Picture This: Lens Types

In the market for a new camera? Or how about a new lens? This week we’re going to talk about four different types of lenses and how you can use them!

Standard Lenses

Examples of different lenses.

Physicality: these lenses are your workhorse. They are generally the first lens you buy and they have the greatest range. These lenses usually have a zoom of 24-55mm and capture what the normal eye perceives. They usually weigh a little more than a can of soup and don’t take up too much room in your bag.

Value: because this lens is your standard, it’s also usually your kit lens. If it is your kit lens (the one that comes with your camera) the glass may not be very nice and the quality may be kind of poor. However, it will still be a great lens to learn on. This lens will let you try numerous focal lengths and really practice your skill before jumping into the deep end with a more expensive lens.

What it’s good for: pretty much everything. This lens is great for portraits, candid shots, still life, and landscapes. Getting really detailed, up close macro shots is hard, though, as is taking photos of things far away because of the lens’s length limitations.

Fish Eye Lenses

A photo from inside the Sydney Opera House
Sometimes a little distortion from a fish eye lens can go a long way to capturing the feel of a place. (Taken at the Sydney Opera House)

Physicality: fish eye lenses are ultra wide-angle lenses with a 180-degree field of vision. They are easily identified by the curved glass on the end of the lens, but their photos are also easily identifiable as the images are generally quite distorted at the edges, with a bulging middle section. These lenses are very heavy because there is much more glass than a normal and if you plan on getting one, plan on on carrying a significant amount of extra weight.

Value: these lenses can be expensive because they are art lenses and there is a lot of glass involved in their design. Not many people have fish eye lenses because their effect is not very realistic and their uses are limited to artsy-fartsy photos, making their value for money a little low. They may look cool, but their uses are limited.

What it’s good for: if one thing is for sure, fish eye lenses do not turn out very good portraits (unless you like bulbous noses)! But they do turn out cool photos. I like using my fish eye to accentuate arches but they can also make nice of curvy paths, tall trees, wide horizons, and even some close-ups! Just keep in mind that whatever photo you take may be interesting but it will not be realistic.




Macro Lenses

A close up shot of a fly's eye.
You'll need a macro lens to count the hairs on a fly's head! Photo snagged from Wikipedia.

Physicality: macro lenses come in many different sizes – some are large with separate tripod mounts, some small rings that aren’t much more than a couple inches long, and some macro lenses aren’t even macro lenses – they are normal lenses made macro with an extender tube! And still, macro photography can also be achieved by putting two normal lenses together but reversing the latter.

Value: macro lenses can cost you a pretty penny so if you’re not ready to make the jump into a specialty lens, you may want to try using an extender tube first or pick up an adapter ring and try reversing a lens. If you buy a macro lens and soon find that with some skill you could recreate satisfactory images without it, you might regret the purchase. Like all specialty lenses, it is wise to build your skill before making a big purchase that will bore you quickly.

What it’s good for: these lenses will certainly help you produce some beautiful photos of iconic things people love to photograph – bugs, insects, flowers, food! They can also be great for portraits as the low aperture allows for adequate light to fill the sensor and give you a nicely lit shot in low light. However, these lenses are designed for close up shooting and may have poor focuses from about a yard away. Keep this in mind then appropriating your lens for a new purpose. Sharpness and picture quality should always be important.

Prime Lenses (provided by Picture This regular, QoB):

White flowers grow wildly in a field of green grass.
QoB's prime lens has beautiful DOF!

Physicality: they’re small, light, and unobtrusive – they aren’t heavy to carry around all day, and because they aren’t the giant, long lens that people associate with a “proper” camera, people tend to be more at ease around them. With my 50mm, I can get great candids because my subjects don’t notice the camera and I don’t have to get super-close to get the shots I want.

Value: you get a better lens for less money. Photos are sharper and less distorted when taken with a prime lens than when take with the equivalent focal length on a zoom lens, because the parts are usually better quality. And a good standard 50mm prime lens e.g.: the Canon 50mm f1.8 can be had for less than $100.

Learning: with a prime lens, you zoom with your feet. It means you consider the shots you want to get and move to get them, whereas it’s very easy with a zoom lens to stay still, zoom, shoot at will, and hope one or two of your shots turn out well when you look at them later (or maybe that’s just me…) Shooting with a prime can be frustrating at first, but it trains your eye and forces you to learn composition in a way that is easy to avoid if you only use zoom lenses.

DoF, light, and speed: Prime lenses generally give a wider range of depth of field (e.g.: f1.8 on my 50mm prime lens, compared to f4.5 on my 18-55mm kit lens) and are faster, giving you lots of options to play around with bokeh and take photos in low light without flash (because the built-in flash on your DSLR is the ugly, ugly devil and you should avoid it by any means necessary until you have the savvy and the cash to splash out on a separate one. Ahem.). It also gives you more options if you ever play around with free-lensing: a fancy name for shooting with the lens removed from the camera body: and will give great macro shots when free-lensing backwards.

Whether you’re in the field for a new camera or a new lens, there are many options available to you! Photography is such a fun hobby, but it’s also an expensive one, so don’t feel like you need to go out and buy the best equipment to become the best photographer. No matter who made your camera or how many lenses you have, if you don’t practice, no amount of technology will make you a pro.

This week, your call to action is to photograph something blue! Maybe it’s a blue wall, a sapphire ring, blue socks or blue cheese (mmm!), zero in on this color for the next challenge. We will be posting every other week for now so you get two weeks to practice your trade! Come back with one or two photos and post them in the comments.

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Thelma is a photographer and traveler currently residing in Sydney, Australia. In her free time she can be found with her nose behind a camera or obsessing over koalas.

15 thoughts on “Picture This: Lens Types”

  1. I’m finally getting around to posting my blue picture! This was delicious :)

    I’m still having trouble with focusing… I work on microscopes so the trick I was taught was to go in and out of focus quickly and then go back to somewhere in between the out of focus range and then from there only tweak it. I’ve been trying to do this with my camera (and I probably just need more practice) but I can’t seem to get it right.  It looks perfectly focused when I take the picture, but then when I review on my computer not so much. Any suggestions besides practice more?

  2. This comes at a very opportune moment for me as I’ve just bought my first ever camera with a removable lens (Diana F+). I think the first lens I get will be a telephoto, just because none of my cameras have any zoom except the point and shoot digital. Of course the Diana is another in my ever growing collection of plastic fantastics, so image sharpness is not the order of the day for me.

    1. If it helps you should still be able to use most (if not all) of your lenses with a digital camera body, and a basic digital camera body (by ‘basic’ I mean a model 2/3 years old) can be got for much more affordable prices than newly-released ones.

    1. I’ve never tried it with a film SLR but I can’t think of a reason why it wouldn’t. The advantage of a digital for it though is there is a lot more room for experimentation e.g.: this photo was taken with the lens reverse, and turned out well, but me moving the camera a few mm forward or back gave a completely different focus and effect.


  3. This is pertinent to my interests because I just had to give back the macro lens I’ve had on extended loan. The other one I have that lives at home is much longer. I had to adjust to standing six feet away from my light box and zooming in to bring my jewelry into focus, but I’m digging how the narrow field of focus means I can add a subtle background that doesn’t take away from the pendants.

    (I don’t know if any of those words are right, but it makes sense in my head)

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