get better photos by understanding focal length


Why do some photographs we take look like snapshots, while others look like portraits? What makes professional photos look so much better than the pictures we take in the back yard? Well, there are actually a whole lot of things that go into making a great photo so good – often years of training and practice are involved. HOWEVER, there are a few easy tricks you can use to dramatically improve your photos – without cracking open a camera manual or taking your camera off Auto, and I’m here to share one with you today.

In the photos above, there’s a pretty dramatic difference between the top photo, which is definitely a snapshot, and the bottom photo, which is more of a portrait. Both photos are unedited and were taken on Auto in the exact same conditions, just a few minutes apart. There’s only one difference between them, and it’s focal length.

Focal length is the distance between your camera’s lens and the spot it’s focusing on. Basically, it refers to whether you are zoomed in or zoomed out, and it’s measured in millimeters. A low number (like 18mm) means you are probably standing very close to your subject and you’ve had to zoom out in order to get a lot of background in the photo. A high number (like 200 or 300mm) means you are using a zoom lens and you’ve zoomed in to get a photo of a subject that is further away from you.

Most of us don’t pay much attention to focal length when we’re taking pictures – we just zoom in or zoom out according to how close we happen to be to the person or object we want to photograph. But focal length can make a huge difference in the quality of your photo, and for portraits, longer focal length is almost always better. Let’s look at some example photos that will show us why.

The photo above was taken with an 18mm focal length, or completely zoomed out. You really never want to take portaits at this focal length because it causes distortion of facial features. Noses and foreheads look bigger while eyes look a little smaller. At the same time there’s a huge amount of background visible in the photo – this might be nice if you’re trying to photograph someone in front of the Eiffel Tower, but it’s not so great when taking pictures of your kids in the front yard. That’s because short focal lengths are also know as wide angles – imagine lines from you to each side of the photograph (frame). Right now the angle in between those lines is pretty big, meaning we can see the front of the house to the right of our subject as well as houses and driveways on the left of the subject, all the way across the street.

When we take a step back away from the subject and zoom in just a bit, to 31mm, the angle of what’s in the frame gets a little narrower, meaning less of the background is visible from left to right (the car in the driveway across the street is no longer in the frame). Also, the facial distortion is mostly resolved, meaning the features look more like they do in real life.

As we continue to step back and zoom in, less and less of the background is visible. The photo above was taken at 70mm, and now all we can see behind our subject is the house he’s standing in front of – we can’t see the house to the right of him or the street to the left of him. Fewer distractions in the background make for a better portrait, and the narrower angle is starting to flatter his features.

This next photo (above) was taken at 95mm, and something cool is beginning to happen – not only is the background shrinking, it’s also getting less and less in focus. Extreme background blur, also known as bokeh, puts all the focus of the photo on your subject. You can cause background blur by manipulating your camera’s aperture, but then you’d have to take it off of auto and figure out what to do with it :) so using a longer focal length is a much simpler way to get bokeh.

The next photo (above) was taken at 135mm. The background continues to shrink from side to side – now only the tree is visible instead of the entire house, and the background gets even more out of focus, so the picture is really starting to look like a portrait now.

The final photo was taken at 200mm, and you can see that the background blur has become really beautiful. It’s definitely the most flattering of all the photos. Here’s all the photos together so you can compare them.

A few more things to note:

1. Most dSLRs come with a standard “kit” lens that goes from about 24mm to 70mm (give or take). That means you won’t be able to zoom in all the way to 200mm with a kit lens. However, standing far enough away from your subject so you can zoom in as much as you can will still result in a much more flattering photo than standing close to your subject and zooming out to take the picture.

2. Many dSLRs also come with a zoom lens that goes from 18-200mm (like mine) or perhaps from 30-300mm (and they aren’t that expensive if you do have to purchase one separately). Don’t leave that lens in the camera bag until you need the zoom to get pictures at the soccer game – pull it out and use it for everyday photos. Just remember to take a few steps back so you can zoom in.

3. Obviously it’s not always practical to be far enough away from your subject that you can zoom to 200mm for a portrait. With younger kids you’ll need to be close enough to keep their attention on you, so 50mm might be as long as you can manage. But with older kids or adults you can be far enough away to zoom in and still close enough to talk with them – and adults (especially) will appreciate the more flattering effect of a long focal length.

4. Using a long focal length allows you to take portraits even when you don’t have a nice “background.” The photo below shows what one part of my front yard looks like – just fine for a yard, but not very pretty as a photo background.

The top photo below shows what a picture taken at a normal focal length looks like in this setting. Lots of distracting background.

But the bottom photo shows what happens when I step back and zoom in – suddenly the pretty bush in my neighbor’s yard that’s directly behind my subject makes up most of the background AND the background is out of focus, which keeps the emphasis on the subject.

So long story short: long focal length = win win. Give it a try!

