Understanding the differences between camera lenses may seem like a daunting task if you’re a new photographer. Armed with a little knowledge, however, you can feel confident about the lens you’re going to buy—even with all the options out there.
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In today’s article I’ll cover the three main types of camera lenses that photographers use: 50mm lenses, wide-angle lenses, and telephoto lenses. I’ll also talk about prime lenses and zoom lenses.
All of these lenses in one way or another distort the pure image that you are trying to capture—but for a specific purpose. For example, the different ways that a lens focuses the light can make the foreground and background of an images seem closer together or farther apart. Certain lenses also make it easy to take photos with one area in focus and the surrounding areas blurred.
Your lens will dictate the type of photographs you take, so before you buy a new camera lens, remember to think about what you’ll be using it for and then compare that to what each lens offers.
Standard (50mm) camera lenses
A standard 50mm lens keeps image distortion to a minimum and will produce a photo that is close to what the human eye perceives. The focal length of a lens is measured in millimeters, and 50mm is considered to be the standard, or default lens.
A 50mm lens is a good starter lens because the images that you capture will look similar to the images that you can see, or the images you would imagine in your head.
Another good thing about 50mm lenses is their fairly low price tags. Being a prime lens—that is, a fixed lens—these lenses are cheap to produce and can be made to produce exceptional image quality for less money.
If you are just starting out in photography there’s probably no better lens to begin with than a 50mm lens.
Wide-angle camera lenses
The second type of camera lens is a wide-angle lens. Wide-angle lenses have a focal length that is set shorter then 50mm, which allows them to capture an image that is wider than the human eye can clearly see.
Wide-angle lenses are excellent for highlighting foreground objects and accentuating the depth of the picture, which makes them very popular with landscape photographers. It’s also easier to capture larger scenes with a wide-angle lens, due to their wide perspective.
Popular focal lengths for wide-angle lenses are 24mm and 28mm.
Telephoto camera lenses
A telephoto lens on the other hand is the exact opposite of a wide-angle lens. These types of lenses have a fixed focal length greater then 50mm, and are perfect if you’re trying to photograph far-off objects.
For example, in situations like sporting events or wildlife photography, there may be a long distance between you and your subject that prevents you from moving in closer to snap your photo. At times like those, a telephoto lens is the right choice because it brings your subject much closer to you.
Another interesting feature of telephoto lenses is that they reduce an image’s depth of field. With a telephoto lens, you can capture very clear images of your subject while the foreground and background surrounding your subject remain out of focus.
This makes telephoto lenses great for portraits when you want to focus in on your subject without the distraction of a background.
Zoom lenses versus prime lenses
All of the lenses I’ve discussed so far have been “prime” lenses, which just means that they have a fixed focal length of 24mm, 50mm, etc.
There is another type of lens which combines many different focal lengths into one adjustable lens: these are called zoom lenses. Zoom lenses come in a wide variety of ranges such as 18-55mm, 17-40mm, 24-70mm, 28-200mm and many more.
You can have a wide-angle zoom lens with a range that’s less than 50mm, a telephoto zoom lens with a range more than 50mm, or zoom lenses that span both ranges.
Zoom lenses offer a wider focal range to work with and can be ideal if you are just looking for a general purpose lens. However there are distinct advantages and disadvantages for both zoom and prime lenses.
Advantages of using a prime lens
Light-weight – Prime lenses are usually lighter and easier to carry because they are made with fewer parts.
Lower cost – Prime lenses are cheaper (again, because there are fewer parts needed to make the lens).
Faster – Prime lenses have wider apertures which let in more light, so you can shoot in low light without a flash. Prime lenses can be as fast as f/1.2.
Better image quality – Prime lenses will usually produce sharper, superior images, except for some high-end professional zoom lenses such as Canon’s L series lenses
Disadvantages of using a prime lens
More work – Prime lenses will require you to move around a lot in order to frame your pictures the way you want.
No zoom means lost opportunities – Sometimes you will have just a split second to get close to your subject. By the time you switch lenses or move, the picture you wanted to capture may be lost.
Increased open-air exposure of the image sensor – When you change between different prime lenses to get a new focal length, you run an increased chance that dust will accumulate on your image sensor.
Advantages of using a zoom lens
Ability to zoom – Obviously the best featured of a zoom lens is that you can zoom in or out with it. You can change focal length almost instantly.
Portability – If you have a few zoom lenses, you can cover a wide range of focal lengths without lugging a lot of lenses around. For example, a 24-70mm and a 70-200mm lens would cover just about all the focal lengths you’d need.
Flexibility – Zoom lenses allow you to move around more easily and shoot whatever you stumble upon without having to think about the kind of lens you’re using.
Disadvantages of using a zoom lens
Higher price – Due to their complicated construction, and the many extra parts they require, zoom lenses are almost always more expensive than prime lenses.
Weight – Zoom lenses are often heavier as well, due to those extra parts.
Less creativity – Some photographers believe that zoom lenses make it easy to become lazy and miss great compositions. After all, it’s very simple to stay in one spot and “zoom” instead of changing your distance to a subject by physically moving.
Slower – With smaller apertures than prime lenses, zoom lenses let in less light. Zooms have a maximum aperture of f/2.8 versus the f/1.2 that some primes offer.
And finally, when you buy a lens. . .
Consider investing just as much in your lenses as your camera, if not more. Cameras are always changing and improving (just like computers do) but a good lens can retain its value and usefulness across several cameras for many years.