10 beginner tips to the 28mm focal length

So, you just got a camera that has it's lens stuck at the 28mm focal length. Maybe the Ricoh GR, the Nikon Coolpix A or maybe the Fuji WCL X100 adapter. You're freaking out. The world is HUGE! How are you going to make images with such a wide field of view??? Stop. Don't panic, breathe. It's going to be ok. Here's the beginner's guide to the 28mm focal length to get you started. 

28mm: An introduction

 A 28mm lens is considered a wide angle lens. It basically means that you can cram more into your image than a longer lens like 50mm.Say this was a 50mm shot: 50mm focal length I was able to get the bike, a bit of a truck on the left and a part car on the right, right? Here's a 28mm shot: 28mm length Now we can cram more of the world in the frame, no? I can fit the car, the truck, even the surrounding buildings into my frame. Knowing that, what's the big issue with the 28mm? The 28mm causes problems to many people for a variety of reasons: 
1) It's harder to balance
If you can imagine yourself for a moment juggling 3 balls. Heh. You're not bad at all. Now imagine doing so with 9 balls. Harder isn't it? Well the 28mm is like that, since you can cram more of the world in it, you have to take more things into consideration when framing.Say I have a telephoto in hand, how hard is this to balance: 28mm crop-1 Meh. I only have the guy in the back to worry about. Now imagine that I have a 28mm: 28mm street-1 Now there's much, much more I have to worry about. The guy in the back, the person in the back, the guy on the right, cars, lines, glip! It's a major turn off for many. 
2) No Bokeh superpowers
Bokeh is the out of focus area. It's the easy way to make your subject pop and it's pretty much a surefire way to bring attention to your subject. There would be no problem for images like this: 28mm bokeh-1 The woman is crisp, the background isn't, so she pops. But you can't get that with most 28mm.  You're stuck with this: 28mm bokeh-2 Well, not quite. The 28mm can Bokeh, just not as much as most people want it to. You can't completely pull out your subject from their background with Bokeh on a 28mm (for most cameras). Here's a 28mm shot at 2.5 on an APSC sensor: 28mm bokeh-3 While the background is out of focus, everything is still pretty much defined. All that to mean, you will have to find other ways to bring attention to your subject besides blurring out the background. It's another matter when you have a 28mm 1.4 or 1.8 on a Full Frame sensor, the Bokeh is way better, see Christophe Debon's work in issue 2, but it won't be as creamy as a 50mm 1.4 for example. Most have an apsc sensor camera with a 28mm 2.8 or 2.5, so the Bokeh isn't that great. Macro is another matter though…  
3) You have to get close
 In the 28mm field of view, you can cram more of the world into the image because things appear smaller with a 28mm. So if you have an image of a woman taken with a 50mm, she might appear as big as a thumb, but if you didn't move and made the same image with a 28mm, she might now be the size of half a thumb. All of this to say, if you want something to be prominent in your 28mm frame, you have to get close. Closer than you would if you had a longer lens. 28mm distance-1 I got real close to get the shot above. But if I had a 50mm, I would have needed to be as close and I would get a similar image. In a nutshell, you will probably have to get real close to your subjects with a 28mm. The big issues with the 28mm are: it's hard(er) to balance, you can't blur your way out of situations and it forces you to get closer. But, it's totally awesome. 

Using a 28mm

 Here I try to address the big problems of 28mms….Consider these counter points to the above.Longer focal lengths really limit your field of view in my opinion. Imagine a completely black room, your only contact with the world is trough a small window and a large one. Of course, the large one is the 28mm. I don't know about you, but I want as much of the world that I can get. When you use a 28mm, it's as much about the subject that you are shooting, as it is their background, their surrounding, their context. The fact that you can't really Bokeh your way out of any situation is actually a good thing. I remember being able to ride a bike with training wheels without any issues….until my parents pulled out those training wheels. I was able to ride a bike only when I couldn't rely on those helpers. Removing the possibility of Bokeh actually forces you to be ever more aware of what's in front of your camera. You need to bring attention to your subjects, you can't blur it's background, you will work the frame to find a way to do so without Bokeh. All of a sudden, because of necessity, you are aware of the background, how it can either bring attention or pull attention from your subject. The lack of Bokeh, instead of being limiting, is actually freeing because you are forced out of your comfort zone to try new things. The 28mm also forces you out of your comfort zone when it comes to portraits and people . You can't get away by staying far from your subject, you have to get physically closer to get your shot. Now granted, getting close is not the end all of all photography, but if something forces you out of your comfort zone, it can only be beneficial. Here's some tips on how to stop fearing when shooting street photography. I used to be so shy and timid, I couldn't even look at my own brother in the eye. You can do it! 

