Petteri's Pontifications
My musings about photography, mostly.
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Focal Length Fun: 28 mm

Focal Length Fun: 28 mm

There's a special pleasure in shooting with primes. When you're restricted to one focal length, you can learn to see in it: visualize the picture even before putting the camera to your eye. I'm sure that with experience and talent this works for zooms too; I've just never gotten that far.

Zooms are the norm these days, even on cameras where primes are available. However, just because you can zoom doesn't mean you have to. That's why I thought of trying something completely different: photography exercises the old-fashioned way. I'll pontificate a bit about my experiences with a specific focal length, suggest a few things to try with it, and some exercises. These lessons aren't "read-only" -- they make no sense at all without doing the work; exhibiting and discussing pictures you happened to shoot the usual way with the focal length under discussion won't count. This lesson is about seeing photographically in a very specific way.

So, folks, get out a roll of masking tape or just strengthen your willpower, twist that zoom ring all the way left, 'cause we're going to look at the most mercurial of focal lengths, 28 mm. Tape it there, or just resolve firmly not to move it -- zooming will ruin the purpose of the game.

Meet the 28

Focal lengths have personalities: from the detached, clinical, almost scientific super-telephotos to the intimate short teles, the quiet, subdued normals, to the ever more extroverted and exuberant wide-angles, through to the ultra-wides that are like some people you meet at parties -- the ones who'll eventually take all their clothes off and run through the room playing the bagpipes and setting fire to their farts, finally ending up in fish-eyes that say "Whoa, dude... This is intense... I can see all the way behind myself..."

This is probably the most-photographed building in my home town. Yet I don't think most of the photos taken of it look much like this one: the 28 shows her quirky perspective.

The 28 has a strong, assertive personality, but a changeable one. She can be quietly meditative, melding into the scene being photographed, attempting to embrace the whole world and become one with it. She can be whimsical and funny, literally putting a new perspective on things: rearranging the familiar elements of a scene and showing them as something fresh and unusual. She can be dreamy or expressionistic, causing buildings to tilt and lean at crazy angles, making a walk down the stairs look like a descent into the pit of Hell or a simple flagpole look like a needle scratching the very underbelly of Heaven. And she can even be downright crazy, turning people into ants marching on titanic architecture, or distorting them into goblins and ogres... or something you see in the mirror room at the amusement park.

She will never let you forget who she is, though, and will imprint her personality on all the pictures you will take with her. Don't try to fight her -- you'll always lose. If you listen to what she's telling you and try to see things from her point of view, things could work out very well. It might be frustrating, but it'll never be boring!

A word on perspective

The 28's strong personality manifests itself in the way she treats perspective. Wide-angle lenses are often said to have "exaggerated" perspective -- and in a sense, this is true. She's trying to embrace as much of the scene she can, which means that she must make far-away things shrink into the distance faster; this leads to larger angles in receding lines and a sense of exaggerated perspective.

However, this exaggeration is not linear: it decreases with distance. Things near infinity (that spurious point somewhere beyond 10 meters) appear less distorted than things nearby. If you ask the 28 to take a head-and-shoulders portrait of a person, she will work like an amusement-park mirror. Things closer-up will appear much larger than they should, relative to things a bit further apart. If the thing closest-up is the nose, the subject may not be flattered... and by taking a picture from above, you can give a Neanderthal the masterful, dome-like forehead of a Lenin.

And one more thing: there's a common misconception about perspective. Actually, the lens has no effect on it. Perspective is determined purely by distance to the subject. A wide-angle lens merely appears to have exaggerated perspective because it takes in more of the scene. Don't believe me: try it for yourself. Put the camera on a tripod or other fixed position, and take two pictures -- one at 28, the other at 100 mm. Then crop out the edges of the 28 until the area that's left exactly matches the picture shot at 100 mm. I guarantee that the perspective will be exactly the same. Cropping a 28 mm picture will get you the exact same perspective as if you had shot the picture at a longer focal length in the first place. The perception of lens affecting perspective arises from the fact that people normally think in terms of apparent size of the subject: switch to a shorter focal length, and you will have to step closer to your subject to keep it the same size, and this will change the perspective.

