There are many types of camera lenses out there, and it can be a bit confusing and even frustrating trying to sort it out because not every lens will be right for the type of photo you are trying to capture in a particular situation.
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Firstly, there are two broad categories of lenses: prime and zoom. A prime lens has a fixed focal length. They come in all sorts of lengths from a 6mm fisheye lens or a 14mm ultra-wide-angle to a 50mm standard to a 600mm telephoto and pretty much every length in between and beyond.
There was a time when prime lenses were considered sharper than zoom lenses, but these days the difference is less significant and some zooms are considered to be close to or as good as prime lenses.
Primes and zooms both have their pros and cons. As mentioned, primes are usually a bit sharper than zooms. That’s not to suggest that zooms aren’t sharp, just that some primes may be sharper than some zooms. Primes are generally smaller and lighter and often less expensive for lenses of comparable quality, though there are certainly very large and very expensive prime lenses on the market.
On the other hand, you only have one focal length with a prime. If you want to adjust your framing of a scene you have to move closer to your subject or further away from it. Or you have to buy another prime lens with a different focal length and change lenses, which means added expense, another piece of gear in your bag, and for some cameras, an increased risk of getting dust on your sensor when you change lenses.
A standard focal length for a prime lens is a 50mm lens (in 35mm full frame terms), which is commonly referred to as a normal lens. It’s considered standard or normal because it is the focal length that matches – more or less – how we see the world with our human eyes, as our field of view is approximately 50mm.
Across different film and image sensor format sizes, lenses with a focal length roughly equal to the diagonal size of the film frame or image sensor are considered to be normal. For 35mm film or sensors, the diagonal of a 24×36mm area is 43.3mm, so lenses with focal lengths between 40mm to 55mm are considered to be normal.
50mm became the standard normal lens for 35mm after that focal length was favored and selected by Oskar Barnack, the creator of the Leica camera and a father of 35mm photography.
Zoom lenses, as the name suggests, have a variable focal length that allows you to change your composition by zooming in and out on your subject. They come in a variety of configurations. Some of the more typical ranges are the 16-35mm ultra-wide-angle, 24-105 standard zoom, 70-200mm telephoto zoom, and the 100-400mm telephoto zoom.
This gives you greater flexibility in how you frame your image. It also means you may not need to buy and carry an extra lens. This can be especially helpful for travel where weight and space may be a consideration or for events when you may not have time to change a lens.
A standard zoom lens is in the 24-105mm range. Another option is the 24-70mm lens. Some of the 24-70mm zooms are faster than the 24-105, offering an f2.8 aperture vs. f4 for the 24-105 lenses. This is very useful in low-light situations. However, the 24-105 gives you more reach. So it’s a trade-off between reach and speed. You have to decide which is more important to you. Regardless, if you just want to carry one lens, the standard zoom is hard to beat. It works well for many types of photography – travel, family photos, landscapes, street photography, and events, for example.
Most entry-level interchangeable-lens cameras come bundled with what’s called a “kit” lens. Typically it’s something like an 18-55mm zoom lens, sometimes alongside a second kit lens in the 75-300mm range. These starter lenses are designed to provide a flexible focal range that allows the photographer to capture a wide range of subjects as they are learning more about photography, from wide-angle shots to normal or telephoto images.
These lenses are often cheaply built and have one of the lowest price points among a manufacturer’s lens lineup. They generally come with variable maximum apertures, meaning the maximum aperture possible on the widest focal length is larger than the maximum available on the telephoto end.
While kit lenses can be a good place to start, photographers may want to upgrade their starter lenses or expand their collection with more specialized lenses, certain focal lengths, a larger maximum aperture, and/or lenses that have superior image quality.
Superzooms have a bit more reach than a standard zoom, usually going from around 24mm or so out to around 200mm, though there are lenses that go well beyond this range too. This makes them more versatile than standard zooms, but what you gain in flexibility you lose in quality. Superzoom lenses often aren’t as sharp as standard zooms, especially in the corners of the frame. However, many people find them to be sharp enough, especially if all you’re doing is posting your pictures online.
Certain bridge and compact cameras are known for having built-in superzoom lenses with very powerful zoom capabilities.
As the name suggests, wide-angle lenses give you a wider field of view – you capture more of the scene. In landscape photography, for example, this means you can photograph a wide open space. In real estate or architectural photography, it means you can capture more of a confined interior space. However, there’s more to wide-angle lenses than just cramming more stuff into your pictures.
First, wide-angle lenses give your greater depth of field than standard or telephoto lenses. Theoretically, this means you can get everything in your picture acceptably sharp with one shot if you use a wide-angle lens. Your f-stop, the actual focal length, sensor size, and where you focus also play a role in maximizing your depth of field. Nonetheless, if you want the foreground, midground, and background sharp, use a wide-angle lens.
