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If you’re the owner of a new digital SLR or mirrorless camera with changeable lenses, you can better tailor your photography to your subject by changing lens. Though there’s no photographic rulebook when it comes to focal length and aperture, there are a few best practices to remember.

If you’re looking to improve your photography skills Hands On With Your DSLR: Best Camera Tips For The Amateur Photographer From Youtube Hands On With Your DSLR: Best Camera Tips For The Amateur Photographer From Youtube There are umpteen resources on learning how to photograph. And believe me; it is as easy to get drowned in the quicksand of learning as it is to be buoyant with nuggets of wisdom. Photography... Read More , it pays to know how to get the most out of your equipment. Here are five examples of common photo lens, what they’re good for and when you should use them.

The Basics

Before we get into the different kinds of lenses, it pays to know a bit about what makes them so different. The most basic measurement that differs betwen lenses is focal length, represented in millimeters and often in a range, like “50-200mm.”

The focal length is essentially the zoom level of the lens (you can see how a different focal length affects images with one of these online DSLR simulators 3 Online Camera Simulators For Photography Beginners 3 Online Camera Simulators For Photography Beginners Learning the basics of photography makes sense, because it helps not only in photography but also in understanding the type of camera one eventually buys. Thanks to a few camera simulators available on the web... Read More ). A 300mm lens will make far-away subjects appear a lot closer than a 24mm lens. A lens with a range of focal lengths (e.g. 18-55mm) is a zoom lens, and these are frequently bundled with entry level cameras.

In the image below, you can see four lenses with different focal lengths (if they look a bit strange, it’s probably because their lens hoods are flipped backwards for storage).

camera-lenses-various

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Although it’s not an exact calculation, the equivalent focal length to what the human eye can perceive is about 50mm on a full-frame camera and 27mm on a Nikon APS-C or equivalent sensor. This means that what you can see through a lens at this focal length is approximately what you’d see if you were looking at the scene with a naked eye.

It’s important to remember that the size of the sensor of your camera can make a big difference in actual focal length. Some lenses include “adjusted” focal lengths, but if they don’t, you can use this handy lens multiplication factor calculator from Digified.net.

Wide Angle Lens

vivitar-wide-angle-lens

A wide angle lens is basically a “far zoomed out” lens; it can capture more of the scene than the human eye can focus on. A typical wide-angle lens has a focal length of 24-35mm. Ultra-wide-angle lenses, which capture even more of a scene, have very short focal lengths of 24mm or less.

Because of the very wide viewing angle of these types of lenses, straight lines near the edges of the picture can end up looking curved. Rectilinear lenses correct for this, creating straighter lines, but cause some interesting perspective shifts: the objects near the edges of the picture appear quite a bit larger than those further away. Fisheye lenses increase the curve of straight lines, result in very distinctive pictures, like the ones you can see in Erez’s test of the Photojojo smartphone lenses Photojojo Lens Kit and Mobislyder Camera Dolly Review and Giveaway Photojojo Lens Kit and Mobislyder Camera Dolly Review and Giveaway We spent $100 on this Photojojo Lens Kit featuring five different smartphone lenses, and an additional $95 on the Mobislyder portable camera dolly to find out if they are any good. Read More .

milky-way-wide-angle

Using this type of lens often results in pictures that draw attention to the “bigness” of the scene that’s captured by making the horizon seem further away. Wide angles are great for photographing many types of landscapes; when you want to evoke a sense of wonder at the size of the scene from your viewer, you should reach for a wide angle. To get the best effect, it’s good to have something in the foreground to anchor the picture and give the viewer something to focus on (in the photo above, the trees serve as the anchor).

You can also use wide-angles for cool effects with smaller objects that you’re much closer to. For example, photographing a field of wildflowers with a wide angle lens will highlight the flowers in the foreground by making them larger than the ones in the background, but still capturing the overall effect of the entire field. Using a rectilinear lens (or adjusting for the distortion in post-processing Photoshop Is Overkill: Edit Your Images With These Free Chrome Apps And Extensions Photoshop Is Overkill: Edit Your Images With These Free Chrome Apps And Extensions Although Photoshop is a great program, it has its drawbacks. Photoshop is not only very expensive, it also has too many controls for what you probably need. There are a lot of editors you could... Read More ) will keep these images from looking distorted around the edges.

It can take some time to get used to the perspective shifts and straight-line distortion of a wide angle lens, so if you decide to start using one, it’s a great idea to practice using it in different situations to see how it performs differently.

