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One of the most asked questions in regards to photography is ‘What is the purpose of different camera lenses? Our answer is going to look quickly at the different types of lenses available, and when to use them. Primarily, our answer will specifically look at when you would use a wide angle lens.

Lenses are one of two components you need to photograph a scene. First, you need a way to record and capture the light from the scene (photographic film, digital sensor) which is held in the camera body.

Second, you need a way to let the reflected light into the camera body to be recorded. Here, the lenses are king.

A canon dslr camera and two different kinds of camera lenses resting on a map

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Types of Lenses

There are many different types of lenses. Each one has a range of capabilities that make it perfect for a photographic field. There are no rules, so you can of course use lenses for a photographic theme for which it was not intended.

The lens guidelines I will point out are for ease of use, as a portrait session may be difficult to photograph with a super telephoto lens, but not impossible.

Note: All of the following numbers are true on a full-frame camera. A cropped sensor, such as the APS-C system will magnify all lenses used by x1.6. For example, a 35mm lens used on an APS-C system will become a (35 x 1.6 = 56mm) 50mm lens.

An image of a girl leaning against the wall with diagram showing different camera sensor sizes over the image - when to use a wide angle lens.

Fish Eye Lens

A fisheye lens has the widest focal length of all lenses at between 4.5mm and 14mm. The angle of view is 180°, allowing you to see half of a full rotation.

They suffer from heavy lens distortion, as they cram in as much information into the sensor as possible. You can use these lenses for skyscapes and wide panoramas.

The Rokinon HD8M-C 8mm f/3.5 HD is a great example. 

Wide Angle Lens

A wide-angle lens is similar to the fisheye, just not as wide. The fall between 14mm and 35mm. Their angle of view typically runs from 64° to 84°.

These lenses also suffer from distortion. Their perspective is one of the largest and generally used for interiors and architecture.

The Canon EF 28mm f/1.8 USM is a good example. 

Standard Lens

A standard lens is a lens that is closest to the human eye in terms of angle of view. It is a 50mm lens with its angle of view of around 58°. 

Anything below this lens’ focal length is a wide angle, and anything above is a telephoto. These are the most versatile lenses, used for portrait, landscape and street photography.

The Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 STM is a great example. 

Telephoto

A telephoto lens is used to photograph subjects from far away. They go from telephoto (70mm – 300mm and 34° – 8°)  and super telephoto (300mm – 600mm and 8° – 4°).

The telephoto is great for portraits, the super is perfect for action photography and astrophotography.

The Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6L IS USM is a perfect example.

All lenses come in either a prime version or a zoom version. A prime lens has a fixed focal length, meaning you have to get closer to a subject by moving physically.

They are generally lighter, faster, cheaper and produce better quality images. The Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 STM is a great example. 

A zoom lens has a variable focal length, so you can move from a wide angle, through a standard focal length to a telephoto in one lens.

They are very versatile, allowing you to keep your gear to a minimum. They are heavier and more expensive, due to extra mechanisms and glass inside the lens.

Their quality is surpassed by prime lenses, as these are very much a jack of all trades, master of none. The Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM is a great example. 

Image of a wide angle lens resting on a rock

What Is a Wide Angle Lens

Looking at the information above a wide angle lens covers a focal length from 4.5mm, at its most extreme, to 35mm at its least. Their angle of view reaches 64° all the way to 180°, allowing you to see the most of the scene as possible.

Any lens that has a wider field of view than what the human eye sees is considered a wide angle lens.

These lenses come with a substantial amount of distortion, both lens distortion and perspective distortion. The lens distortion that falls into the wide-angle usage is barrel distortion.

This is more apparent in architectural images, where the lines bow outward, away from the centre of the image.

This is due to the edges of the lens are further away from the lens plane than the sensor, where the wide angle of view emphasises the difference.

You can correct these during the editing stage, in a program such as Adobe Lightroom.

Image of a canon wide angle lens on white background

When to Use A Wide Angle Lens

A wide-angle lens is generally used for scenes where you want to capture as much as possible. Landscapes, cityscapes and architecture are the main reasons why photographers use a wide angle lens.

A fisheye lens captures even more of the scene but is mainly used for artistic and creative purposes. They are wide enough to capture the above-and-below-the-water scene that I am sure we have all seen.

Atmospheric outdoor evening shot of a person standing beside a turquoise pool full of fish, shot with a wide angle camera lens.

I used my wide angle lens for street photography, as it captures a wide angle of view of any given scene. If I need to get closer to a subject, I move there myself.

As our Hungarian photographer taught us, “If your images aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough” (Capa). This can be a pain with a wide angle lens, as you need to get in really close.

Interior photographers use wide angle lenses for real estate images. Not only do they capture the widest views, it is best for situations where you can’t move backwards.

Of course, you can use wide angle lenses for portraiture, events and food photography, but it needs to fit the style and theme of your concept.

Serene and delicate looking product photo of a tiny blue egg resting on a napkin on a white plate, taken with a wide angle lens.

Why Not Use a Different Lens?

You could use a multitude of lenses to try to replicate the wide angle of view from a wide angle.

If you were to use a standard 50mm lens, for example, you would have to photograph many times and stitch them together. Six to eight images may be enough to cover the same angle of view.

Here, you would need time, energy, patience and an editing program such as Adobe Photoshop or Lightroom.

The only reason why you would own a wide angle lens is that you are photographing wide spaces. A telephoto lens is great for those far away shots, but wouldn’t replicate the view the same as a wide angle lens.

The perspective would be different, as wide-angle lenses tend to distort the foreground and subject.

A telephoto lens tends to squash the background and subject closer together, giving a different perspective.

A photo montage comprising of many images creating a large landscape image

A note from Josh, ExpertPhotography's Photographer-In-Chief:

Thank you for reading...

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Thanks again for reading our articles!

Craig Hull

Craig is a photographer currently based in Budapest. His favourite photographic areas are street and documentary photography. Show him a darkroom and he'll be happy there for days. As long as there are music and snacks. Find him at craighullphotography.co.uk and Instagram/craighullphoto

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