How Much Focal Length Do I Need?
Since I began to photograph wildlife, I have heard people say “you can never have enough focal length for shooting wildlife”. Over the course of a number of years, as I have thought about my photography and looked at the pictures taken by many other photographers, I have come to the conclusion that this assertion is far from being true and that believing that it is true has been a primary reason why the quality of the photos taken by large numbers of photographers has failed to improve to a level even close to its potential.
It is a sometimes unfortunate part of human nature that people seem to want more than they have. Many feel that the amount of money that would make them happy is a little more than they presently have. Many often think that the car that would make them happy is one that is a little nicer than the one that they currently own, etc. And, for wildlife photographers, they often believe that the lens that would make them happy would be the one that is just a bit longer than the one that they now own. I have watched many go through the progression of lenses from 300 mm to 400 mm to 500 mm to 600 mm to 800 mm, and, as many have gone through this progression, the result is that they have unknowingly negatively affected the quality of their photography.
When people spend $6000 or $8000 or $10,000 or more for a lens, what happens is that they tend to fall in love with tightly cropped close-up shots. When I look at those shots, my first reaction is often that I am impressed by the amazing amount of detail that they display. Once I get past being impressed by that detail, however, I find myself quickly losing interest in most of those shots because the limited angle of view, in most cases, makes it unlikely that the photographs are going to have the kind of visual appeal that keeps drawing my eye back to the picture and that makes me have a desire to keep looking at that picture. Further, I’ve come to the conclusion that the narrow angle of view that many who buy long lenses fall in love with stifles creativity and makes it significantly less likely that the pictures taken with it are going to have more than minimal artistic appeal.
I can compare a photograph to a novel. In a novel, regardless of how well defined the characters are and how compelling the plot may be, without sufficient emphasis on the setting, the story lacks context and feels lacking. In the same way, I began to realize that overly tight shots, while they may look nice in a birding field guide, lack context, and they are not the kind of shots on which my eyes want to linger or to return to often to enjoy.
If you visit photography web sites with wildlife presentation boards, what you are likely to feel after a short while is that you are looking at the same photos over and over again. Regardless of the subject of the photos, they all start to look the same, and a major factor that leads to making them all look the same is the narrow angle of view that many wildlife photographers have fallen into the habit of continually using with their long glass. On the other hand, if you visit the galleries or the web sites of successful wildlife and nature photographers whose photographs sell for many hundreds or thousands of dollars, you are not likely to see those same types of tight shots that lack the ability to create or sustain visual appeal. Instead, the shots that you are going to see and the ones that people want to buy to hang on their walls are much more likely to be shots that incorporate and also feature the background/environment as well as the bird or animal that is the apparent subject of the photo. Further, those photos that do have visual appeal often include elements such as behaviors of the subject and multiple subjects interacting with each other or with their environment, and shooting with a shorter lens and a wider field of view is often what allows those elements that do create visual interest to become qualities of the shot.
After I purchased my 500 mm lens, I found myself using it most of the time with a 1.4x converter and, occasionally, with a 2x converter, and I, like most others, loved the detail that I was able to get in the tight shots that I was taking. After a number of years, even though I had also gone through a progression of “new and improved” camera bodies, I started to feel that what I was doing was taking the same shots over and over again. Regardless of the subject of the photos, they all began to look the same to me, and they also seemed to be the same shots that I could see others taking and posting on internet forums hundreds of times each day. My growth as a photographer had clearly reached a point of stagnation, and I came to the conclusion that, to resume improvement in the quality of my photos, I needed to evaluate what I was doing and to experiment with different approaches to taking my photos. As a part of this evaluation process, I not only looked at my pictures, but I also looked at and thought about the pictures of others. I tried to determine the common qualities that both my pictures and those of others had and did so for both pictures that I felt had visual interest and for those that were “nice” pictures but that lacked those qualities that made them “special”. When I did so, it quickly became apparent that the nice but mundane shots were usually those shots taken with a very narrow angle of view, and the shots that drew my eye to them and that made me want to keep looking at them were shots with a wider angle of view.