Things to do with her

Because of the many sides of her personality, there's a great variety of things you can do with the 28 along. There's hardly a situation where she'll prevent you from snagging good pictures... although often they'll be different from the ones you thought you would get. Sometimes the best and most unusual ones will be from venues you wouldn't expect. There are a few, well-established "classic" things to do with the 28, though -- good places to go for a first date or just for an outing.


The classic home ground of the 28 is landscape photography. She is usually at her most peaceful and meditative in landscape work: the forms are mostly organic and natural, so there are few cues indicating exaggerated perspective, and because of her world-embracing quality, she can take in the whole forest where a longer lens would only see a few trees. When shooting landscapes with the 28, it's very important to position the horizon carefully: either well down, to make a skyscape, or well up, to emphasize the things on the ground and the fading into the distance. Since one of the 28's biggest strengths is representing distance, it also pays to pay attention to the difference between foreground and background, to find leading lines and other indicators of depth.

Who says landscapes aren't allowed to have structures or people? The 28, with some help from the Vivid mode on the 7i, turned a fairly mundane beach scene into something rather unusual.


The second classic use for the 28 is architecture. Here she will often go a little nuts -- the straight lines and right angles of buildings will get stretched and exaggerated into sharp points and vertiginous verticals. People in the background will get dwarfed by the apparent size of the buildings. If you're looking for a natural perspective on architecture, don't even bother to ask the 28 along: she loves architecture, but sees it in her special way. People have spent a huge amount of effort trying to fight her -- with tilt-shift lenses, perspective correction in Photoshop, climibing on scaffoldings and other high points of view, and so on... and in the end, in my opinion, all of these efforts look more forced and unnatural than the quirky view from the 28 as she likes it. So, if you want buildings to look like you see them, use a 50 and stitch... but if you want to show them differently, you'll have a party with the 28.

The church is pretty big by Finnish standards, but it's nowhere near as big as this image may suggest. The 28 is prone to exaggeration: just imagine what she can do for your fishing stories...


Interiors are cramped, oftentimes. Here the 28's wide view on things comes in very handy again. While she can't quite take in the whole room like a 20, she can easily take in a group of people or a sub-ensemble of interior architecture. If you don't put anything in the very foreground, her perspective is still natural enough not shout her existence, giving the emphasis on the scene. This is why the 28 is my favorite for interiors, including interior situationals.

A picture for the family album: the first after-sauna sausages at the summer cabin in 2003. The 28 helped get the big picture, but this time she hasn't exaggerated things beyond recognition.

In a bigger space, the 28 is at home as well: here she can show enough of the entire space to pull the viewer into it... and again, her exaggerations aren't loud enough to cover the voice of the scene speaking for itself.

The 28 sees a shrine to St. Sara, patron saint of the Romany.

Unusual applications

There are some situations where you wouldn't normally consider working with the 28. Portraits, for example: when you get close enough to your subject to make a portrait, the 28 goes into her eccentric mood, and starts stretching and distorting your poor subject very visibly. However, if your subject has a sense of humor, things may work out. For example, you could take a portrait of a craftsman at work in his studio. The 28 would embrace enough of the scene for you to include a good deal of context. And, of course, you could just let her go nuts and go for the fun-house look. Other unusual applications would be sports and wildlife -- in both cases, you're usually pretty far from the action, and would normally use a long lens... but in both cases, you might get something highly unusual and interesting with a 28 instead. The big picture. Like most of the game and the spectators in one frame.

It's possible to herd sheep with a car. Here's how the 28 sees the situation.


The 28 is a strong personality. She is mercurial, changing from meditative and quiet to quirky and eccentric in the blink of an eye. She imposes her view on any picture you will want to take with her, but her changeability means that she can see many things, some of the better than you can. Getting to know her will help you see photographically... and will net you some unusual and interesting pictures. She thrives on experimentation, unusual situations, crazy ideas. Get acquainted. You might hit it off better than you'd expect.


This assignment isn't as much about the photos as it is about learning to see photographically. That's why it's more work and stricter than some I've set before. This is no longer about snapshooting; it's about the craft of photography. It will take a good deal of work and a good deal of time to complete. I hope at least a few will participate -- but I won't expect any results until a few days from now at the earliest.

