In photography, focal length is the distance in mm between the sensor and the point at which light rays converge to form an image.

Focal length also describes what angle of view your lens covers, which is a function of the lens design.

The focal length that’s written on the front of your lens determines what you can photograph with it, how much light it lets into the camera and where the focus point falls.

In order to get a grasp on what focal length does to your images, you need to understand two things: field of view and depth of field.

So let’s get back to basics and talk about how focal length affects your photos.

What Is focal length

What Is focal length?

Focal length refers to how much of the scene you can see with your camera when you take a picture.

Focal length is the distance between your camera’s sensor, or film if you are using an SLR, and the point where light rays converge to form an image.

All lenses have a different focal length, with wide-angle lenses around 10mm and telephoto lenses reaching up to 600mm or more.

The shorter the focal length, the wider the field of view; the longer the focal length, the narrower the field of view.


Understanding Focal Length: A Guide for Photographers & Filmmakers

Ever wondered why your photographs look more zoomed in or out depending on the lens you’re using?

That’s all thanks to focal length, the key to unlocking your camera’s potential.

Focal length isn’t just a number on your lens; it’s a gateway to creativity, influencing everything from magnification to the composition of your shots.


What Is Focal Length?

In the realm of filmmaking, understanding focal length is crucial.

It’s the distance between the lens and the image sensor when the subject is in focus.

Typically measured in millimeters, focal length determines the lens’s angle of view and So the overall composition of the shot.

The focal length of a lens dictates how much of the scene we can capture and the scale of various elements within the frame.

It influences the extent of detail and the spatial relationship of objects.

With varying focal lengths, we can craft scenes that range from intimate close-ups to vast landscapes.

Lenses come with either fixed or variable focal lengths.

Fixed focal lengths, known as prime lenses, often deliver superior sharpness and wider maximum apertures.

Variable focal lengths or zoom lenses provide flexibility, allowing us to change composition quickly without physically moving.

Choices in focal length will affect the visual style of our film:

  • A short focal length or wide-angle lens exaggerates depth and distances between objects. – A long focal length or telephoto lens compresses the sense of space, making objects appear closer together.

While prime lenses require us to ‘zoom with our feet’ and move toward or away from the subject, a zoom lens offers the convenience of framing a shot from a fixed point.

This can be particularly handy when we’re constrained by location space or when shooting documentaries and events where spontaneity is key.

The manipulation of focal length is a powerful tool.

It allows us to control the narrative and emotion of a scene through visual means.

Whether we’re setting the tone of a suspense thriller or capturing the grandeur of a fantasy epic, the right focal length is integral to the story we’re telling.

How Does Focal Length Affect Your Photographs?

Understanding focal length is critical to mastering composition in filmmaking.

It’s a powerful tool that shapes the story we tell through our camera lens.

The effect of focal length on our shots is multifold, influencing both the aesthetic and emotional impact of the scene.

We carefully select our lenses to frame our subjects just right, and here’s how focal length comes into play.

A wide-angle lens offers a broader view of the scene.

This type of lens allows us to capture expansive landscapes or cramped interior shots with ease.

Conversely, telephoto lenses bring distant subjects into clear view.

These lenses are excellent for close-ups and can compress the space, making objects appear closer together than they are.

Choosing the right focal length affects more than just the angle of view.


It changes:

  • Depth of field – how much of our shot is in focus.
  • Perspective – the apparent distance between foreground and background.
  • Distortion – whether our scene has a natural look or a more creative bent.

Focal length also dictates the emotional tone of a shot.

Imagine the intensity of a close-up with a shallow depth of field.

The background blurs into obscurity, pulling the viewer’s eye to the subject’s subtle expressions.

In contrast, a wide-angle shot that captures both the subject and their environment in sharp detail can elicit feelings of awe or isolation.

Different genres leverage focal length uniquely.

In a thriller like Jaws, the use of varying focal lengths builds tension and fear.

Documentaries, But, may prefer longer focal lengths to maintain a sense of realism and detachment.

The relationship between subject and camera is at the heart of focal length’s influence.

It isn’t just a technical choice; it’s a storytelling one.

Our intention as filmmakers guides our selection, whether we’re aiming to establish context, direct attention, or evoke a particular mood.

As we continue to explore focal length, we’ll find it to be an indispensable element in the visual language of film.

Understanding Magnification And Perspective

When we think about focal length, it’s crucial to jump into how it relates to magnification.

Magnification refers to how large subjects appear in the frame – a direct product of the focal length of the lens.

With longer lenses, we see a narrower field of view, which results in a larger appearance of our subjects.

Conversely, shorter focal lengths give us a wider field of view and make subjects appear smaller.

Perspective, on the other hand, is how different objects in the scene appear in relation to each other.

It’s about the spatial relationship between objects within the frame, which can greatly impact storytelling.

For instance, Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo employs zoom lenses to shift perspective dramatically, which is now famously known as the dolly zoom effect.

It’s a powerful tool that changes the audience’s perception of space within the scene.

Our choice of focal length can alter the character and depth of the scene:

  • Wide-angle lenses accentuate the distance between foreground and background, making the space seem larger.
  • Telephoto lenses flatten the scene, bringing distant objects visually closer to the foreground.

Understanding these nuances helps us achieve the desired emotional response or narrative emphasis in our films.

