Creative Technology Explained

5 Common Camera Lenses and When to Use Them

Andy Betts Updated 20-11-2019

If you’re the owner of a new digital SLR or mirrorless camera you can improve your photography instantly by using different photo lenses.


However, while there’s an almost endless supply of options to buy, it isn’t always obvious what lens to use to get the shot you want.

Here are five common camera lenses, what they’re good for, and when you should use them.

What Lens to Use: The Basics

Before we get into the different kinds of photo lenses, it pays to know a bit about what makes them so different.

Lenses are differentiated by their focal length, which shows how wide or zoomed-in they are. The focal length is measured in millimeters, and is either a fixed length, like 35mm, or a zoom range like 50-200mm.

The focal length is essentially the zoom level of the lens. A 300mm lens will make far-away subjects appear a lot closer than a 24mm lens. You can use a lens simulator Buying a Camera Lens? Use These Lens Simulators First to Test Them Out Canon and Nikon both have online lens simulators that can help you find the exact lens you need. Read More to get a feel for what different focal lengths look like.


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, or 27mm on an APS-C 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

1. Wide-Angle Lens

In the simplest terms, a wide-angle lens has a larger field of view that allows you to fit more into the frame.

A typical wide-angle lens has a focal length of 24-35mm on a full frame sensor, or around 16-24mm on a crop sensor. Ultra wide-angle lenses, which capture even more of a scene, have very short focal lengths of 24mm or less.


wide angle foreground

Wide-angle lenses can be tricky to master at first. They give an image an exaggerated sense of depth, pulling the foreground forward and pushing the background back.

For this reason, you should always try to have an object in the foreground to anchor the image (and something in the middle ground and background, too, to make the most of that depth).

wide angle distortion


A wide-angle lens can also distort straight lines. They can make the horizon look curved, or if you tilt the camera can make vertical lines point inwards. Camera software will sometimes correct for this, but you can also harness it to create some cool effects.

So what exactly is a 24mm or wider lens good for?

wide angle lens

The wider field of view means you can fit more into the frame, so it’s great for landscapes, astrophotography, and architecture shots. The increased depth in the image is perfect for shooting interiors—a wide-angle lens can make a small room appear much larger.


These lenses are also good for general street shooting as they make it easy to capture subjects in context with their environment.

2. Kit Lens

When you bought a DSLR or an interchangeable-lens camera it almost certainly came with a standard “kit” lens. These zoom lenses are very versatile, and have focal lengths between 35 and 70mm on a full frame sensor, or typically 18-55mm on a crop sensor.

A kit lens is flexible and easy to use because it covers the most common focal lengths. It goes from a moderate wide-angle to a moderate telephoto, and is good for anything.

kit lens

A kit lens is intended for general use, whether you’re going for landscapes, portraits, action photos, urban shoots, whatever. They work best for subjects at a 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 highly versatile, which is why most cameras come with one.

One of the best times to use a kit lens is when you’re travelling. Because it’s such a well-rounded lens, you can use it on its own, or perhaps with just one other lens in your camera bag.

3. Telephoto and Superzoom Lenses

If you need a camera lens for far away shots, you need a telephoto or superzoom lens.

5 Common Camera Lenses and When to Use Them source

Telephoto lenses have a fixed focal length starting at around 70mm. Superzooms—as the name implies—are zoom lenses that cover a range of focal lengths. A popular second lens choice for many is a 55-200mm superzoom.

They go longer still—you can get lenses over 5000mm if you really want one—but these are often incredibly expensive, running into the thousands of dollars. They’re also the biggest and heaviest lenses.

So what are telephoto and superzoom lenses, like a 70-300mm, used for? They’re best when you want to get close to a distant subject. It could be a building on the horizon or a face in a crowd. They’re perfect for wildlife photography, where you can’t get close to the animals you want to shoot.

telephoto lens

Your subject doesn’t have to be really far away. If you’re trying to craft an image where the subject fills the entire frame, 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.

