You’ve probably heard in more than one occasion that the secret to capturing great images is the photographer, not the camera. That’s definitely true, to some extent. If you’re talented (and lucky) enough, you could take your decades-old compact camera, capture some striking photos, share them on your photography website, and make a living out of selling your outstanding work.
However, more often than not you’ll need to invest in professional gear in order to keep improving your skills. The kit lens that came with the camera when you bought it might be enough for some time, but eventually you’ll start dreaming of bigger challenges that require different types of camera lenses. This is a natural outcome that comes with finding your style and passion, and yearning for the tools to bring your ideas to life.
Whether you’re looking to expand your equipment kit or simply wondering what the best lens is for your specific photography niche, you’ve come to the right place. This simple guide will teach you all you need to know about the different types of camera lenses and when to use them.
Standard lenses have a mid-range focal length, usually between 35mm and 85mm. These lenses offer a fairly accurate representation of what the human eye sees, both in terms of visual angle and perspective. As a result, images are perceived as more natural than those taken with other types of camera lenses.
Also known as “normal lenses,” their human-like viewpoint is especially valuable in documentary projects such as street, portrait and travel photography. Beyond these genres, this lens is considered a standard lens that every professional photographer must have in their equipment. Out of the many options, the 50mm prime lens, popularly referred to as “Nifty Fifty,” is the preferred gear choice among professionals and amateurs alike.
Telephoto lenses have long focal lengths, starting at 85mm, and allow you to photograph subjects from a distance thanks to their magnification. They are significantly heavier and bigger than other types of lenses, and more often than not require the use of camera accessories such as tripods or monopods.
Since depth of field is inversely proportional to focal length, these lenses inherently produce very narrow focal planes. This makes short telephoto lenses (85mm to 135mm) especially useful for portrait photography, as the background appears completely blurred. In other types of photography, they offer the ability to get close up shots from a significant distance away. This is what makes these lenses so popular among a variety of fields, such as sports and wildlife photography.
Wide angle lenses
Wide angle lenses are those with a short focal length, commonly ranging from 14 to 35mm. The broader field of view allows you to capture more of the scene in a single exposure. Because of this, wide angle lenses are particularly popular in architecture and landscape photography.
Another one of the key features of these types of camera lenses is their ability to create a large depth of field. This allows the photographer to capture shots where most of the scene is razor sharp. On the downside, the shorter the focal length is, the more distortion you’ll see in your images. While you can use a free photo editing software to correct this issue, it’s recommended to avoid placing elements near the frame to minimize the damage.
Fish eye lenses
Fish eye lenses are ultra wide angle lenses with a focal length between 4mm to 14mm. They’re most commonly used in abstract photography, as their unique mapping gives the image a convex appearance that distorts straight lines. The lowest focal lengths can result in circular images that provide a 180° view.
As you might’ve guessed, their name comes from their similarity to fish eyes. You can see in the frontal element of the lens that it bows forwards to offer a panoramic view. While the singularity of this type of camera lens makes them unsuitable for most projects, they are a wonderful tool to bring your creative photography ideas to life.
Macro lenses have a unique internal structure that allows them to capture close ups with accurate detail, sharpness, and contrast. The purpose of this type of lens is to display subjects at life size (1:1) or larger. They’re primarily used to capture beautiful nature photos, but are also significantly popular in fields such as product and fine art photography.
The focal length of macro lenses usually varies between 35mm and 200mm. However, many prefer telephoto lengths as being far from the subject makes it easier to illuminate the scene. Regardless of the distance the photographer is from their subject, macro lenses do not perform well in far distances. In other words, you won’t be able to get a sharp focus in a broad frame.
Tilt-shift lenses can be tilted and shifted to manipulate the vanishing points of the scene. This is achieved by modifying the position of the optics in relation to the camera sensor. They’re used to alter perspectives and reduce lens distortion, as well as to focus selectively.
This type of lens is not commonly used by the regular public, but rather in specialized photography careers such as architecture photography and fine art photography.
Prime vs. zoom lenses
Prime lenses have a fixed focal length, while zoom lenses provide a range of focal lengths you can easily change. Both of them have their strengths and weaknesses, and you’ll likely end up with both types of camera lenses on your equipment.
Because they do not have internal moving parts other than the diaphragma, prime lenses tend to be cheaper and lighter, as well as having better optical quality than zoom lenses. On the downside, you won’t be able to get closer or farther from the subject without physically moving.
Zoom lenses are much more flexible and allow you to photograph a wide range of subjects without having to change your gear. However, zoom lens tend to be slower and rarely match the perfection in quality of prime lenses.
Fast vs. slow lenses
The speed of a lens is determined by its aperture. Fast lenses offer wide apertures, such as f/2.8 and up, while slow lenses usually only support up to f/4. The wider the aperture, the better the lens will perform in low light conditions, and the narrower the depth of field you’ll be able to achieve.
Since photography is all about light, hence the name, you should always aim to use a faster lens, especially if you want to become a professional photographer. Their only downside is the pricing tag, as each additional stop can easily double the price of the lens.