What is the best focal length in photography? What are the uses of different focal lengths? And – most important of all – what focal length should you use in your photos?
In this article, I aim to address all of these questions and more. I share plenty of common focal lengths, making sure to explain why they’re great and when they should be used (or avoided). I also discuss the best focal lengths for several different genres, such as portrait and landscape shooting – and I include plenty of examples so you can see the different focal lengths in action.
Note that whether you shoot with zooms or primes is unimportant. All the focal lengths in this article are achievable through either lens type, so no need to fret if you prefer zooms over primes or vice versa. Instead, just focus on the focal lengths I discuss, and you’ll be just fine!
What is focal length in photography?
Put simply, focal length is the level of zoom that a lens offers. It determines how much of the scene you can capture and how close or far away objects appear.
Consumer lenses come in a range of focal lengths (from around 8mm to 800mm). On the low end, we have ultra-wide lenses that can capture a vast portion of the scene. On the high end, we have ultra-long lenses like 800mm, which capture only a tiny sliver of the scene and are perfect for getting close to distant subjects like wildlife.
Note that focal length is a property of the lens, not the camera. Some lenses offer wide focal lengths, some offer standard (medium) focal lengths, and some offer telephoto focal lengths. Prime lenses are capable of photographing at a fixed focal length, such as 50mm, while zoom lenses can shoot at multiple focal lengths, like 24-70mm, allowing you to adjust your crop as needed.
Different focal lengths cater to different genres and photographic subjects, so the best focal length for you will depend heavily on what you want to photograph. Are you into capturing breathtaking landscapes, compelling portraits, bustling street scenes, or intricate macro details? Each genre has its own set of ideal focal lengths (as I explore throughout this article!).
Common focal lengths to consider
Below, I share a few of the most common focal lengths you’ll encounter in photography. I’ve made sure to note the pros and cons of each, and I’ve also noted when each focal length is generally used. Of course, photography is a creative activity, so don’t feel hemmed in by any of my recommendations; there’s always room to break the rules and innovate!
24mm is a beautiful focal length, one that offers a wide-angle field of view without taking you into ultra-wide territory. It’s easy to experiment with, not only because there are many affordable 24mm prime options available, but also because you’ll find this focal length at the wide end of many zoom lenses, such as a 24-70mm f/4 or f/2.8. Also, many kit lenses feature a 24mm wide end once you account for the APS-C crop factor.
A 24mm prime lens will be sufficiently wide and remarkably sharp, making it an ideal candidate for landscape photography. Zooms are wonderful for landscape photography, too, but the locked-in field of view (on a 24mm prime lens) will force you to think carefully about your compositions.
The 24mm focal length also excels in low-light situations. That includes astrophotography, where 24mm lenses with wide maximum apertures (i.e., f/2.8) will facilitate shots of the Milky Way, as well as event photography, where you’ll have an ample field of view for environmental, contextual shots, plus the wider maximum aperture will facilitate sharp shots indoors and at night.
Additionally, the 24mm focal length is wide enough to capture group portraits with minimal perspective distortion. Just don’t get too close and be sure to watch the edges of your frame.
35mm is a classic focal length for many photojournalists and street photographers. Why? For one, the field of view requires you to get close to the action for a more immersive perspective, plus it provides plenty of useful context. On the other hand, 35mm isn’t too wide; you can use it to photograph natural-looking people, close-up details, and more.
This same philosophy applies to wedding or event photography, which is why these photographers love the 35mm focal length, especially when combined with a wide maximum aperture such as f/1.8 or even f/1.4. Note that 35mm prime lenses, like 24mm lenses, tend to be impressively cheap – so if you’re on a budget, 35mm is a great place to start.
Another nice thing about 35mm: It’s great for environmental portraits, especially those casual, spur-of-the-moment portrait opportunities that come up at family gatherings and dinner with friends. For instance, I often use 35mm to shoot portraits across the dinner table:
Any wider, and my subject’s face might suffer from feature-exaggerating perspective distortion; any narrower, and I’d have had to get out of my seat to back up for the shot.
The best genres for 50mm lenses: Street photography, full-body portrait photography, walk-around shooting
50mm primes are the lenses for the photography beginner for a whole host of reasons. In fact, if you don’t own a 50mm lens, I recommend purchasing one right now – they really are that useful.
So what makes 50mm primes so special? For one, they’re insanely cheap. You can purchase a brand-new 50mm lens for most camera systems for a little over $100. I’m not talking about shoddy, low-quality optics, either; the 50mm f/1.8 lenses that cost in the $100 USD to $200 USD range tend to offer surprisingly good performances, especially for the price.
Also, 50mm lenses produce an image that is normal (i.e., most like the image that we produce with our own eyes). Therefore, it’s often easy to “see” in 50mm.
The 50mm lens really is a classic, and a big part of it is that the area in the frame is often just right. It’s narrow enough to create balanced compositions with ease, but still wide enough to create interest beyond your subject. That is why you will find a 50mm lens in the bags of most street photographers (and indeed, most portrait and event photographers, as well).
