A Complete Guide To The Different Types of Camera Lenses

To a beginner, learning about camera lenses might seem like a minefield. You can find yourself confused by jargon, complicated measurements, and seemingly deep discussions about the nature of light.

This article aims to dispel some of those mysteries. We’ll tell you everything you need to know about the different types of camera lenses, what each lens is used for, and what all those numbers mean.

Table of contents

1. Camera lens basics
       a. Zoom lenses
       b. Prime lenses
2. Camera lens features
       a. Focal length
       b. Aperture
       c. Lens fit
       d. Depth of field
       e. Crop factor
       f. Image stabilisation
3. Common types of camera lenses
       a. Standard
       b. Wide-angle
       c. Fisheye
       d. Telephoto
       e. Macro
4. Specialist lenses
       a. Tilt-shift
       b. Soft-focus

1. Camera lens basics

types of camera lenses

In a nutshell, camera lenses are broken down into two categories: zoom and prime lenses. 

Zoom lenses

These lenses have adjustable focal lengths, which allow you to shoot your subject at different distances.

They’re the most versatile type of lens, as you can comfortably shoot close to mid-range distances. This attribute comes in handy for street, wildlife, and wedding photography.

Because of their flexibility, portability, and value for money, zoom lenses are considered more common and beginner-friendly than prime lenses. 

Prime lenses

These lenses have a fixed focal length. This means you can’t zoom in or out when taking a photograph.

After reading about zoom lenses, you might be wondering why anybody would opt for a prime lens. Well, the main advantage of prime lenses is that they’re purpose-built for a specific focal length. This feature means the lens’ technology is designed to get the most out of that length.

Prime lenses also tend to produce higher quality images than zoom lenses, but only if you use them appropriately. For example, in portrait or landscape photography. What’s more, they have greater availability of large apertures, meaning they're better equipped to maximise the amount of available light and shoot at quicker shutter speeds.

Finally, they tend to be cheaper than zoom lenses, given their simpler technology.

2. Camera lens features

types of camera lenses

Before we delve deeper into the different types of camera lenses, it’s useful to have some knowledge of how camera lenses work, their basic features, and how they produces different images.

Focal length

Focal length is the distance between the camera’s sensor and the optical centre of a camera lens, and is measured in millimetres.

As such, it represents how close or far away your subject will appear in your photograph. With zoom lenses, focal length is represented as a range, as in 35 to 85mm. With prime lenses, there is only one focal length measurement, as in 50mm.

Aperture

camera lenses

The aperture of a camera lens is the opening that light travels through when a photograph is taken. The aperture can widen or narrow to restrict or allow more light through, which changes the exposure of the image. This also changes the depth of field in the image - a tighter aperture will create a deeper depth of field, and a wider one more narrow. We talk more on depth of field below.

Aperture size is measured in f-stops, which typically describe how open or closed the aperture is. These begin low and gradually increase as the aperture narrows. F-stops begin at f/1.4 and increase at irregular intervals, usually to f/22. Some DSLRs even go to f/32, while large format cameras can go to f/64, and rarer lenses still f/96 and f/177.

Generally, the more light that’s available in the environment you’re shooting, the faster you can set the shutter speed, and the more detailed the photograph will be. A larger aperture means more light hits the sensor at once, which enables faster shutter speeds.

Therefore, it’s easy to understand why lenses boasting larger aperture sizes are more expensive than those offering smaller.

There are some side effects of a wide aperture, though. You get a shallow depth of field (we’ll touch on depth of field below), meaning only your subject will be in focus. Backgrounds and foregrounds will be out of focus.

A narrow aperture is typically used in low light situations, to concentrate what little available light there is through the lens and onto the camera’s sensor. This nearly always means you need to set a slow shutter speed, so the camera’s sensor has a chance to collect the light and produce an image.

Again, this has side effects – you will achieve a deeper depth of field, which means the background, foreground, and your subject will all be in focus. It depends on the details you want to emphasise in your shot.

Lens fit

When you’re eyeing up any new lens, you should check that the mechanism required to fit the lens to your camera is compatible with your camera.

Lenses tend to come with one of three fittings: bayonet, screw-on, or friction lock. This means that no matter the lens, it will be secure when fitted to the camera body.