Wide-angle lenses also exaggerate the size of things in the foreground. They make the things closest to you look big and things further away look small. You can use this effect creatively when composing your images.
For example, in a classic landscape composition, you will usually have a strong foreground element – a flower, rock, tree, etc. – appear large in the image, while the background, which creates the setting, appears small.
On the other hand, you probably don’t want to use a wide-angle lens for a portrait because it will exaggerate the size of things closest to the camera, which in the case of a person could be a nose or belly.
In addition, wide-angle lenses can create distortion, turning straight lines into curved lines. The effect can usually be corrected somewhat or completely using the Lens Correction and Transform panels in Lightroom and other software.
Wide-angle lenses are available as either primes or zooms. Typical wide-angle or ultra wide-angle zooms are in the 16-35mm range or 14-24mm range.
Ultra Wide-Angle Lenses
An ultra wide-angle lens is a lens that provides an even wider view than a typical wide-angle lens. Generally, this refers to any lens that has a shorter equivalent focal length than 24m on a 35mm full-frame camera.
Ultra-wide lenses can be rectilinear (with straight lines rendered as straight lines) or curvilinear (with straight lines rendered as curved lines). More on this difference later, but lens manufacturers have in recent years created wider and wider rectilinear lenses for things like landscape photography.
In 2020, the Chinese company Venus Optics introduced the Laowa 9mm f/5.6, which became the world’s widest rectilinear lens for full-frame cameras.
Telephoto lenses are great for wildlife, sports, portraits, even close-up photography, or any situation when you either can’t get close enough or don’t want to get too close to your subject.
For telephoto zooms, the typical ranges are 70-200mm, 100-400mm, and 150-600mm. There are other variations, but those are the basic ranges.
The 70-200mm length is popular with portrait photographers because they allow you to zoom in for close-ups without crowding your subject. They also produce images that have a more compressed and more natural look than a wide-angle or even standard-length lens. Telephoto lenses also have less depth of field than wide-angle or standard lenses, an effect that helps separate the subject from the background by making the background appear out of focus.
Many landscape photographers like the 70-200 length because it is smaller and lighter than something like the 100-400mm zoom, but still allows them to zoom in and isolate details. They can also be used for some limited wildlife photography as long as the subject isn’t too far away.
However, if birds and other wildlife are a priority, you’ll be better off with a 100-400mm or 150-600mm lens. These are the workhorse lenses for wildlife. The 100-400 in particular is a versatile range. In addition to wildlife photography, the lens is found in the bags of many landscape photographers.
Prime telephoto lenses run from around 85mm up to 800mm. There are some specialty lenses that are longer, but for practical purposes, most people will stick with something in the 85-800mm range, depending on the use.
The shorter lenses, like the 85mm, are used mostly for portrait photography, while the longer lenses are used for wildlife and sports.
As mentioned, the advantage of prime telephotos over their zoom cousins is that they tend to be sharper and faster. For example, the fastest f-stop of the Canon RF 100-500 is f7.1 when fully extended. The Canon RF 600mm lens goes down to f2.8. This means it captures more light, so you’ll get less noise and be able to use a faster shutter speed.
The Sony 200-600 zoom goes down to f6.3 at 600mm, while the Sony 600mm prime goes to f4. The extra speed comes at a hefty price, however. The Canon 600mm is $11,999 and the Sony is $12,999 compared to $2895 for the Canon 100-500 Zoom and $1995 for the Sony 200-600.
A common misconception about telephoto lenses is that they create a compressed look, flattening elements in a scene. It’s not the lens that creates the look; it’s the scene and your distance from the subject. Go outside and look around. Notice how things that are closer to you appear larger and further apart. A picture of this scene will appear to have greater depth – a more three-dimensional look. Now fix your gaze on something in the distance. You’ll see that far away things look closer together more compressed. An image of that part of the scene will have a flatter, more two-dimensional look. That’s what telephoto lenses capture.
It’s an effect that you want to think about when composing an image. If you want more depth in your image, use a wide-angle or standard lens. If you want a flatter look, then get further away from your subject and use a telephoto lens.
Telephoto lenses also produce a shallower depth of field than other lenses. Consequently, the area in front of and behind your subject is likely to appear somewhat out of focus even if your subject is sharp. Use this effect creatively when composing. For example, if you want to take a picture of a flower and have a soft, blurry background, use a long lens.
Beyond short telephoto lenses of 85-135mm in 35mm terms and medium telephoto lenses of 135-300mm, lenses with focal lengths greater than 300mm on a 35mm full-frame camera are often referred to as super-telephoto lenses.
These lenses can be used to capture faraway subjects — the moon, for example.
