Many aspiring filmmakers and photographers start their journey with a basic camera paired with a kit lens. This is usually a standard zoom with a fairly slow aperture range.
After learning the ropes, many of these creatives will ask, “What lens should I get next?” And for anyone trying to help there are always those hard to explain concepts, like which focal length is best and how it will change the look of your footage.
Understanding focal length can help you find the best lens for your shot as well as help you make the most of the gear you already have. Filmmaker Peter Lindgren put together a great overview of the differences.
Debates rage all day long about how different focal lengths and crops affect your images. Peter even posted an Instagram Reel that set off people in the comments complaining about how he was moving so it wasn’t a good comparison while others were thanking him for actually showing it off.
Regardless of any debate we can all agree that different lenses serve different purposes and along with that have different looks.
Nobody (well, I hope nobody) is shooting an entire wedding with a single lens and then just cropping in later. So let’s look at the visual differences resulting from using different lenses.
Starting out at 16mm if you want to fill the frame with a subject and you start to get close you can see how proportions get a little out of whack. It looks weird. Now, when you move back farther enough you can see it correct itself a bit, though it captures a lot in the frame.
Moving up to 35mm you can see that when framed up the same way the image looks different in a few ways.
To further test this out Peter wants to do a cropping test where he takes the wide shot and then crops it in to mimic that of a 200mm telephoto.
He shoots with the telephoto and makes sure his whole body is in the frame. Then, without moving the camera or his position he shoots the same clip with the 16mm to get it ready for the crop.
Some of you may already know where this is going. So, if you crop the 16mm image to match the framing of the 200mm they both actually look very similar. There is still the obvious part where such an aggressive crop on footage doesn’t turn out anything of high quality, so not something to recommend. But it is interesting to see.
While crop is possible to create a similar look, you shouldn’t really plan on doing it. The actual reason for the difference is subject distance. The closer or farther away the subject is will have more of an impact on “compression” than the actual focal length.
This is exactly why you need to choose focal lengths deliberately. Telephoto lenses will let you get proper framing from a farther distance. Wide lenses will capture more of the frame and keep more in the frame at a smaller distance.
The lens choice allows you to more easily capture the look you want.
Obviously, there are constraints to understand, like you can’t shoot a vlog handheld with a 200mm lens. Trying out different focal lengths is a fun experiment everyone should try.
What are your favorite focal lengths?
[source: Peter Lindgren]
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