Focal Length And Your Portfolio

Focal Length And Your Portfolio

I recently parted ways with my Nikon Z 24-200mm f4-6.3, not because it's a bad lens and not up to the job, but simply because it didn't fit in with my portfolio. Or should I say didn't feature heavily in my portfolio, if at all.
Let me just reinforce how useful this lens is. At 570 g and with a focal range of 24-200mm f/4-6.3 you just can't go wrong. This is a great all-rounder if you are only carrying one lens with you on the longer hikes as it's lightweight and it does indeed produce sharp images. In fact, the last image I took with the lens happens to be one of my own personal favorites. 

Now there is nothing special about the above image, but for me, at the time I knew that this would probably be the last image with the lens so I'm glad it delivered on this last outing; not from a sentimental point of view, just simply knowing that it was going. Funnily enough, it was captured within a focal range of my other lens at 35mm. Upon seeing this it made me think about the focal ranges I was using and I promptly checked the lens metadata in Lightroom.

What are Your Main Focal Lengths?

As you can see by the above illustration the Nikkor Z 24-70mm f/4 S is by far my most frequently used lens; It's also affordable, very sharp, and reliable. From there we see that Nikon NIKKOR Z 14-30mm f/4 S and the FUJIFILM XF 10-24mm f/4 R OIS WR come in second and then the Viltrox 85mm third, with the 200mm on both the Nikon and Fuji systems rarely being used. On a side note here I'd like to point out that I found the FUJIFILM XF 55-200mm f/3.5-4.8 R LM OIS a particularly sharp lens as well.

Please, hear me out before you jump in and disagree. The article is based on personal experience, and shooting practice, and is not a general overview of how lenses perform. It's looking at what lenses feature heavily in my portfolio and do I need them?

The 24-200mm is a great lens, and please take a look at the images within this article. All are photographed with the 24-200mm, and none of them feature in my portfolio; it's just not the lens for me and the work I want to create. Currently, I cannot afford the Nikkor Z 70-200mm F/2.8 VR S, and to be honest I can't see that happening for quite a long time. But would I use it much if I had it?

Focal Length: It's Not Just Size That Matters

Focal lengths are probably the most important factor in how your images will look. Not only can they change the way your work appears totally, but as you are aware, can also dramatically alter the amount of depth within an image. It is important to know what focal length you would like to use for each photo in your portfolio. When I looked back further it turns out that I've owned 25 lenses of varying focal lengths and over various camera systems. When I looked even further into that, the constant focal lengths used were between 14-135mm. These lenses also varied in aperture from f/1.4 to a max of f/6.3 at the longest focal length.

Look at the focal lengths that you most frequently use and ask yourself why you use them. Do these focal lengths feature heavily in your portfolio images? Do your eyes see a particular composition in terms of focal length before you capture it? If you do, are there any lenses in your collection that you hardly use and only have them just in case the need arises? I'm not saying here that you should only have a few select lenses, have a myriad of lenses if you want. That is entirely your prerogative, but do have a look at your catalog to see what ones are used the least.

Most of the images I take are between 14 and 135mm, with an emphasis on the 24-70mm range, and for the most part, I can move closer or further back without compromise; remember this is based on landscape photography with the occasional portrait and product image thrown in. So, very rarely do I shoot between 140-200mm, and on many occasions, I wished I had further reach in terms of focal length. So, would the Nikon NIKKOR Z 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 VR S best suit my photography and my portfolio? For myself, the answer is an undeniable yes.

Renting a Lens

With more and more companies offering a rent a lens, try before you buy service, is this something more photographers like myself should consider. It's not throwing away money that could be used to buy the lens, but rather it's an investment to save yourself money in the long run. Don't get me wrong I did shoot and felt I needed the 200mm max focal length but when I finally checked the metadata I saw that it was seldom used. Not money that was thrown away but a learning curve in the exploration of my own photography. 

Worth A Look?

A photographer's portfolio is a reflection of their work. It's the first thing people will see when they visit your site or view your photos on social media. A good portfolio will show off your best work in an aesthetically pleasing way. However, it can be difficult to figure out which shots are the best ones to showcase in your portfolio.

Look at your catalog of images to see what makes up your main focal parameters. Do these images form the greater part of your portfolio and if so what lenses do you actually need? Should you consider selling the lenses you don't use very often to make way for the lens you actually do?  That is entirely up to you, but what I can say is check the lens metadata, you’re going to learn so much about your own style—and so much about yourself as a photographer.

Gary McIntyre's picture

Gary McIntyre is a landscape photographer and digital artist based on the west coast of Scotland. As well as running photography workshops in the Glencoe region, providing online editing workshops, Gary also teaches photography and image editing at Ayrshire college.

