Choosing the right lens will help you get the shots your want, but you can’t make the right choice without understanding the difference between lenses first. There are many different types of lenses. To name a few, there are the telephoto lenses, the weird-looking fisheye lenses, the macros, and the wide-angles lenses. Although they all have similar mechanism and does the same thing, which is to control the lights being captured by the cameras, they have very different characteristics and are designed for different purposes.
Since I’m not an expert on lenses, I will not delve too much into the mechanism and inner working of them. Instead, I will give a brief overview on the different types of lens and what you need to know before making your purchase. If you would like to know more about how lenses work, here is a very well-written article you should read.
Lenses are generally divided into two categories: prime lenses and zoom lenses. A prime lens is a lens that has a fixed “prime” focal length, while a zoom lens has adjustable focal length that gives photographers the ability to “zoom” in and out. In another word, zoom lenses bring photographers the flexibility in perspectives and wider range of uses, and allow photographers to accomplish more with a single lens. Some zoom lenses even cover a wide range of focal length that could only be covered with multiple prime lenses with varying focal lengths. Photojournalists and photographers who work in dynamic shooting environments will benefit greatly from the flexibility zoom lenses offer.
On the other hand, although prime lenses do not have the flexibility zoom lenses offer, they have some major advantages over their counterparts at similar focal length. First, prime lenses usually have much larger max aperture, making them the ideal choice in low light situation or when flash is either not available or to be avoided. Larger aperture also creates a much nicer bokeh, which is something zoom lenses are not able to match with their smaller max aperture. Finally, it is generally accepted that when compared at the same focal length, a prime lens has better optical performance, or sharper images, than a zoom lens. There is no definitive answer on whether one is better than the other, and you will likely end up with a mix of both down the road.
Depending on the focal length and other features, lenses can be further divided into several different types:
- Standard Lenses – These lenses are usually of focal length between 35mm to 100mm, and produce images closest to what human eye sees in terms of view angle and perspective.
- Telephoto Lenses – At focal length of 100mm and above, these lenses allows photographers to photograph objects of certain distance away and provides a narrower view angle.
- Wide-Angle Lenses – With focal length less than 35mm, they offer a much wider view angle that is most ideal for outdoor landscape shots.
- Macro Lenses – Designed for very close shots, macro lenses magnify and capture very small objects into life-sized images. As the name suggests, they are a must-have for macro photography.
- Fisheye Lenses – Fisheye lenses are specially designed wide-angle lenses that offer close to 180° of view angle with very significant distortion over the entire image. The distorting quality can be used to create some very interesting effect that cannot be achieved with other lenses.
- Tilt-Shift Lenses – Designed to manipulate the vanishing points, this type of lens eliminates the distortion quality common with other types of lens. Ideal for architectural photography.
The first three types of lens, which are differentiated by their focal length, can be used for a variety of subjects while the other three specialized lenses are limited in their uses. If you are a beginner and do not have a lot to spend on gears, you should think twice before purchasing any of those specialized lenses so you don’t end up with lenses you rarely use.
Before Acquiring a Lens
Before making the purchase, you should always ask yourself if this lens is the one you need. Take into consideration your shooting style and the types of subject you shoot. Do you shoot with flash or just ambient light? How much bokeh would you like to see? Are your objects moving or stationary? Try to picture situations where this lens would be used, and see if you can see yourself shooting in that situation. When I first began shooting, I based my purchasing decision almost entirely on others’ recommendation and acquired lenses if I could afford them. It wasn’t until a year later that I realized there are some lenses I used more often than others, and some lenses I don’t even use at all.
Another thing you should do before buying a lens is to check out its reviews and what you can do with it. There are thousands of photographers online who regularly share their experiences and opinions on forums and blog sites, and a simple Google search will get you tons of information in less than a second. If you’d like to skip the tedious process of searching and filtering through information, there’s a website by Ken Rockwell that I find quite useful. Ken reviewed hundreds, if not thousands, of cameras, lenses, and accessories throughout his photography career, and the information he shares is always comprehensive and easy to absorb.