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Camera Lenses Explained

One of the most challenging parts of learning photography is to choose camera lenses and other pieces of equipment. The photo gear market is big and very active. You can find anything from expensive professional lenses designed by well-known manufacturers such as Nikon and Canon to cheap lenses with names you’ve never heard of. And while the manufacturer’s name is usually a good indicator of quality, it doesn’t help you decide on the best camera lenses for your artistic purpose. Furthermore, most manufacturers provide an entire range of lenses.

To choose what’s right for you, you first need to learn how camera lenses work and understand which of their characteristics match your goal.

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What Is a Camera Lens?

A camera lens is a system of optical elements made of glass that converge light into a fixed point. If you use an analog camera, that point will be on a film strip. If you use a digital camera, that point will be on the sensor of your camera. Camera lenses control the amount of light that enters the camera by opening or closing the diaphragm according to your aperture setting. They also control for how long the light reaches the sensor by keeping the diaphragm opened according to your shutter speed setting. Without a camera lens, you’ll end up with a white photo.

The Most Important Parameters of Camera Lenses

Camera lenses share the same set of basic parameters, which is good because you can use them to choose the right lens for you. The combination of their characteristics allows you to create specific compositions. Therefore, deciding which lens to use influences framing and composition.

Focal Length

The focal length is the most distinctive parameter of a lens. It’s measured in millimeters and defines the lens so much that it became part of the lens’ name (e.g. AF-S NIKKOR 50mm f/1.8G). The focal length is the distance between the convergence point in the lens and the sensor in the camera. It determines how strongly the lens converges light and, as a result, how much of the scene you’ll be able to capture.

The focal length gives you the field of view. A lens with a short focal length converges the light faster, and you’ll have a wide field of view. At the same time, a lens with a long focal length converges the light slower, and you’ll have a narrow field of view. For orientation, keep in mind that a lens with a focal length of 50mm will give you the natural field of view of the human eye. Anything above 50mm will frame less than you can see, while anything below 50mm will frame a wider scene than you can see.

Photo by Jakob Owens on Unsplash

The focal lengths of modern camera lenses go from 8mm to over 300mm, and they’re classified as follows:

  • Wide-angle lenses (focal lengths below 35mm)
  • Standard lenses (focal lengths between 35 – 85mm)
  • Telephoto lenses (focal lengths between 85 – 300mm)
  • Super telephoto lenses (focal lengths above 300mm)

You should also decide if you want a prime lens (a lens with a fixed focal length) or a zoom lens (a lens that covers a range of focal lengths). Primes lenses make framing more challenging. In exchange, they offer better image quality. On the other hand, zoom lenses are more versatile and allow you to zoom in on your subject. However, many photographers argue that zoom lenses produce lower image quality than prime lenses with the same focal length.

Minimum Focus Distance

The minimum focus distance is the parameter that says how close you can get to your subject. It’s the minimum distance at which the lens can focus. For example, the minimum focus distance for a 50mm lens is 45 cm (18 inches), which means you can’t go closer than that to photograph your subject.

Lenses with a short focal length have a shorter minimum focus distance. That’s why a smartphone camera lens that usually has a focal length between 24 and 27mm can focus at about 10 – 16cm (4 – 6 inches). At the same time, lenses with a long focal length have a longer minimum focus distance. With a 300mm telephoto lens, you won’t be able to focus under 1.4 m (55 inches).

Magnification

Magnification refers to how big the elements of the scene will be in your photo. It’s a ratio, x:y, between the size of an object projected onto the camera’s sensor (x) and the real size of the object (y). As a result, you’ll have a 1:1 magnification when the size of an object is identical to the size of the object’s image on the sensor. As a full-frame camera usually has a 24×36 mm sensor, a 1:1 magnification is possible only when you photograph very small subjects such is the case in macro photography. For the rest of the time, your images will represent the objects in the scene at a lower scale.

There is a strong relation between magnification and focal length. Lenses with short focal lengths will have lower magnification ratios than lenses with long focal lengths. Because the focal length of 50mm produces the magnification of the human eye, all you have to do to determine the magnification of your lens is to divide its focal length by 50. For example, a telephoto lens with a focal length of 100mm will make the objects in the scene twice as big.

However, magnification isn’t always based on focal length. Dedicated macro lenses can offer higher magnification ratios and short focal lengths at the same time. They’re designed to have short minimum focus distances, short focal lengths, and high magnifications. For example, Canon MP-E 65mm f/2.8 1-5x Macro Photo Lens has a focal length of just 65mm and provides a 5:1 magnification and a 24 cm (9.4 inches) minimum focus distance.