Tips for using 28mm lens

 
1) Actively seek out the punctum
When there's lots of action that you have to include in the frame….it becomes ever so much more important to seek out the punctumpunctum-1 I like trees, some of them more than others. So here I was going to the pediatrician when I saw a palm tree. The only thing I wanted from the shot was the single palm tree. But the 28mm being wide, I couldn't just include that one tree, there was other things that was in the frame, like other trees. I then sought out to bring attention to it by placing myself where the shadow of a tree on the back aligned itself with the tree I wanted to bring attention to. 
2) See in terms of broad shapes
If you’ve been around the internet long enough, you probably remember dial-up. The internet was slow around that time, do images didn’t load right away, the first thing it would load was a blurry version of the image where you could see stuff like the overall shape of people. You weren’t able to make out who they were, but you could figre out what they were doing. And then after a while the image would load completely and the complete image was available to you: recognizable faces, etc.When there's too many elements in a frame, the brain goes in simplify mode and starts seing things in broad shapes in order not to be overloaded with every single detail. So when shooting wide, the brain is less and less critical of the details and starts looking at the overall shapes. 3) Lead the eyeOne of the most important concepts of photography is the one of eye travel. Essentially, the photographer has to lead the eye of the viewer. Since there's more of the world included, and you can't really Bokeh, you have to really be aware of all the broad elements of the frame to lead the viewer's eyes. See this image here: haiti Here the Law of similarity and the Law of Continuity are in action (as explained in the Inspired Eye Method course). I wanted to bring attention to the men on the right. That's as close as I could get – I was in a car – and I couldn't just blur the background out. So I looked around to see how I could lead the eye and behold! Bunch of walking shadows appeared, and I made my shot.Bokeh is the simplest way to lead the eye because it creates contrast between a subject and it's background. But when you can't really have Bokeh, you have to always be on the lookout for things to lead the eye to your subject. 
4) Get closer
 Ricoh-GRD-IV-new-york-street-photography If you want to get a portrait of someone, you can be at a comfortable distance and have a nice shot with a 50mm. But with a 28mm, that person will be smaller in the frame, and they might get lost along with the rest of the background if you are too far away.  In the image above, it's clear who my subject is, he's too big compared to the rest of the frame for there to be any confusion. So if you want better portraits out of a 28mm, it's time to get close! 
5) Think scenery
 nicaragua-street But at the same time, getting close is not the end all of all 28mm endeavors. The 28mm renders scenes very well. The difference between a chaotic scene with a well organized one is seeing in terms of broad shapes, being patient and being ready. The scene above works well because of the dynamic implied by the different vehicles: nicaragua-street-2 The brain doesn't see multiple houses, it sees a straight line, the brain doesn't see a guy on a bike with his kid first, it sees a vector pulling to the bottom left. So when trying to frame a scene with a 28mm, remember that the brain goes for broad shapes first, so be patient for people to come around, do something, and then click the shutter release. You will have to be attentive to what's going on in the frame because every broad element will affect how the photograph is seen at the end.  
6) Don't be afraid to exaggerate
Saint Wiki says “In photography and cinematographyperspective distortion is a warping or transformation of an object and its surrounding area that differs significantly from what the object would look like with a normal focal length, due to the relative scale of nearby and distant features.” colo-street-distortion-1 See the guy's hand on the right? It's distorted. Perspective distortion is to be exploited! It's like if something is close to the corner at a sharp angle, it's starting to pull on it….so why not use this wisely? New-York-Street-Photography When I saw this lady pass by, I quickly framed her so that her hair would be close to the lens and close to the corner. I used them to exaggerate her hair. Here's another shot: exxagerate-2 I seriously exaggerated this guy's features. With a 28mm, things can get out of proportion, experiment! 
7) Use negative space wisely
 low angle I wanted to make a portrait of this too-busy-for-you guy. Put my camera up….and I had a lamppost and a bunch of buildings. How could I bring attention to him? Well….negative space of course! I waited for the guy to come at a spot where there was only the sky and framed the shot. If you see empty space in your shot, that might be a good idea to place your subject there. 
8) Frame within a frame
So….there's too much going on in the frame, how can you make your frame smaller, without cropping? Simple, you place your subject within a frame. See here: frame-within-frame There's two frames here. One is the boundaries of the image, but there's another frame formed by the black shadow on the background. Whatever is in your frame that is within your frame (try to say that 10 times fast) will pop. See the Law of Similarity (as explained in the Inspired Eye Method course) for why that is. So look for shapes where you can nest your subject when shooting a 28mm, it will help lead the eye. 
9) Work your angles
lower-angle In the movie “Dead Poets Society“, there's an atypical teacher (played by Robin Williams) that told his students to get on top of their school tables and look down. His point? To have a different way of looking at things. Sometimes I do the same for Street Photography, I shoot up while I bend down, I try to see things differently. So the tip here is to try shooting low, or to work out other angles that you typically don't think about doing. It's all about seeing differently. Who said movies don't teach you anything again? 
10) Use the force light, Luke
light-contrast-1 Whatever is contrasty will lead your eye to the contrasty part. You want to know what has a lot of contrast? Light on dark. When using a 28mm, always try to seek out patches of light, they bring attention to them very quickly. See above, your eyes can't help to focus on the guy because he pops out so much from his background! If you can't have patches of light, you can always use flash and darken your background: Night-Street-Photography-1 

