Focal Length for Nature Photography - dummies

By Doug Sahlin

It would be a wonderful thing if you could do all of your photography with one focal length. Well, actually you could, using a little thing called foot zoom, which is when you move closer to or farther from your subject.

But even with foot zoom, you would be hard-pressed to duplicate the effects you can achieve with different focal lengths. For example, using a lens with a long focal length compresses the distance between things, making them seem like they’re closer to each other than they really are.

Landscapes are wonderful vast expanses of scenery that should be captured fully. The best lens for landscape photography captures every subtle detail in stunning clarity. To capture the beauty and grandeur of a landscape, use a wide-angle lens. But even wide-angle lenses come in a wide variety of focal lengths.

Super wide-angle lenses begin with a focal length of 10mm and go to 20mm. A super wide-angle lens captures an impressive amount of real estate in a picture. However, some photographers go over the top and try to include too much in the frame when they shoot with a super wide-angle lens — so much information that viewers don’t know where to look.

If you use a super wide-angle lens to photograph landscapes, make sure you include something large in the foreground. It serves as an anchor that gives your viewers a place to start their exploration of the image and gives the viewer a sense of scale. You can also use the visual anchor as a compositional element.

Wide-angle lenses begin with a focal length of 24mm and go to 35mm. This focal length range also captures an impressive amount of real estate in a single image. You still need to be careful with your composition because of the sheer amount of visual information you can pack in a frame.

Another thing about wide-angle lenses you must consider is distortion. When you photograph with an ultra-wide-angle lens, verticals at the sides of the picture have a tendency to lean in. Tilting the lens up or down exacerbates the problem. But no matter what focal length your lens has, pay attention to what’s in the frame.

If you really want to take a walk on the wild side, you can photograph landscapes with a fish-eye lens. A fish-eye lens gives you a 180-degree view of the scene. The amount of information you can provide when using a fish-eye lens is staggering.

Be careful when composing an image with a fish-eye lens. Tilt the lens up or down, and the horizon line bends. Vertical objects like trees at the sides of the frame will bend in, even when you hold the lens level. But there’s no rule that says you can’t use the distortion if it suits your artistic vision.

Don’t just look inside your viewfinder and snap a picture. Take a bit of time to see what’s in the frame and make sure the information you want to include is in the frame and nothing more. You can always move to the left or right, crouch down, or get to a higher vantage point to get the image you envision. It may simultaneously take care of any potential problems.