Focal length, usually represented in millimeters (mm), is the basic description of a photographic lens. It is not a measurement of the actual length of a lens, but a calculation of an optical distance from the point where light rays converge to form a sharp image of an object to the digital sensor or 35mm film at the focal plane in the camera. The focal length of a lens is determined when the lens is focused at infinity.

The focal length tells us the angle of view—how much of the scene will be captured—and the magnification—how large individual elements will be. The longer the focal length, the narrower the angle of view and the higher the magnification. The shorter the focal length, the wider the angle of view and the lower the magnification.

Zoom or Prime

There are two types of lenses-prime and zoom. Prime lenses have a fixed focal length and zoom lenses have variable focal lengths. The advantage of the zoom lens is its versatility. They are ideal when you are photographing a variety of subjects such as landscapes and portraits, and you just want one lens for both situations. Using a zoom lens also reduces the number of times you need to change the lens which saves time and limits the possibility of getting dust in the camera's mirror box or on the sensor.

The main advantages of prime or fixed focal length lenses are their size and weight as well as their maximum aperture or f/stop. Prime lenses tend to be more compact and lightweight than zoom lenses.

Prime lenses also tend to have a larger maximum aperture (f/1.4 to f/2.8). This is an advantage when shooting in low light conditions as it will increase the possibility of hand holding the camera and freezing the subject without shake or blur caused by the longer exposures. Photographing using prime lenses with large apertures also means you can get a shallow depth of field which is useful for portraiture where you might want a softer or blurred background (also known as bokeh).