The basics of camera lenses explained, including how to use various types of camera lenses, and which lenses are right for you!
We recently talked a little about great DSLR cameras, and I just know you’ve been waiting on the edge of your seat to learn all about lenses and which ones are right for you! And while there may not be a right or wrong answer in deciding which lens to get, let’s discuss the different types of lenses that are available so you can make a more educated decision before you invest any more $$$ in your business or hobby.
Types of Camera Lenses
There are basically three main classifications of lenses, and you will know what they are by their focal lengths listed in mm (millimeters):
- Wide Lens || 45mm and lower – A wide-angle lens will make things look farther away than they are (commonly thought of as “zoomed out”).
- Medium Lens || 50mm – A 50mm medium lens gives you a normal field of view just as you see it with your eye.
- Telephoto Lens || 55m and higher – A telephoto lens will make things appear closer than they really are (commonly thought of as “zoomed in”).
All About Lenses
Here are a few more things to consider –
- Some lenses have a zoom capability so they will have a range of focal lengths. For example, an 18-55mm lens will cover a wide to medium range, while a 55-250mm will cover a medium to telephoto range.
- Other lenses are fixed so they don’t zoom. With a fixed lens (also called a prime lens), you have to move closer or farther from your subject with your feet! This may seem inconvenient at first, but you soon get used to it and the fixed-length lenses tend to deliver slightly sharper images than zoom lenses.
- Lenses are also labeled with another number, which refers to the aperture (or how wide the lens can open) and is measured in F-stops. This is useful to know because the wider your aperture, the more background blur you can achieve, and you can also shoot in lower lighting conditions. So if you like that blur, get a lens with the lowest possible aperture number (like f/1.2 or f/1.8). The fixed-length lenses typically have wider aperture capabilities.
Understanding Camera Lenses
Let’s discuss the two ends of the lens spectrum and I’ll show you the difference between the wide angle lens and the telephoto lens and give you some tips on when it’s best to use each of them.
A wide-angle lens will give you the widest field of view. This “zoomed out” view is useful if you don’t have a lot of room to back away from your subject, such as inside a house.
A wide lens is great to take with you on vacation if you want to take pictures of large buildings (cathedrals, castles, etc.)
A wide-angle angle lens will make the background look like it’s farther away from your subject, unlike a telephoto lens that makes the background look like it’s much closer.
A wide-angle lens also adds some degree of distortion. The wider the angle, the more distorted the image will be. Objects that are close to the camera will look much larger than objects that are far away. And elements near the edges of the photo will have a stretched-out look. This distortion can be used to enhance the artistic quality of your images, like this one –
Or it can just look really weird, like this one –
(I took the picture of their hands, intending to crop out the rest.)
When using a wide angle lens, it’s important to avoid getting people’s limbs or especially their heads near the edge of the frame.
A telephoto lens is useful when your subject is farther away, such as photographing a child in sports or dance performances.
If you want to take a picture of wildlife from the safety of your car, or snap a picture without disturbing an animal that might get scared and move away, use a telephoto lens.
If you’re taking a picture of the city but want to bring the mountains in the distance closer to the cityscape, use a telephoto lens.
Telephoto lenses can also add a nice bokeh or “blurred” background. A lot of portrait photographers will use a long telephoto lens with the widest aperture available. This allows them to be further away from their subjects, so the person is more comfortable and the images look more natural and aren’t distorted.
Camera shake is always a concern with photography, but a telephoto lens can make unintentional blurring more pronounced. Many telephoto lenses have built-in stabilization, but you can also combat camera shake by using a tripod, or a really fast shutter speed, which is what sports photographers typically use.
Different Camera Lenses
Keep in mind that the following suggestions are just that… suggestions. Use these as a starting point for your own research.
- There are tons of lenses out there from many different brands. I don’t pretend to know everything about all of them and I highly recommend reading reviews on the lenses you’re considering. Fred Miranda is my favorite site for reviews – they can tell you all about lenses and which ones work best!
- Also, many camera stores rent out lenses very affordably, so that’s an additional way to make sure that a lens is right for you before you buy.
- Remember that Canon cameras require Canon lenses and Nikon cameras require Nikon lenses! There are also other good-quality lens brands that can be used on both Canon and Nikon and they are usually less expensive.
Best Lens for a Beginner
I would recommend starting with the Canon or Nikon 50mm f/1.8 –
- This is a fixed-length medium lens (neither wide nor telephoto), so you’ll need to get used to “zooming with your feet”.
- It has very wide aperture capabilities which is important to get that beautiful background blur!
- I would use this lens to take pictures of people as well as inanimate objects and landscapes. It’s very reasonably priced.
- ***NOTE – this lens does not support auto-focus with the Nikon D40, D60, D3100, D3000 or D5000 cameras so I don’t recommend it if you have one of those cameras.***
- Click the following links to read more and purchase from Amazon- Canon || Nikon
Favorite Camera Lenses
When you’re ready to expand your lens collection, here are a few lenses I love:
- Wide-angle range – the Tamron 17-50mm f/2.8. (Amazon Link HERE)
- Zoom lens in the telephoto range – the Sigma 70-200mm f/2.8. (Amazon Link HERE)
- Look for something with a low aperture number.
- Be aware that if the lens gives an aperture range, it means that the lowest aperture doesn’t work if you zoom beyond a certain point, so I would avoid lenses like that.
What Lenses I Use
Here’s what I keep in my camera bag that I take on every shoot –
- Camera – Canon 5D
- Lenses –
Have so much fun trying out new camera lenses!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jessica is the talented Arizona photographer and owner of Jessica Downey Photo. She was a member of the Somewhat Simple Creative team in 2011.
This post originally published in July 2011. It was updated in 2021.