(photography) Martin Bailey busts the 50mm ‘normal’ focal length myth

It’s great to see myths busted! The world makes more sense the more clearly we understand.

Many of us have been led to believe the famous 50mm focal length myth that a 50mm lens most closely represents how humans actually see. In this podcast, Martin Bailey demonstrates it’s actually 68 or 70mm (on a full frame sensor). And we often focus our eyes on individual objects, which a stronger-than-70mm telephoto lens would best approximate.

It’s never made sense to me how portraits aren’t recommended to be shot with a 50mm because facial proportions aren’t natural, yet 50mm was said to be the most natural focal length. 75mm is usually considered to be the shortest focal length to shoot portraits of people with.

I’ve also generally found 50mm to be the least interesting focal length to use.

So does this mean 70mm lenses should now be called ‘normal,’ while 50mm are should be considered slightly wide angle?

Myths die hard.

Aspect ratio must also a factor, as our side-by-side eyes see more in pano than in 3:2 or 4:3, which neither a 50mm or 70mm lens replicates.

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What Focal Length is Closest to Human Eyesight? (Podcast 591)

What I decided to do, and this was the advice that I gave Héctor in answer to his question about this, is to simply raise my camera to my eye, and adjust the zoom until the elements in the scene looked exactly the same size as the actual scene before my eyes. This takes a few adjustments, but I found that on my full frame sensor Canon 5Ds R camera with the Canon 24-105mm lens attached, 68mm was the closest perspective to how I actually see. …

Our brain is constantly zooming in on the various elements of the scene before us, exploring details at much closer range than we can actually see them…. This is why I’ve always been a proponent of photographing what I call “intimate” landscapes, shot with longer focal lengths. …

Conclusion

To quickly summarize my conclusion here, I don’t really think you can put a number of which focal length is most like how we see a scene with the human eye. I think it would be much better to do a test to find out focal length that your camera shoots the most natural perspective at, which for me was 68mm for a full frame DSLR. For a 1.6X crop factor camera, you’d perhaps find that to be around 42mm. But also keep in mind that we see much more than this with our peripheral vision and our brains.

At the end of the day though, although I seem to enjoy shooting around that I considered to be the most natural perspective of around 70mm, I can’t say that I’ve really considered it in this way in the field. I shoot much more by instinct and generally frame up a shot based more on what is in the scene and where I can be in relation to that scene. If I need to spread elements out, I try to get close and go wide. If I want to compact elements, I try to get some distance and go long. As is generally the case, it’s much more about the photograph than the theory.

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