During my travel photography workshops I get asked very frequently about the focal length and its relationship with the human eye. So let me go straight to the point
In practical terms, the focal length of a lens determines its magnification power, so a longer focal length will magnify the subject more compared with a shorter focal length at the same distance from the subject.
This is true for travel photography as well as other kinds of photography.
Focal length also governs the angle-of-view of the lens, in other words, how much of the scene will be recorded. The two values are inversely proportional, so as focal length increases the angle-of-view narrows and vice versa.
Let me give you a few quick examples:
Of course, in any trip, I would love to have lenses to cover a focal length from 8mm to 600mm. Reality is that we can’t transport lenses for such a wide interval. Too unpractical.
All of the focal lengths above are for lenses mounted on a “full-frame” 35mm sensor.
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As you can imagine there is no best focal length in travel photography. My suggested range goes from 18-24mm to 105-120mm.
Let me introduce a few concepts and explain why this is the range that works best
I looked back to the many thousands of photos I took in the last 3 years and the several trips I had.
Based on my experience, an 18 or 24mm is enough of a wide angle to capture the best landscape photography.
Having a zoom capability of 105 or even 120mm is enough for 95% of travel photography. A higher zoom may help in a very small percentage of cases.
Although I have a 70-200m and a wide angle, I almost never used them.
A wide angle is essential in night photography (more on this later)
You may have noticed that when I mentioned the human eye I talked about the angle of view and not the focal length. These are two different things.
I did a bit of research on this subject as I was very interested to understand the difference between our eye and our camera lens.
I found different theories and assumptions which generated slightly different numbers, although quite similar.
These are 2 interesting documents that you may want to read or skip, if just interested in the conclusions:
The interesting thing, however, is that even if we have two “very wide-angle” eyes (160 degrees in total) our vision is not determined by it.
Because the retina (camera sensor) is able to “process” clearly only a part of what we see. This part is called “cone of visual attention”.
The remaining part appears slightly out of focus. We see clearly the shape but not the details. This part is called “peripheral vision”
The “cone of visual attention” has an angle of view comparable to a 43mm lens on a full frame sensor.
Why using wide-angle lenses in our travel photography?
Because it is one of the most effective ways to inject some extra creativity into your shots. They’re perhaps most commonly used to capture eye-catching landscapes.
If you own an APS-C camera and only have a kit lens, you can zoom out to 18mm, which is the equivalent of around 24mm on a full-frame camera.
This will enable you to include some of the foreground that is near to the camera, giving your landscape images a feeling of depth and helping to anchor the eye.
If you want to produce really wide-angle shots, you’ll need to invest in a lens with a shorter focal length. Ideally, this will be as wide as 10mm. This extra width allows you to get lots of foreground interest in your images.
Extreme wide-angle lenses are not only used for landscapes. They’re popular with extreme sports photographers as the huge angle-of-view captures all the action, and they’re great for quirky portraits of pets, children and even bands.
They are also a must for shooting in enclosed spaces like inside buildings, where photographers cannot get far enough back to get everything they want in the frame. Think of temples and cathedrals.
I quite like the wide-angle lenses in my city photography trips. It allows me to include such a wider space than I could otherwise and it gives a great sense of action.
In the photo above the wide angle lens (Sigma 12-24mm at 12mm) was used to capture the beautiful beach at the 12 apostles, including, however, the dry foreground.
The wide-angle lens is also a must if you plan to do some star photography.
Start with the 500-rule and move from there to capture a star trail.
By definition, prime lenses have no zoom but rather a fixed focal length, so in many ways, they’re less versatile and less convenient than zoom lenses.
Primes tend to be more compact and lightweight compared to zooms, and are often cheaper, but most significantly they usually have a larger maximum aperture (f/1.2 to f/2.8) for getting blurrier backgrounds.
You can buy a prime lens from around AUD100 and you’ll find it will offer you better image quality than your kit lens.
If you’re shooting on an APS-C camera, a 35-50mm prime is perfect for portraits (50-85mm on full-frame cameras).
To get the most out of your prime lens, shoot with a large aperture to keep the background out-of-focus. This is especially useful when shooting portraits, as the shallow depth-of-field helps your subject stand out.
The 50mm lens is still one of my favourite for landscape. It is also a good training lens. Being prime you always need to move and find the right spot, no space for zooming.
Sometimes it is hard to find the right location, as in this photo of Southern Cross Station in Melbourne, Australia, but hey that’s part of the photography fun
Nowadays, my favourite prime lens is a 35mm f/2.8 (Sony E-Mount). It’s the perfect companion in that dark markets, so sharp. All I need for my travel photography in closed environments.
The combination of shutter speed and focal length will limit your ability to attain a sharp picture when shooting with a handheld camera.
A useful rule of thumb to the slowest ‘still-safe’ shutter speed to use is to take the reciprocal of the focal length of the lens with a full-frame camera.
For example, with a 50mm lens set the shutter speed to 1/60sec or faster; with an APS-C format camera multiply the focal length by 1.5x first and then take the reciprocal.
However, one way to break this rule and shoot at slower shutter speeds is to use IS (image stabilisation) if your lenses, or camera, have the feature.
Image stabilisation works by moving optics within the lens, or the camera, to counteract any movement when it’s detected.
Many lens manufacturers suggest that you can shoot at around 3 stops below the recommended focal length of the lens when image stabilisation is activated.
I tested the latest Panasonic and Sony cameras and I was able to shoot around 5 stops below (thanks to a combination of body and less stabilization)
Read more tips for a sharp landscape. It will definitely help to improve any future photos
A tripod was definitely needed for this photo, at f/9 and shutter speed of 0.6sec! Alternative solutions are either a lower aperture value, down to F/2.8 and more, or a higher ISO, however, it would have been a compromise on the background details, not as sharp as with f/9 and ISO 100
In travel photography, I personally suggest buying an all round to cover the following focal length range:
The best tip I can give you is to budget the same amount for your camera as well as for the all-round lens. The lens quality is very important.
As a second lens, I would buy a 35-50mm prime.
My last nice to have is a wide lens for astrophotography.
I update on a regular basis a guide of the best lenses for travel photography, based on the camera model. It will give all you need for your final decision.
Stef Ferro is the founder and editor of MEL365, a travel & photography website made to enhance the travelling experience and improve the photography work.
Stef is a professional travel photographer with past experience in the cycling and film industry.
Stef runs travel photography workshops in Melbourne and around the world.