The best genres for 85mm lenses: portrait photography, event photography, and sports photography
You’ll find 85mm lenses in the bags of many wedding and portrait photographers, and for good reason: they create beautiful portraits that flatten one’s features (this is generally flattering!), plus they offer beautiful subject-background separation.
The field of view isn’t so tight that you’ll need to be outdoors to shoot with an 85mm lens, but you’ll still get a nice working distance that allows you to sneakily capture candids at weddings and family gatherings.
That working distance is great for full-body shots when you’re on the sidelines of a sporting event, too. And 85mm lenses also offer a nice distance for photographing your kids and pets.
Of course, every focal length has its drawbacks, and 85mm is no exception. Such lenses are expensive to get ahold of, and the tighter field of view isn’t ideal for street photography or contextual portraits.
However, for serious portrait and event photographers, 85mm is a must-have.
The best genres for 135mm lenses: Headshots, portrait photography, and wedding photography
When you need to get in close or you just love bokeh, a 135mm lens is a great pick – especially a 135mm prime with a wide maximum aperture.
You can use a 135mm lens for details and headshots that bring your subject to life. Plus, the background separation is fantastic due to the increased telephoto compression. The flattering flattening effect (say that five times!) makes this lens great for head-and-shoulder shots, senior portraits, candids, and more. You’ll have fun shooting wide open to create magical separation between your subject and the surroundings.
Is there a drawback to the 135mm focal length? Of course.
You do need a lot of working room, and you also need a lot of light. Remember the 1/focal length rule for shutter speed (also known as the reciprocal rule)? Well, you wouldn’t want to shoot a 135mm lens any slower than 1/135s (without a very steady hand or a tripod). So when light or space becomes a problem, it’s nice to have an 85mm lens to fall back on.
The best genres for 200mm lenses: Sports photography, portrait photography, architectural photography, and event photography
The 200mm focal length is extremely popular, and while you won’t find many prime lenses specifically set at 200mm, there are plenty of 70-200mm lenses that get snapped up by professionals and amateurs alike.
The 200mm focal length falls within the mid-telephoto range and offers a unique perspective in a variety of scenarios. It’s great for capturing intimate shots that highlight patterns and details within a landscape – either natural or urban. The extra reach lets you zoom in and isolate specific elements such as mountains, trees, or buildings, even if you’re shooting from a large distance.
The 200mm focal length is also great for headshots. You can use it to capture images with a stunning background bokeh, which will ensure the shots have a refined – and visually pleasing! – look.
Sports photographers also like to work at 200mm; you can use it to get close to the action without sacrificing too much of the frame. Whether you’re capturing a thrilling soccer match or a fast-paced track event, you’ll be able to freeze distant moments with precision and detail, delivering impressive shots that capture the essence of the game.
One of the biggest benefits of a 200mm focal length is its ability to produce beautiful bokeh, and that’s just one of the reasons professional portrait photographers often opt for high-quality 70-200mm f/2.8 lenses. Even the f/4 versions can create a nice blur that’ll help your subjects stand out against a crowded backdrop.
However, it’s important to note that lenses with a 200mm focal length tend to be relatively large and heavy, especially when they have wider apertures like f/2.8. Plus, they often come with a huge price tag. These factors make them a preferred choice for dedicated professionals or enthusiasts who desire top-notch quality but less popular among beginners.
If you’re looking to elevate your wildlife or bird photography, the 400mm focal length is where you should set your sights. At 400mm, you can capture more elusive or distant subjects – though it’s worth mentioning that 400mm lenses are essentially useless for portrait, event, and street photography.
Many serious wildlife and sports photographers swear by the power of 400mm f/2.8 lenses, which are consistently top-of-the-line but come with a hefty price tag and are quite heavy.
For those on a budget or who don’t want to carry around hulking f/2.8 lenses, there are some affordable zoom options that reach 400mm on the long end. These lenses offer a reasonable compromise between price and performance, making them a solid choice for hobbyist wildlife and bird photographers.
Note: While professional bird photographers might find 400mm a little too short for their needs, you can still capture stunning images of birds in your backyard or those comfortable around humans, such as ducks at the local park. Alternatively, you can capture shots that show birds small in the frame and emphasize their surroundings.
Just remember that 400mm lenses do tend to be larger and heavier, especially those with ultra-wide apertures, and they do come at a cost. However, if you’re willing to invest in a 400mm lens, you’ll be rewarded with exceptional reach and the ability to capture remarkable images of distant subjects.
The best genres for 500mm lenses: Wildlife photography and bird photography
For those wildlife and bird photography specialists, the 500mm focal length is outstanding; it offers an incredible level of zoom that’s perfect for capturing small critters with astounding detail. On the other hand, 500mm definitely isn’t the best choice if your goal is to photograph portraits, landscapes, or architecture.
Some super-telephoto zoom lenses extend up to 500mm, and these options are perfect for hobbyist bird and wildlife photographers. Professionals in the field, however, often opt for 500mm prime lenses, which are both massive and eye-wateringly expensive.
The magnification power at 500mm allows you to get up close and personal with your subjects. It’s certainly possible to capture the intricate details and behaviors of small, elusive creatures at 500mm, though you’ll still need to brush up on your stalking skills!
