Photography basics: Angle of view

Find out how angle of view relates to your lenses

You can exploit the traits of different angles of view creatively. For instance, as well as being essential in confined spaces where you can't physically move further from a subject, getting up close with a wide-angle lens means that you can capture both a subject and its surroundings in one picture. You can also play with scale, as objects closer to the camera will appear much larger in relation to those in the distance.

Longer focal lengths take in a much narrower section of the background. Not only does this make it easier to compose a 'cleaner' shot – a small movement of the lens is all it takes to find a more suitable section of the backdrop – but it magnifies that part of the background too.

You can use this aspect to make distant buildings, mountains or even the moon appear much larger in relation to the objects in the foreground. The trade-off here is that you'll have to be shooting from a greater distance to squeeze them both into the shot.

As you'll see below, sensor size makes a difference, with smaller sensors such as Nikon's DX format requiring much shorter focal lengths to achieve a wide angle of view than their full-frame counterparts. But the way in which small sensors effectively increase the focal length of a lens can make them useful for long lens work.

Sensor sizes

How to select the right lens for the shot

The shorter the focal length is, the wider the angle of view. For instance, an 8mm fisheye lens may be able to take in a huge 180-degree view – and there's a risk that your feet will inadvertently end up in the picture if you're not careful. Super telephoto lenses, on the other hand, may offer an angle of view of just three or four degrees.

Below, you'll find a list of common horizontal angles of view and the focal length required to achieve them with different sensor sizes.

Focal lengths

Background matters

Where you stand makes a big difference to how large or small distant objects appear.

Choosing the right focal length for a situation isn't simply a matter of working out how large or how small you want the subject to appear in the picture: it's also about the perspective and the overall look you want to achieve.

Here you can see the power that perspective can have. One photo has been shot from a distance with a 200mm telephoto lens; the other has been shot up close with a 20mm wide-angle.

The subject size might be consistent between the two images, but that's about it. You can see how the wide-angle lens has captured much more of the environment, although having to shoot within such close proximity has resulted in some distortion on the features close to the camera. The telephoto lens doesn't show the same distortion.

Focal length perspective

This feature was originally published in Digital Camera Magazine, to subscribe, click here