There’re many lenses in the world of camera and photography. Trust me, it’s easy to get lost! You can go on about lenses in length for hours! The categories are just too many.
Hence, it’s best for us to limit our discussion to some degree. That’s why… in this article, we’re going to categorize the lenses based on their focal lengths only. There’s a reason for it as well!
If the lens is the soul of a camera, then focal length is the soul of a lens. It’s often, however, misunderstood that the focal length is measured from the front rear of the lens. In reality, it’s the distance between the point of the convergence in your lens and the camera’s sensor.
This is the case of simple lens designs. Yet, there’re a number of complex optical designs that work differently. In many cases, that distance isn’t equal to the focal length.
The key thing to remember is, the focal length of a lens is identical to the focal length of single lens that would provide the same field of view.
To put it simply, focal length of the lens determines how ‘Zoomed In’ your photos are. The higher the number, the more zoomed your photos will be.
Standard lenses are called standard lens for a reason. These are the most common lens, both in prime and zoom format. They have a mid-range focal length, usually between 35mm and 85mm.
Although, it’s in this range (at about 40-50mm) that the lens will best produce what our eyes see, excluding peripheral vision of course. So, photos that are taken using these lenses will be felt as more natural than those taken with other types of camera lenses.
Known as ‘Normal Lens’ it can be used for shooting on the street or with friends in a closed setting. Their focal lengths can be used for virtually anything, from nature to action. Hence, this is a must have for every professional photographer out there.
A standard lens such as a 50mm f/1.8, often referred to as ‘Nifty Fifty’ is an excellent, inexpensive addition for a camera. A prime lens will always provide better results than a normal kit zoom lens.
Not to mention, kit zoom also falls into this category. They cover a zoom range of 18-55mm (on crop camera) or 28-70mm (on full frame and film cameras). We’ll talk about it on the later part of this article.
A telephoto lens is a specific type of a long-focus lens in which the physical length of the lens is shorter than the focal length. This is achieved by incorporating a special lens group known as a telephoto group that extends the light path to create a long-focus lens in a much shorter overall design.
Telephoto lenses are sometimes broken into the further sub-types of short telephoto (85mm to 135mm in 35mm film format), medium telephoto (135mm to 300mm in 35mm film format) and super telephoto (over 300mm in 35mm film format)
Short Telephoto Lens
Short telephoto lenses are very versatile. This lens is slightly longer than “normal” and depends on the camera format. For APS-C cameras, lenses with focal lengths between 50mm and 100mm are considered as short telephotos.
Then again, on a Micro Four-thirds camera, lenses with focal lengths of 40mm to 70mm are short telephotos.
Short telephoto lens is the perfect tool for portraiture as the perspective of the lens will make human faces look normal. It also helps bring a sense of intimacy to your portraits that is harder to obtain with longer focal lengths.
A large proportion of dedicated macro lenses also falls into this category. This is because short telephotos are long enough to provide enough working distance. But they’re short enough to not make huge macro lenses.
A technique you can try when making portraits with short telephoto lenses is to find something to shoot through. Let’s take for instance, shooting grass, flowers or the leaves of a tree, while using a wide aperture to throw it out of focus.
Medium Telephoto Lens
Medium telephoto lens’ focal length is between 135mm and 300mm in 35mm film format. It can be considered as the Goldilock lens, just the right focal length for many subjects. It’s not too wide or too ‘zoomy’ and has a wide variety of purpose in your kit.
Well, these lenses are very popular with sports and action photographers who can get quite close to the action. However, in this type of photography, aperture is very crucial in reducing the blur, especially when shooting a fast moving object.
Super Telephoto Lens
For professional wildlife and nature photographers, as well as sports photographers who can’t get very close to the action, super telephoto lens having a huge focal length over 300m is a perfect choice. They’re known for their ability to reach out and capture distant subjects with exceptional clarity.
These high-end lenses feel incredible in hand, with top-of-the-line build quality and a heft that gives shooters confidence in their equipment. In addition to the length, they have all sorts of latest technology, like advanced optical construction, accurate image stabilizing and quick autofocus motor.
Lenses like these usually offer very shallow depth of field, especially with a lower f number to bring in more light. But it totally depends on the person behind the camera whether the limited depth of field and compression be a downside or advantage for him/her.