Standard “Kit” Lens

canon-standard-lens

When you bought a DSLR or an interchangeable-lens camera as a beginner photographer The Top 5 Photography Tips For Absolute Beginners The Top 5 Photography Tips For Absolute Beginners Fueled by a desire to take better photos, last year I got myself a nice DSLR for Christmas. I'm certainly no photography expert - but I did take the time learn a few tips I... Read More , it almost certainly came with a standard “kit” lens. These lenses are very versatile, and have focal lengths between 35 and 70mm (on my Nikon, because of the smaller sensor, the standard lens is 18-55mm). As you might have surmised, the standard lens is among the easiest to use, as it provides a similar viewing angle to the human eye.

wine-glasses-standard-lens

Whether you’re going for landscapes, portraits, action photos, urban shoots, or anything else you might come up with, a standard lens will work. They work best for subjects at close-to-medium distance, when you don’t need to zoom in on something far away or get super close to a small object. These lenses are designed to be versatile, which is why they are included with most cameras as a “kit” lens.

One of the best times to use a standard lens is when you’re travelling; because it’s such a well-rounded lens, you can carry it and maybe one other lens instead of bringing two or three extra.

Telephoto and Superzoom

vivitar-telephoto-lens

Telephoto lenses have a focal length of over 70mm, and are designed to get you as close to a far-away subject as possible. Superzooms are similar to telephoto lenses, but they offer a wide range of focal lengths. For example, the second lens I bought for my camera was a 55-200mm superzoom. You can get even wider ranges, like 55-300mm, but with added versatility comes added cost.

tiger-telephoto

Telephoto and superzoom lenses are best for when you want to get close to a distant subject. It could be building on the horizon that you can’t see very well with a standard lens, or a face in a crowd you want to isolate. It could be an animal that you can’t get close to, as in the image above.

Your subject doesn’t have to be really far away. If you’re trying to craft an image that’s filled by the subject, a telephoto or superzoom can help you get a picture that makes the viewer feel very close to the subject. Shorter telephoto lenses can be great for portraits, as they tend to make your subject really stand out from the background of the photo, as well.

Macro

canon-macro-lens

Macro lenses are specialized lenses that excel at close-up photography and many of them produce a 1:1 image, which means that your subject is reproduced on the camera sensor at life-size which allows for huge amounts of detail. Many photographs of flowers, insects, and other small objects are taken using macro lenses, though they can be used in other situations as well.

flower-macro-lens

While flowers and insects make up a significant portion of macro photography, getting close to anything makes for fascinating images. Coins, old mechanical parts, wood, and everyday mundane objects like your keys or a glass of water can become huge landscapes with textures and patterns that you never noticed before. Macro lenses also excel at creating images with a shallow depth of field, leaving only the foreground in focus, as in the image above.

If you want to draw attention to the magic of the ordinary, a macro lens is the way to do it. It’s worth noting that, while a macro lens will give you the best results for this type of photography, it’s possible to take these pictures without a macro lens, as the Poor Man’s Macro group on flickr Learning Photography? Join 8 Flickr Groups For Eye-Opening Lessons Learning Photography? Join 8 Flickr Groups For Eye-Opening Lessons Flickr has been a home for serious photographers, and you will find the best clustered around Flickr Groups. Flickr remains the old watering hole for great photographs and tips on how to take them. Read More shows.

Prime Lenses

canon-50mm-prime-lens

A prime lens is the opposite of a zoom lens: it has a single focal length. You can get prime lenses in any focal length, from ultra-wide angle to telephoto. With the ready availability of zoom lenses in any focal length, it might seem like a technological step backward to use a prime lens, but there are some distinct advantages.

For example, because they have fewer moving parts, prime lenses often produce higher-quality images that come out extremely clear, which makes them popular for portraiture. Another big advantage is that they often have faster apertures, meaning that they can capture better images in low-light or non-optimally lit situations, making them good for night and sports photography. And, of course, no moving parts means that they can be quite a bit cheaper than zoom lenses.

hotel-night-photography

Of course, using a prime lens means that you lose the ability to zoom. You can think of this as a disadvantage, but many photographers believe that the need to “zoom with your feet” will make you a better photographer, as you need to learn to best position yourself and the camera to get your shots.

When should you use a prime lens? Anytime you want to get a sharp, high-quality picture. Portraits, night photos, and action shots are some traditional uses for primes, but a range of focal lengths (from 10mm up to 300mm and beyond) means you can find a prime lens for any type of photography that you’re interested in. 50mm “nifty fifty” primes are great all-around lenses, and 85mm are often the preferred portrait lenses for professional photographers (though not so great for self-portraits This Is How You Take Self Shots This Is How You Take Self Shots There's nothing vain about taking photos of ourselves. In fact, we can often be our best subject. Read More ).

