Understand which camera lenses to use and when.
Learn how to choose the right camera lens for your photography projects and how different focal lengths — from wide angle to telephoto — affect your images.
Interchangeable camera lenses.
Some cameras, like the one on your phone, have a fixed lens that cannot be removed. But if you dip your toe into more advanced photography, you will likely work with a camera that has an interchangeable lens system. All professional camera brands, such as Canon, Nikon, Sony, and Sigma, offer similar arrays of lenses that you can swap out.
Each interchangeable lens has a different focal length, which is good for different types of photography projects. Focal length is measured in millimeters (the magnification capability of the lens) and determines how much of a scene is visible in your viewfinder. Some lenses are “fixed” (also known as prime lenses) and have a single focal length, while others are “variable” (also known as zoom lenses) and can adjust to different focal lengths.
Lenses that come with cameras.
Camera bodies are often sold in combination with a lens. These are called kit lenses. They are typically affordable zoom lenses that offer versatility to beginners. You likely won’t be able to achieve certain effects like a shallow depth of field with a variable kit lens, as their apertures (measured in f-stop numbers) are usually on the higher end.
Photographers who know what they want can purchase a camera body on its own and then choose their desired lens. But if you’re just starting out, you can experiment with the kit lens first, and then invest in a higher-quality lens with a more specific purpose.
The right lens for you depends on what type of photography you want to shoot. And your lens decision will mostly hinge on focal length. The lower the focal length of your lens, the wider its field of view — shorter focal lengths capture more wide-angle scenes. Your lens will also determine your focal range, or what parts of your scene can be in focus in your image.
Common types of camera lenses.
Whether you use film cameras, DSLR cameras, or mirrorless cameras, you will encounter a similar range of available focal lengths in your lenses. “Focal length can be broken down into three categories for the beginner. Those are wide angle, medium, and telephoto,” says photographer Wes Kriesel.
“Do you like to take pictures of landscapes? Then you’re going to need a wide-angle lens to fit everything in. Are you taking pictures of people? Then you’ll want a medium range,” says Kriesel. “And if you’re very far away from your subject, like in bird photography, you’ll want a telephoto.”
At the low end of the focal range spectrum are wide-angle lenses, typically 12mm to 35mm. These show a wide shot of the scene. “If you shoot landscapes, a variable wide-angle lens would support that type of photography,” says photographer Pablo Diaz. “If you're shooting street photography, you might want to shoot with a fixed lens that’s around 35mm, which is on the higher end of wide.”
Nifty fifty is a nickname for a 50mm lens that has a wide aperture. The lens elements on a nifty fifty are usually made of affordable materials and are known for their ability to interpret images in a similar way as the human eye. Since they are right in the mid-point of focal ranges, there’s very little distortion or magnification in your image.
With their wide apertures, typically from f/1.4 or f/1.8, nifty fifties can help you create photos with a shallow depth of field or a bokeh background, where the subject is crisp and the background is out of focus.
Almost any lens in the mid-range with a wide aperture will allow you to take stylized portraits with a shallow depth of field. “An 85mm is known as a portrait lens, and one with a wide aperture can capture that shallow depth of field and separation from the subject and background,” says Diaz. “That way it focuses really well on the person in your portrait.”
At the higher end of the focal range spectrum are telephoto lenses, which can range from 70mm up to 500mm and even higher. These are longer lenses with a narrower focal range, but they can help a photographer focus on one primary subject (such as a person) or focus on items that are far away (like wildlife).
A quick guide to typical focal lengths and their uses.
12mm–35mm. Wide-angle lenses — great for landscape photography, architecture photography, and photos of the sky or the Milky Way.
35mm–70mm. Standard or medium-range lenses — great for portraiture, street photography, and travel photography.
70mm–135mm. Short telephoto — great for sports photography, portraiture, and street photography.
135mm and higher. Telephoto and super telephoto — great for wildlife photography, sports photography, and other situations where you require some magnification.
Specialty camera lenses.
Outside of the typical array of lenses, there are some options that are a bit more specialized. Use these for unique projects that require a little something special.
Fish-eye lens. This is a wide-angle lens with such a low focal length that the image appears round and distorted on the edges. They are typically between 4mm and 14mm.
Macro lens. Macro lenses are designed to get crisp close-up shots of smaller subjects. These lenses are great for things like insect photography, flower photography, or product photography.
Tilt-shift lens. These lenses tilt up and down and shift side to side on the camera body. This makes it possible to get things like a large building into one frame from the ground up, without tilting your camera or distorting the perspective. You can also take tilt-shift photos where large scenes appear miniature.
Things to consider when you make a lens purchase.
Focal length isn’t the only consideration in a lens purchase. Decide whether you want a prime lens with a single focal length or a zoom lens with some range. Look for a fast shutter speed if you’ll be shooting moving objects and wide aperture if you’d like a shallow depth of field. And always be sure to check that your camera body will be compatible with the lens you choose.
If you plan to shoot in a low-light atmosphere, you may find that a fixed or prime lens is the best option. Fixed lenses are better for wide-aperture photos than a zoom lens because they have a greater maximum aperture. “Prime lenses are made to do one focal length, and because of that they can manufacture the glass in the middle so that it lets in more light, says Kriesel. “This means in a darker environment, you can get those shots you can’t get with another lens.”
“Zoom lenses have a rotating barrel on the lens that shifts between a range of focal lengths,” says Kriesel. “From 15mm to 35mm is a pretty common range for a wide-angle zoom lens. The most common standard zoom range is 24mm to 70mm. That allows you to get portraits and event photos. And then 70mm to 200mm would be a telephoto zoom lens. It’s all about flexibility.”
All digital cameras have a camera sensor, which translates the light into an image. Before you choose a lens, check to see if your camera body has a full sensor or a crop sensor. Certain cameras have crop sensors, like the APS-C sensor, which slightly magnify the image. This means your field of view with every lens you attach will be slightly smaller than it would be with a full-frame sensor.
“People might buy an APS-C camera and then get a lens that correctly mounts on it, but they don’t realize it’s doing something to the focal length,” says Kriesel. “It’s going to be a tighter frame around your subject and feel more zoomed in.”
Once you know what type of lens you want, don’t be afraid to invest in the highest-quality one you can afford. For the most part, a higher-quality lens will result in higher image quality. High-quality modern lenses can reduce irregularities in your photos, such as chromatic aberrations caused by high-contrast scenes. And they will be less likely to break. “Buy it nice or buy it twice,” advises Kriesel.
Diaz agrees. “Buy the best and fastest lens that you can afford,” he says. A fast shutter speed will give you the ability to “freeze time” on fast-moving subjects or shoot well in the daylight without overexposing your images.
Working with your new lens.
There’s a lot you can do to perfect your images in editing programs like Adobe Photoshop Lightroom, but starting with the correct lens and camera settings for your project is important. Play around with the settings on your camera body as well as the settings on your lens. Both elements have manual and auto operation modes.
“If I put my camera body in manual, that means all the settings, aperture, shutter speed, and ISO are all going to be set by me, the photographer,” says Diaz. “If I put the lens in manual as well, that means I’m turning the barrel to get in focus.” Alternatively, you can enable autofocus, and let the hardware choose settings for you.
With the right lens, there’s so much you can do. Take time to make an informed purchase, and you’ll thank yourself later. “The decision comes down to purpose, performance, and price,” says Kriesel. “Think about what you’re going to use it for and how it would perform for that purpose. Then try to get the best lens the first time.”
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