How do you select a focal length for your first prime lens?
Hi everyone, my name is Paul, this is Exposure Therapy, and in this video, I’ll demonstrate how Adobe Lightroom Classic can help you select your next prime lens.
Most of the students that attend my photography workshops bring gear purchased as part of a bundle or kit marketed towards beginners. The kits typically include a basic DSLR or mirrorless camera, and a zoom lens with an 18–55 or 16–50 mm focal length, which varies depending on the camera make. Some kits include a 75–300 mm lens for greater reach, but these are rarer.
When the workshops transition to the topic of the aperture and depth of field, some students realize that their basic zoom lenses can’t achieve the shallow depth of field aesthetic they desire. This is followed by requests for me to recommend a large-aperture prime lens, which inevitably leads to a discussion about how to choose a useful focal length. And so I ask probing questions about their preferred subject matter, style, working distance, budget, etc., all in an attempt to glean the ideal focal length for each student.
This line of inquiry is common, but it’s also problematic because it assumes beginners can provide accurate answers to questions and concepts they’ve likely never carefully considered up to this point.
Is there a better way? There is, but I’ll need access to your computer.
Adobe Lightroom Classic can help you determine your next prime lens.
If you take every picture a photographer has shot on a zoom lens and sort the results by the focal lengths used, you’ll find an uneven distribution of images among them: some will have a greater share of the total number of pictures than others. Barring a few exceptions, I propose that the focal length with the greatest share of the total—the plurality—is the ideal focal length for that photographer’s next prime lens.
How do you do this?
Your camera embeds information about itself into every photo it saves. This is known as metadata. Examples of this info include the time and date of capture, the camera’s make and model, and, crucially, the set focal length of a zoom lens. This is true for virtually every modern DSLR, mirrorless, and point-and-shoot camera.
Adobe Lightroom Classic—emphasis on the Classic, as this can’t be done in their simplified version—has a function that lets you filter your entire entire catalogue, or a selection of photos, by a variety of metadata attributes, including by set focal length. When you activate the focal length attribute, the application displays a list of every focal length you’ve used to take the selected images, along with the total number of photos shot using those focal lengths. My theory is that focal lengths with a comparatively larger share of photos are evidence of a preference and can serve as a great starting point for picking your next no-regrets prime lens.
Now I’ll demonstrate the process.
[Demonstration in video]
Analysis and limitation
The first and most obvious limitation of this method is that it requires Adobe Lightroom Classic. The so-called modernized version of Adobe Lightroom, the one available on both desktop and mobile platforms, can’t filter metadata by lens type or focal length. (On a side note: I firmly recommend Lightroom Classic over Lightroom not-classic.) I’ve also confirmed that both Apple Photos and Google Photos don’t allow filtering pictures by set focal length, despite their ability to read and display the data in question. I can’t comment about performing this type of analysis using other apps, such as Capture One Pro, Photo Mechanic, etc., simply because I neither own nor use them. So sorry.
Secondly, it’s important to understand that both the upper and lower limits of your zoom’s focal length range can own a greater share of the distribution. This isn’t necessarily because you prefer these focal lengths, but more so because they’re the hard limit of the lens. For example, if my lens tops out at 55 mm, but I want a bigger rendition of my subject, I’m going to settle on 55 mm despite wanting more.
Lastly, this analysis is limited to the focal length range of your existing zoom lenses. However, since the point of this method is to guide you towards a preferred focal length from among those that you use, this limitation is largely moot. I firmly believe that it’s more practical for beginners to expand their collection of zoom lenses before committing to fixed-focal length prime lenses. The ultimate point of this exercise is to engage in due diligence and photographic introspection so that you can avoid buyer’s remorse.
And there you have it, an easy way to use Adobe Lightroom Classic to help you choose your next prime lens based on the focal lengths you use most often. If you have requests for future topics, let me know in the comments, and I’ll address them in future videos. In the meantime, you can learn more about photography on ExposureTherapy.ca. See you next time.