Conclusion

 Don't be afraid of the 28mm, it might just be your best friend. It takes a bit getting used to, but in my opinion, it opens up a world of possibilities that's just not possible at longer focal lengths. Plus when you limit yourself, you become more creative. I used to be a Bokeh 50mm guy, until I was forced by the limits of my camera to use a 28mm. Without a doubt I grew as a photographer because of this. Try it! Be yourself, stay focused and keep on shooting. 

P.S:

 Check out Inspired Eye Magazine, the bulk of the photographers in there manage with their 28mm and wider. And pssst….why don't you try something wider: haiti-fisherman-1 A special thanks goes to redditors “addled” and “This-Charming-Man” for their corrections and comments. 

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76 thoughts on “10 beginner tips to the 28mm focal length”

  1. Very cool article. This makes me want a 28mm prime. Right now I mainly use my 50mm f/1.8 and love it, but I see how the 28mm opens up a world of new possibilities.

    Question – Were the pictures in your article taken on a full frame or APSC sensor body?

    Also, typo in that last paragraph that needs fixing. Used not Sued 🙂

    1. Sheesh. Would attract some bad stuff on me! Thanks for the correction and comment 🙂
      All of them were taken with a 1/1.7inch sensor. The one with the old lady in her house was apsc and I believe the one with the 2 kids sitting down too.

      1. Why such problems?
        Nowadays almost everybody uses phonephotography, and nobody cares if it is 28, 35, 18mm, or anyother focus distance.
        In the old days I used 35mm
        Now I use Ricoh GR2 and FUJI X100T, and I approsch more or less the subject, and play with apertures to get what I want
        Stop being lazy, and use the head
        Thanks Oliver, for all the help and good articles you publish

  2. Nice…
    Of course, the question is driving the observer’s attention to the intended subject, or make a statement…
    Whit a tele you “isolate” with the focus-point…with an wide-angle you have to “get closer” to emphasize the main subject…!
    I usually tend to use the 35 (Fuji 100S), but the 28 is probably a better choice in tight spaces or when you really need to show your main subject in a context/ambiance…

  3. Very good article. I currently love shooting FF 50 f1.4-2.8, and already fears shooting 35mm. I decided to never buy something limited to 28mm, but I see it working but with your very good theory and technique. Still, I’m tempted by the FE 2.8/35, so there’s a big chance I may try going wider. Thanks for the tips!

