Thinking Photography – On Focal Length
This article first appeared in Black & White Photography Magazine Issue 206, September 2017
Each prime focal length carries with it a unique metaphysical world view that the viewer absorbs subconsciously. For the purposes of this article I hope you will allow me the conceit of reducing the wide variety of primes to just four; 28mm, 35mm, 50mm and 90mm being as they are very commonly used and have been since the inception of 35mm film. By the way please take it that in all cases I am basing this on a full frame sensor.
The angle of view in any particular photograph may not be consciously remarked upon by the view but, at some level, it is taken into account as the mind appraises an image. From the wide splayed distortion to the compacting effect of telephoto the field of view is an important element in the story of each still image.
In order to illustrate this text (alongside my own examples) I have listed a couple of Google search terms; a photographer and an artist. The photographer is self explanatory and many will be familiar with my selections but I thought I’d add an artist who’s work seems to embody one field of view or another. Whilst this is fanciful at best I think it is illustrative of the hidden, or perhaps explicit, intention of a photographer or artist adopting a certain ‘optic’ in their work.
Gary Winogrand was the king of the 28mm lens. I have, until recently, struggled with this focal length, being much more comfortable with the 35mm or 50mm view point. Everything seems so far away at 28mm and, as a relatively tall photographer, at 6ft I am often looking down on my subject which blows out the perspective lines, indeed 50’s or 35’s are much easier from this perspective. But the truth is the 28mm field of view (FOV) is a gem – its strength is that it describes relationships between things in a way that no other FOV can. For landscape use it is a teller of big stories but where it becomes really interesting is when working close because it can be used to include so many various elements and capture the unseen links between the animate and inanimate – in other words it is the true story telling lens. Take a look at Winogrand’s work and you will see how he manages to establish connections between elements that are seemingly independent. The 28mm makes us confront the reality that everything on Earth is connected.
An artist who’s work resembles a 28mm lens – LS LOWRY “Going To The Match”
Photographer who exemplified a 28mm – Gary Winogrand
Why is the 35mm lens the favourite of so many photographers? I believe it is because it allows for a sense of intimacy between the photographer and his or her subject. It isn’t just because it is the ‘Goldilocks’ FOV (not too near nor too far) but it allows for something like the natural view of the human eye. The real FOV of the eye is equivalent to something like 22mm but that doesn’t take in to account the mind’s role in vision which through attention can narrow our FOV to a pin head so a reasonable estimation would be that, as we are casually observing the world our FOV would lie somewhere between 28mm and 40mm. A 35mm lens allows for that odd effect of being close to a subject but retaining it in our normal purview at the same time. The effect of this lens is ‘touchable’, i.e. we feel we are in touch with the subject in a human sense, and whilst it may not be the best lens for portraiture (for some) it is the most ‘human’ of focal lengths and this may explain its popularity amongst documentary photographers.
An artist who’s work resembles a 35mm lens – William Hogarth – ‘’Beer Street and Gin Lane’’
Photographer who exemplified a 35mm – Bruce Davidson
The ‘Standard Lens’ is how we came to know the 50mm. It was/is the lens bundled with a body and when I got my first Nikon FG20 it seemed natural that it should come with a 50mm although
I’m not sure why. Cartier Bresson claimed only to use the 50mm (this has been questioned) because of its natural properties. It is said of the 50mm that is it is not too wide and not to close and that makes it the contender for best all round lens. I think of the 50mm as having a ‘graphic’ quality. It flattens slightly (because of its mild telephoto effect) and it can be used to render an image into shapes and tones. If you think of many of Cartier Bresson’s images they are characterised by a marriage of subject matter and structure. The 50mm is ideal for this and implies a certain imposition of composition on the part of the photographer – a well composed 50mm shot is not often accidental – a presence of mind and intention often reveal themselves in the resulting images.
An artist who’s work resembles the view of a 50mm lens – Vincent Van Gogh – ‘The Siesta – 1889-90’
Photographer who exemplified a 50mm – Henri Cartier Bresson
A 90mm lens is expressive and flattering and, where the 50mm implies some imposition of structure the 90mm is all about composition. The 90mm lens is like a compositional paint brush – it is all about intention, heightened awareness and concentration. It is the least naturally improvisational of the lenses in discussion. In addition the narrowness of view compels the photographer and the viewer to eschew a larger part of the surrounding ‘world’ and therefore it is an ‘editing’ tool. Once you are in the realm of the 90mm telephoto you are shining a spotlight rather that floodlighting your subject and its surrounding environment.
An artist who’s work resembles a 90mm lens – Piet Mondrian ‘L’Arbre Gris, Huile Sur Toile,’
Photographer who exemplified a telephoto lens (amongst others) – Don McCullin
As with any ‘thought piece’ the intention is just that – to provide some kind of perspective on a subject rather than to be definitive. You will no doubt want to take issue with the examples I’ve given. As the scope of words and the way a poet forges them together forms a poem, it is my contention that the field of view of a lens provides a conscious foundation for a kind of visual poetry on to which a photographer ‘paints’ his subject.