The old adage about practice makes perfect applies to photography as well.
Very few cameras today have fixed focal length lenses but they are still available. Quality in zoom lenses has become much better with the passing of time and now super zooms (in the 10 and 12x range) allow consumers to get in even closer than ever before without sacrificing a lot of image quality. For the DSLR user, prime (fixed focal length) lenses will typically provide the best quality image albeit at the expense of having to change lenses for a wider or narrower angle of view.
Changes in focal length affect not only the image size, but the field of view captured in the image. A wide angle lens captures just that, a wide angle of view, up to 180 degrees with a fish eye lens. As the focal length increases through normal and telephoto ranges, the angle of view decreases. This leads to different ways to compose an image.
So how do you know when it is best to use a wide angle, normal or telephoto focal length? Practice. Of course, you could simply zoom through the different ranges to find what looks best, but understanding why it looks best will help you to set up better shots to begin with. To get a greater idea of how a lens reacts at a given focal length, pick one focal length, and stick with it for an entire shoot. One day, use only a wide angle lens or focal length and compose all of your photographs with that focal length. Moving closer to your subject to mimic the effect of a telephoto lens, or backing away to mimic the effect of a wide angle lens. Another day use only a normal lens, and another, a telephoto.
For a more controlled lesson, shoot a subject from the same location with each lens or focal length and compare the results. Next, shoot the same subject making it identical in size in your viewfinder (you will need to move closer or further for the subject for this) and again compare the results.
By using only one focal length in practice, when it comes time to apply that knowledge, you can do so without hesitation.
The digital photography tip of the week is written by the PCIN Assistant Editor, Chris Empey. Chris is a long time photographer and is currently the President of the Niagara Falls Camera Club. You can see more of his photography at his Photo of the Day website. If you have a tip to send Chris, or a question about digital photography he can address in the newsletter, send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.