As a result of coming to this conclusion, I committed myself to experimenting with different approaches and, in particular, I began to shoot more often with shorter focal lengths. Instead of regularly shooting at 700 mm or more, I began to shoot more regularly at 400 mm. One thing that I’ve come to realize is that, in a couple of hours of typical shooting, regardless of whether I have 700 mm of lens or 400 mm of lens mounted to my camera, there are going to be moments when I would have preferred to have more focal length available and there are going to be other moments when I have too much focal length. I have come to realize that, with 400 mm, I still will have plentiful opportunities for close-up shots, except that, now, the close-up shots that I am taking with 400 mm are shots for which the subject would have been too close to get any shot at all with 700 mm. On the other hand, when the subjects are a bit further away, I now have more opportunities to incorporate the environment into the shot and to allow the background and the subject to complement each other. And, for times when the subject is quite distant, no amount of additional focal length would be helpful because, as distance increases, atmospheric impurities are going to degrade the image quality regardless of how long of a lens I am using. Thus, for many shot opportunities at typical shooting distances, shooting wider has allowed me and often forced me to think more about what I am doing and to be more creative in my approach, and, further, it has allowed me more latitude with regard to composition, and it has permitted me to take more shots with multiple subjects and shots that tell a story showing those multiple subjects interacting with each other and/or with their environment. And there have been many times when I have looked at shots that I took several years ago and have come to the conclusion that those shots would have been much better had I shot them with even a bit wider angle of view. Finally, as a bonus, the wider angle of view also means that there are fewer times when I am unintentionally clipping wings or not being able to get the whole bird/animal into the frame.
An additional factor that, I think, encourages many photographers to shoot with a narrower angle of view than they might otherwise use is posting pictures on the presentation boards of internet forums. When relatively small images are viewed on the screen, often, shots taken with a wider angle of view just don’t show nearly as well on the screen as they would in a larger print. Many of my favorite wider angle shots are ones that don’t show especially well on the screen. On the other hand, some of tighter shots that were taken with very little creativity are the ones that do show better on the screen. For this and other reasons, I suggest that, while posting pictures on internet forum presentation boards can be a good way to learn new things about photography, doing so can also restrict one’s growth as a photographer. What often happens when people post on forum boards is that they become a part, so to speak, of the “club”. They post their pictures and also post comments about the pictures of others. Everyone, as a result, ends up feeling obligated to post comments about the pictures of the others who regularly post their pictures, and those comments are virtually always glowingly positive ones. It becomes very easy, when seeing all of the “great shot” comments, for one to start to believe that he/she is a better photographer than is actually the case, and, once that happens, it becomes very likely that one’s growth as a photographer will reach a plateau. Instead of continuing to grow and instead of looking for ways to be more creative in one’s approach to taking pictures, it becomes very easy to keep taking the same mundane pictures over and over again. For me, when I stopped posting on internet boards, it was a major step toward getting beyond the plateau on which I seemed to be stuck. That is when I began to evaluate many aspects of my approach to shooting wildlife, including the focal length and angle of view that I choose to use when taking various pictures.
The result of this shift in my approach to taking my pictures has been that, for the first time in several years, I feel that I am making improvements with regard to the quality of my photography. I have not yet, by any means, seen the level of improvement that I would like to think that I am capable of realizing, and the quality my photography is not, at this point, at the level where I would like it to be, but I do feel that, after a few years of stagnation, I am starting to make progress, and shooting wider has been a major factor that has injected a new burst of growth with regard to my abilities as a photographer.
I do accept that what appeals to some in a photograph may well be different from what appeals to me in a photograph, and I do expect that there would be some who would disagree with the views that I’ve expressed in this article. Some, I’m sure, would disagree with my thoughts because their subjective views of what appeals to them in a photograph are different from mine. Others might disagree because they may have spent $10,000 or $12,000 for a 600 mm or 800 mm lens, and they feel a need to justify that they have made the right choice. That is a part of human nature. Further, I do recognize that there are specific shooting situations for which using the longest focal length available can be a true advantage. For example, if I am shooting an eagle nest and if I want to be certain that I am not stressing the birds by being too close, I may want to use the longest focal length available to me. If I were shooting small song birds even from close distance, I might want to use a longer focal length because of the very small size of the subjects, but, even in those situations, I find myself getting more interesting shots by shooting wider than I would have shot a few years ago. Also, I often look at shots that I took several years ago and think about how much better those shots might have been had I shot them with a wider field of view. Thus, my motivation for writing this article is not to convince everyone to think about photography in the same way that I do. Instead, my motivation is based in the hope that, perhaps, some will read my words and will, as a result, think about some aspects of their approach to wildlife photography in ways that they might not otherwise have thought about them, and, if doing so helps a few of them to grow as photographers, I will have achieved my purpose.