Choosing which lens to use


These Aztec dancers were photographed with a 180mm lens at f2.8 on a film camera. The equivalent focal length on a digital SLR without a full frame sensor would be 180 divided by 1.6 = 112 mm . What you see is the full frame. If needed, the picture could have been cropped to exclude their feet. So a telephoto of about 100 mm, if you can step back far enough, is a good choice for group shots of 5 people.

How do you choose which lens to use?

If lighting is not an issue, the answer to that question depends on your subject.

Since I do mostly portraits, the 50 mm f1.4 is on my camera most.

I start there but will switch lenses to the 100 mm 2.8 macro and even the 80-200 f2.8 zoom. Since I light most of my portraits, I can get away with hand-holding that old lens which doesn’t have image stabilization.

50 mm lens

50mmThe 50 mm is small, light and a fast 1.4. That’s why I like using it.

With my Canon 40D and its 1.6x magnification factor, it’s a 80 mm.

My thinking is this: the bigger I make the subject, the quicker the picture reads (the viewers of my picture can tell what my subject is faster).

I know this is highly simplistic, but it’s very direct and  effective.

Far too often photographers provide too much “visual information” than what’s needed in a picture.

In extreme cases,  the result:  their subjects merge or blend into their surroundings.

It becomes like the book “Where is Waldo ?”

I’m sure you’ve all seen the fold out chart from lens manufacturers that show the field of view of lenses ranging from fish eye to super telephotos.

I did my share of fantasizing when I was a beginner. That chart was on my wall and I dreamed of owning the whole arsenal, didn’t you?

So rather than go that route, let’s think “real world.”

We’re going to take a group shot.

This happens to be my least favorite picture to take, by the way.

More often than not, everyone in the picture has a limited attention span.

I don’t blame them. I don’t enjoy being in a large group picture either especially if the photographer keeps saying, ”One more, one more.” Sound familiar?

So do I reach for my wide angle automatically? Not so fast.

My rule-of-thumb is to shoot with the longest focal length lens I can get away with for any subject.

I like to fill the frame with my subjects.

I reach for my 50 mm or even my 80-200 zoom lens if there’s plenty of room. But for anything larger than 5 people, then it’s going to take quite a bit of doing with those lens choices.

Using a slightly longer focal length allows me to get tight on the group. There are less issues with distracting backgrounds since the telephoto makes your canvas smaller.

The tough part of using a telephoto, especially when the light levels are low, is camera shake.

So step back and try a telephoto lens if the light levels allow that.

Remember that you do not need to show the feet. Unless it’s an ad for Nike, that’s a lot wasted space including the feet of your subjects. If it’s truly a footwear ad, then my subjects’ faces might not even be in the picture!

Wide angle lenses


Using 4 of my students for this group shot, I used my wide angle zoom set to about 18 mm. They appear way too small, so I have to move in closer to fill the frame.


After moving closer, notice how much bigger they are now? The trouble is the background is now very cluttered.


Keeping the same distance from the group as in the picture above, watch how the picture is improved by me elevating my short 5′ 5″ frame by standing on a chair. It’s nice to be tall folks, you can always practice your crouching tiger stance. Not so when you’re short. I’m forever looking around for things to stand on. Notice how the seam or imaginary line where the wall and ground meet converges and seem to draw your eyes from one face to the other on left side of the picture?

wide_zoomIn traditional film photography, any focal length shorter than 50mm, the normal field of view for the human eye,  is considered a wide angle.

Using a wide angle lens well requires a lot more conscious thought and careful scrutiny of the scene.

By its very nature, the lens brings in so much more of the scene.

First time users of wide angle lenses tend to put that lens on, like what they see because it is so different from the human eye’s “normal” field of view.

They like how it takes in more, so they start shooting right away without so much as realizing their subject is now much smaller.

To compensate for that reduction in size of their subjects, they need to step closer to their subject, try to fill the frame, yet be aware of the distortion of objects especially at the edges.

7 thoughts on “Choosing which lens to use”

  1. Do not limit yourself. Many people restrict themselves to what they believe they can do. Keep in mind that you can go as far as your mind lets you.

  2. Jo,
    Good thing we’re not in India! I’m actually learning something through my interaction with folks who leave a comment.

    What good is keeping it what I know in photography to myself? I can’t take it with me.

    Reminds me of those kung fu flicks where the master always keeps one particularly lethal move, say the “no-shadow kick“ to himself.

    This is just in case, the students comes back one day to challenge him. Can you tell I’ve watched my share of badly subtitled kungfu movies?

    So what does that have to do with teaching/learning? If every teacher held something back, eventually something will be lost and as the knowledge will, over time, be diluted.

    But I digress. The internet is wonderful if you want to learn and collaborate. There’s also a lot of creepy stuff, I know, but we won’t go there.

  3. Hi Peter,

    You got the Hindi word right, but not the culture. In India, the Guru never thanks the disciple!


  4. Jo,
    I’m very touched and tickled that I even have an audience. That there are folks like you from different parts of the world who read and take the time to leave me such nice comments absolutely makes my day. I’m grinning. Too bad you can’t see.

    When I started this blog, it was mostly as an exercise to learn the WordPress interface. A year and a half later, I still don’t quite know where it’s headed but I hope to keep it “real,” unpretentious and hopefully relevant to photography.


    I hope that word is correct. For all I know, Wikipedia might have just told me how to say something vile in Hindi.

  5. Dear Pixel Pete,

    I love your blog. I love your generous and funny personality, which shines through in every one of your posts. I have learned a lot reading what you write and studying your photos. Thanks so much!


  6. Hello Ken. Thanks for stopping by. I didn’t realize my title was so misleading. But that’s the beauty of a blog. You get to spank me for not being more accurate and precise.

    When you mention “the use of the zoom,” what exactly would you like to know? And which zoom are you referring to?

    I’ll need a little more info if you don’t mind before I can help. In case you are very new to this, not all zoom lenses are created equal.

    Those kit lenses you get when you buy the prosumer digital SLRs all have variable f-stops. Most professional grade ones are constant aperture throughout the range of the lens, tend to be faster and naturally cost more.

    Let me know what exactly you are wondering about with regards to zooms. I’ll see if I can answer them here. If it’s something that needs pictures to illustrate, I’ll edit the post. Thanks Ken

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