Wide Angle Lens
A wide-angle lens’ focal length (less than 35mm) is substantially smaller than the focal length of a normal lens for a given film plane. It has a wider angle of view than a normal lens. So, this lens will allow more of the scene to be included in the photograph without chopping the edges off.
Using wide-angle lens, a photographer can emphasize the difference in size between objects in the foreground and the background. By doing this, nearby objects appear very large and objects at a moderate distance appear small and far away.
What this will do is that, the foreground objects become more prominent and striking while capturing expansive backgrounds. Also, because of this exaggerated difference in size between near and far objects, wide-angle lenses tend to produce distorted image, with subjects appearing elongated.
Nevertheless, from time to time it can produce some unwanted effects. Like, capturing your subject’s face through a wide-angle lens will make his features appear more bulge and bloat. They can be pretty funny and interesting but not always particularly flattering, I would say.
These lenses are also engineered to produce rectilinear image. Here, the straight lines stay straight in the final image but not bent and distorted. Subjects near the edge of the frame still tend to be stretched unnaturally.
Fisheye lens has roots dating back to 1906. This term was coined by Robert W. Wood who developed this lens based on how a fish would see an ultra-wide hemispherical view from beneath the water. They were originally developed for use in astronomy to study cloud formation giving them the name “Whole-sky lenses.”
There’re two main variations of this lens: full-frame and circular. A shot taken using the full-frame will have the distorted image taking up the entirety of the frame. On the other hand, a circular shot will have a black border surrounding the spherical shot.
Fisheye lenses are very popular for outdoor photography, particularly when it comes to providing context for skateboarding or surfing shots. It just offers so much creativity. If the fisheye lens ends up in the right hand…the possibilities can be endless.
Put a fisheye in front of your sensor and keep looking through the viewfinder. You’ll be bewildered to find so many interesting shapes and compositions that you would normally miss. Think of crazy vertigos from rooftops or images in which distorted lines actually give meaning to an image.
Not only these lenses are super fun to use, they can also be extremely useful in getting shots that would normally require lots of trouble. Shots that are sometimes nearly impossible to make with a normal extreme wide angle lens.
If you can master the distortion created by this ultra-wide angle lens, fine. But a lot of times, they can become pretty annoying. So, always try to use this distortion to your advantage.
Find scenes in which the fisheye effect actually adds something to the scene. Try to use the distorted lines and curves as a way to lead the viewer into an image.
The word macro is synonymous with close-up photography. The focal length of macro lens is usually varies between 35mm and 200mm. It’s most important feature is the magnification ratio, which is also known as the reproduction ratio.
A magnification ratio of 1:1 means that when the camera is positioned at the closet focusing distance, the image formed on the sensor will be same size as the subject. For this reason, a 1:1 ratio is called ‘life size’ or standard.
Macro lenses are, however, limited to a ratio of 1:2, which means that the subject will appear half ‘life size’. Yet, using extension tubes 1:1 magnification can be achieved. They also have much wider aperture than normal lenses. So, they’ll deliver excellent performance in low-light.
There’s a downside that you’ll encounter while using this lens. That’s the narrow depth of field, particularly for lenses with a long focal length.
Not to mention, in macro photography, stability is very important. In that case, try to use a tripod and macro focusing rail. Some cameras and lenses have integrated stabilization but nothing can quite match the effectiveness of a tripod.
The humble tripod will keep the camera steady and the focusing rail will assist you fine-tuning its position.
In addition, if you have a stable base for your camera, you’ll be able to stop down and shoot with a larger shutter speed, so that you can get more of your subject in focus. It’ll also let more light in, which is very useful when shooting in low-light environment.
Macro lenses are mainly used for photographing insects, plants and small products. But if you know your way around it, it can become very versatile tool to be used in all sorts of situations. Because, pretty much every subject has interesting details which can make for unique close-up photos.
Of all the lenses out there, tilt-shift lenses are the least understood ones. The optics inside this lens can be tilted or shifted in relation to the image sensor. Just add this lens to the front of your camera and you’ll be met with endless opportunities for altering the perspective.
In addition, the optics can also rotate which allows the lens to tilt or shift in a wide range of directions. These lenses are built with such perspective correction in mind that, it can maximize or minimize the depth of field in the photos.
Now, the tilt feature works based on the Scheimpflug principle, where the lens plane and image sensor aren’t exactly parallel. Even if it dramatically changes your plane of sharp focus, it doesn’t have the autofocus feature integrated though.