It’s worth noting that working with a 500mm lens requires some skill and patience – even the slightest movement can impact image stability, and autofocusing at high magnifications is no walk in the park. Plus, due to the extensive reach and specialized nature of these lenses, they’re primarily used by photographers who are committed to very specific genres and willing to invest both financially and physically in their craft.
Which focal length should you use?
The best focal length for you depends on a variety of factors, including the subjects you want to shoot, the type of photos you’d like to capture, your budget, and other preferences (such as size and weight). However, different genres of photography do have certain popular focal lengths, which can be a handy starting point when considering different lenses.
The best focal length for landscape photography
Photographing stunning landscapes requires the right focal length to bring out the grandeur of nature. Here wide and ultra-wide focal lengths can work wonders, allowing you to capture sweeping compositions with plenty of foreground and background details.
Professional landscape photographers often opt for expensive zoom lenses that cover around 12mm to 24mm. However, if you’re on a budget, there are slightly narrower zoom options available, such as 16-35mm lenses. Alternatively, you might consider starting with a versatile 24mm prime lens.
Also, while wide angles dominate landscape photography, don’t underestimate the power of longer focal lengths. Working at 70mm, 135mm, and even 200mm allows you to focus on specific elements within the landscape to reveal intricate patterns and details.
The best focal length for portraits
In portrait photography, it’s often a good idea to capture a variety of shots of each subject: more environmental (wider) images, full-body and half-body compositions, and tighter head-and-shoulders and headshots. Therefore, you’ll need to familiarize yourself with a handful of different focal lengths.
When you want to tell a broader story and incorporate the surroundings of your subject, wider focal lengths like 24mm to 35mm are the way to go; they’ll allow you to capture plenty of context, which will in turn create a sense of place and add depth to your portraits.
For capturing full-body or half-body compositions, the 50mm focal length is ideal. It strikes a perfect balance, allowing you to maintain a natural perspective while also creating solid background bokeh.
Next, the 85mm focal length works great for head-and-shoulders compositions or close-up headshots. This focal length is highly flattering, as it makes it easy to gently compress facial features and produce a pleasing background separation. Plus, with an 85mm lens, you can capture intimate details while maintaining a comfortable shooting distance.
Finally, if you’re looking to create high-quality headshots, you might want to consider longer focal lengths like 135mm or even 200mm. You can capture exquisite details and achieve stunning subject-background separation, and thanks to the longer reach, you can maintain a comfortable distance when doing close-ups.
The best focal length for street photography
There are two focal lengths that are widely favored by street photographers: 50mm and 35mm. In fact, whether you should use 50mm or 35mm for street photography is a common point of contention among street shooters!
35mm is an excellent choice for street photographers who embrace the energy and dynamism of busy urban areas. It excels at capturing candid moments and street scenes filled with activity (though you can also use it in quieter parts of the city to create compelling urban landscape shots). If you prefer a more immersive approach where you want to get up close and personal with your subjects, 35mm is the way to go. It’s perfect for capturing images that convey the vibrant atmosphere of bustling streets and can provide a sense of being there in the action.
On the other hand, 50mm is ideal if you’re looking to isolate your subject from the surrounding environment. It’s particularly useful on crowded streets where you want to focus on a specific person or object without distractions. Additionally, the 50mm focal length provides a natural perspective – similar to what our eyes see – so it’s great for creating authentic compositions.
At the end of the day, choosing between 35mm and 50mm for street photography often boils down to personal preference and shooting style. If you enjoy capturing the bustling chaos and prefer close interactions on the streets, 35mm is an excellent go-to focal length. On the other hand, if you prefer a more focused and isolated approach where your subject stands out from the surroundings, 50mm will serve you well.
The best focal length for macro photography
For most macro photography needs, I highly recommend investing in a dedicated macro lens. These lenses are specifically designed to deliver exceptional close-up capabilities, ensuring stunning image quality. When it comes to focal length options, macro lenses typically range from 50mm to 100mm, with a few exceptions at wider or longer ranges.
If you’re seeking versatility and a broad range of macro subjects, the sweet spot often falls within the 90-110mm focal length range. This range allows you to capture a variety of macro subjects, including small objects, plants, food, and occasional insects. With this focal length, you’ll be able to maintain a comfortable shooting distance while capturing intricate details and textures with remarkable precision.
However, if your primary focus is capturing breathtaking shots of insects in all their splendor, consider a longer focal length (around 180mm). Insect photography requires a bit more distance between you and your subjects to avoid startling them. The extra reach of a 180mm lens allows you to capture stunning close-ups of insects without disturbing their natural behavior.
The best focal length in photography: final words
Whether you’re capturing breathtaking landscapes, soul-revealing portraits, busy street shots, or close-up macro scenes, the right focal length can make all the difference. Hopefully, you now have a sense of the perfect length for your favorite types of photography, and you’re ready to head out with your camera (or purchase a new lens).
That said, the best focal length does come down to personal preference – so if you don’t like my recommendations, that’s completely okay! Go ahead and experiment until you find a focal length that works for you.
Now over to you:
Which focal lengths do you like best? Share your thoughts in the comments below!