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Understanding Different Types of Lenses (When to Use Which!)

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There are many types of lenses that photographers can use. To help you understand them, this article will look at each.

We will also look at the differences between prime and zoom lenses and between crop and full-frame sensors. Both of these affect lens quality.

a fujifilm camera with 4 types of lenses resting on a black surface

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What is the Difference Between a Prime & Zoom Lens?

Prime lenses have a fixed focal length, which means they cannot zoom. They are lighter, faster, and cheaper as they do not contain as many moving parts.

A zoom lens, or variable focal length, allows you to change focal length. This means you can tighten or loosen the frame by standing in the same place. They are more expensive and heavier due to the amount of internal machinery needed. Zoom lenses also have a lower overall quality than prime lenses and do not allow you to open your aperture as wide.

5 types of lenses of various focal lengths set next to each other

What is the Difference Between Full-Frame & Crop Sensors?

The size of the camera sensor affects the performance of its lenses.

A full-frame camera has a sensor equal to 35mm film format (36mm x 24mm).

Crop sensors are smaller. They include APS-C (Nikon, Sony), APS-H (Canon) and Micro Four Thirds (Olympus, Panasonic). These affect your lens’ abilities. A full-frame lens working on a crop sensor will multiply the focal length by x1.6 (APS-C),  x1.5 (APS-H) and x2.08 (four-thirds). So, a 50mm full-frame camera lens will effectively become a 75mm lens on a Nikon DX, 80mm on a Canon EF-S, and 104mm on an Olympus. This is great for getting closer to a subject without buying an extra lens.

Although the smaller sensor means the greater focal length, it loses resolution and details.

a graphic showing the difference between full frame and crop sensors

The Different Types of Lenses

Each lens is categorised by focal length and angle of view, so you can easily tell the differences between them.

different focal lengths of different lens types infographic

Standard / Normal

A standard or normal lens has a focal length approximately equal to the diagonal of the image (the negative).

This lens is closest to the human eye in terms of angle of view. They sit firmly at a focal length of 50mm and generally have an angle of view of 46°. The centre of our field of vision is around 40-60°, and this is where we get the most information.

Also, a 50mm feels natural without an overabundance of lens distortion.

A 50mm lens is a prime lens, which is lighter, faster, and creates a higher image resolution. A ‘nifty fifty’ has a wide aperture (f/1.4 or f/1.8), making it good in low light conditions.

Standard zoom lenses, like 24-70, 28-75 or 17-55mm, also exist.

As their name would suggest, normal or standard lenses are versatile. They can be used for almost all kinds of photography.

Action shot of two African-American men playing basketball in outdoor court

Telephoto

Telephoto lenses have focal lengths longer than the diagonal size of the image. They give a narrow field of view and a magnified image.

These lenses range from 70mm – 200mm and have an angle of view of 10°-30°.

A telephoto lens will let you capture subjects that are too far away or too dangerous to approach. With this lens, you can capture candid images.

However, as they have long focal lengths, their depth of field is minimal. This can drastically affect your foreground and background, pushing both out of focus.

The perspective you get from a telephoto lens can bring the subject and background closer together.

They are heavy, cumbersome, and generally expensive, especially as zooms.

Telephoto lenses are typically used in sport, wildlife photography, astrophotography, and capturing specific details in landscapes. They can also be used in street and portrait photography.

an image of a european turtle dove perched on a branch

Super Telephoto

A super-telephoto lens goes above and beyond the capabilities of a telephoto. These start at 300mm and can go up to 600mm. Their field of view is drastically small at 1° to 8°.

If you cannot get close to a subject, this is the lens to use. If used with a cropped sensor, this is almost a 1000mm lens.

Negatively, this lens has a telephoto effect, as it will push the subject and foreground closer together. This is more apparent than with a telephoto lens, as the focal length here is longer.

Also, they are large in size and heavy, so you will always need a tripod with them. You cannot put them on the tripod by attaching the bottom of your camera. There is a grip on these lenses that you have to attach them by.

The super-telephoto lens is made for sports, wildlife, nature and astronomy photography.

an image of a full moon shot during night

Wide Angle

The focal length of wide-angle lenses is shorter than the diagonal size of the image. This will translate to a focal length of 16mm to 35mm, depending on the sensor size.

Wide-angle lenses typically have an angle of view of between 64° and 84°.

They can fit a scene into the frame without being overly distorted. A wide-angle lens will also emphasise the difference in size between the background and the foreground.

This lens allows the most amount of a scene to be included in a photograph. Perfect for use in architectural, interior and landscape photography. They are handy when the photographer is unable to move further away from a subject.

Wide angle view of the Teton Range reflected in Jackson Lake in Grand Teton National Park Wyoming

Fisheye/Ultra Wide Angle

Fisheye or ultra-wide-angle lenses achieve extremely wide angles of view. This is why they produce images with strong barrel distortion.

The focal length of a fisheye lens is the smallest you can find. These lengths can be anywhere between 4.5mm to 16mm, where the angle of view is anywhere between 100° and 180°.

There are three different types—circular, cropped circle, and full-frame.

A circular lens will give you a circle image. A cropped circle will produce images with curved sides. The full-frame will create a rectangular image cropped from the captured circular image.

They are great when the photographer needs to fit in a lot of a scene into a photograph. Especially useful for shooting in small places and are commonly used for panoramic images, extreme sports, interior, and party photos.

an ultra wide angle shot of a peninsula with mountains in the background against a blue sky

Macro

Macro lenses are for close-ups. They can focus from 1cm to infinity.

These are telephoto lenses with a close near point—the closest point to the lens where the subject is still sharp. Macro camera lenses let you focus close, but they also work as a normal lens. This enables you to get some versatility. They do, however, come at a higher cost and are not lightweight.

You will use this particular lens for insects and small objects you want to blow up to a 1:1 ratio or higher.

a macro image of strawberry texture

Tilt-Shift

Tilt-shift lenses can be tilted or shifted in a wide range of directions relative to the image sensor. This means that some of the elements of the lens can be moved. By changing the position, you have extended control over perspective and focus.

This is useful, especially for architectural photography, as you can eliminate perspective distortion.

Tilt-shift lenses also allow you to be more creative and create a miniature effect.

These lenses are expensive, so we only recommend buying one if you plan to use it often.

a tilt shift image of a boat setting out on the water within a valley

Conclusion

These are the main types of lenses available, each of them with their own advantages.

When considering a new lens, think about how and why you will use it. A lot depends on the type of photography you tend to shoot.

You should also choose the best lens to match your camera as a lot depends on the size of your camera sensor.

Now that you know all your lenses, get off auto mode and take stunning images in real life with our Photography Unlocked course!

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