You can emphasize the effect of limited depth of field at a given aperture by tilting the lens up or down. Using this technique you can give an interesting look to cityscapes if you photograph them from a higher perspectives.
Let’s talk about the shift feature of this lens. Here, the lens’ optics shift is in relation to the image sensor. This is engineered in such a way that, it can project an image circle that is much bigger than traditional lenses.
Ever wondered how stunning architecture photos are taken without converging the vertical lines?
Well, they’re taken using this shift option. You can also try this particular feature while working with mirrors… it’ll provide you with many impossible camera angles without creating a reflection of the camera, which will make that task a lot easier.
Nowadays, tilt-shift lenses are becoming more and more popular among the photographers. For seasonal photographer, it can be very to fun to work or experiment with. On the other hand, for professional architecture photographers, tilt-shift lenses are absolute necessity.
Standard Prime Lenses
Prime lenses are admired for their fast apertures, vivid detail and creamy bokeh. It has a fixed focal length and a maximum aperture from f2.8 to f1.2. The term prime itself has come to mean the opposite of zoom- unifocal lens.
So, you can’t zoom in or zoom out with this lens. As a result, they force you to be more physically involved with your subjects. It makes you think more about your shot which often results in taking creative photos. Hands on approach is always a winner.
It’s true, however, that a prime lens is less versatile than a zoom lens. But there’s a catch…prime lens’s optical quality is more superior to zoom lens. It has wider maximum aperture. 35mm, 50mm and 85mm lenses are frequently used by the photographers.
They have a vast range of aperture speeds and their value is dependent on their maximum aperture and overall build quality. Not to mention, prime lenses are much smaller and compact in size which make them easy to carry around.
Prime lens has those advantages because of its fewer moving parts and optical elements. It’s only designed for one particular focal length with a less complicated lens formula. That’s why shooting with these lenses doesn’t encounter problems like distortion and vignette.
Having maximum fast aperture, prime lens has this ability to let more light in that’s available by opening its aperture to an f/2-f/1.2 or even f/.95 range. This feature facilitates while shooting in low-light condition.
In addition, you also get a much tighter depth of field with these lenses. It’ll enable you to isolate your subject in a shot by blurring the background.
This option will be very handy while taking portrait photos, particularly if the background is rather distracting, or has the potential to steer the interest away from your subject.
If you’re shooting in broad daylight with a prime lens, especially in sunny conditions, it can be a little tricky. In this case, try using a neutral density (ND) filter. Variable NDs are a great gadget to have when you’re shooting video.
Perhaps the most convincing argument against prime lenses is that they can limit the possibilities of the photographer. But is that really so? I’ll leave that for you to decide.
Zoom lens is a versatile tool for every photographer. It offers a wide range of different focal lengths in a single lens. In other words, you can change the angle of view and make it narrower or wider.
It also allows the photographer for quick and easy re-framing of a scene while staying in the same physical position.
A true zoom lens is also called a parfocal lens. It maintains focus when its focal length changes. Although most consumer zoom lenses don’t maintain perfect focus, but are still parfocal designs.
There are four types of zoom lenses. Wide angle zoom lenses enable you to capture a wide area of the scene. Standard zoom lenses and superzoom lenses cover a wide range of focal lengths including telephoto ranges.
Meanwhile, telephoto zoom lenses enable you to capture close-up images of faraway subjects. All four zoom lens types are available in versions compatible with a full-frame DSLR camera, an APS-C DLSR camera, or an EOS M-series mirrorless camera.
In terms of maximum aperture, zoom lenses fall under two categories. They are variable aperture lenses and fixed aperture lenses. In the first one, maximum aperture changes throughout the zoom range, whereas it stays exactly the same on the latter lens.
Fixed aperture allows the photographer to use the same aperture regardless of the focal length. This is perfect for shooting telephoto in darker atmosphere.
There’s, however, a downside of this feature. It involves more complex lens construction which makes the lenses heavy and large. Also they tend to be more expensive than variable aperture zoom lenses.
We’re already aware of the conveniences of variable focal length. But those conveniences come at the cost of complexity. In some cases, it can compromise the image quality, dimensions and autofocus performance.
Take note, images taken with zoom lenses suffer a loss of resolution at their maximum aperture.
