Understanding focal length in photography

Here's all you need to know about focal length, the difference between wide-angle and telephoto lenses, and how to get even more reach from your lenses.

Using the right lens is arguably the most critical part of your photographic setup. It's the optical quality of the lens, not the camera's resolution, that determines how sharp your images are. It's the lens that governs how much of the scene you're shooting is in focus, because it's primarily the lens aperture that dictates the depth of field. Crucially, it is also the lens's focal length that determines whether you capture a wide vista or a close-up of a distant subject.

Here we'll explain what focal length is and how it determines what part of the scene is captured by the camera, and explore focal length related terms such as prime, zoom and telephoto.

A cutaway diagram of a lens and camera illustrating the lens's focal length and angle of view. A large tree represents an object filling the lens's field of view, and lines are shown from this to the image it forms on the sensor. These converge at the lens's optical centre.

The focal length of a lens is the distance (D) between the plane of the sensor (C) and the optical centre or nodal point (B) of the lens. This determines the lens's angle of view (A).

What is focal length?

In a very simple lens containing just one element, the focal length is the distance in millimetres between the focal plane and the centre of the element when the lens is focused at infinity. In a film camera, the focal plane is the film; in a digital camera, it's the light-receptive surface of the sensor.

Modern lenses are much more complex than a single element, but they still have an optical centre known as the nodal point. That's the spot through which all light rays pass, converging to a point on their way to the sensor. The focal length is the distance between the focal plane and the lens's nodal point.

This partly explains how two lenses can have different dimensions and yet the same focal length – it's the optical centre that matters, not the physical length of the casing. The maximum aperture also has an impact. The Canon RF 50mm F1.8 STM and RF 50mm F1.2L USM, for example, which have the same focal length but different apertures, measure 60.3mm vs. 115.1mm in length respectively (fully extended). Their maximum diameters are 69.2mm for the former, as compared to 89.8mm for the latter.

An image shot at 20mm showing a field of grass and lavender, with a dog in the distance.
An image shot at 50mm showing a field of grass and lavender, with a dog in the distance.
An image shot at 70mm showing a field of grass and lavender, with a dog in the distance.
An image shot at 200mm showing a field of grass and lavender, with a dog in the centre of the shot.
An image shot at 300mm showing a dog surrounded by grass and lavender.
An image shot at 400mm showing a dog surrounded by grass and lavender.

Short focal length

Long focal length

Focal length is crucial because it determines the lens's field of view. The longer the focal length, the narrower the area of the scene captured by the lens. This means that a lens with a short focal length such as the Canon RF 16mm F2.8 STM captures a much broader view than a telephoto lens such as the RF 1200mm F8L IS USM.

This is often expressed as a lens's angle of view, which is the angle between two lines drawn out from the nodal point to the outer edge of the lens's field of view. A shorter focal length, such as 24mm, produces a wide angle of view. A distant subject will appear smaller in the frame than it does when viewed through a lens with a narrow angle of view (that is, a longer focal length).

Because a camera's sensor and image frame are rectangular, you will sometimes see three measurements given for a lens's angle of view – horizontal, vertical and diagonal (corner-to-corner). For the RF 16mm F2.8 STM, the angles of view are 98°, 74°10' and 108°10' (horizontal, vertical and diagonal), while for the RF 1200mm F8L IS USM they are 1°45', 1°10' and 2°05'. Often, however, just one angle of view is quoted, usually the diagonal.

A diagram illustrating the different fields of view of lenses with different focal lengths, from 15mm to 400mm. The greater the focal length, the narrower the field of view.

A visualisation of the approximate angle of view of lenses with different focal lengths, from 15mm (ultra-wide) to 400mm (super-telephoto). (Sensor size also affects the maximum angle of view possible; for simplicity, this assumes lenses are attached to a full-frame camera.) The longer the focal length, the narrower the angle of view.

Understanding prime and zoom lenses

Lenses can be divided into two types: prime and zoom lenses. Prime lenses are those with a fixed focal length, such as the Canon RF 35mm F1.8 Macro IS STM, RF 85mm F1.2L USM and RF 100mm F2.8L Macro IS USM. A fixed focal length means that the perspective of the image can be changed only by physically moving the camera closer towards the subject or further away.

In contrast, zoom lenses have variable focal lengths. The Canon RF 14-35mm F4L IS USM, for instance, offers any focal length from 14mm to 35mm, while the popular RF 24-105mm F4L IS USM offers focal lengths from 24mm to 105mm, a broad range which makes it an excellent choice for everyday photography. Meanwhile, the RF 100-500mm F4.5-7.1L IS USM is a favourite lens for wildlife photography when the distance between the camera and the subject can vary dramatically.