  1. Set your camera to 28 mm and leave it there. This is surprisingly hard to do, if you're used to shooting with a zoom, so a small physical reminder will help. For example, cut a 5 cm strip out of a plastic bag and take a couple of rubber bands and use them to fix it around the lens barrel -- the changed texture will remind you not to touch the zoom barrel. Or, if you have really good willpower, just put it to 28 and leave it there.
  2. If you don't have a 28, go to maximum wide and leave it there: it'll probably be around 35 mm. The 35 is sort of like the calmer big sister of the 28 -- not as exuberant or mercurial, but with many of the same qualities, so go ahead and participate with that.
  3. Give yourself a brief: a situation, time, scene, building, interior, portrait, landscape, cityscape, or other subject you want to photograph, or a story that you want to tell.
  4. Go and shoot it. Use only 28 mm. Take at least 100 frames, preferably 200 to 300 or more (no more than 3 "identical" frames for bracketing purposes). Increase compression if needed to fit them on the card.
  5. Do an edit: throw out all but the 10 to 30 best frames.
  6. Present 1 to 5 of your best shots, and discuss.

Presented assignments

All pictures are (c) by their owners, and are used with permission.

St. Stephen's Basilica, by Ferenc Mogor

"I tried to follow your guidelines set up for having fun at 28/35 mm, so I took my cam (DiMAGE 5=35 mm at her best) with me to work today and since I work in downtown of Budapest I had no other way but to get some street-snack for lunch while finding the subjects very nearby to present as my homework. It was not so difficult, we also have buildings and sites photographed very often. I took 144 pictures, auto-bracketing them.

"First, I shot the Basilica as a whole, as it fits into 35 mms, just pulled it to the left a bit and tried to include some parts of the building on the right side to avoid the kind of tourist shot the young Japanese girl was doing on my left side! Then went up closer to look up hoping the shot will show the Basilica higher that it is in reality...well this may be the limitation of the 35 mms, anyhow that is a really tall building!!"

Petteri's commentary

Here the wide-angle has created a sweeping, vertical perspective. The converging lines and exaggerated angles make for a much more dynamic and unusual picture. The tree adds context, color and interest, and the organic, lacy pattern of the branches makes a good counterpoint to the straight, Apollonian lines of the architecture.

However, I would've positioned myself a bit more to the left and forward, to keep the tree in the frame but prevent it from intruding into the central dome: placed where it is or a bit further to the right, it would have made a very strong visual center to the picture.

Many Admirers, by Raymond Ruan

"I was at the lily pond the other day and found this interesting arrangement of leaves around a white lily. The leaves were all facing the flower. It made me think of "Many Admirers" as the title for the picture."

Petteri's commentary

Lovely again, Raymond: simple, beautiful, yet not commonplace.

This is yet again very well seen and captured. However, I'm a bit bothered by the truncation of the leaf to the right; the cropping also seems a bit indecisive -- very tight on one edge, looser on the other. I did something that I rarely do except for an exercise, but for a fine-art shot like this, I think it would be acceptable: I cloned out the half-leaf. I also tightened the crop somewhat, but left in the lovely reflections near the top. How do you like this version?

Inside BCE Place, Toronto, by José B

Here's my walkabout in Toronto and took architecture shots for the first time. I was skeptical when I took these pictures inside BCE Place as I get nervous when taking wide angle shots without a tripod. The lens flare was more of a fluke although I expected some flaring because I was shooting with a wide angle lens. When I was outside during this shoot I had to cover the sun with one hand but since I was taking an indoor pic, I made sure to keep still in the absence of a tripod.

Petteri's commentary

I love this one. It's lovely! I can't judge the sharpness and other technical qualities from the scaled-down sample, but from here it looks wonderful -- not only have you made excellent use of the exaggerated perspective on the WA, you've caught some beautiful light and shadows, incorporated lens flare into the composition (you did do that on purpose, didn't you? ;-) ), and even gotten the human element in at precisely the right spot -- not dead center to give it some dynamic. I especially like the curving, asymmetric shadows of the arcade. This one is a competition-winner... unless camera shake has really screwed it up (which it doesn't appear to have done).