Maximum Aperture

Aperture determines how much light enters the camera and is an important factor in achieving the depth of field you need. It’s measured in f-stops or f-numbers: a small f-number means a large aperture, while a big f-number means a small aperture. Maximum aperture is an important parameter and, like the focal length, is usually included in the lens’ name (e.g. AF-S NIKKOR 50mm f/1.8G).

Aperture controls how much light enters the camera

Lenses with a wide maximum aperture (small f-number) allow you to achieve a very shallow depth of field. They also help you when taking photos in low lighting conditions.

A wide maximum aperture is an attribute of high-quality lenses. You’ll notice that prime lenses tend to have a smaller f-number than zoom lenses. Also, some zoom lenses have different maximum apertures for different focal lengths. As a result, you can’t work in the same conditions all the time and have to check the aperture each time you zoom in or out.

What Camera Lens Do I Need?

While there aren’t any strict rules, some lenses work better for particular types of photography. For example, landscape photographers want a deep depth of field and a wide field of view. They usually go for lenses with small focal lengths. That doesn’t stop them from having a telephoto lens in their bag too. Being able to photograph details and individualize a part of the scenery may be helpful from time to time.

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On the other hand, wildlife photographers can’t get close to their subjects. Therefore, they need lenses with high magnification and a long focal length. They usually go for telephoto and super-telephoto lenses. Yet, when they want to photograph a wild animal in its environment, they use a wide lens too.

Here are the types of lenses often used with the most popular types of photography.

Landscape Photography

When you photograph vast scenery, you want to have everything in focus. It means a deep depth of field and a wide field of view. For landscape photography, start with a wide-angle lens and go from there. Anything with a focal length less than 50mm will work.

But if you want creative effects, you may want to try specialized lenses such as fisheye and tilt-shift lenses. Fisheye lenses are ultra-wide lenses that distort the image in order to create panoramic photographs. They have extremely short focal lengths (8 – 16mm).

Try fisheye lenses

Tilt-shift lenses (also called perspective control lenses) have manual focus and allow you to change the vantage point without moving the camera. They help you create artistic effects (e.g. miniatures) and panoramic photographs. Also, you can use them to correct the wide-angle lens distortion (wide-angle lenses can make the horizon look curved).

Nature Photography

As a nature photographer, you probably want to be able to create close-ups and even macro photographs. A lens with a short minimum focus distance or even a dedicated macro lens may be what you need. But close-ups aren’t the only compositions in your portfolio. So you may want to look for a more versatile lens such as a zoom lens to have as much creative freedom as possible.

Close ups are amazing nature photographs

Creative lenses are also something you may consider. They allow you to move the focus on specific parts of the frame and create unique photos.

Portrait Photography

If you want to make your subject stand out, you need a shallow depth of field to blur the background. Many portrait photographers use telephoto lenses, which allow them to fill the frame with their subject without placing the camera too close to the person’s face.

Travel and Street Photography

Travel and street photographers need to act fast to capture snapshots as life on the streets doesn’t wait for camera settings. They also need light gear to carry around all day. Therefore, they usually choose a standard prime lens with a wide maximum aperture. This way, they can use fast shutter speeds even in less than perfect lighting conditions. Henri Cartier-Bresson used a 50mm lens all his life. He intended to capture each scene exactly how he saw it.

A 50mm lens shows the world as you see it

Wildlife Photography

Wildlife photography is extremely challenging in terms of gear. Most of the time, you have to photograph your subject from a long distance, without disturbing them in any way. You’ll need telephoto lenses or even super-telephoto lenses to do that.

However, there are situations when you can and want to get closer. For example, when the haze or heat affects the quality of your images because there is a very long distance between camera and subject. Or when you want to photograph a portrait. For these occasions, you’ll need a shorter focal length.

You should also consider the maximum aperture when deciding on a lens for wildlife. You want to be able to take good photos in low lighting conditions without using low shutter speeds (because the subject can easily move and blur your photo) or high ISO values (because they add grain noise).

Telephoto lenses are the best lenses to photograph a tiger

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Concluding words

As a beginner, it’s hard to settle on one or two lenses, especially when the market is full of tempting products. However, camera lenses can be expensive. Instead of buying several low-quality lenses you might use once or twice, try to decide on one or two high-quality ones that will serve you a lifetime. Consider what types of compositions you prefer, your aesthetic and personal style, and the conditions in which you take photos. And don’t forget to be creative and make the most out of your lens.

Do you struggle to choose a camera lens? Let us know which is your favorite lens and why.

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