This versatility means zoom lenses are more convenient because you can carry just one lens to be prepared for a range of shooting situations. However, prime lenses also have great benefits, such as being smaller and lighter or offering better optical quality and larger apertures. Find out more about choosing between prime and zoom lenses.

In a photo taken at a focal length of 24mm, a man in a blazer and scarf stands on a raft at the side of the river Arno in Florence, with the Ponte Vecchio in the background.

Short focal lengths capture a wider view, making them ideal for sweeping landscape shots or environmental portraits, where it is important to capture the setting as well as the subject. Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 24-105mm F2.8L IS USM Z lens at 24mm, 1/2000 sec, f/3.5 and ISO 100.

In a photo taken with an 800mm lens, a small Bohemian waxwing is pictured among long grass.

Photographing small and distant subjects requires a long focal length to fill the frame with the subject. This is also handy for photographing wildlife that may be spooked by a photographer attempting to get close. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 800mm F11 IS STM lens at 1/40 sec, f/11 and ISO 1600.

How crop factor affects field of view

There is another factor that affects the field of view in a given image: the camera's sensor size. APS-C sensors are physically smaller than full-frame sensors, which means APS-C cameras won't utilise the full field of view of a full-frame lens. Instead, the image will be cropped to the sensor's smaller active area. The effect of this reduced field of view is the same as zooming in, making the subject larger in the frame. This change in the framing can therefore be described in two ways: you can say the APS-C sensor introduces a crop factor or a focal length multiplier. The two are actually the same thing.

For Canon APS-C cameras, the focal length multiplier (or crop factor) is 1.6x. This means that using a 50mm lens on a Canon APS-C camera gives a field of view equivalent to that of an 80mm lens on a full-frame camera (50 x 1.6 = 80). Hence, if you use the RF 50mm F1.8 STM lens, for example, on an APS-C camera such as the EOS R7, the lens is said to have an effective focal length of 80mm. The formula is the same when you use a zoom lens, but of course the calculation starts with the focal length to which you have set the lens.

To be clear, all this also applies to RF-S lenses. These lenses are designed for use with APS-C cameras and therefore project a smaller image circle than full-frame lenses, but the focal lengths given in their names describe their optical construction, as explained above. When you fit them on APS-C cameras, you still require the same calculation to determine their effective focal lengths – so the Canon RF-S 18-45mm F4.5-6.3 IS STM lens, for example, has an effective focal length of 28.8-72mm when fitted on an APS-C camera.

A hand holds a Canon RF 28mm F2.8 STM lens.

Prime lenses are typically smaller and lighter than zoom lenses. The Canon RF 28mm F2.8 STM, for example, is very lightweight and compact at just 24.7mm long, making it ideal for travel and street photography.

A split image showing a bison photographed with a 500mm lens on a full-frame camera, and with the same lens on an APS-C camera, which has the effect of zooming in on the animal.

When a full-frame lens is mounted on an APS-C camera, the smaller sensor crops the image, making the subject larger in the frame. The effect is to increase the reach of the lens, so that a 500mm lens on an APS-C camera has the same field of view as an 800mm lens on a full-frame camera.

What is the focal length of the human eye?

Photographers and videographers often aspire to capture a "natural perspective" – a view comparable to that of the human eye. Comparison is tricky, however, both because the retina is curved and because human vision is normally binocular. Each of our eyes has a field of view of around 120-200°. It's a range because we can usually only detect movement at the outer edges of our vision rather than pick out specific details. There's around 130° of overlap in the field of view of our eyes, but our central vision equates to approximately 40-60°. It is generally accepted that a 50mm lens provides a perspective closest to the human eye, although the field of view is not exactly the same.

Different lenses paired with different cameras and even lens extenders (see below) can offer a wide range of effective focal lengths, some of which are a close match to the perspective of the human eye.

The Canon RF 5.2mm F2.8L DUAL FISHEYE lens takes a different approach. This specialist lens, part of Canon's pioneering EOS VR SYSTEM, is two fisheye lenses in one. The centres of the two lens elements are approximately 60mm apart – the average distance between the centres of the pupils in human eyes – to provide a natural stereoscopic viewing experience. On a compatible full-frame camera capable of 8K video capture such as the EOS R5, this left- and right-eye footage is captured as a single 180° VR file. After processing, the result is immersive VR footage where the viewer with a compatible headset can look up, down, left and right around a complete 180° field of view.

A runner photographed with a 600mm telephoto lens just as he leaves the starting block.

Telephoto and super telephoto lenses are a great choice for sports photography because they make it possible to fill the frame with the subject without having to get close. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 600mm F11 IS STM lens at 1/1600 sec, f/11 and ISO 800.

