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Why Lens Focal Length Matters

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Thinking about which lens to buy next? You might want to take a look at this 9-minute video first. In it, photographer Jamie Windsor argues that choosing the right focal length is more than a technical decision based on what type of photography you want to do — your choice affects the dynamic and meaning of your photos.

“Choosing the right focal length is much more than about creating a flattering portrait or being able to fit everything you want into your frame,” Windsor says. “Your choice of lens changes the dynamic of your image and the psychological meaning the audience will derive from it. In this video essay, I examine how different focal lengths can be used to communicate different messages to your audience.”

Windsor says that the advancement of TV sets and TV show quality has made many popular shows indistinguishable in quality from movie theater films, and as a result, most people are now exposed to the visual language of cinema on a daily basis.

“While film cinematography and photography are very different beasts in a lot of ways, there are also some aspects that unite them,” Windsor says. “And one of those is how we as an audience psychologically derive meaning from different focal lengths.”

The video then goes through a wide range of examples showing how cinematographers and photographers use different focal lengths in different ways to convey different types of feelings and meanings.

“When choosing a lens, think about how you want your audience to feel,” Windsor concludes. “Why are you shooting what you are? What are you saying with it? Use focal length to subtly communicate your message to the viewer, because changing focal length can completely change the whole meaning of your shot.”

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