  4. What a great article … for someone who uses 50 1.4 … 85 1.2 … 135mm 2 – usually at wider apertures, it is a piece like this that gets you to reflect on your own work and maybe try something radically different. The examples of composition with a 28mm has really got me thinking …

  5. Good article! I’ve been essentially shooting 35mm almost exclusively for the past 2 years. While it’s been mostly good, I feel there’s something a bit weird with the angle for certain street situations, like it’s neither too wide nor too narrow. I think 28mm is exactly what I need for a change of pace, specifically for the reasons you’ve outlined here.

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  7. Good stuff here! I just got an 18 (28mm equiv) for my X-Pro1 and I’m still adjusting to it. I was going to return it for a 50 but after reading this I’m going to stick it out. =)

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  9. Nice article… some really useful tips here. Have used my own lenses for street photography in similar ways… love the effects we can get. Thanks for posting…. G.

  10. Nice. I learned some things and was reminded of others.

    >Bokeh is the out of focus area.
    Bokeh is the visual quality of the out of focus area.

  11. I never understood people’s problems with the 28mm POV. It is and will always remain my favorite focal length! Given the choice of just one lens, I’ll take the 28mm every time!

  12. Great post! thanks, I use mostly my 27 on my x-pro1 on the streets and it´s perfect for that, but my comfort zon is not that near yet, still working on it.

  13. Thanks for the article. After ditching a 17-50 zoom that was uninspiring, I was left for over a year now with a 50mm as the widest lens on my D7000. For fun, I picked up an 80’s vintage Vivitar (Komine) close focusing 28mm f2.8 very inexpensively on ebay. (Which turned out to be quite a good lens for $80!) Between getting reacquainted with a wider angle and being forced to pay more attention to manual aperture and manual focus, it has been a real kick in the creative pants. No more just setting it wide open, checking the metering, and pushing the button. Your article has provided a lot to think about with my new favorite lens.

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  16. I just picked up a cheap secondhand Nikon 28mm f2.8 D AF and your article has really inspired me to go and get some different types of scenes. I think it should be suited to street photography like you say and there are unlimited possibilities in this sort of constantly changing environment.

    I read that the Nikon 28mm f2.8 D AF can be a little bit soft and when I got the lens I checked it out and for sure it was not sharp at f2.8 but got better as it was stopped down. I used it for a day and the images came out okay but if I pixel peeped then the softness could be seen.

    I found that my camera had a fine focusing function and after applying the correction factor to the lens it has significantly improved the focus and now I am more than happy with my purchase. I now wonder if the previous owner sold it because the lens was soft and they didn’t know how to correct it?

  17. Good article. I’m still getting used to my GR V that I’ve had for the past month. What I like is that I mapped a fn button to the crop options on it so I can quickly cycle through 28,35,47 mm focal lengths. I was most often using 35mm at first but of late I find that the compositions I am seeing with my eye don’t fit into the 35.

  18. I was googling 28mm and came across this. Learned a whole new way of seeing but don’t think I can quite manage it yet! (What about the big nose effect with portraits?) I went the other way with my Fuji X100S : couldn’t make friends with 35mm, so I bought the teleconverter to 50mm. A good lens but not so compact a camera any more. Glad to have discovered your site.

  19. Great article and links.
    I am mostly shooting film and have been looking for guidance with using 28mm.
    Do your tips still apply?
    And how to avoid the too large noses you get up close with the wide angle lens.
    Thank you.

  20. I chose the Ricoh GR specifically for that sharp 28mm, and snap focus. I may also pick up a Sigma dP1M for even finer details in 28mm Foveon Sensor goodness.

