Camera Lenses Explained: From Tilt-Shift to Wide Angle

camera lenses explainedThink digital photography is a piece of cake? To those who have been working with DLSRs for years, this may be the case; but for those who have never been exposed to the world of interchangeable lenses, there’s a lot to be learned. Aperture, shutter speed, focal length, what do all of these things mean? And how important is it to know all of these things when shopping around for a new camera lens? The camera lens (or lenses) you’ll need in your arsenal largely depend on what type of photography you are most interested in. While many lenses are versatile, some are extremely specialized. Let’s take a look at different types of camera lenses explained in more depth.

What Are All Those Numbers and Letters?

Let’s say you’re shopping around for a lens, and you find an EF 55-200mm f/4.5-5.6 lens. What does that mean!? Let’s break it down. The first two letters, “EF”, refer to the type of mount of the lens. EF stands for electronic focus, and it typically refers to a Canon mount. Canon uses EF and EF-S mounts, Sony uses A and E, while Nikon uses F and CX. It’s important to note that not all lenses will fit on all cameras. There are third party brands, such as Tokina, Sigma and Tamron, that make lenses compatible with Canon, Sony and Nikon cameras – but remember that each still has their own specialty mount.

The first set of numbers, 55-200mm, refers to the distance between the lens and the camera sensor. You may have heard it referred to as focal length. The higher the focal length number, the narrower the field of view and the higher the magnification. The smaller the focal length number, the wider the field of view and the lower the magnification. Since this example lens has a range of numbers, this means that it is a zoom lens.

The second set of numbers, f/4.5-5.6 refers to the maximum aperture. When the lens is set at its widest focal length, it can open up to f/4.5. When the lens is set at its longest focal length, it can open up to f/5.6. The aperture is how wide the lens actually opens when it is taking a photograph. The higher the number, the smaller the opening. Higher f/stops allow for an image that is in focus from foreground to background, while smaller f/stops allow for a blurred background.

Types of Lenses

From standard zoom lenses to a wide-angle prime, you’ll need to understand all of your options before deciding which is best for your own personal needs.

Zoom Lenses

A zoom lens is any type of lens that has an adjustable focal length. Depending on the particular lens, you may be able to adjust from a very wide angle (such as 28mm) to an extreme telephoto (such as 300mm). A zoom lens allows you to take more detailed shots of your subject without stepping any closer to them.

The type of zoom lens you should buy depends greatly on the type of photography you are most interested in. Many cameras come with a ‘kit lens’, which is typically an 18-55mm lens that is wonderful for casual snapshots of your day to day life. The optics on these kit lenses are not as good as a higher quality zoom lens, and the aperture often doesn’t open up wider than f/3.5. A 15-85mm is a higher quality zoom lens that can be great for landscapes or portraits of people that you don’t mind getting close to. A 28-135mm lens would be better for taking head shots of a subject when you don’t want to intrude on their personal space, while a 55-200mm is the perfect telephoto lens for nature or sports photography. More professional nature photographers – typically those who put themselves in dangerous situations in order to get the perfect shot – use a 70-300mm or a 200-500mm telephoto lens. These lenses are so expensive that they’re only used in very specific situations, such as photographing a dangerous animal from afar.

Prime Lenses

Prime lenses are lenses that have a fixed focal length. They come in varying focal lengths, from wide angle to telephoto, but each typically has a specific function. It’s important to remember that the focal length you choose is the focal length you’ll be stuck with. If you realize you want your subject to fill more of the frame, you’ll need to walk closer. Before thinking “why would anyone buy a prime lens when they could have a zoom lens!?”, keep in mind that the glass on prime lenses is often of a better quality – creating crisper, more beautiful images. Prime lenses also have the ability to open up to much wider apertures, creating a beautiful shallow depth of field behind your subject. They tend to produce a much better bokeh (the aesthetic quality of the blur in an image) than most zoom lenses.

You can purchase fixed 24mm lenses, fixed 800mm lenses, and everything in between. If you know you shoot a lot of portraits, choosing a fixed 50mm or fixed 85mm is often a popular choice. If you shoot a lot of landscapes, a fixed 24mm or 28mm may be of interest. And if you shoot a lot of nature or sports, a fixed 200mm may be perfect for you.

Specialty Lenses

  • Macro Lenses – Used to get extremely detailed shots of small objects. You can photograph the detail of a human eye or the hairs on an insect. The photographs created tend to be abstract.
  • Fisheye Lenses – The angle of view of a fisheye lens can be as wide as 180 degrees, causing a strange rounded effect at the edge of your images. They produce an interesting artistic effect, but they are not for everyday use.
  • Tilt-Shift Lenses – Tilt-shift lenses are prime lenses, however they have the ability to tilt up and down or shift side to side. While strange to get used to at first, utilizing the tilt function allows you to choose which parts of the image are in focus, while utilizing the shift function allows you to change the position of your subject without moving the camera. When using a tilt-shift lens, you can have both the foreground and background in focus while the middle-ground is blurred.

The more you learn about camera lenses and develop your own personal style, the easier it will be to pick and choose which lenses you want in your collection. If you want to learn more about the basics of digital photography, Udemy has great photography and editing courses that will teach you everything you need to know!