Why 28 mm is the best focal length for travel photography?


If you have no other focal lengths available or have to choose one only

Note: 28 mm is for Full Frame camera. For APSC sensors it is 19 mm and for Micro Four Third [MFT] sensor it is 14 mm.

First let us define what is meant by travel photography. This include different styles of photography like [but not limited to]:

⦁ Landscape [in clear day light, cloudy/overcast, rain etc.]
⦁ Street / city life
⦁ Indoor [museum, underground etc.]
⦁ Fast action [when shooting from moving vehicle/train etc.]
⦁ Night life at city
⦁ Environmental Portrait

Before going into debate of which focal length is best, let us first examine how human eyes see. Scientists say that human eyes’ focal length varies from 35 mm to 50 mm [in full frame camera terms]. Unlike a camera, human eyes see clearly things at the center of our vision and objects in our peripheral vision is blurred. It is important to understand we are talking of what our brain interprets of what our eyes see. To test this, raise your hand so that it is parallel to you ear and then wave your hand. Your eyes can detect the hand movement in your peripheral vision but you can’t see it clearly. This is also why we often can’t find things in our homes unless it falls into our hands or just in front of us.

Online camera forum users often discard lenses because those are not sharp at corners, yet in real life, when humans see photos, people hardly examine sharpness at the corners.

Anyway, coming back to the travel photography. You may think that 50 mm would be ideal for lens. But no – while 50 mm is considered good focal length for portraits, it is too narrow for general travel photography.

In travel photos, we want to capture the surroundings as much as possible. So we need a wide field of vision – but not necessarily an ultra wide angle lens because an ultra wide angle lenses distort perspective, especially at the periphery.

So we need a focal length which is wide enough yet does not distort things – especially human faces because people shoot lots of family photos in holidays.

Most mobile phone cameras have 27-28 mm [full frame equivalent] focal length for their primary cameras. However, you may have noticed, if you shoot selfie while holding phone too near to your face, your face looks bit distorted compared to if someone takes the photo of you holding camera bit far away from you.

Mobile phone manufacturers did lot of research to find out which focal length would keep most consumers happy. Many people now buys smartphones for shooting photos as primary purpose, other than sending messages in chat apps. So having offering a good camera is utmost important for mobile phone manufacturers.

Thus, for most travel shots we want to fit more things in our photos. 28 mm is a focal length which can fit things without distorting them. Go over 28 and it becomes difficult to fit things especially in places where you can’t move backward due to physical barriers or obstacles. Go below 28 and it starts to become too wide angle and thus things start to become distorted at the corners.

There are other advantages of this slightly wide angle focal lengths. Not all consumer cameras have in body image stabilizer or lens stabilizers. In day time, it is comparatively easier to keep hands steady with a short shutter speed, which results in sharp photos. Higher the focal length, more difficult it is to keep hands steady without shaking. Typical thumb rule is that if focal length of lens is f mm, then shutter speed must be less than 1/(f * crop factor). So for a MFT camera with 14 mm lens, the slowest shutter speed you can go is 1/(2*14) or 1/28 or typically 1/25 s to 1/30 s. This is good for night shots because usually in bright day light photos you keep shutter speed 1/125 s to 1/250 s depending on light intensity.

Of course there are special circumstances where you do need telephoto lenses like when you cannot physically reach nearer to your subject – like birds, wild life/safari etc.

However, many cameras offer some kind of built-in zoom features. This could be either digital zoom or tele-converter. With digital zoom, the camera computationally interpolates values so there is a chance of slight fall in image quality. Some proper cameras offer extended tele-converter feature, where effectively you get an in camera crop which does not reduce image quality – though it may reduce the resolution by a little bit due to cropping.

Sometimes you may find even 28 mm is not wide enough to capture the vista of a landscape. Usually you can use panorama feature in your phone or camera. If no such feature available in your camera, you can still achieve it albeit with few steps. Use [AE-L] or Auto Exposure Lock facility in your camera. Turn it on and make you exposure remains the same while you take few shots by panning your camera. Then on your computer you can stitch those photos to produce a stunning panorama.

If you shoot with a zoom lens in your camera then having an ideal focal length is less of an issue. Though, depending on camera and lens set up, such combination can be quite big and heavy to carry on. Hence, a small camera with a prime lens (which has single focal length) reduces the burden of camera gears to a great extent.

If you travel with interchangeable lens camera [ILC] then 28 mm [or equivalent] prime lenses often have large apertures, allowing you to capture enough light for night/low light photos. Tpically kit zoom lenses don’t have such large apertures [barring few pro lenses, which are usually heavy and expensive].

If you want to buy a prime lens for your camera and confused which focal length to use, hopefully this article will help you decide that.

Majority of single focal length cameras use focal lengths around this value. For example,

⦁ Fuji X100 series camera uses 23 mm lens [35 mm FF eqv.]
⦁ Fuji X70 camera with 19 mm lens [28 mm FF eqv.]
⦁ Rico GR III camera uses 18 mm lens [27 mm FF eqv.]
⦁ Leica M2 camera uses 28 mm lens [FF]
⦁ Sony RX1R camera uses 35 mm lens [FF]

Abbreviations used
FF = Full Frame camera
APSC = APS-C sensor camera
MFT = Micro Four Third camera
FL = Focal Length

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