  21. Another excellent article with some outstanding 28mm shots, Olivier.
    I’ve been a 35mm shooter most of my life but recently went on an exclusive 28mm diet for some months. Suddenly my trusty 35mm look somewhat tight but I’d still have to think about which single FL I’d choose for a trip around the globe, lol.
    (BTW, I hope you’ll find some time for at least a short trip to Haiti for some re-calibration. You know what I mean – same …. over here.)

    All the best!
    Ken

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  23. I’ve got two Voigtlanders. One a 40mm F2 and the 28mm F2.8. Excellent optics! Just got back from a 3,600+ mile road trip and used only these two lenses (although I had an 85MM with me as well). I’ve been shooting with 28mm lenses for a long time. I guess it’s the way I see things in a wide angle shot. Tried a 24mm and a 20mm. Just didn’t do anything for me. BUT, the 28mm was the “ticket” lens. Has the right angle for my sight. The thing about the 24 and the 20 when shooting landscapes is those two, take the background scenery too far back into the picture. The 28mm is just right! Good article about my favorite wide angle Oliver.

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  29. 28mm is a normal lens in the APS-C format and not a wide angle lens at all. This entire article is founded upon a severe misunderstanding.

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  31. Thanks for this article… How can I missed reading prior taking my basic photography class… surely this is of a big help… Many thanks

  32. I just bought Fujifilm X70. Fix wide lens that equal to 28mm of 35mm film camera.
    This article inspired me to use my X70 for more photos. Thanks a lot.

  33. A very inspiring and encouraging article.
    Last year, I sold my zoom lens and bought a 50mm and thought that I should use this field of view for a couple of years (apart from ultra wide and telephoto)
    After reading and reflecting on your article, I see that 50mm field of view is almost like cheating. You leave out many of important aspects of photography like balancing, leading lines etc.
    I will set my compact zoom to 28mm and will shoot with that field of view for a couple of days, and try to practice ( honestly say imitate ) your shots
    Thanks again,

    1. I already gave feedback on how excited I was to pick up a bargain 28 mm Nikon wide angle lens on eBay and since then I have made good use of this lens.

      But sometimes what you have is still not enough, and I wanted to go even wider. There is just so much that can be done around town capturing street images or even architecture.

      Snagged myself a Nikon 20 mm for AUD $963 after reading some great reviews and finding a birthday special and now I am going out to play.

      I am inspired.

  34. A belated and interesting read. But I think your tip about getting close for portraits should be balanced by one about avoiding distorted nose, ears by getting too close and filling the frame as you would with a 50mm. That’s why I think landscape orientation is a good safeguard as (most of) your portraits show. And, as you say, watch negative space.

  35. WOW! THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR THIS ARTICLE! This is just the information I needed. My photography professor encouraged me to use a 28mm lens, but I was unsure on how to go out and shoot with it, and this was just and more than what I needed. Thank you for this! The photos really show the points that you make, and it is so awesome that all the information is easy to understand! I feel like I can do it! Thank you thank you

  36. I used to be all about 35mm … And in some ways I still am, if I need “one” prime to go out with, it is most versatile and ready for more situations. However I’ve started favoring 28mm and 50mm combo on Full Frame for a certain “look”

    The 35mm doesn’t quite get wide enough to capture the environment or a “cool” looking perspective, and it also won’t blur the background and isolate a subject like the 50.

    I have 28 50 on FF when I’m going more serious or artistic, then a 2.8 24mm pancake on crop when it’s more casual.

      1. Very informative article, but as mentioned above one should be hesitant about close-up portraits with a 28mm lens.

        I carry a Fuji X-70 baby camera (it fits into almost any sized pocket) with an APS-C sensor that produces excellent images. A quick shot-from-the-hip image taken with no time for composition, as such, can often be corrected by cropping.
        In some applications,e.g. journalism, getting a shot, any shot, is often necessary so here again the 28mm will capture a wide scene from which some desirable element may be cropped out.

        THX for the great article, the example images really illustrated what the words described.

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