There are almost as many types of lenses as there are genres of photography. For many photographers, especially those just starting out or when switching to a new camera system or brand, the sheer quantity of choice can make things a bit of a nightmare when it’s time to choose the right lenses.
Many lenses have a string of letters and numbers that can seem almost incomprehensible even to professionals who aren’t familiar with that particular brand. The good thing is that even though every brand uses its own naming system and may even have some unique lens configurations, the majority of camera lenses use some combination of the following: Zoom Lenses, Fixed Focal Length Lenses, and Typical Focal Length Lenses.
Zoom Lenses & Fixed Focal Length Lenses
The most basic aspect of a lens is whether the lens has a fixed focal length—what is known as a prime lens—or whether it has an adjustable focal length—what is often called a zoom lens. There is no right type of lens; zoom lenses aren’t inherently better than prime lenses. Each type of lens has specific places where they stand out as well as areas where they fall short.
Lenses with an adjustable focal length allow a photographer to zoom in or out on a subject, giving more control over the framing of a scene. These lenses are great because they offer much more flexibility than prime lenses. However, they are often much larger and more expensive than prime lenses due to the additional mechanical parts required to adjust the focal length.
Example: A typical ‘kit’ lens that comes with a DSLR or Mirrorless camera with have a number such as 24-70mm (15-55mm on APS-C). These numbers indicate the range of focal lengths the lens can capture. A 15-55mm lens can zoom from 15mm (wide) to 55mm (zoom) and anywhere in between.
Prime lenses, which have a fixed focal length, are typically much smaller and often more affordable than zoom lenses. They also usually have a wider aperture, allowing for more light to enter the camera. In addition to this, photographers love prime lenses because, although they aren’t as flexible as a zoom lens, they perform exceptionally well at their specific focal length.
Example: The first prime lens many photographers get is either a 35mm (28mm on APS-C) or a 50mm (35mm on APS-C). These focal lengths are most similar to what the human eye sees.
Typical Focal-Length Ranges
Whether we are using a zoom lens or a prime lens, it is essential to understand how different focal lengths can be used in photography. Just like with zoom versus prime lenses, there is no single focal length that is better than the others.
There are a few categories where typical lenses fit in, though there are always unique and specialized lenses that don’t fit neatly into these groups.
Wide Angle (and Fisheye)
Wide-angle lenses are great options for landscape photography or photography of buildings and interiors because they are able to capture a much wider area on the focal plane, providing a sense of scale. However, this wide focal plane does come with some costs. As lenses get wider, they tend to distort the image, stretching elements in the image as we move outward from the center of the photograph. While this is typically not an issue for inanimate objects such as buildings, it can result in unflattering portraits where the subject appears to have elf-like ears and a large nose.
A Subset of the wide-angle category is the fisheye lens. Whereas standard wide-angle lenses cause some linear distortion and stretching, lenses that have extremely wide focal lengths can create circular distortions which cause lines to bend as we move out from the center of the image, resulting in an image that looks like what a fish might see.
Example: A typical wide-angle zoom lens will range from nearly fisheye to a more natural focal length. One example of this is the 15-35mm (12-24mm on APS-C) lens. Fisheye zoom lenses typically have ranges starting at around 10mm. Prime lenses in this category can include 18mm (14mm on APS-C) up to about 24mm (18mm on APS-C).
Mid-Zoom or Standard Zoom
Here we have what is likely the most common type of lens. The lenses that come included with most interchangeable-lens cameras fall into this category. These lenses typically span the range in between the wide-angle lenses and telephoto lenses and are good all around.
The lenses that fall into this category are great for travel photography, where you will be shooting in various situations and don’t have time to change lenses frequently. This is also a range that is good for photographs that need to be more natural such as documentary photography and photojournalism.
Example: The basic ‘kit’ lens, which is about 24mm-70mm (15-55mm on APS-C), would fit into this category. Prime lenses such as the 35mm (24mm on APS-C) and the 50mm (35mm on APS-C) would also fall into this category.
Many people incorrectly refer to these lenses as zoom lenses, but these lenses, which allow you to take photographs of things at a distance, are actually called telephoto lenses.
Telephoto lenses tend to reduce the distance between things, making far off objects seem closer together with objects nearer to the photographer. Telephoto lenses can be fantastic for portraiture because they can create wonderful background blur, known as bokeh. They are also one of the lenses of choice for sports photography, allowing photographers to capture athletes at a distance.
Though these lenses are great for various tasks, they tend to be much larger and heavier than other lenses, and it is often difficult or expensive to find telephoto lenses with wide apertures. In addition to this, the nature of telephoto lenses means that small vibrations in the camera can lead to noticeable blur in the final image, meaning telephoto lenses are more difficult to use when holding the camera by hand.
Example: One of the most common telephoto zoom lenses is the 70-200mm (55-140mm in APS-C) lens. The prime lenses in the 100mm (70mm in APS-C) range are fantastic for portraiture and can create incredible bokeh.
When we go beyond about 200mm (140mm on APS-C), we enter into the super-telephoto range. These lenses are typically incredibly large and incredibly expensive. Wildlife photographers use these to capture photographs of wild animals in their natural habitat without disturbing them. Though these very specialized lenses are able to capture certain images that no other type of lens can, they typically have much smaller maximum apertures and can run into trouble with heat causing poor performance, meaning they are only useful in particular situations.
Example: You can find super-telephoto zoom lenses with ranges anywhere from 100mm-300mm (70mm-210mm in APS-C), all the way up to 200mm-500mm (140mm-350mm in APS-C), and beyond. Canon offers a prime telephoto lens that is 800mm (560mm in APS-C), weighs less than 10lbs. and costs an eye-watering $13,000.
As a photographer, you constantly have to weigh the benefits and drawbacks of the gear you buy and use. Understanding what each type of lens excels at, as well as the aspects that are most important to you, can help you choose the right lens.
Just because a lens is more expensive doesn’t mean its better. Each photographer has their own unique needs, whether its price, weight, or whatever.
In the end, there is no best lens, only the best lens for you.
Note: This is Part I of a Part II series. Read Part II here.