If you’re looking for a longer reach for your telephoto lens, you don’t always have to buy a longer lens. A cost-effective alternative is to add an accessory called a teleconverter, which is also known as a tele extender. These are short secondary lenses that attach to your camera at one end and your telephoto lens at the other.
They usually come in either 1.4x, 2x, or 2.8x versions. A 1.4x would multiply the reach of your lens by 1.4, turning a 400mm lens into a 560mm lens. The 2x doubles the reach, turning a 400mm lens into an 800mm lens. A 2.8x turns a 400mm lens into a 1120mm lens.
They only work on telephoto lenses such as a 70-200mm or a 100-400mm. They won’t fit a standard or wide-angle lens. The downside of using a tele extender is that they reduce the amount of light reaching the sensor, which means you have to use a slower shutter speed or higher ISO. A slower shutter speed could add blur if you’re trying to photograph a fast-moving subject like a bird in flight. A higher ISO may add noise.
Macro lenses let you focus at very short distances so you can make close-up photos of small things like flowers, insects, small products like jewelry, electronic components, pharmaceuticals, or anything else worthy of a close-up. They also can be used to make interesting abstracts.
A true macro lens produces a life-size image at its minimum focusing distance. This is represented as a 1:1 ratio. There are also ultra or extreme macro lenses that produce 2:1 or more magnification at the minimum focusing distance. On the other hand, some so-called macros offer less than 1:1. They can still produce interesting close-up images, but they have less magnification than a true macro. Be sure to check the specs if looking to buy a macro lens.
Macro lenses come in a variety of focal lengths from 14mm ultra-wide-angle to 100mm or more telephoto. If you’re just starting out with macro, you’ll probably find a longer telephoto lens more useful. The longer lenses let you get close-ups without getting too close, so you won’t block your own light or scare away the bug you want to photograph.
You also get a shallower depth of field when doing close-up photography, which creates a softer background and more separation of your subject from the background. The downside of that, of course, is that your focus has to be spot on. If not, you could end up with an out-of-focus subject.
Rectilinear lenses are designed to correct for barrel and pincushion distortion – they keep straight lines in the scene looking straight rather than curved. Most camera lenses on the market are at least somewhat rectilinear.
Fisheye lenses (also known as curvilinear lenses) go in the opposite direction. They are ultra-wide angle lenses that intentionally distort the image by creating very curved lines.
A tilt-shift lens is a specialty lens that lets you change perspective, eliminate distortion and alter depth of field by tilting or shifting the position of the lens in relation to the sensor. It’s not a lens most photographers will ever use. However, they have their fans, especially among architectural photographers who use them to straighten the lines of tall buildings and interior walls.
For example, if you stand near a tall building and try to take a picture of it with a standard lens, the top of the building will appear smaller than the bottom because it is further away. The edges of the building will converge near the top like two parallel lines receding into the distance.
A tilt-shift lens lets you manually shift the lens, altering the plane of focus, in relation to the sensor. This makes the top of the building look as wide as the bottom, so the edges are straight parallel lines and don’t converge. The building looks normal.
You can also keep the edges looking parallel if you can get far enough away from the building. However, this isn’t practical in a crowded city where space is limited or in any situation where you don’t have a clear sight line.
Additionally, you can fix the converging lines in Lightroom, Photoshop, and other programs. This is probably fine for most photographers, but fixing perspective in editing alters the underlying pixels and can degrade the image.
Tilting the lens also lets you alter the depth of field. You can either minimize it to keep one area of the image sharp and the rest blurry, which can create an interesting effect, or you can tilt the lens in such a way that you get maximum depth of field – everything is sharp from front to back. You can also increase your depth of field using a higher f-stop, but you may not always get enough depth of field for everything from the foreground to the background to be sharp. Also, higher f-stops may result in diffraction, which will soften the focus.
Pick What’s Best For You
So you’re ready to buy your next lens. Which one should you get? Well, it depends on what you want to do with it. For example, if you’re looking for one lens to do it all, then a standard zoom or super zoom will do the trick. If you’re into birds and other wildlife, then you’ll want a long telephoto lens. Landscape photographers will want some sort of wide-angle lens. Then there are the specialty lenses like a macro for close-ups or a fast ultra-wide for astrophotography.
Many photographers eventually acquire a collection of lenses known as the “holy trinity” – an ultra-wide-angle zoom such as a 16-35mm, a standard zoom like a 24-70 or 24-105, and a telephoto zoom such as 70-200 or 100-400. This gives you good coverage for a range of situations.
However, you don’t need to rush to buy a collection of lenses all at once…or ever. You can make it work with whatever you have. I knew a professional landscape photographer who had a successful career using a single 24-70mm lens.
Any lens can be used to make great images. You just can’t get every type of photograph with every lens. Some lenses are better in some situations than other lenses. The trick is to figure out your goal and then balance that with your budget.