With so many different types of camera lenses available today, choosing the right one has become harder than ever before.
It seems like there is a lens for every niche.
I’m plagued with always wanting to make the right choice and getting the best value from my money, and this makes me hesitate a lot.
What am I sacrificing by choosing this lens? Should I get a zoom lens or a prime lens? Is versatility better than quality?
You’ll find answers to these questions and many more in our guide.
I’m avoiding using too much technical speak to keep things as simple and easy to understand as possible.
When I was starting out, I thought I just had to buy a good camera, point and shoot – but wasn’t I naïve!
When I started looking into lenses, I not only realized how important they were, but also how complex and varied they were.
I couldn’t decide what lens was best for me, and I couldn’t just go ahead and buy them all because – well – the good ones are expensive.
A lens has the power to make or break the photos you take and choosing the right one can quickly take your photography to the next level.
We’ll look at the different types of lenses and their parts, along with how to decide if any trade-offs are worthwhile.
I want to help you find a lens that’s right for you and help you build up a knowledgeable information base for the rest of your photography life.
By the end of the guide, you can expect to understand how the various types of camera lenses are used and what makes them different.
You’ll be able to decide which lens plays to your strengths and style, and how to find the perfect balance between price and performance.
Let’s get into the guide!
Camera Lens Types Explained
Camera lenses explained for dummies – that’s the goal here. I’m not calling you dumb, don’t get me wrong – but seasoned photographers know how complexity can become a big problem when learning.
I’ll keep it as simple as possible to help you learn as fast as possible.
Lenses can actually be broken up into a couple categories:
- Prime (fixed) lenses and zoom lenses
- Full frame lenses and cropped lenses
- According to their focal lengths
- The type of photography that they’re best suited to
All types of lenses DSLR cameras use can be separated into any of these broad categories. We’ll go through each of them briefly to help you identify which lenses would best suit you.
One lens doesn’t only have to be in one category. For example, you could have a full-frame, wide-angle zoom lens – or a 50mm cropped prime lens.
Knowing what you need from your lens will help you identify which categories to pick from and it hugely narrows down your options.
First let’s look at the difference between zoom lenses and prime lenses.
Prime Lenses vs Zoom Lenses
A prime is a lens that has no ability to be zoomed in and out. You’ll have to physically move around with your camera if you want to get closer to or further away from your subject.
Prime lenses have only one focal length and it can’t be changed. This means that there are fewer moving internal parts.
Prime lenses offer quite a few advantages over zoom lenses, such as:
- Higher quality and sharper images
- Lighter and more compact than the equivalent zoom lenses
- Generally better in low light
The main drawback of using a prime lens is that you’ll have to carry more than one lens if you want to shoot across different focal lengths.
Zoom lenses have the ability to zoom in and out within a preset focal range.
You’ll be able to stay in one place and get tons of different shots – they’re very versatile.
You’ll be able to keep focused on your subject while zooming in and out.
Zoom lenses have a couple benefits over prime lenses, such as:
- Insane versatility
- You won’t need to move your whole setup just to reframe your shot
- Excellent for event photography
- No need to carry as many lenses in your kit bag – the zoom will cover more focal lengths
There are some cons too, mainly that the image quality will be generally lower than the prime lens equivalent.
Zoom lenses are also pretty bulky and heavy.
Full Frame Lenses vs Cropped Lenses
Lenses have the job of collecting all the bouncing light and directing and focusing it onto the camera sensor.
This sensor is 35mm wide on a full frame camera – meaning you’ll get the exact same perspective that your lens offers – in real life.
For example, a full frame 24mm lens used on a full frame camera will give you an actual focal length of 24mm.
The issue starts when you use a camera or lens that isn’t full frame.
Some cameras have smaller sensors that aren’t 35mm (it keeps costs down and is often used in lower end cameras).
This means that the camera will produce the same quality image, just cropped down. You’ll get a final image that appears to be zoomed in.
The depth of the zoom is determined by the crop factor. This changes the real world focal length – it’s usually around 1.5x, depending on the lens and camera.
For example, a 50mm lens used on a crop sensor camera, will give you the same perspective and view angle of a 75mm lens.
This will also be the case when you use a cropped lens on a full frame camera. You can only get a full frame perspective when you use a full frame camera AND a lens that’s full frame compatible.
Full frame cameras and lenses are generally quite a bit more expensive than the cropped versions.
Keep this in mind when deciding which kind of lens you’ll need.
Choosing Lenses Based on their Focal Lengths
The next way that we can group lenses is based on their focal lengths.
Focal lengths determine how much zoom you’re going to get from your lens.
Short focal lengths will give you wider perspectives and long focal lengths will give you a narrower, zoomed-in frame.
Ultra-Wide Angle Lenses (14-21mm)
These are lenses that have a very wide viewing angle and broad field of view.
They’re small and lightweight and can fit a large scene into a single photo – making them really versatile.
They tend to suffer from vertical line distortion and they can’t capture any depth of field shots.
Wide Angle Lenses (24-35mm)
While still offering a wide-angle frame, they aren’t as extreme as the ultra-wide angle lenses.
You’ll have a little less vertical distortion in the peripherals of your shots and they look more natural.
They’re fantastic for shooting scenery, landscapes, cityscapes and in at night.
They’re also lightweight and easy to carry around.
Standard Lenses (50mm)
These are generally only prime lenses and are excellent for shooting portraits.
Their wide apertures make them fast enough to shoot fast-moving objects and good in low light.
