far off field, or your favourite celebrity getting down from the car with securities all around - telephoto lenses allows you to capture the object in details without getting much closer. It is also great for capturing sports events where you can sit in the gallery and take zoomed photos of what is happening inside the field. You can also shoot portraits with telephoto lenses but it is not recommended for higher chances of distortions.
Highest focal length ranges for wildlife photography - The super telephoto lenses with a focal length ranging above 300 mm are the ideal cameras for wildlife photography. However, if you are reading this article to know what focal length you should go for, you are perhaps not a professional photographer yet and super telephoto lenses are not your playthings. These are heavy, highly expensive, and very complex to control - in fact I can’t explain them further as I have not yet dared to mess with a super telephoto lens myself.
Recommended digital camera focal lengths for some common objects
So, to conclude, here are my recommendations for digital camera lens focal lengths for some common objects we shoot day in and out.
- Landscapes — The ideal focal length for landscape photography is a wide angle lens ranging between 10 to 28mm.
- Buildings — An 18 to 28mm wide angle the ideal lens for shooting buildings.
- Statues and sculptures - Visiting Italy? You perhaps need a 25-28 mm wide angle lens so that you can capture both open air sculptures and landscapes. If you want a little more focus on David’s face in the Piazza della Signoria, opt for a 50 mm standard lens.
- Flowers, insects - Anything between 70 to 100 mm is a great focal length.
- Portraits - Use standard lenses between 50 and 100 mm to shoot portraits at their best. To have a blurred background, use a longer focus.
- Sports events - Telephoto lenses with a focal length ranging between 200 and 300 mm are the best picks for shooting sports events.
- Wildlife photography - Super telephoto lenses between 300 to 600 mm are your only friends. For shooting far off birds with great details, you need a focal length of at least 400 mm.
Nevertheless, selecting the best focal length range for your digital camera is not the only thing to consider. If you are a professional photographer we do not need to tell you what you should buy; but if you are a beginner in digital photography, consider taking a look at the point and shoot digital camera buying guide.
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