Focal Lengths 101: What Effect a Quick Lens Change Has On a Photo with the Eiffel Tower
I spend a lot of time talking to new photographers about things like when to use wide angle vs. telephoto lenses. But the differences between them can get hard to describe out loud. How do you explain to someone what “compressing the field of view” or “making things seem further away from each other” actually looks like in real life?
Even if you have a zoom lens—or multiple prime lenses—you might not be used to thinking of focal lengths in this way. It certainly took me quite a while to get used to.
I discovered something recently: the Eiffel Tower is a great tool for demonstrating the visual difference that changing focal lengths can make.
We all know what it looks like. Even if you’ve never been to Paris, you’ve probably seen about 5 million pictures with the Eiffel Tower in the background (give or take).
Here’s the thing: the Eiffel Tower is tall. Like, really tall. Especially by Paris standards, where skyscrapers are mostly not a thing. Your iPhone can get the whole tower in one shot pretty easily since its lens is a wide angle (the equivalent of about 26-28mm) but your camera? Well, that depends what lens you’ve got on there. You might only get a piece of it. And not just because you’re zooming in to get a close-up.
I’ve been using a pair of photos from a past portrait shoot at the Eiffel Tower to demonstrate this difference to my friends—and to my mom, who has been learning how to use a Nikon DSLR of her own recently.
Here’s what I’ve been using to demonstrate what choosing a wide angle vs. telephoto lens will do for your photos:
Shot at a 35mm focal length with my Nikkor 35mm f/1.8 G prime lens (pictured above). The wider angle makes the tower look further away from her, and you can see the whole tower!
Shot at a 70mm focal length with my Nikkor 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 G zoom lens (pictured above). The longer focal length makes the tower look much bigger and closer to her.
This is the same woman, on the same day, on the same bridge.
See what I’m talking about? The composition is similar: she takes up about the same amount of the frame in both photos. But in the picture on the right, the Eiffel Tower looks so much closer to her!
And that’s because I switched lenses between shots.
Now, I did move my feet between shots, because otherwise I would have also seemed much closer to her in that shot on the right.
But she didn’t move any closer to the Eiffel Tower. That’s all in the lens, baby.