Rules Are Made to Be Broken

Of course, what makes photography so fun is that you can impart your own style onto anything that you’re working with — you can use these lenses for the purposes that they’re recommended for, but you can always branch out. You can use a standard lens for portraits, or you can use a telephoto to play with the perspective. Or you could use an ultra-wide angle to capture the same scene and see what happens. Check out how these professional photographers Learn From The Best: 10 Professional Photographers You Should Follow On Instagram Learn From The Best: 10 Professional Photographers You Should Follow On Instagram For every professional photographer who takes issue with Instagram, there are many who are happily using the app to reach an additional photo-loving audience. They're worth a follow. Read More use their selection of lenses for ideas.

Experiment! Have fun with it find out what makes your personal style unique.

Which is your favourite lens and why?

Image credits: Camera lenses in various sizes on dark backdrop background via ShutterStock, Mike Durkin via flickr, Steve Rainwater via flickr, Richard Cocks via flickr, Steve Rainwater via flickr, Shane Gorski via flickr, s58y via flickr, Bernhard Friess via flickr, Sam_Catch via flickrJoão Lavinha.

  1. Aly Muehlman
    December 7, 2016 at 12:52 am

    I am really into photography! And I was thinking about starting to do photoshoots like senior pictures. I was wondering what kind of lens you would suggest. I have a 18-55mm, 55-300mm, and a 11-18mm wide angle lens. But, I was also thinking about purchasing a prime lens. What are your thoughts?

  2. Frank
    November 22, 2016 at 4:50 pm

    Hi Dann,

    Great article! It makes things so much easier.

    I am a fashion blogger. I hope to buy a Nikon D5300 however I am unsure about what lens to use. My primary use for the camera is fashion photography and by this I mean not standing very far away. I am wondering is the kit lens of 158-55 kit sufficient? I hope to start video blogging too.

    Any help is appreciated!

    Frank

    • Dann Albright
      November 28, 2016 at 2:30 am

      A kit lens will be totally sufficient for your purposes, but going with a 50mm prime is also a good idea. You'll get really clear images that way, and there will be even less distortion to deal with. Plus a prime lens is a great way to learn a lot about photography. The kit lens should be fine for video too, and will give you the flexibility you'll need for video blogging. Best of luck!

  3. Jelica
    July 22, 2016 at 9:33 pm

    Great article! This was incredibly helpful for me. Thanks for laying this out so clearly.

  4. Vance
    July 22, 2016 at 2:57 pm

    Hey Dann, I'm planning to start a YouTube prank channel with my girlfriend and I was wanting your opinion on the best lens to get? I plan to use my Canon 7D. Thanks!

    • Dann Albright
      July 25, 2016 at 8:06 pm

      Well, it depends largely on what you're going to be doing with the lens, but if you don't need zoom, a 50mm prime is always a good way to go; it'll give you a clear image. If you do need zoom, though, a standard 18–55mm (non-kit) lens is very versatile.

  5. Merry
    July 9, 2016 at 8:14 am

    I just bought my first DSLR (Nikon D3300). I live in Alaska and go hiking often. I love sunsets, lakes, mountain outlines, etc, so I think those are the kinds of pictures I will be focusing on for now. What would you recommend for this kind of photography?

    • Dann Albright
      July 13, 2016 at 5:41 pm

      For something like that, you can go wrong with a 50mm prime. But a wide-angle might be a good choice for landscapes, too, as it lets you capture a lot of the scene. It depends on your preference and budget, but if you already have a kit lens, a wide-angle might be the best way to go.

  6. Katie
    July 7, 2016 at 10:40 am

    Wow, what a great article! Super clear and helpful. Thanks.

  7. Gagan agarwal
    July 3, 2016 at 6:05 am

    Hi. I need to take table top shots of round shiny brass / stainless steel objects about 15". I am referring to medieval helmets and the like. I have a standard 18-105mm lens and a 50mm/1.8 lens. I use a Nikon d7000 body.

    However, the mages I shoot are not sharp. Mostly I shoot these, and also need to shoot belt buckles and other close ups of parts of the helmets and the like.

    I have continuous ligh bulbs of 45W setup.

    What lens would you recommend for my use to get sharp and crisp pics. I have been recommended 105mm/f2.8 lens sigma/Nikon. But with these I guess I have to shoot from greater distances. I am looking to shoot from about 3 feet distance.

    Please suggest a good option for under $1000.

    Gears

    Gagan

  8. James L
    June 14, 2016 at 6:38 am

    Dann, what prime would you recommend for shooting appliances, like refrigerators?
    I'm looking for full focus and no distortion. Camera would be a Pentax K3ii.

    • Dann Albright
      June 15, 2016 at 7:07 pm

      50mm is a really versatile size, and tends to create nice pictures. I'd recommend starting there!

  9. jay lynnn
    June 7, 2016 at 2:03 am

    Can you recommend an "attachment lens" for android smartphone that results in what the naked eyes would see vs. the ugliness these camera phone lens' produce?

