# Estimating focal length range required for shooting scenario

Is it possible to estimate (or calculate), in advance, the range of focal lengths you might need for shooting in a given scenario?

For instance, suppose you will be going to the zoo (with your APS-C DSLR) and you want to pack light, and assuming that you will be between 30ft(10m) and 60ft(20m) from your subjects, is it possible to calculate which zoom lens(es) to take to cover this range so that you can get wide angle to reasonable close-ups?

Is there a forumla (or rule-of-thumb estimatation method) that you can use?

• Looks like you're new here. Welcome to photo.SE!
– Reid
Sep 26, 2010 at 23:47
• Yes, first post, though I was an early committer to the site and have just been lurking for several weeks! Thanks! Sep 27, 2010 at 2:15

If you know or can estimate the distances, use this equation:

``````Focal Length = Sensor Dimension * Distance / Scene Dimension
``````

Where you match the dimension of the sensor and the scene. e.g:

``````Focal Length = Sensor Width * Distance / Scene Width
``````

Note that the the advertised size of your sensor is typically not the width, height, or even the diagonal, which are the appropriate dimensions you can use. See this wiki article for the size.

For non-Canon APS-C, the width is 23.6mm. Say your scene / subject is 20m away and you want a width of 5m at that distance. You can use feet as it is just a ratio. This equation says to use a focal length of 93.6mm.

If you are out in the field already and want to know what lens to put on, it might be good to give yourself a good hand calibration:

Hold your fist in front of your face with your elbow bent at a right angle; use your knuckles to select the lens you want for the scene behind your hand

4knuckles:50mm, 2:100, 1:200.

The trick is figuring out where to hold your fist so the above rule holds. Try it a few times.

Take a photo of a scene with a 50mm lens (or look through the camera's viewfinder with a 50mm lens in place.) Put the camera down & hold your fist in front of your face such that the 4 knuckles just fill that scene height. Remember where to hold your fist next time you want to select a lens.

• Super cool trick. I haven never heard of the knuckle trick! Jan 18, 2012 at 14:57

For normal and longer lenses you can approximate the field of view

angle (radians) = imager size / focal length

Typical imager width is 36mm (full frame), 25mm (aps) 18mm (OM 4:3)

The reason for using radians is that something one meter (or foot) away and one meter (or foot) wide is one radian.

So if you want a picture of an object 1m wide and 10m away you want a field of 1/10 radian and so from the above you want a lens 10x the film (or sensor) size.

(it's not quite accurate enough for wide angle lenses)

• So, on an APS sensor, your example would require a 250mm focal length? Interesting, if that holds, this is a very simple way to make a good guess. Thanks. Sep 27, 2010 at 2:22
• yes, it's the same as the more complete answer by Eruditass. Sep 27, 2010 at 11:19