The images are very sharp and consistent and the field of view very closely matches what the human eye sees – meaning your images will look natural and pleasing.
They’re amazing street photography lenses, great for travel, indoors, events and weddings.
You’ll also get stunningly smooth bokeh effects (the way lights are made to look like smooth circles in the background).
These lenses are super versatile and good for building up your photography skills on.
Telephoto Lenses (70-600mm)
Telephoto lenses are going to give you a deeper zoom.
Anything below 100mm can be considered a medium telephoto lens and can be used for portraits and some everyday photography. They can generally be handheld and still produce sharp images.
Once you get to the longer telephoto lenses, they become quite bulky and heavy (and expensive).
You’ll probably need a tripod to get sharp images.
The aperture is narrower and this makes them less suitable for low light shooting and freezing fast-moving objects.
Zoom Lenses that Span More than One Category
As you’ve already learned, zoom lenses can zoom in and out.
You can find zoom lenses that only fit one category and can zoom within the focal ranges in that category. For example, an 8-24mm ultra-wide angle zoom lens can shoot anywhere between 8mm and 24mm.
You’ll be able to find zoom lenses that can shoot across more than category.
The common one are:
These lenses are super versatile and can replace the need for carrying several prime lenses.
You shouldn’t expect to get the image quality of an equivalent prime lens – but with good technique and a solid tripod, you’ll snap excellent and sharp shots.
Telephoto lenses are great for:
- Shooting far off landscapes
- Sporting events and some motorsports
- Shooting cinematic movie scenes
- Wildlife photography and much more
Specialty lenses are used to get specific effects that other lenses aren’t able to do easily.
There are a couple of specialty lenses that you can test out:
- Fisheye lenses are ultra-wide angle lenses that can give you a 180° field of view for a very unique looking image
- Super-telephoto lenses (1000mm+) can give you very unique shots but are quite difficult to get sharp shots from. They can photograph the moon and very far off objects and make them seem closer to the background.
- Lens attachments and converters fit between your lens and the camera body. You can get attachments that give a 2x or 3x zoom, or wide-angle attachments to give you a 0.5x perspective.
- Tilt-shift lenses change the perspective of the object and making it seem toy-like
Macro Lenses (50-200mm)
Macros are extreme close-ups that show tons of details that our eyes don’t usually pick up.
They can produce super unique shots that bring small objects to life and give you an insight into hidden worlds.
You can get very creative with these lenses and they aren’t really limited to any specific situation but they do really well with nature and insect photography and food photography.
You’ll be able to make the subject appear up to five times its actual size – but it comes down to how creative you’re willing to get.
Understanding Camera Lens Characteristics
Here we’ll briefly define and simplify words and terms that you’re going to hear a lot more of as you continue into photography.
To understand different types of lenses physics plays a big role – and this isn’t for everybody – so I’ll do my best to keep as far from a science lesson as possible.
They’re important to grasp if you want to build a good foundation for developing your photography skills and knowledge in the future.
It’s a good idea to get a good camera lens diagram and stick it up in your room or office. The more you see it, the quicker you’ll become familiar with all the parts and functions.
Aperture refers to the opening in the lens that decides how much light is let into the lens. This light is then gathered inside the lens and redirected to the sensor of the camera.
A wider aperture will let more light into the camera at one time and a narrow aperture will let in less.
Aperture is measured in f-stops and is written like this “f/1.8” or “f/16”.
The lower the number is, the wider the aperture – so f/1.8 is much wider than f/16.
Each aperture stop lets in twice the amount of light as the previous stop, so f/2.8 lets in double the light that f/4 does, and so on.
P.S. Maximum aperture is often what is written on the side of the lens – it refers to the widest that the aperture can possibly open. Wider aperture lenses generally cost more and are better in low light.
The focal length is the distance in millimeters (mm) from the point where the light converges and the sensor of the camera.
Focal length decides how wide of a scene the lens can capture – it decides on the magnification that the lens produces.
Focal lengths are written in number, e.g. 35mm. Lower numbers mean a shorter focal length, which produces a wider perspective. Higher numbers mean a longer focal length, and that give you a narrow, zoomed image.
Depth of Field
This refers to how much of the photo is in focus, and how much is blurry.
A shallow depth of field means that only a narrow portion of the photo is in focus, with the rest being blurry (think of a close-up shot of a honey bee).
A deep depth of field means that most or all of the shot is in focus, with not much being blurry (think about landscape shots where everything is in focus).
Shallow depth of field shots are used in portraits, wildlife photography, macros, and many more.
Deep depth of field is better for cityscape and landscape shots, astrophotography and more.
Narrow apertures (higher numbers like f/11) are better for getting deep depth of field shots (all in focus) and wider apertures (lower numbers like f/1.8) are better for shallow depth of field effects.
We’ve covered the basics of everything to set up a solid foundation for your future photography.
It’s important to keep learning – but don’t try to take on too much at a time.
Slower progress that’s careful and intentional will be better for you than trying to cram heaps of new information and not truly learning how and why it works.
The first thing you need to do is buy the lens you think is best for you and get to work with it.
If you already have a lens and are just learning more about it that’s great, but getting practical will help you a ton.
The experience will be the best guide and spending time working on your lens will help you develop a unique style and learn tips and tricks along the way.
Try to focus on getting good with one lens before you try to branch out and fragment your attention.
Now that you know the different types of camera lenses, you’re ready to get to work and build up some experience – remember to keep steadily learning and improving – and above all, have fun with it!