Lens Focal Length: What to Use When

A sometimes overlooked, but major factor of composition is your choice of lens focal length. DSLRs and pro video cameras have removable lenses and can accept prime (fixed focal length) lenses, while other video cameras have a zoom lens permanently affixed to the camera. To adjust focal length on any zoom lens you simply zoom in or out to wide, normal, or telephoto lengths. In the footage below, the model stood in the same spot while I adjusted a fixed zoom lens, then moved the camera forward or backward to maintain the same subject framing.


Zoom Technique: Zoom lens to midpoint

Prime Lens Equivalent: 50 mm

  • Both foreground and background remain in focus
  • Most resembles the eye’s natural perspective

Telephoto Lens                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         

Zoom Technique: Zoom fully in

Prime Lens Equivalent: 70 mm

  • Background soft-focused
  • Much less of the background is visible
  • Distant objects appear closer and more compressed

Wide-Angle Lens                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           

Zoom Technique: Zoom fully out

Prime Lens Equivalent: 14 mm

  • Objects close to lens are distorted
  • Distance greatly exaggerated
  • Much more background is visible
  • Background objects shrink in size

Which Focal Length to Use for Which Shot?

There’s no straight answer to this question, because it partly depends on your particular shooting situation as well as what you wanna show and how you want to show it. Want to show that a downtown street is really crowded? Break out the telephoto lens and compress that mass of humanity for the audience. Need to cover a convo of two subjects in the front seat of a moving car? Better have a wide angle lens in your kit. Gotta cover a short one-time-only event? No time to be switching up lenses during a firefight! Use a zoom lens to get full coverage with close-ups, mediums, and wide shots in three minutes flat.




Your choice of focal length is as much a creative choice as your framing or location. You can make the same street seem congested and teaming with cars or desolate and empty. The above shots were all taken during a one-minute period shooting the same group of cars coming down the street from the same camera position. However, notice the dramatic difference in the images and the way that distant and foreground objects are portrayed at each focal length.

Normal Lens

Wide Lens

If you know you’ll be shooting in tight quarters like cars, small rooms, or just a packed crowd, a wide lens is a must.

Excerpt from The Shut Up and Shoot Documentary Guide: A Down & Dirty DV Production, 2nd Edition by Anthony Q. Artis © 2014 Taylor and Francis Group. All Rights Reserved.

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