Types of Camera Lenses

Understanding Various Lenses and Their Functions

When you're ready to move from a beginner level, fixed lens camera to something more advanced, you're almost certainly going to turn to interchangeable lens cameras (ILCs), either DSLRs or mirrorless ILCs. To make the most of your DSLR or mirrorless camera, you need to understand the differences between the types of camera lenses.

Camera lenses come in either fixed (prime) focal lengths (meaning they offer a single focal length), or zooms, which cover a range of focal lengths. The different focal lengths are grouped into categories for different types of lenses. Continue reading to learn more about how to understand the differences in the lenses that are available.

(NOTE: Users should take into consideration the focal length magnification of x1.6 that is applied if you're using an APS-C format camera with a DSLR camera. This number also is called a crop factor.)

1
Wide Angle Lenses

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Traditionally, a super wide-angle lens is classified as anything under 20mm. Wide-angle is 21-35mm. With the advent of digital cameras, and the APS-C format, camera manufacturers have also started producing specific lenses for this format. Wide-angle lenses for crop frame DSLRs range from 10-24mm, with a few going down to a super wide 8mm.

If you're looking to buy a wide-angle lens, it's important to know that they are most commonly used for photographing landscapes and architecture, although they are often also used for photographing large groups of people. 

The Tokina AT-X 116 Pro DX lens (pictured here) is an example of a wide-angle lens with zoom capabilities (ranging from focal lengths between 11mm and 16mm). Wide-angle lenses are available in either zoom lenses or in prime lenses. Buy from Amazon »

2
Standard Lenses

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A standard lens has a focal length range of 35-70mm. The most common standard lens is a fixed 50mm lens.

Standard lenses are most commonly used for documentary and street photography, where photographers need to move quickly and capture an interesting point of action. Pioneers of modern street photography, such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, always used a 50mm lens, choosing to move themselves around so as to best frame an image.

The Nikon 50mm f1.8D lens (pictured here) is an example of a standard, fixed lens. You probably won't find too many zoom lenses that only offer a range of standard focal lengths. Instead, zoom lens manufacturers often will offer lenses that run the range from wide angle to standard focal lengths or that run from standard to telephoto focal lengths. Buy from Amazon »

3
Medium Telephoto / Portrait Lens

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The focal range between 80-135mm is nearly always used by portrait photographers. Fixed lenses at these lengths produce ideal framing for head and shoulders shots. These are specialist lenses, but can be surprisingly reasonably priced. 

The Canon EF 100mm F/2.8 Macro USM lens is an example of a one of these types of lenses. Although most portrait lenses are offered only as prime lenses, you may find some zoom lenses that incorporate the desirable focal length range for a portrait lens. Buy from Amazon »

4
Telephoto

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Any lens with a focal length of between 135mm and 300mm is a true telephoto lens. Manufacturers make a huge range of lenses in this range ... at an equally large range of prices!

Telephoto lenses are traditionally used for sports and wildlife photography, but their essential function is to bring distant objects closer.

One example of a telephoto lens is the Canon EF 200mm f/2L IS USM telephoto lens pictured here. Buy from Amazon »

5
Specialist Lenses

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There are a variety of specialist lenses available. Some of the more common are:

  • Super Telephoto. These have a focal length of more than 300mm, and are used by dedicated sports and wildlife photographers. The Nikon AF-S Nikkor 400mm f/2.8G super telephoto lens (pictured here) is an example.
  • Macro. These lenses are able to focus closer to an object than normal lenses, offering a 1:1 ratio. They are used for still-life photography of small objects.
  • Fisheye. These are on the edge of wide-angle lenses, and give a distorted view of the subject matter. The center of the image is magnified, and objects diminish in size in all directions around it.  
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