A lot of photographers really don’t know why they use a lens of a certain focal length, they leave it up to happenstance or a “Favorite.” But there is a rhyme and reason for why we use the lens we do, or at least there should be. “A lens merely allows us to stand where we need to stand.”
Much of what is attributed to lenses is actually a function of where we stand. Distance plays far more of a role in photography then people understand. It controls many things: Perspective (The relationship of the subject to a background), Magnification, Depth of Field, Scale. While a lens can also do some of those things, it doesn’t do all of those things; it can’t.
So, next time you are out photographing, before you even raise a camera to your eye, look and move, find a relationship between your subject and the background. One of Perspective and scale. One that feels right, one that feels natural. Then raise your camera to the eye and chose a focal length that fits your scene in (crop) and also scales the subject to how much of the viewfinder you want it to occupy. Don’t MOVE to fit it, change focal length to fit that perspective. And that, will be the correct focal length.
Now of course, that isn’t always possible. There are times, say with wildlife, actions sports or macro where we physically can’t choose our location: We can’t always get close to an animal because it will run or fly away. We are relegated to a spot on a field of sport. Or, in the case of macro we need to be at a point where the lens provides a certain magnification and minimum focus distance. So, you may choose a lens solely based on its magnification/field of view.
But try it next time you are in a situation of Foreground subject to Background (and you should have a foreground subject). Rule the lens, don’t let it rule you.
For more learning on “Perspective” see my blog post “Why we use different lenses and why we move.”
Peter Tellone resides in Borrego Springs, California, and is a professional fine art landscape photographer and published author. He is a former writer for Photo Technique magazine and has blogged for B & H Photo Video, Nik Software, and MacPhun. He has been a featured landscape photographer for the Canon Lens Experience.
You can view Peter’s website at petertellone.com.