When it comes to lenses, there are so many choices.
It can be totally overwhelming when deciding what’s the best lens for the job, and which one will help you achieve the look that you desire in your photography. But firstly, if you’re still undecided about whether to buy a new camera or new lens, read this:
In here, I want to show you, the different ranges of lenses and focal lengths that are available, which scenarios they’re generally used for, and what the photos will look like!
When we’re talking about lenses, the primary way that we identify and characterise a lens is by it’s focal length. For example, we often mention the 50mm, the 85mm, the 24-70mm etc.
Focal length of a lens plays the biggest part in how our images will look. In fact different focal lengths can cause very different effects on our subject and background and so making a decision about what lens to use, should be driven by the type of image you’d like to create, as we explain in our article here.
Let’s start super wide, at say 8-12mm… this focal length allows you to see a lot through the viewfinder. In fact it packs more of the environment into your frame than you can see with the naked eye from left to right. In order to do so, it will stretch and distort your images, and this is perfect for creating long sweeping skies in a landscape, or for taking interior shots when you want to include as much of the room as possible, or simply for when you don’t have much room to shoot in.
As focal lengths get longer, you reach the middle ground, at say 50mm, where what you see through the viewfinder is similar to what we see with the human eye.
Then we start to get longer, and as we do, the lens has a zoom effect… like looking through a telescope. These lenses will bring your subject closer… so 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 wonderful compression effect which helps to increase your background blur.
So let’s walk through the focal lengths, from wide…. zoom!
Best For: Landscapes & Architecture
Wide angle and super wide angles lenses have a focal length in the range of 8mm-24mm (on a full frame sensor) or 12mm-35mm (on a cropped sensor).
Wide angle lenses capture more in the frame than the human eye naturally sees when looking straight ahead.
Additionally, they have a distortion effect.
They elongate the subject or scene which adds depth, and things that are close to the lens appear larger than they are in real life, with everything behind it appearing smaller.
This is evident when shooting straight lines such as a building or a row of trees, where the distortion causes the lines to converge. Wide angle lenses create those beautiful long stretching skies that you see in travel and landscape images, and they’re also used for real estate images… to fit everything in!
Therefore they are most popular for shooting landscapes and architecture.
Traditionally, a wide angle lens would not be used for portraits, due to the distortion.
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
Best For: Everyday Photos, Portraits, Documentary Style, Food
A normal (or standard) lens has a focal range of anywhere from 35mm to 70mm.
Normal lenses have the closest to a natural perspective as any other focal length, and present little to no distortion – in other words they mimic very closely what the human eye sees.
These lenses include the primes at 35mm and 50mm, and then versatile zooms such as the 24-70mm.
Lenses in 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.
Most common uses are street and documentary style photography, portraits and general use.
Best For: General Portraits, Food, Details
Portrait lenses have a focal range of around 70mm to 135mm.
These focal lengths are popular with portrait photographers as they offer the least distortion balanced with a tight frame.
Additionally, the longer the focal length, the more compression you’ll experience which is essential for creating a beautiful blurred background.
As the portrait primes have wide apertures (low f stop numbers) I also love to use mine to capture beautiful flowers and detail shots making the most of the shallow depth of field.
Best For: Wildlife, Sports, Group Portraits
Now we’re getting longer!
Telephoto lenses have a focal range of approximately 135mm to 300mm.
Due to the fact they bring objects closer to the lens than they are in real life, they offer the photographer the ability to shoot from long distances. This makes telephoto lenses perfect for sports and wildlife photography where your subject can be quite far away.
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
Best For: Capturing Tiny Details, Flaura & Fauna, Artistic, Abstract & Food
So much fun can be had with a macro lens!
Related: Macro Photography for Beginners
Tiny subjects can be photographed at their actual size as macro lenses offer a 1:1 ratio, and also have the ability to focus at very close distances.
This makes them popular for photographing flora…
…and miniscule creatures such as insects and bugs.
They are particularly popular with newborn baby photographers for the level of detail they capture, such as the fine wrinkles on teeny fingers and toes.
Macro lenses are also fun for creating abstract photos by getting in super close on a small detail of an everyday object to the point it becomes almost unrecognisable.
Best For: Fun & Creative Images, Interiors
Fisheye lenses are even wider than traditional wide angle lenses, and the distortion is so noticeable 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.
This distortion can be used to create fun and creative images.
As a note to consider, we can’t discuss lens focal lengths 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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