If the lens and camera manufacturer is the same, it’s likely the fitting will be too. This often isn’t the case between camera manufacturers, but you can get lucky. If a manufacturer only makes lenses and not cameras, they typically build versions of the lenses with each fitting.

Depth of field

camera lenses

Depth of field is, literally, the depth of your field of view. It describes the degree to which objects around your subject are in or out of focus. Typically, this is altered by adjusting your aperture setting, but different lenses come with their own depth of field range too.

Lenses have different specialities when it comes to depth of field. For instance, macro lenses give you incredible clarity at close range while blurring much of everything else around your subject. This is known as a shallow depth of field.

By contrast, a 35mm, 50mm, or 80mm lens typically gives you a deeper depth of field. This means more of the image is sharp and clear when used with an aperture setting of f/16 or lower.

When looking for a camera lens, you need to assess what kind of photographs you want to take against the lens’ likely depth of field range.

Crop factor

Back when all photography was analogue rather than digital, there were no electronic sensors on cameras. You captured an image directly to film through your chosen lens.

Given the popularity of 35mm film, it became a reference format. So, if you shot with a 50mm lens, the crop would be the same each time, providing it was shot to 35mm film. This allowed focal length calculations to be made pretty easily.

In the digital age, we use electronic sensors to capture an image. However, these sensors are smaller than 35mm. That means that to retain 35mm (also known as ‘full frame’) as a reference point, something called crop factor has come into play. This is the scale of your sensor compared to 35mm.

The reason this is significant is that crop factor makes the field of view narrower than if you were shooting full frame. In other words, the field of view appears more zoomed in than if you were shooting at full frame. This has a knock-on effect on the true output of a camera lens, so you need to allow for crop factor when calculating the focal length of a lens.

To learn how to calculate crop factor, check out this article.

Image stabilisation

Depending on the type of photograph you intend to take, a lens’ in-built image stabilisation might be a key selling point.

So, why is image stabilisation important? Well, you’ll use a slower shutter speed when shooting in low light, meaning the sensor will be exposed to light for longer. But when you shoot at slower shutter speeds, it’s nearly impossible to keep a steady enough hand to produce an image of decent quality. Even undetectable movements will cause the image to blur, so some lenses come with built-in optical image stabilisation to counteract this problem.

This function means you can shoot in lower light, and at slower shutter speeds freehand, without needing a tripod. Typically, this translates to having 2 to 4 extra f-stops before the image will begin to blur.

To find out more about the different forms of image stabilisation, check out the video above.

3. The most common types of camera lenses

camera lenses

Now you’re familiar with the ins and outs of what camera lenses do, let’s look at the most common types of camera lenses and the types of photography they’re most suitable for.

Standard

Standard lenses can be prime or zoom lenses. They sit somewhere in the mid-range for focal length – usually between 35mm and 85mm. This makes them a great choice for street, portrait, and travel or landscape photography.

They often come with DSLR cameras, as they’re less specialist than many other lenses, so have the broadest application.

Supposedly, standard lenses have a similar field of view to the human eye. Pretty impressive if you ask us.

Wide-angle

Wide-angle lenses have a short focal length – typically around 14mm to 35mm. This allows you to capture a broader field of view, hence the term “wide-angle”.

Typically, any lens that has a focal length below 35mm but above 23mm is considered a wide-angle lens.

Because you can capture large scenes or objects in one photograph without having to stitch single images together in Photoshop, wide-angle lenses are popular in architectural, panoramic, and landscape photography. In general, wide-angle lenses give you around 65-degrees of a diagonal field of view.

Wide-angle lenses aren’t often used for capturing objects up close, as they specialise in capturing large depths of field.

If you’re planning on using a wide-angle lens, you should also bear in mind that the shorter its focal length, the more distorted the edges of the photograph will be. Therefore, it’s best to use wide-angle lenses sparingly and for the appropriate images.

Fisheye/ultrawide

Fisheye – or ultrawide – lenses continue below the 14mm threshold that typically marks the range of a wide-angle lens.

A fisheye lens is considered to be pretty much any lens that sits within the range of 4mm to 14mm focal length.

It’s similar to the wide-angle lens in many ways. The big difference between them is that when you’re shooting with a fisheye lens, the viewing angle is extended further still, granting as much as 180-degrees at the lowest focal length. Once again, this ‘bending’ of the image creates distortion around the edges of the photograph. The result is more severe, given the wider angle.

