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Using Focal Length to Set Perspective

I have always enjoyed capturing landscape photos, and I have been fortunate enough to be able to travel around to some great locations. Over time, I learned several techniques that helped me evolve as a photographer. This included things like the hyperfocal point, rule of thirds, scale, symmetry, asymmetry, etc. All of these, help to make more interesting photos. One thing that is often overlooked is the role that your lens' focal length can play.

We know that wide angle lenses will make objects in the foreground appear larger and those in the background appear smaller thereby making the image deeper. On the other hand, a telephoto lens will have the opposite effect thereby compressing the image. This can be a valuable tool when capturing a landscape. Exactly, how does the focal length affect landscape images.

While visiting Green Cay Wetlands, I found a location that would be really good to show the effect of the different focal lengths.

Using some standard focal lengths from 28 - 105, let's examine the differences.

At 28mm, we get a wide view showing some nice reflections in the foreground. The palm trees in the background look small and the image is really more about the reflections than it is about the foliage.

At 35mm, the foreground does not contain as much water, and the dead tree is more prominent. In both cases, the wide angle does not really give a great a representation of the scene. Ideally, I would like the palm trees to play a bigger role.

50mm on a full frame camera, provides the perspective that is the closest to what we see with our eyes. Already, we can see the foliage becoming more important. The dead tree is no longer in the frame. Ideally, I would like the palm trees to play a bigger role in the scene.

70mm starts to show some other interesting elements in the shot. The egret becomes more noticeable, and the palm trees stand out a little more. There is still too much foreground.

105mm provides a nice ratio between the size of the egret and the palm trees in the background. Having visited this area several times, this scene provides a nice representation of the area.

As we get to longer focal lengths, we now need to pay much closer attention to the hyperfocal point to ensure sharpness. At 200mm, the palm trees become the main subject. There is still a little bit of depth to the image, and palms make for an interesting set of elements in the background.

At 500mm, the photo now only contains the two palm trees. In this case, we have lost too much of the scene to provide a sense of place.

Since it is not possible to physically move closer in this scene, the question becomes, is it better to zoom into the scene or find a focal length that gives the proper field of view? In my case, I prefer the field of view angle provided by the 105mm version. With some cropping, and additional editing, I ended up with the following result.

Had I zoomed in to 160mm, my field of view angle would be narrower, and I would have lost some of my framing.

If you would like to learn more techniques for taking landscape photos, please join me at one of my classes of workshops. More details can be found by visiting the class link on (

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