When it comes to lenses, there are so.many.options. It can be totally overwhelming when trying to decide what lens you should use or buy to help you achieve the look you want in your photos.
We’re here to break it down for you. I will show you the basic way lenses are categorised, which scenarios they’re generally used for, and what your photos will look like!
But firstly, if you’re still undecided about whether to buy a new camera or new lens, read this:
Related: New Camera or New Lens… What You Need to Know
The primary way that we identify and characterise a lens is by it’s focal length. For example, you might often hear mentioned online or in conversation with other photography lovers, the 50mm, the 85mm, the 24-70mm etc.
The reason focal length is the priority is because it plays the biggest part in how our images will look, due to very different effects they cause to our subject and background.
So making a decision about what lens to use, should be driven by the type of photo you want to take (read the following article to delve deeper in that regard).
Related: 6 Things You Need to Know About Lenses
Lens lengths are further categorised as follows:
Wide angle lenses give a large field of view, allowing you to include a lot of the scene in the photo.
As focal lengths get longer, you reach the middle ground, where what you see through the viewfinder is similar to what we see with the human eye. These are what we call normal or portrait focal lengths, and they offer very little to no distortion.
Then as we get longer, objects become magnified to bring them closer… like looking through a telescope. You may need to step back to get your subject fully in the frame, so they’re best for shooting outdoors where you have the room to do that. As a bonus they have a fantastic compression effect which helps to increase your background blur.
So let’s walk through the focal lengths, from super wide to telephoto, and what you would use them for!
Characteristics: They elongate and flatten, and allow us to capture a very wide field of view. They create depth and those beautiful long stretching skies that you see in travel and landscape images. They enables us to fit a lot into the frame, making them also perfect for indoor real estate photos… to fit everything in!
Distortion: Distortion is evident when shooting straight lines such as a building or a row of trees, where the distortion causes the lines to converge. Things that are close to the lens appear larger than they are in real life, with everything behind it appearing smaller.
Best For: Landscapes & Architecture
Wide angle lenses do not make great portraits, unless you’re aiming for a cartoonish effect.
Related: What Lenses Do to Faces
However, that distortion can be used to create fun effects! You can try photographing children at play, at unusual angles, getting in close which results in highlighting the subject whilst incorporating their environment to show what they’re up to.
Related: Wide Angle Fun
Characteristics: Normal lenses have the closest to a natural perspective as any other focal length. These lenses include the primes at 35mm and 50mm, and then versatile zooms such as the 24-70mm. Lenses in the wider end of this focal range are excellent for situations where the photographer wishes to include some background in order to put their subject in context, but without too much distortion.
Distortion: They present little to no distortion – in other words they mimic very closely what the human eye sees.
Best For: General use, Portraits, Documentary Style, Food, Products, Street Photography
Characteristics: These focal lengths offer a good balance of tight framing with minimal distortion, and for that reason they are popular with portrait photographers. Additionally, they compress the image which helps create a beautiful blurred background. They allow you to get in tight, frame out the background, without distorting the subject, which also makes them great for food and product photography, and capturing small details.
Distortion: They magnify the subject to bring it closer, and squeeze objects to fit them into the frame, thereby making objects appear narrower. The most noticeable effect of this is compression is beautiful blurry backgrounds, and a subtle narrowing of facial features.
Best For: Portraits, Food, Products, Small Details
Characteristics: Due to the fact they bring objects closer to the lens than they are in real life, they offer the ability to shoot from long distances. This makes telephoto lenses perfect for any genre where your subject can be quite far away.
Distortion: As mentioned in portraits, lenses in this category magnify the subject to bring it closer, and squeeze them into the frame, creating similar distortion but to a greater extent. This also means the ability to create even more beautiful blurry backgrounds.
Best For: Wildlife, Sports, Group Portraits
In wedding photography they’re ideal for capturing moments during the ceremony or reception that you can’t get close to. When it comes to taking the formal portraits of the couple, a longer lens allows you to physically step back and create opportunity for moments that might not otherwise happen if the couple had a lens in their face.
This is also very popular for portrait photography due to the background compression such a long lens gives. It creates a stunning backdrop, and separation between the subject and the environment which allows the subject to really pop!
When photographing groups of people in particular, the beautiful compression effect can make up for the loss of bokeh that occurs when you close down your aperture to get everyone in focus.
Related: How to Photograph Large Groups
Characteristics: Enables us to shoot very close up to capture small subjects at their true sizedue to the ability to reproduce 1:1. This also enables us to capture very fine detail.
Distortion: No noticeable distortion.
Best For: Fine Detail, Flaura & Fauna, Artistic, Abstract, Food, Jewellery. They can also be used like a regular lens and are popular for portraits.
So much fun can be had with a macro lens!
Related: Macro Photography for Beginners
Characteristics: Fisheye lenses are even wider than traditional wide angle lenses, allowing us an even larger field of view.
Distortion: The distortion these lenses create is the most noticeable of any focal length. They squeeze so much into the frame that the centre of the image is dramatically enlarged in proportion to the rest of the scene, and everything around it dimishes in size increasingly as it gets closer to the edge of the frame.
Best For: Fun and Creative Images, Interiors, Event Photography
As a note to consider, we can’t discuss lens focal length without also mentioning the camera, because focal length is affected by the size of our camera’s sensor.
Full frame digital cameras have a sensor size that is equivalent to traditional 35mm film cameras, and lenses are manufactured with these sensors in mind.
Whereas entry level DSLRs generally have a smaller sensor, the most common sensor size causing a crop factor of 1.6x. What this means in practice is your lenses will be 1.6 times longer than their stated focal length. Eg. a 50mm lens on a cropped sensor camera will be equivalent to 80mm.
Basically when you look through the lens your images will be slightly closer to you that if you were looking through a full frame.
So sometimes that means you’ll have to step back a little further!
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I love that you have talked about lenses in simple language….I easily understand what you are saying…..I take a lot of photos….about 5,000 a year, just for myself and my blog and website but I’m not at all technical….. thanks muchly !
Thanks Pamela! Xx
With my teenage daughter borrowing my D90 regularly (her passion for photography growing stronger everyday), I have decided to buy a new camera for myself and let her have the D90. I would love to invest in a better camera and I’m guessing that means buying a full frame body. I was hoping to use same lenses but that obviously won’t work. So if I can’t share lenses I can now look at a Canon (another language for me). I need to make the right decision as funds are very limited and this purchase will have to do me for several years.
Any ideas would be appreciated, also I’m going overseas at Xmas and now researching if it’s cheaper to buy in the USA. Decisions, decisions…..
This lens article is thought provoking and informative, thank you.
Thankyou, great relevant info easy to understand to help with my new camera.
thank you. I have a canon. Can you recommend a good telephoto lens for my sons sport? Thanks
Any telephoto lens that has a long focal range – such as those up towards 200mm would be fantastic for capturing fast sports!
6 Comments on What Lens Should I Use?