Experimenting with Focal Length

By Kate Riley July 30, 2012

I’ve been focused (ha!) on my photography lately, trying to improve even more and one of the things I’ve been studying is focal length.  I’m learning that not only do aperture, shutter speed, and ISO settings matter, but millimeters do too.  All digital camera lenses have a mm setting assigned to them, some are fixed (50mm or 35mm) others are zoom.  The assigned millimeters are the mathematical definition for the distance between the lens and image sensor (focal length), but in everyday language, just know that the number determines from how close or far away you can capture a subject with a particular lens.

10-24mm is a wide angle which allows you to pull back and capture full room shots, architecture, or larger landscapes. I have a Tamron wide angle and I love it.  Most kit lenses that come with a DSLR camera are in the 18-55mm range.  Telephotos go all the way up to 600mm or higher and allow you to zoom in from far away – they’re great for capturing sports or wildlife, and I’ve always wanted to play with one!

Last spring, my little boy played baseball and one of the moms was snapping pictures with a giant telephoto lens and she was able to capture some fun closeups of the team in action from far away, so I struck up a conversation with her – I do that with photographers, I’m fascinated by the fancy equipment and lenses!  Turns out, she’s not a professional photographer at all, it’s her hobby and she had rented the lens to take pictures of her son.   Okay wow, renting lenses?  Sounds like a great idea!

A few months went by and I eventually decided to try it out for myself.  I used Borrow Lenses* to rent this 70-300mm zoom Nikkor lens and picked it up at a local shop (there are several pickup locations in California) to play around for the first time with a telephoto lens.

We headed out to Bodega on Saturday for our favorite clam chowder stop and for me to test out this lens.  The clarity is slightly compromised since these are .jpgs but here’s an image taken from the hill above with the 18-55mm kit lens that came with my Nikon D90.

I switched the lens to the 70-300mm telephoto and zoomed in – the shot of the dock and seagulls got a little more dynamic!


Sometimes the kit lens captured exactly what I wanted – these boats along the water are a gorgeous scene, I actually like this image better than the zoom.

Switching again, I was able to use the borrowed telephoto to zoom in on the waterfront homes across the bay.


Here’s a group of pelicans gathered up together across the road, taken with the kit lens.

And the zoom:

We headed up to Bodega Head as the fog was rolling in and the wind was blowing pretty hard – it’s a crazy cliff out there so you’ve got to stand back but wow, what an amazing view of the Northern California coastline!

Taken with a kit lens (18-55 mm)

 Telephoto zoom lens capturing some cool wave action:

I had a lot of fun experimenting with a zoom lens (it weighs almost 2 pounds by the way) and I was able to grab a bunch of cool coastal shots.  This lens costs $600 retail and I was able to rent it for $45 which included insurance just in case.

I wanted to pass it along to all of you out there who want to experiment with different cameras, lenses, or equipment, you can rent them online without buying them.  Pretty cool if you’re going on a trip or attending a special event and you want to try out a DSLR camera or take some shots with a lens you don’t own.

Anyone ever rented photography equipment before?  So fun, right?

Related Article:  Why You Should Learn to Shoot in Manual

*not a sponsored post, I just had fun using this service!




  1. This is a great tip! I’m learning about photography and picking it up as a hobby, and I’ve been wondering about different types of lenses and which ones are worth the investment. This would be a great way to try out a few and decide which ones I can or can’t live without. Thanks!

  2. Great article. You explained with pictures (no pun intended) exactly what I have never understood. Also I would love 8×10 of your cliff shots, they were spectacular. Again great job.

    • Too kind Kip, thanks and just email me for the high res image!

  3. What an ingenious idea to try before you buy! I’ll have to keep this in mind when I get closer to experimenting with more sophisticated photography equipment myself. Love it!

  4. I’ve always thought you share such beautiful images here on the blog! How cool to be able to rent and play with some new lenses. I have an extra zoom lens for my Nikon, but never used it until Natalie’s ballet recital in May. What a difference!!! Like the shot of pelicans…you can capture so much more.

  5. I borrowed from them last year when we went in the Polar Express train. I’m so glad I did, I got better pics than I would have with my kit lens. The only lens I’ve purchased is a 50mm buy would definitely like to get something in that 10-24 range as well as a zoom.

  6. I’m lucky because i used to be a family photographer so I still own some pretty great lenses. But when I closed my business, I did sell some of the ones i don’t use very often. I just rent them now whenever i feel like challenging myself with a new project. It can really help you get out of a creative rut too because each lens “sees” so differently. I love renting fisheye and really good macro lenses. Great fun you can have with those!