Manipulating magnification and perspective allows us to guide the audience’s focus and draw them deeper into the story we’re crafting.

The Relationship Between Focal Length And Field Of View

Understanding how focal length interacts with the field of view is essential for mastering cinematography.

Field of view or FOV refers to the extent of the observable world seen at any given moment through the camera lens.

With a longer focal length, we witness a narrower field of view.

This makes distant subjects more prominent and is often used to focus on specific details or compress spatial relationships in a scene.

Conversely, shorter focal lengths give us a wider field of view.

This can drastically expand the visual space within the frame, bringing more of the scene into view without having to move the camera back.

It’s beneficial for:

  • Capturing expansive landscapes,
  • Showcasing interiors,
  • Shooting in tight spaces.

By modifying the focal length, we adjust our FOV which in turn influences the audience’s relationship with the scene.

The right focal length can make a setting feel intimate and claustrophobic or vast and boundless.

Films often Use a variety of focal lengths to craft visual narratives that align with the storytelling needs.

In Lawrence of Arabia, sweeping desert scenes are portrayed using a wide-angle lens to capture the vastness of the landscape, whereas in Gladiator, tight shots with longer lenses bring viewers closer to the intense emotional experiences of the characters.

Our understanding of space and how we frame our subjects within it are directly impacted by our choice of focal length.

Balancing the focal length with the intended field of view ensures that every shot conveys the right visual significance without the need for additional dialogue or explanation.

Choosing The Right Focal Length For Different Types Of Filmmaking

When planning a shoot, we’re often faced with the challenge of choosing the right focal length for our film’s intended effect and narrative purpose.

It’s a decision that holds significant creative power.

We consider wide-angle lenses – typically less than 35mm – ideal for scenes that need to communicate openness or establish the scale of a setting.

These lenses allow us to capture extensive landscapes and give viewers a sense of inclusion in the environment.

Conversely, when we want to focus on a subject or create a sense of intimacy, mid-range focal lengths – such as the 50mm, commonly known as the ‘nifty fifty’ – are our go-to.

They offer a natural perspective similar to the human eye and are great for general use.

For capturing tight shots from a distance or when we aim to highlight a subject while separating it from the background, we opt for telephoto lenses.

With focal lengths upwards of 70mm, these lenses can magnify details and provide a shallow depth of field.

In genres like:

  • Horror – long focal lengths can create tension by bringing viewers uncomfortably close to a subject.
  • Documentary – mid-range to short focal lengths are often used to present a more authentic, ‘real-life’ perspective.

Action sequences sometimes Use a mix of focal lengths – wide to establish the scene and tight to capture the intensity of the moment.

This combination can propel a film’s dynamic storytelling.


Our choice in focal length also dictates how we manage the space within a frame.

It’s crucial for defining how characters relate to each other and their environment which in turn, influences the audience’s emotional connection to the story.

Crafting a memorable visual style hinges on our adept selectivity with focal lengths.

Each focal length can serve as a storyteller’s brush, painting emotions within the canvas of cinema.

What Is Focal Length – Wrap Up

We’ve explored the intricate dance between focal length, perspective, and storytelling.

It’s clear that the lens we choose is much more than a piece of technology—it’s a storyteller’s brush that paints emotions onto the canvas of cinema.

Whether we’re creating a feeling of intimacy with a short focal length or capturing the tension of a thriller with a long lens, our artistic vision is intrinsically linked to this crucial decision.

Let’s embrace the power of focal length to transform our visual stories and connect with our audience on a deeper level.

Frequently Asked Questions

What Is Focal Length In Photography?

Focal length is the distance between the lens and the image sensor when the lens is focused on a subject.

It affects the lens’s angle of view and how the image is composed.

How Does Focal Length Affect A Photo Or Video?

Focal length influences perspective, depth of field, and distortion.

Wide-angle lenses exaggerate depth, while telephoto lenses compress space, affecting the visual style and emotional tone of the shot.

What’s The Difference Between Prime And Zoom Lenses?

Prime lenses have a fixed focal length, known for sharpness and wider maximum apertures.

Zoom lenses have variable focal lengths, providing versatility to change composition without physically moving.

How Does Focal Length Contribute To Storytelling In Film?

Focal length is a storytelling tool that manipulates magnification and perspective.

It can intensify the emotional tone of a scene, as seen in techniques like the dolly zoom effect in Vertigo.

Can The Choice Of Focal Length Affect The Audience’s Emotional Response?

Yes, the choice of focal length can significantly influence the audience’s emotional response, creating intimacy or expansiveness and shaping the narrative emphasis within a scene.

What Role Does Focal Length Play In Genre-specific Filmmaking?

Different genres leverage focal length to enhance their storytelling.

For example, horror films may use long focal lengths for tension, while documentaries may prefer shorter focal lengths for a realistic perspective.

Why Is Understanding Field Of View Important In Selecting A Focal Length?

Understanding field of view is important because it determines how much of the scene is visible.

Longer focal lengths yield a narrower field of view, while shorter focal lengths allow for a wider view.

How Does Focal Length Manage Space Within A Frame?

Focal length controls the perception of space, making it a crucial factor in framing a scene.

It can make a space feel more confined or open, thereby influencing the viewer’s spatial experience.