Linking to some of these great parties:

Monday: Skip to My Lou | Brassy Apple | Craft-o-Maniac

Tuesday: Tip Junkie | Ladybug Blessings | Sugar Bee Crafts | The Blackberry Vine | Hope Studios | Funky Polkadot Giraffe | Not JUST a Housewife | Homework Today’s Assignment: Be Inspired | Shwin and Shwin

Wednesday: Handy Man, Crafty Woman | Southern Lovely | Sew Much Ado | SNAP | Someday Crafts | The NY Melrose Family | Printabelle

Thursday: Somewhat Simple | House of Hepworths | Momnivore’s Dilemma | The Shabby Creek Cottage | Yesterday on Tuesday | Fireflies and Jellybeans | The Taylor House

Friday: Chic on a Shoestring Decorating | The Shabby Nest | Stuff and Nonsense | Naptime Crafters | It’s a Hodgepodge Life | At The Picket Fence | 504 Main | Blissful Bucket List

Weekend: Tatertots and Jello

Comments

  1. 1

    Sandy Davis says

    What great tips and they do make a huge difference. I never use my second lens unless I am at my Grandsons football games (like you said). So I will definatley be trying your tips!

  2. 2

    Christine @ Projects Around The House says

    Thanks for sharing this post! I need to give this a try with my camera. It’s amazing the difference in the pictures.

  3. 4

    Being Inspired says

    Great tips!! I love photography tips that I can use on auto! Someday I’ll learn how to use my camera properly but for now this is the kind of info I need. :)

  4. 5

    Meghan Carver says

    Thank you so much for this helpful tip! Portraits have become so expensive that I’m trying to take my own children’s pictures. I’ve learned a lot through trial and error, but this tip will help a lot. (Hopping over from Southern Lovely.)

  5. 6

    Stacia@feathersandsunshine says

    THANKS A MILLION!!! I’m pinning this and will be putting to it use very soon. Like today!
    Stacia

  6. 9

    Lowri says

    Great tips – I am learning still with my camera and it great to get a visual representation for stuff like this!
    I will be looking out for more tips on your blog!

  7. 11

    Jelli says

    This was incredibly helpful! I am just beginning to consider buying a dslr, and knowing how to use it and which lenses to use is really important to me. Do you have any camera recommendations?

  8. 12

    Ami Allison says

    OH MY GOSH!! This is amazing. I’m always so intimidated by DSLR’s. I’ve read a few tips or how to posts and it always reads like greek to me. THIS is so easy to understand. I can’t believe the difference in these photos! This makes me wanna RUN out and by a DSLR right now!!!

  9. 13

    Kelsey @ kai ta hetera says

    This is such a great post. I love all of the examples of different focal lengths. I don’t have much of an eye for photography, and I usually hand the camera to my husband. I have recently noticed, though, that my pictures look better when I’m further away and zoom in; it seems counter-intuitive at first. Your post explains so much!

  10. 15

    melissa@joyinevery season says

    thank you for helping me understand why sometimes I fumble into great pics and other times not so great! I’m so excited to be armed with this knowledge … and i LOVED the real life photo examples :o)

  11. 18

    autumn says

    Certainly! As long as the camera has an actual zoom feature (sometimes called optical zoom, as opposed to digital zoom which just crops the photo) you should see a difference between very zoomed out and very zoomed in. Your camera might not zoom in as far as these examples, so the difference might not be quite as dramatic, but you should be able to see a difference at the zoomed out end.

  12. 19

    Nani says

    Thank you for this great post! I have finally decided it’s time to learn to use my DSLR camera as more than a point-and-shoot. This was a small, simple start that gave huge results. I posted about it, with my pictures, on my blog.

  13. 21

    Zar says

    I read a lot of photography articles. I’ve never commented on any. I’m commenting on yours for the first time because you deserve praise for explaining an incredibly important technical concept in an elegantly simple way. Great job. Really enjoyed the article, content and style.

  14. 23

    says

    Great tips. But I’m wondering if it bugs you that his head gets looking bigger and bigger the more zoomed in you get. His face looks flattering but his head is getting bigger. How would you fix that? I think I’d rather stay at 50 MM and change my aperture setting so the background is blurred.

    • 24

      autumn says

      You’re absolutely right, Annette. His hair certainly gets bigger in the super-zoom photos, and using 50mm will always give you the most true to life photos. I generally change my aperture to blur the background as well. However, zooming in can be a good alternative for folks who don’t know how to change aperture as a way to get blur – and I think the “big head” effect would be less noticeable if not compared side-by-side with the other photos. Thanks for mentioning this, though, so people can decide which way they want to do it!

  15. 28

    Pam says

    Awesome information! I am very interested in making changes for better pictures! This info was so easy to follow! Thanks

  16. 29

    says

    Thanks so much for this post! I’ve had my DSLR for a while, but I never realized this – I couldn’t figure out why some portraits I took were gorgeous, while others could have been taken with my cell phone for all anyone could tell.

Trackbacks

  1. […] To get this photo: Switch your camera to AV mode and set the aperture to the lowest number it will go to (if you have a 50mm 1.8 lens, use it now!). Place your subject about 5 feet or more in front of the lit tree – the more distance between the person and the tree, the bigger the blur will be. Also, if you can back up and zoom in with your lens, you’ll get even more blur. Take the photo, being sure you’re focusing on your subject, not the tree. Have your subject hold an ornament out away from his body and focus on it for another cute variation. (If you really don’t want to mess with changing the aperture, you can try using portrait mode and putting as much space between the tree and subject as possible. Or, if the room your tree is in is large, you can zoom in to get bokeh as described in this post.) […]

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