Morning light and clouds, Mono Lake, CA, USA

A: Morning light and clouds, Mono Lake. Can you guess what kind of lens I used for this photograph?

When I post a photograph, people often ask me which lens I used. I’m happy to tell them, but I don’t think you learn much when someone hands you an answer. I think it’s more instructive to try to guess yourself. Estimating what focal length a photographer used can help train your eye to see the world the way the camera sees, and learn how lenses control the sense of depth and perspective in a photograph. And those things will help you find compositions more readily, and make it easier to choose which lens to use in the field.

Wide-angle lenses often create a sense of depth, and immerse you into the landscape, while telephoto lenses flatten the perspective and isolate small parts of a scene. Telephotos are also great for creating patterns. Those traits aren’t always apparent, however, nor are they exclusive. You can show patterns with wide-angle lenses, and you can convey a sense of depth with telephoto lenses. And you can photograph intimate landscapes with wide-angle lenses, and show a vast, sweeping landscape with a telephoto.

Perhaps the best way to tell what focal length was used is to judge the angle of view. In other words, can you see objects that are both above and below the camera, or to the left and right, in the same photo? Then you’re looking at a wide angle of view, and a photo that was made with a wide-angle lens. Or if you seem to be looking at everything in the image from a similar angle, you’re probably looking at the narrow angle of view created by a telephoto lens. Simple enough, right?

So here’s an exercise to help train your eye: try to guess the focal length used to make the photographs in this post. You can estimate the exact number in millimeters (for a full-frame camera), like “28mm,” but that’s pretty difficult, so to make it easier you can just guess the lens category, like ultra wide-angle (shorter than 24mm), wide-angle (24mm to 35mm), normal (between 35mm and 70mm), medium telephoto (70mm to 200mm), or super telephoto (longer than 200mm).

The answers are posted at the bottom, but no peeking until you’ve tried to guess! If you’d like, you can click on an image and post your estimate in the comments. There’s no prize if you get it right – this is just for fun and education.

You can play this game any time you look at a photograph. The more you practice, the better you’ll get at choosing which lens to use in the field — and more importantly, the better you’ll get at seeing like the camera sees, and finding compositions.

— Michael Frye

Late-afternoon sunlight in an aspen forest, Gunnison NF, CO, USA

B: Late-afternoon sunlight in an aspen forest, Gunnison NF, Colorado. This should also be pretty straightforward.

Rainbow over Yosemite Valley from Tunnel View, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

C: Rainbow over Yosemite Valley from Tunnel View, Yosemite. Another one that I think will be fairly obvious.

Ring-billed gulls and California gull on an abandoned pier, Mountain View Shoreline Park, CA, USA

D: Ring-billed gulls and California gull on an abandoned pier, Mountain View Shoreline Park, California. There aren’t many visual cues here about the perspective, or even what you’re looking at – and that lack of context should be a clue in itself. Oh yeah, and there’s a strong pattern. Hmm…

Sunbeams at the mouth of Fern Canyon, Prairie Creek Redwoods SP, CA, USA

E: Sunbeams at the mouth of Fern Canyon, Prairie Creek Redwoods SP, California. This one might be a little trickier, but think about the angle of view, and what you’re seeing and not seeing (like the sky).

Merced River in winter, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

F: Merced River in winter, Yosemite. I hope this one is a little more obvious. Does the space feel expanded or compressed? How far do you think the closest river bank in the lower-right part of the frame actually is from the farthest trees?

Wildcat Fall, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

G: Wildcat Fall, Yosemite. Is there a sense of depth in this photo? Depth, or lack of it, is a clue.

Cloud formations, El Capitan and the Merced River, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

H: Cloud formations, El Capitan and the Merced River, Yosemite. Not much sense of depth here, but again, think about the angle of view.

Dune forms, Death Valley NP, CA, USA

I: Dune forms, Death Valley. This one could be a bit deceptive!

Alders and sunbeams, Redwood NP, CA, USA

J: Alders and sunbeams, Redwood NP, California. This one could also be challenging.

Sea stacks near Trinidad, CA, USA

K: Sea stacks near Trinidad, California. Another potentially deceptive image.



Answers: A: 16mm; B: 165mm; C: 17mm; D: 300mm; E: 127mm, cropped slightly; F: 127mm, cropped a bit more (equivalent to about 200mm); G: 32mm; H: 19mm; I: 81mm; J: 50mm; K: 70mm.

Related Posts: When Does a Photograph Need a Focal Point?; Composition Fundamentals

Michael Frye is a professional photographer specializing in landscapes and nature. He is the author or principal photographer of The Photographer’s Guide to Yosemite, Yosemite Meditations, Yosemite Meditations for Women, Yosemite Meditations for Adventurers, and Digital Landscape Photography: In the Footsteps of Ansel Adams and the Great Masters. He has also written three eBooks: Light & Land: Landscapes in the Digital Darkroom, Exposure for Outdoor Photography, and Landscapes in Lightroom: The Essential Step-by-Step Guide. Michael has written numerous magazine articles on the art and technique of photography, and his images have been published in over thirty countries around the world. Michael has lived either in or near Yosemite National Park since 1983, currently residing just outside the park in Mariposa, California.