If the photos are displayed in a large format or high resolution, those defects become visible in the corners. Also, increasing the focal length of a zoom lens may result in more exaggerated compromises.
Despite those shortcomings, zoom lenses offers a great deal of flexibility to the photographers. You just have to twist the zoom ring as the composition requires and let your creativity do the rest.
We’ve discussed a number of variations till now. However, types may still vary on how you look at things. You’ll understand what I’m getting at once you go through the final bit.
Fast vs Slow Lens
Lenses are often described as either fast or slow. The speed of a lens and how fast it is refers to the maximum aperture of the lens.
Naturally, a lens with a big maximum aperture (small f number like f2.8, f2.0, f1.4, etc.) is referred to as fast, because it lets more light in. Therefore, you can use faster shutter speeds even in dark condition. On the other hand, slow refers to lens with smaller physical apertures (larger f numbers like f5.6)
Fast lens is always the best choice over slower ones in certain shooting conditions. Since photography is all about light, fast lenses show what they’re capable of in low-light conditions. It can be a really powerful tool for wildlife photographers working around sunrise or sunset.
Not to mention, they also produce fantastic results where fast shutter speed is required. This can become extremely useful in a windy day, when all of the foliage in a scene is moving. Also, sports photographers use this lens on a regular basis to capture exquisite shots.
Another thing to remember is that, when you’re using fast lenses with larger apertures, you’ll notice a significant amount of impact upon the depth of field in your shots. It’ll create much shallower depth of field. You can easily emphasize on your subject by isolating it from the background using this lens.
These fast lenses can be very expensive. Because producing a versatile lens with very big apertures like this, is more difficult and more expensive. Yet slightly cheaper fast lenses are available in the market. Like, 50mm lenses capable of apertures like f/1.8 can often be picked up for less than a couple of hundred dollars.
Let’s not write off slow lenses from our thoughts completely. They have a number of advantages. Their photo quality is usually sharper and smaller. The most admirable things is, photos taken using slow lens are normally distortion and aberration free.
The reason behind is that, slow lenses have less elements in them. Therefore, there’s not much room in them for light to bounce around and cause trouble. Also, optical corrections just don’t have to go as far to be excellent.
Well technically, a kit lens is a ‘starter’ that comes with a camera. They are generally inexpensive and priced at the lowest end if the manufacturer’s range so as to not add much to a camera’s kit price. The most common one in this category is the 18-55mm lens.
If you’re just starting out in the world of photography, a kit lens can be a good companion. Even though, you won’t get fantastic result right away… you’ll still learn the basics of photography with this easy to maneuver lens anyway.
To get the best out of your kit lens, approach it like it has two lenses in one. How? Well, let’s take a wild guess that you own a kit lens having typical focal length, 18-55mm. So, use it as it has an 18mm and 55mm lens in one.
The first one can be used as an adequate wide-angle lens. Use this focal length for taking pictures of architectures, environmental portraiture and landscapes. Conversely, use the 55mm as a short telephoto lens for compressing perspective
However, it’s not that you shouldn’t use the in-between focal lengths. It’s just that, if you stick to the shortest and longest focal lengths, you’ll learn the basis of how those focal length work in different conditions.
Not to worry, as you learn the features of each focal length the quality of your photos will gradually improve.
In some kit lenses image stabilizer is integrated. You can just hold your camera, set the focal length to 18mm, and take a photo without camera shake at ¼ or ½ second. You’ll get amazing result in low-light condition if you follow this technique.
Now, there’re couple of shortcomings of kit lenses and they’re very understandable. For a cheap price tag you can’t hope them to carry out every task. Most often, they are slow lenses and the autofocus isn’t that great at all. Even the limited focal length will become a nuisance every now and then.
Lenses are, undoubtedly, one of the most important pieces of camera equipment. The magic they can create are worth spending every bucks for them. So, no matter what lens you own, make sure you look after and operate it carefully…it’ll last a long time.
Let’s End the Discussion for Now!
Now that we’ve finished our discussion regarding lens types, it’s only natural to put a “Halt” sign here. I’m sure you enjoyed the discussion about lenses depending on Focal Length. If you’re a newbie, my suggestion is to go with a standard lens first up OR with a kit lens.
Once you get the hang of things, you can delve into other types. I’d advise you to keep your progress regarding photography slow and steady.
Now, there are other types as well. That’s surely a discussion for another day. Until then, it’s a goodbye from me!