– my personal views on all walks of outdoor life

The Focal Length Analogy

A friend of mine wished that on the autumn hike of our wilderness guide course we would have walked less to be better able to really learn about the nature surrounding us. Instead I hoped that we would have covered a longer distance to get a good overview of the wilderness area. What we did was somewhere in-between these two: We didn’t really cross huge wilderness areas but neither did we focus on chosen places. I’d say that we hiked in somewhat typical and traditional manner. This is just to highlight the obvious: You can hike and travel in many different styles. It came to my mind that the hiking styles are somewhat comparable to focal lengths of lenses used for photography.

In photography the focal length of a lens affects the field of view and depth of field. Lenses differ also in other properties but let’s leave that aside for a while. Regarding focal lengths lenses are often divided into four groups: ultra wide angles, wide angles, normal lenses and telephoto lenses. In addition there is a bunch of specialized lenses like fish-eye lenses with huge but distorted field of view and macro lenses that can focus really close and produce pictures of the near-microscopic details.

The normal lens produces a field of view that somewhat corresponds the view you would see with naked eye thus it’s called “normal”. The field of view might not be especially unique but you can play with the other properties like the depth of field to take distinct pictures. The main reason why I have a normal lens is that even quality normal lenses can be very cheap. I think that normal lenses and “normal hiking” are quite comparable: They are “normal” and secure options and can produce quality outcome with decent price tag and effort. But to create something really unique with a normal lens, or on a normal hike, requires an original idea, skills and maybe a very special object.

Wide-angle lenses enable a very wide field of view and also good depth of field because of short focal length: You can capture the essence of a large area without much blur but you do miss the details. In my opinion that is an acceptable trade-off. And with ultra wide angles this gets high-lightened even more. The wide-angles are usually more expensive than normal lenses and to capture more than a flat horizon line wide-angle photography requires an extra thought before pressing the shutter button. I think the same applies for hiking long distances: It takes more time and money, requires more planning and skills but when properly carried out it can produce stunning results.

A telephoto lens enables a clear view of targets that are really far away. A telephoto lens with relatively short focal length is very useful for many uses but the huge bird-scoping lenses are highly specialized tools  best suited for certain limited activities. Long focal lengths can also produce very thin depth of view with only the target being clear. This can be very useful but also problematic in some cases. I’d say telephoto lenses are comparable to doing longer hikes not necessarily for the journey itself but for some specific distant target like a mountain top or a geographical pole.

Then there are the special lenses like macro-lenses and fish-eyes. These enable seeing the world in a untypical way. The use of these lenses is somewhat limited but with them you can do things otherwise impossible. You can capture details too small for naked eye or you can see the world from a perspective that would be impossible without the special tools. The macro photography is like the hiking my friend would have wished to do: To see more by traveling less. To spent long time at one place to really get familiar with it: the plants, the animals, the surroundings. And I’d say the fish-eye lenses, tilt-shift lenses and similar specialized tools are like very unique and special wilderness travels: Combining means of travel, going to weird places and seeing things from an unusual perspective to create something completely new.

If you really think about it, it seems that about any style of wilderness travel can be compared to use of certain lens in photography or at least compared to certain style of photography.

As normal is “normal” by definition the most interesting perspectives are often found at the ends of the spectrum of focal lengths. The wide-angle shots can show stunning landscapes and with long telephoto lenses you can reach out far for interesting objects. It’s the same with hiking. For me the most interesting journeys and trips, be it done by myself or by others, are the big ones covering long distances or reaching distant targets or maybe finding a completely new perspective on something. But most of our trips happen on the area around the “normal” just like I take most of my photos with a quality zoom reaching from 24mm to 105mm. It’s a safe and easy area to operate with. And of course great shots can be taken with all focal lengths as in the end it is more about the imagination, idea and skills than about the kit. And that is something worth keeping in mind.

What’s your favourite piece of optic – or preferred style of travel?

Or is there any point for comparisons like this in the first place?


3 responses to “The Focal Length Analogy

  1. korpijaakko 24/10/2011 at 21:20

    First I was going to ask “As in duration or in distane” but instead I think I’ll just correct the title. Kinda embarrassing to have a typo in the title. Thanks!

  2. Captain Buckles 06/04/2012 at 20:50

    I always type ‘lenght’ by mistake; it’s become a habit. http://www.facebook.com/pages/Lenght/155056351257885?ref=ts

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