A vulture photographed in flight with a telephoto lens at a focal length of 637mm, the background out of focus, in an image by Guy Edwardes.

Bird photography is one specialism where it really helps to have a lens with the longest reach possible. The RF 200-800mm F6.3-9 IS USM lens is currently the longest reaching telephoto zoom lens for the RF mount, and its very versatile focal length range, combined with 5.5-stop optical image stabilisation, makes it ideal for photographers looking for an all-in-one wildlife lens. Plus, as nature photographer Guy Edwardes points out, "the longer the focal length, the quicker the background and foreground elements fall out of focus, while your subject stays sharp." Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 200-800mm F6.3-9 IS USM lens at 637mm, 1/3200 sec, f/9 and ISO 1250 © Guy Edwardes

Wide-angle, standard and telephoto lenses explained

Lenses can be divided into three broad categories according to focal length: wide-angle, standard and telephoto.

  • Wide-angle lenses – loosely defined as lenses with a wider field of view than the human eye – are lenses with a focal length up to around 35mm. These are useful for large group portraits, architectural photography and capturing expansive vistas in landscape photography. They are also popular with vloggers who want to include plenty of their environment in the frame. Lenses with focal lengths below about 24mm (full frame equivalent) are sometimes referred to as "ultra-wide".
  • Standard lenses are those with a focal length of around 50mm, or more broadly from about 35mm to 85mm. These, as we have noted, are generally said to have a "natural perspective" comparable to that of the human eye, making them a popular choice for travel and portrait photography as well as all-purpose lenses whenever a distortion-free perspective is desired.
  • Telephoto lenses – those with a focal length of around 85mm or more – produce a more tightly framed view than the human eye, making them ideal for photographing distant subjects without moving closer to them. This includes photographing people at social events and capturing outdoor portraits. Lenses above 300mm are often called "super-telephoto". Lenses such as the RF 600mm F4L IS USM and RF 800mm F5.6L IS USM are highly valued for sporting events and wildlife photography when it's impossible to get close to the subject. The longer the lens, the more tightly the subject can be framed, or the more distant the subject can be.

Some zoom lenses cover more than one of these categories, with some going all the way from wide-angle to telephoto, such as the versatile Canon RF 24-240mm F4-6.3 IS USM.

Super-telephoto lenses used to be accessible only to dedicated professionals able to justify the investment, but advances in lens design and technologies have brought RF lenses with focal lengths above 400mm within the reach of a much broader range of users. The RF 600mm F11 IS STM, for example, is perfect for animal portraits and casual wildlife photography even in your back garden thanks to its short closest focusing distance, and is much more affordable than its pro 600mm counterparts. The same applies to the RF 800mm F11 IS STM, which is ideal for travel and wildlife, including specialist interests such as bird and aviation photography.

The Canon Extender RF 2x, Extender RF 1.4x, Extender EF 2x and Extender EF 1.4x.

Canon offers lens extenders to suit RF lenses (left) and EF lenses (right), which can increase the reach of a compatible lens by up to double. They can be a great option if you need to travel light, because they are much more compact than a second lens.

Gaining extra reach with lens extenders and teleconverters

Some lenses are compatible with lens extenders such as the Extender RF 1.4x and Extender RF 2x. Also known as teleconverters, these increase the focal length of a compatible lens by a factor of 1.4x and 2x respectively, allowing much tighter subject framing. The trade-off is a reduction in maximum aperture (1-stop and 2-stop respectively), but the lens still retains its autofocusing capability.

Extenders are much smaller, lighter and more affordable than telephoto lenses, so they can be a great option for increasing your reach without having to carry an additional lens.

Some lenses have an extender built-in. The Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM Extender 1.4x, for instance, incorporates a 1.4x teleconverter. This extends its normal focal length range of 200-400mm, which is perfect for many sports, to 280-560mm. That's very handy for more distant subjects, for example when the action in a football or rugby match is on the far side of the pitch.

Some cameras, including the EOS R8, EOS R50 and PowerShot SX70 HS, have a digital teleconverter feature that magnifies the central portion of an image. On the EOS R6 Mark II, this feature gives a choice of a 2x or 4x digital zoom, which effectively doubles or quadruples the focal length of the lens you have mounted. On the EOS R6 Mark II and EOS R8 this can even be used in conjunction with a built-in 1.6x crop feature, which emulates the field of view of an APS-C sensor to increase the reach of the lens.

Whatever you want to photograph, close or distant, Canon RF lenses offer a comprehensive range of focal lengths from 5.2mm all the way to 1200mm – and beyond to 2400mm with extenders – to help you get the shot you're after.

Angela Nicholson and Alex Summersby

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