  10. smeet
    June 5, 2016 at 8:20 am

    Want to buy a DSLR camera for a family marriage function.what would you recommend.I am new to DSLR.

    • Dann Albright
      June 6, 2016 at 11:59 am

      That really depends on a lot of factors—how much money are you able to spend? Will you be using it for a lot of things other than the event you're buying it for? Do you anticipate that photography will become one of your hobbies? Any other information about when you might use the camera or what sorts of functions you'll need would be really helpful.

  11. Sabrina
    May 31, 2016 at 1:26 pm

    What would be the mm on a macro lens? I am looking to buy one, would I just look for the word macro or a specific mm? I have a Canon by the way if that helps.

    • Dann Albright
      June 6, 2016 at 11:38 am

      I'd look for the word "Macro" as well as "1:1", which indicates that the size of an object in the world is the same as the size of the image on the sensor. As for the focal length, I think there can be a wide variety, but you'll probably see a lot between 55mm and 100mm.

  12. Yuyang Lei
    May 8, 2016 at 7:06 am

    So if I'm going to take a close-up, specifically, the clock on my cell-phone screen, I'm gonna need something like 24mm lens or 16-35mm?

    • Dann Albright
      May 9, 2016 at 9:40 pm

      I think you could take a closeup with any sort of lens, but if you want maximal resolution, a macro lens is what you're going to want. Although I'm not totally sure if that would improve the image much, because taking pictures of screens is kind of a weird and unique thing.

  13. Chrissy
    April 28, 2016 at 1:51 am

    Great article! Very helpful Would you recommend getting a 70-300 mm Zoom Lens if I have a 55 - 200 mm that came with my camera? I would love your insight.

    • Dann Albright
      May 3, 2016 at 1:29 pm

      Glad you liked it! The lens you choose depends a lot on what you want to photograph. If you feel like you don't have enough zoom with the 200mm, then going up to 300mm could be a good idea. But if you're looking for a more well-rounded selection of lenses, a wide angle or a prime might be a better idea.

  14. Teresa Cleator
    March 16, 2016 at 9:23 am

    Very informative article, thank you I will now add a macro to my selection.
    Teresa

    • Dann Albright
      March 16, 2016 at 9:36 pm

      I'm glad you found it useful! And a macro lens is a great choice. Enjoy it!

  15. Aj
    February 2, 2016 at 5:49 pm

    i have not tried it yet

  16. callie
    January 25, 2016 at 7:54 am

    nice article

  17. Sai Dandem
    December 9, 2015 at 2:39 am

    Superb article !! :)
    Now I am clear about what type of lens I am going to buy.

    • Dann Albright
      December 9, 2015 at 6:22 pm

      Thanks! I'm really glad you found it useful. What kind of lens will you be buying?

      • Sai Dandem
        December 10, 2015 at 12:05 am

        I am going to buying standard kit lens as of now :). But will definitely upgrade to telephoto & macro, once I have enough hands on the standard.

        • Dann Albright
          December 11, 2015 at 5:59 pm

          I think the telephoto is a great first extra lens. It opens up a lot of possibilities that you don't have with the kit lens. Good choice!

  18. Loren G (Enlightened by Bravery)
    September 16, 2015 at 1:50 pm

    What a great article! Thank you so much for clearly explaining and demonstrating the differences! I am in the market for a new "better" lens.. but now I know which "better" lens to get!

    • Dann Albright
      September 19, 2015 at 3:34 pm

      I'm glad you found it useful!

  19. Matthew
    September 26, 2014 at 5:45 pm

    With our old 35mm SLR camera (Pentax ME Super), we had the kit lens, a 135mm telephoto (probably my favourite) and also a 2x teleconverter - the 135mm on that was a beast, but cost you in aperture!

    • Dann A
      September 30, 2014 at 1:51 pm

      A teleconverter, huh? I've never used one—I might have to give it a try! Did you like it? Any advice on using one?

    • Matthew
      October 2, 2014 at 6:54 pm

      Not sure if teleconverters are available for DSLR, but they were quite handy in the old Pentax K fitting and others.

      kenrockwell.com/nikon/tc.htm

      The 2x converter costs you two whole F-stops, so you had to start with a reasonably fast lens. As it says, the popular 135mm telephoto of that era becomes 270mm on the converter, and still quite usable in daylight - I could still shoot it handheld.

      You also lose some optical quality - some accuse the 2x of being like the bottom of a milk bottle, but it can deliver quite acceptable results.

    • Dann Albright
      October 7, 2014 at 8:31 am

      Looks like Nikon does make DSLR teleconverters. Might have to see if I can get a hold of one and check it out!

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