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I almost exclusively use telephoto lenses. Every once in a while i'll bust out the 50mm for a pano. I spent thousands on lenses to figure that out lol. The 70-200 f2.8 is glued to my nikon while my 165mm f2.8 is glued to my gfx lol.

I do a lot of landscape and primarily use 85mm and up focal lengths. I really wish Nikon would come out with a new 70-200 f/4 for the Z mount - the f/2.8 is brilliant but too large and heavy and unnecessarily expensive for what I need. It's crazy it's not on the roadmap at all, that was a very popular lens.

For now the 24-200 is great and I'll probably add the 100-400.

"I really wish Nikon would come out with a new 70-200 f/4 for the Z mount"

YES! I agree! I had the canon 70-200mm f4 non IS for my 60D way back when and I LOVED how light it was. I don't always want to haul around that 70-200mm f2.8. I rarely shoot wider than F4 anyways. IMO all major camera manufacturers should have a F4 version of the 70-200mm or equivalent. They'd sell like hot cakes.

Based on your image counts and the rationale used in your discussion, it's time to retire all the Fuji gear as well

Unfortunately, I had to Walt so that I could get the Z7II. Still regret it though as I love the Fuji system. Thanks for reading

"From there we see that Nikon NIKKOR Z 14-30mm f/4 S and the FUJIFILM XF 10-24mm f/4 R OIS WR come in second and then the Viltrox 85mm third, with the 200mm on both the Nikon and Fuji systems rarely being used."

??? The chart shows the 70-200/2.8 coming in after the 14-30 and 24-70, then the Viltrox and then the Fuji 10-24.

Thanks for reading Matt. Yeah, that's simply because the 2.8 was retired when I swapped systems last year. The 200mm was hardly used and I had owned that since 2016/7. The Z7 system is nearly a year old now with the Viltrox only a few months, so it made sense to part with the focal lengths rarely used.

Ah gotcha. Makes sense.

My only focal length is 40mm. I bought this lens when I bought my camera back in 2019. Every time I've considered purchasing another lens, I keep talking myself out of it as I'm trying to keep my gear to a minimum and you can only use one lens at a time, right?

This is an excellent reminder to have our kit match our work.

I see the world and the scenes in it in many different ways. I suppose that is why my portfolio contains a lot of images from all different focal lengths ranging from 24mm to 800mm.

My next lens will help me to expand my vision even further, as it will be a 15mm ultra wide angle macro lens. Yup - you read that right - a 15mm lens that is a true 1:1 macro!

"Focal lengths are probably the most important factor in how your images will look. Not only can they change the way your work appears totally, but as you are aware, can also dramatically alter the amount of depth within an image."

I come at this from a totally different perspective. The most importing factor in how your images will look is the camera to subject distance and viewpoint. Those determine the perspective in the scene. Once you have determined the camera position you then select the focal length that fills the frame the way you want.

Focal length determines magnification. Consider focal length choice as cropping in the camera. If you stand in one place and zoom in and out the framing changes but the relationship between objects in the scene remain the same.

The closer the camera is to the subject the smaller objects behind the subject will appear. The farther you are from your subject the larger the background elements will appear. In close we tend to use shorter lenses to take in the wider view and then blame the lens for the perspective. For distant subjects we tend to use longer lenses and then blame the lens for the compression.

Try an experiment. Camera on tripod take a photo of a scene with a short lens and then with a long lens. In your photo editor crop the photo made with the short lens to match the long lens photo. Image quality will suffer, but you will find the perspective to be the same in the area of the scene that is common to both photos.

My favorite Ansel Adams quote is "A good photo is knowing where to stand." I wish that camera to subject distance was a prominent metadata field up there with ISO, aperture, and shutter speed. These are things you cannot change in post. Focal length can be changed (made longer) in post by cropping. And Content Aware Fill is aiming towards making it possible to artificially go wider in post. Studio photographers already use it to extend the background.

'Focal length determines magnification.'

Whilst your observation about subject distance is true, it's worth bearing in mind different focal lengths will have different characteristics so worth also taking that into consideration. If you have a 35mm on a crop and 50mm on a fullframe, the field of view will be the same but the characteristics will differ.

Can you be more specific about "the characteristics?" Assuming both cameras are used on a fixed position tripod so camera to subject distance is the same. Are you referring to the perspective (the size relationship between elements of the scene), the framing, the depth of field, or something else?

Quick test comparing a 35mm lens on a crop camera vs 58mm on a full frame from the same camera position attached.