Farmhouse Discussion: Focal Length Matters

Over on Clubhouse, we’ve started embracing the Club feature with our own little club called Farmhouse. We plan to host regular rooms in there for industry chats. Everyone is welcome and you can join in or chose to simply listen. As Clubhouse is still iPhone only, I know that Android users are getting frustrated with not being able to access this kind of useful content. So I figure that I will try to bring some of the tips across to our blog as well.

Neil Thomas Douglas and I are hosting a regular room that focuses on technique – Shoot The Sh*t. We will be choosing a weekly topic and kicked off with FOCAL LENGTH MATTERS. Could we chat for an hour on just focal lengths? It turns out that we could. Our aim was to open up photographers’ minds to being intentional with their lens choices, to educate them on the attributes of different focal lengths.

To illustrate this, we posted these two shots that Neil produced at a recent elopement in Scotland.

Shot on 35mm
Shot on 85mm

35mm vs. 85mm

Neil shot the 35mm image first and then moved back until he could fit in the entire peak and shot with an 85mm. Same scene but very different results. Neither image is right or wrong but they do beautifully illustrate the difference your choice of focal length can make. The 85mm is creating a more compressed version of the scene, with more impact from the landscape whereas the 35mm image brings you closer to the subjects. The 85mm feels more distant and the 35mm feels more involved. You could say that the lens choice is down to if you wish to prioritise the setting or the subjects.

35mm and 85mm is a popular combination with wedding photographers. Each lens sits on either side of a standard lens – the 50mm. We consider the 50mm to be the closest lens to human vision. It has the least amount of distortion so 35 is slightly wide of that and 85 is slightly narrower, so it’s not surprising that the two lenses work well in unison. 

If I could take only one lens on a job though, it would most likely be the 50mm. Indeed many of the editorials that I’ve shot are entirely produced on a 50mm lens. I shoot a lot in portrait, that’s simply a better fit for magazine pages, and for me, the 50mm works well on almost every job. It’s also the one lens that I often take to an engagement shoot on its own. I like the challenge of restriction and the consistent look that you get to a set of images if they are all produced on the same focal length. 50mm lenses are always of great value in terms of cost. If you are just starting out in photography or changing to a new system, I would recommend getting a 50mm as soon as you can and then challenge yourself to master it. It’s also fantastic if you want to move from zooms to primes. 50mms are like the gateway drug to primes. Neil pointed out that Alfred Hitchcock created his visual signature by using 50mm lenses. He was a perfectionist who wanted his films to have a reality whilst depicting frightening scenarios. He had the sets built especially to fit within the 50mm field of view. 


Next time you are watching a movie, try to figure out which lenses are likely to be in play. Many filmmakers from Speilberg to The Coen Brothers prefer wide focal lengths, while Ridley Scott favours long lenses including 75mm. Think about why they are making these choices and what it means for the way a scene comes across. Different focal lengths provoke different emotional reactions to what is on screen.

Of course, 35, 50, and 85 are not the only choices in focal length. Going wider, we have 24mm and 28mm – the 28mm is what many phone cameras are equivalent to, people are used to seeing themselves at this focal length as we all take more photos on our phones now. So if 24mm is too extreme for you in wedding work then consider a 28mm if it’s available for your brand. They can be great fun with dancefloor shots or really help you out when shooting in a tight space, like smaller ceremony rooms, and for when you are forced to shoot large groups indoors.

Next up from 85mm is usually the 135mm, I have one of these in my kit for weddings. Inevitably I will bust it out for candids and speeches but also it can be really useful for ceremonies when you can’t position yourself too close to the action and I’ve even shot some first dance images with mine. I like how I can isolate a couple within the scene and eradicate the distractions from a busy part of the day. Mine is only slightly bigger in size than my 85 but can bring you in a heck of a lot making it a valuable addition for weddings. As well as compressing the background, these longer lenses have very pretty bokeh, so they are popular for portraits. I shoot beauty work on my 85mm as it is such a flattering focal length.


Of course, there are plenty of other lenses out there and many more focal lengths but we’d still be on that Clubhouse chat if I was aiming to cover every single one. We have though, considered a good range of fixed lenses. Let’s not forget about zooms – I have a 24-70mm that I will use at most weddings. It’s great for family groups as I can rapidly achieve a full-length and then a mid-crop of any group without having to change positions or lenses. Often, I will pack away the rest of my kit and reduce it down to one body with my 24-70 towards the end of a wedding. It’s great for shooting dancefloors but also for grabbing shots of guests in more informal groups and pairs. Some wedding photographers are all zoom and if you add a 70-200mm onto that 24-70 then you are looking at having every single focal length from 24mm-200mm at your disposal. However, for me, zooms don’t have the same magic as primes. 

Next time that you are shooting, really think about your choices with lenses, what intention do you have, what are you hoping to convey? Choosing the focal length isn’t just about aesthetics, it’s about mood, emotion, relationships between subjects, and between foreground and background. It’s also about the physicality of shooting. Weddings can be a long day and so every lens in your bag needs a reason to be there, otherwise, you are just carrying weight for nothing.

Make sure that you are following Photography Farm (@photographyfarm) over on Clubhouse to take part in these.