4. Macro Lenses

Macro lenses are specialized lenses that excel at close-up photography. Many of them produce a 1:1 image, which means they capture your subject at life-size. It allows for crazy levels of detail.

macro lens

You can use a macro lens to shoot flowers, insects, and other small objects, though they’re suited to other situations as well.

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.

5. Prime Lenses

Prime lenses are on the list of essential gear every photographer should own. A prime lens is the opposite of a zoom lens: it has a single focal length. You can get prime lenses in any 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.

Prime lenses have fewer moving parts, so are very often higher quality than zooms at the same focal length. This makes them popular for portraiture.

prime lens low light

Another big advantage is that they often have faster apertures, meaning that they can capture better images in low-light situations, making them good for night and sports photography.

A fast aperture also means you can shoot with a shallower depth of field, giving your images a nice bokeh—a soft, creamy background.

prime lens portrait

And, of course, no moving parts means that they can be quite a bit cheaper than zoom lenses, not to mention smaller.

When should you use a prime lens? Anytime you want to get a sharp, high-quality picture. Traditional uses for primes include portraits, night photos, and action shots. You can get them in every focal length, though, so 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. Professional photographers often use 58mm lenses on a crop sensor—around 85mm on full frame—to shoot portraits.

What Camera Lens to Use

It’s a good idea to keep a few lenses in your camera bag so that you can cover as many different focal lengths as possible. A wide prime lens, a kit lens, and a superzoom make for a good starting point.

Ultimately, though, you need to match the lens to the type of the photo you want to take. Our guide to the best camera lenses for different type of photography has got everything you need to get started.

And don’t forget that you can use lenses even if you’re mostly a smartphone photographer. See our list of the best smartphone camera lenses The 8 Best Smartphone Camera Lenses for Taking Better Pictures Interested in smartphone photography? Then you'll definitely want one of these great smartphone camera lenses! Read More to see our recommendations.

Related topics: Buying Tips, Camera Lens, Digital Camera, Photography.

Affiliate Disclosure: By buying the products we recommend, you help keep the site alive. Read more.

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  1. Candi
    October 27, 2017 at 1:46 am

    Great information for beginners. Have learnt a huge amount and it is easy to understand.
    Thank you so much.

  2. Reid
    March 11, 2017 at 2:43 am

    How did you know that these are the common lenses used? Just asking for our research's documentation. Thank you sir

    • Dann Albright
      March 19, 2017 at 1:36 am

      I don't think I stated that these are THE five most common lenses; if I did, I didn't mean to say it quite that authoritatively! But over years of reading about photography, these are the ones that I've come across the most often. There certainly are other types of lenses, but I'd be willing to bet that the vast majority of lenses purchased (besides kit lenses) probably belong to these types.

  3. Reid
    March 11, 2017 at 2:42 am

    How did you know that these are the common lenses? Just asking for our research's documentation

  4. Mike
    March 1, 2017 at 3:48 pm

    Great article, really well written and informative! I'm looking at buying a macro to shoot jewellery with a Canon 600D- what lens size/aperture would you recommend? thanks

    • Dann Albright
      March 19, 2017 at 1:20 am

      As far as I'm aware, any macro lens will be totally fine for what you're looking for. 30mm, f/3.5 lenses seem to be quite common, so going with that combination seems like a safe bet!

  5. 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?

    • Dann Albright
      December 10, 2016 at 12:12 am

      Sounds like you have everything you need! But primes are great for high-quality pictures, and they'll definitely help you become a better photographer as well. So if it's within your budget, I say definitely go for it.

  6. 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!


    • 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!

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

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

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

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

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

  11. 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.



  12. 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!

  13. 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?

  14. 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.

  15. 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.

  16. 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.

  17. 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.

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

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

    • 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!

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

    i have not tried it yet

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

    nice article

  21. 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!

  22. Anonymous
    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!

  23. 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.

      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!