Fisheye lenses are ideal for creating experimental and surrealist photographs though, as they produce such a strange, convex image. They’re also used frequently to film skate videos, as they can contain the skater in the entire frame while focusing on the skateboard’s intricate movements.

Telephoto

The telephoto lens is broken down into three categories: short telephoto, medium telephoto, and super telephoto.

Each of these lenses provides a magnified effect. This effect is the result of a telephoto lens’ long focal length, which enables you to focus on subjects at a moderate to far distance.

In essence, a telephoto lens is the opposite of a wide-angle lens. The field of view narrows, but the distance at which you’re able to focus and photograph your subject increases dramatically.

The focal length of a short telephoto lens is typically 85mm to 135mm. As such, it’s suitable for all kinds of photography, provided you’re shooting at a distance. Ironically, the effect achieved in the resulting photograph is often more intimate than if it were shot with a lens of shorter focal length, or closer to your subject.

Medium telephoto lenses usually have a focal length of 135mm to 300mm. Therefore, they’re best suited to photographing sports or wildlife, or any kind of photography in which you aren’t able to get too near your subject.

A super telephoto lens usually has a focal length of over 300mm, which makes it great for photographing sports involving distance, like golf. It’s also perfect for nature, wildlife, and astronomy photography.

As you can imagine, telephoto lenses are expensive and bulky. If you’re a beginner, you might want to avoid purchasing them unless you know how and when to use them.

Macro

Unlike the other types of camera lenses mentioned in this article, macro lenses aren’t defined by their focal length. Instead, they’re defined by their internal construction.

The focal length of a macro lens can range from 35mm to 200mm and isn’t a true reflection of their intended use. It’s also worth noting that macro lenses are always prime lenses, not zoom.

Owing to their unique internal structure, macro lenses are often used to capture subjects at very close range. Therefore, macro lenses tend to be used to photograph insects, flowers, and still life objects in acute detail. They produce images that are at a 1:1 scale or larger, meaning the image is the same size on the sensor as it is in reality.

4. Specialist lenses

There are two types of specialist lenses that often don’t make it into a photographer’s camera bag.

But they’re worth knowing about, as you might want to hire one for a specific shoot at some point. Plus, you never know where photography trends will head next.

Tilt-shift

Tilt-shift lenses were first used by architectural photographers. The reason they were used for this purpose was so that the lines of a building could be shot straight, rather than from the perspective of the camera.

For example, if you’re taking a picture of a building from the ground in front of it, the perspective of the camera will be looking up from below, meaning the building will appear to lean backwards in the frame. With tilt-shift, the lens can be moved up and down and side to side to counteract this effect. It can similarly be used to capture panoramic landscapes.

A modern trend that relies on tilt-shift lenses (or Photoshop jobs emulating the effect) is “toy town” photography. This is where a photograph is taken of a real cityscape, and an effect is produced that makes it look unreal, like a model city in miniature. Essentially, the lens mimics the effect of a macro lens, except you’re photographing something vast, rather than something small. It creates some truly surreal results.

Soft focus

While there are some dedicated soft-focus lenses, like the Canon EF 135mm f/2.8 with Softfocus and Pentax SMC 28mm f2.8 FA Soft Lens, these days soft focus is considered more of an effect. It arose in the early days of photography, when spherical and chromatic aberration were side-effects of the lens technology of the time.

Though technically a flaw in the technology, this effect produced a dream-like softening of edges and blemishes in the frame and became quite desirable. In the ‘40s and ‘50s, it was used extensively in melodrama, with directors even smearing petroleum jelly on their regular lenses to achieve the same effect.

In more recent times, soft-focus lenses or the soft-focus effect was used extensively in film and glamour photography of the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s. Its presence is still felt in face smoothing effects on smartphone cameras to this day.

With what few modern soft-focus lenses there are, it’s usually possible to turn the effect on and off.

Specialist camera insurance from Ripe Photography

If you’re planning on treating yourself to a new lens this Christmas, you need to make sure it’s protected.

At Ripe Photography, we cover cameras and accessories against theft and accidental damage. Our cover can be tailored to fit your exact requirements, so you only pay for what you need. What’s more, thanks to the Ripe Guarantee, we promise to give you the best cover on the market for the best price.

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