  7. Nice shots! I never knew you could rent lenses. That’s an awesome idea.

  8. Although all these shots were amazing, I particularly loved the last two. They’d look great framed. Years ago (he’s 37 now) we rented a movie camera for my son’s 2nd. birthday. OMG, now that makes me feel OLD.

  9. I’ve used Borrowed Lenses before when I went on vacation and wanted to have a telephoto lens with me. It was great, cheap, and allowed me to take much better vacation photos than I could with my kit lens. I was able to use the extra rental day and take amazing pictures of the hubs playing baseball.

  10. Wow! What a difference! I love the idea of renting the lens and trying it out before the big purchase. I think I may have to try this! I love all of the pelicans!! Beautiful pictures Kate and thanks for sharing!

  11. My sister would probably love to rent out different equipment to play with, but there’s no such thing as Lenses for Rent here.

    • Hi Marox, the link in the post is an online service, available anywhere in the US if you don’t mind paying for shipping!

  12. Great to know! You did a great job explaining the difference, thank you!

  13. Thanks for posting this! I also have a Nikon D90 and have always just used the 18-55 lens. I think the 18-200 would be good since then I wouldn’t have to switch in and out, but the renting is a great idea!!

  14. Love all your pictures Kate. I wish I had known years ago before I had bought all my lenses for my DSLR, that you could rent them first. But seriously, I love all the lenses I have anyway, so it’s fine. I have a zoom lens and I love it. I’ve actually taken some awesome shots in Hawaii and California and I really cherish those pictures. Though I might have to think about a 10-24mm lens next. The smallest I have is a 18-55mm. Thanks for sharing the company your rented from, I think I will try this out.

    Kate I have one question, what do you save your pictures as usually? You said “The clarity is slightly compromised since these are .jpgs”. And what size do you save as to use on your blog? ok that was two questions. Thanks! Have a great day. :)

    • Hey Jen, probably should have explained that .jpg comment! I have recently started shooting in RAW and crazy about the clarity in comparision. With WordPress I have to use .jpg which is a compressed file or a .png which is a bit larger. Anyway, the shots came out really pretty in the RAW format! But they take up a lot of space so I have to edit them and delete the ones I don’t use. I should probably write about that!

  15. I just rented a lens from them for a cross country road trip that I took a few weeks ago. I loved the company, they are great to work with. I plan on renting lenses from them in the future to play around with.

  16. I have a cheaper (~$100) version of this lens, and I really enjoy it. I use the short kit lens and my zoom lens for everything. With my own photos, I don’t notice enough of a different in lens quality to really worry. So that is an option if you could see yourself using this lens often. I mostly use the zoom lens for bird photos (not good enough to sell, but good enough for home use and for identifying birds later) and for sports photos.

  17. Your photos are wonderful. The coastline is beautiful. I am definitely going to try renting a telephone lens. I didn’t know that option was available. Thanks for sharing.

  18. Wow….you took really beautiful photos w/ this lens. What kind of camera are you currently using right now? Is this a nikon/canon lens? We are beginners in photography and we just recently got a nikon d3000 and still learning how to use it to the best of our abilities. Even though we just started…but this is such a great hobby!

  19. What a fabulous idea! I’m inspired What is your clam chowder spot in Bodega? We go there often. I till haven’t found a great place there yet..well there is a fabulous spot in Occidental called Howard Station, but it’s not on the coast.

  20. A nice thing about BorrowLenses and LensRentals – they only keep the lenses in circulation for a couple years, then they sell them. I got my 70-300 from LensRentals Black Friday sale, it was a great deal.

  21. Thanks for explaining Kate. I thought you might be shooting in RAW, but wasn’t sure. Thought you might have had another trick up your sleeve. haha! Thanks Kate. :)

  22. I love renting lenses! Rented one for a friend b-day party – a 35mm f1.4L (retail $1300), I was able to shoot wide open without a flash at night with just candle light and fairy lights. Pics are a bit grainy due to the iso, but turned out AWESOME! I was so impressed. and it’s a lense that i’d never purchase for myself. Fun fun!

  23. This post was awesome, Kate! I have been pondering renting a lens and think I may not give it a go! And I have to say you explained the focal length perfectly! It is so much easier being able to understand when there are pictures to go with the text showing exactly the difference!

  24. Beautiful photos…and what a great tip. I had no idea you could rent a lens to try it out…brilliant! We love Bodega Bay and head up there at least once a year, usually in the fall to go crabbing off the jetty!
    We are so lucky to live in a such a beautiful area…#NorCalGirlForever! :)

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