Different types of camera lenses and when to use them

Here are 6 of the main types of camera lens and the best time to use them

Entering the world of photography can be a minefield when it comes to the different types of lenses on the market.

Even the experienced photographer will be hard-pressed to explain the exact differences and function of each particular lens, but knowing more about the functionality, focal lengths and uses of a lens can help you to employ it in the right situation.

And knowing when to use the correct lens, is just one step towards becoming a much better photographer. In this article, we take a look at the different types of camera lenses and when they should be used.

What types of camera lenses are there?

In this article, when we talk about lenses we will be referring to the detachable lenses that are used by photographers. The same principles apply across different brands, be it Sony or Nikon, and across different types of camera body, be it DSLR or Mirrorless.

One important point to note though is that some lenses are designed for different camera bodies, so always check before making a purchase. DSLR and Mirrorless cameras are either full-frame or crop sensors. While full-frame lenses can be used on a crop sensor, a lens designed for a crop sensor can’t be used on a full frame!

Focal length size guide

Focal Length

Type of Lens

What is it used for?

4mm - 14mm

Fisheye

Abstract, creative

14mm - 35mm

Wide angle

Landscape, architecture

35mm - 85mm

Standard

Street, travel, portrait

85mm - 135mm

Short telephoto

Street photography and portraits

135mm+

Medium telephoto

Sports, wildlife, action

300mm+

Super telephoto

Sports from a distance, nature and astronomy

35mm - 200mm

Macro

Close-up shots

What are the main types of camera lens?

It can be quite overwhelming in the early stages of getting into photography when you find out just how many types of camera lens there are. Fortunately, camera lenses can be broken down into two types, zoom lenses and prime lenses. We’ll explain what the definition of these two camera lenses are below.

What is a zoom lens?

Zoom lenses are one of the most common types of lens that you’ll need in your photography armoury, offering you a great range for photographing anything from people in the streets to wildlife in the African Savanna.

Zoom lenses are incredibly versatile, with the most popular being the 70-200 mm lens that you’ll see being used by wedding photographers. Zoom lenses have variable focal lengths, so with a 70-200mm lens for example, you can zoom from 70mm all the way up to 200mm.

If you’re travelling light, though, you can find zoom lenses with much more range, such as an 18 - 270 mm, allowing you to photograph both close up and in the distance.

For budding photographers or anyone needing to photograph in a diverse range of scenarios or conditions, there’s nothing that can really beat a good zoom range for quality and adaptability. It’s the all-round lens that everyone needs!

Zoom lenses and when to use them

Zoom lenses are a versatile choice of lens. 

What is a prime lens?

A prime lens is a classic style that has been around as long as cameras have. Prime lenses have a fixed focal range, which means that you can't zoom in or out.

The main advantage of prime lenses is that they specialise in just one focal length. In other words, they are finely tuned to deliver on one specific type of photography, unlike a zoom lens which can be used in a multitude of cases.

Because of this, prime lenses produce much higher quality images than a zoom lens in general, but you will need to know in which situation you can use them. For example, the 50mm prime lens, otherwise known as the Nifty Fifty, is perfect for portraits, as the focal length is seen to be as close to the human eye as possible.

A 35 mm prime lens, on the other hand, is usually best employed by landscape photographers.

What is a nifty fifty camera lens?

The 'Nifty Fifty' is a popular choice among photographers.

Telephoto Lens

If a standard zoom lens isn’t quite strong enough for your needs, then the next step up is a telephoto lens. These big lenses are found within a range of 100mm up to 600mm, sometimes even more.

Telephoto lenses are bulky and may require a tripod to support them, making them nowhere near as practical as a standard zoom lens.

If you are a professional wildlife photographer, sports photographer, or if you photograph the night sky and the stars, then a telephoto lens can be invaluable. For amateurs though, it’s perhaps not within your budget.

When to use a telephoto camera lens

Telephoto lenses are specialist bits of kit, especially for wildlife photographers. 

Wide-angle lenses

Wide-angle lenses are a must-have if you’re a landscape photographer and looking to step up your game. Wide angles have a wider focal field, allowing you to essentially capture more of the scene in front of you than say a zoom lens.

For this reason, wide angles are perfect for photographing landscapes, as you can capture more of the scenery and create a much more vivid picture. They are also great for photographing architecture, as you’ll be able to capture the whole building in front of you.

Wide-angle lenses generally have a focal length between 16 and 35mm.

Fisheye Lens

If you need to capture an even wider field of view, then you’ll need to invest in a fisheye lens. These create the unusual 'fisheye’ effect, similar to a GoPro image.

A fisheye lens is basically an ultra-wide-angle lens, offering an enormous field of view. These are more specialist lenses and aren’t generally needed by most photographers. They are useful if you are photographing indoors or using your camera for design work. An ultra-wide-angle lens can have a focal length as low as 8mm.

In conclusion, there are different types of camera lens for almost any situation you could find yourself in as a photographer. Knowing which lens is best for what scenario, will set you on your way to becoming a much-improved photographer.

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