How to Choose a Camera Lens

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Camera lenses, through field of view and maximum aperture, immediately provide the photographer with two powerful creative functions. But did you know that a large majority of photographers will never change their kit lens? If you’ve got a camera with interchangeable lenses, discover the hidden potential a new piece of glass offers.

Words and Photography by Urth HQ

If you’ve got a camera that can interchange lenses, there’s going to reach a point where you want to switch it up and try something new. But choosing the right lens for you can be tricky, particularly given the photographic language of abbreviation. And of course, every manufacturer speaks a different dialect of this language, meaning the abbreviations can differ when describing the same functions.

Most commonly, you’ll find 3 sets of descriptions on a lens that firstly indicate the aperture, then the focal length, and then perhaps an additional selling point such as image stabilisation. For example, the Canon EF-S 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS STM (one of the best camera lenses for beginners) presents a very overwhelming description. But let’s break it down bit by bit.

Canon = Manufacturer

EF-S = Electro-Focus (automatic focusing on EF lenses is handled by a dedicated electric motor built into the lens)

18-135mm = Focal Length

f/3.5-5.6 = Maximum Aperture (Range)

IS = Image Stabilisation (image stabilisation refers to camera technology that compensates for camera shake, to reduce blurriness as a result of handheld photography)

STM = This indicates that the lens has a stepping motor, which allows silent autofocusing during video recording.

Let’s do one more example with the top-of-the-range Nikon AF-S 70-200mm VR f2.8E FL ED

Nikon = Manufacturer

AF-S = Auto Focus with Silent Wave Motor (Nikon’s version of Canon’s Electro-Focus; a lens focus mechanism that enables high-speed, ultra-quiet autofocus operation)

70-200mm = Focal Length

VR = Vibration Reduction

f2.8E = Maximum Aperture

FL = Fluorite Lens. This is a relatively new Nikon feature that has much lighter glass and optical superiority over its predecessors. 

ED = Extra-Low Dispersion. This means that the glass elements in the lens won’t disperse light, leading to increased sharpness and reduced chromatic aberration.

“When beginning photography, you really just want to focus on the focal length and perhaps the maximum aperture.”

It seems like an unnecessary amount of numbers and abbreviations, right? Not all lens markings are this complicated.

When beginning photography, you really just want to focus on the focal length and perhaps the maximum aperture or aperture range. All the bells and whistles like FL and ED and STM can come later.

If your lens has some markings you’re unaware of, you can peruse a complete guide to Canon’s lens terms here. And if you’re a Nikon user, check out this glossary of terms here.

Types of Camera Lenses

ZOOM LENSES

Zoom lenses have the ability to zoom. Go figure! This means you have several focal lengths in one handy lens. Therefore, you need less equipment to cover your needs, making zoom lenses perfectly suited to beginner photographers. 

You know a lens can zoom if there are two sets of numbers in the focal length description of the lens i.e. 16-35mm.

Recommended zoom lens focal lengths for beginner photographers include 18-55mm and 18-135mm. With lenses such as these, you’re equipped for both wide angle photography and portraiture.

Try the Nikon AF-S 18-200MM F3.5-5.6G VR II DX IF ED for Nikon APS-C sensors, or for full-frame Canon users, check out the Canon EF 24-70mm f4L IS USM Lens.

PRIME LENSES

Prime lenses on the other hand don’t have the ability to zoom. They can only offer one field of view. A focal length description of a prime lens will have one number in its description i.e. 85mm. Expect to see prime lenses in a multitude of different focal lengths from 14mm to 300mm.

Prime lenses are known for being sharper than zoom lenses. Other advantages include size and weight as prime lenses are often smaller and lighter than their zoom counterparts.

A Nikon 35mm prime lens.
PORTRAIT LENSES

Photographers use prime lenses for portraiture due to their superior sharpness over zoom lenses. The inability to zoom may be a hindrance in the studio but the results speak for themselves.

You’ll find the most common portrait lenses are either 50mm, 85mm or 100mm in focal length, and often boast an impressively maximum aperture of f/1.4 to render a shallow depth of field with bokeh.

Check out the photograph below, taken with a Fujifilm GF32-64mm lens at a focal length of 50mm and with an aperture of 4 to get a shallow depth of field where the background and foreground are blurred, drawing more attention to the subject. 

Photo taken with a Fujifilm GF 32-64mm lens at a focal length of 50mm with an Urth ND16 Filter Plus+.
OTHER LENS TYPES

There are other lens types such as tilt-shifts which are used to straighten converging lines in an image (predominantly used in architecture photography), and cine lenses which are obviously popular in filmmaking as they have an outstanding ability to smoothly toggle focus between subjects.

How to Choose a Camera Lens

When beginning photography, you may want to direct your attention towards focal length and maximum aperture as these are two of the biggest factors influencing your creative output. But aside from your creative needs, your budget and the lens’s overall performance, there are other factors to consider, too.

HOW TO CHOOSE A LENS FOR DSLR/MIRRORLESS

When you buy a camera, be mindful of the ongoing relationship you’re entering between camera body and lens type. It’s often best to stick with the manufacturer as the lenses are specifically designed to communicate with the native body. 

Because Canon for example sports APS-C DSLR sensors, full-frame DSLR sensors, as well as an entirely new selection of mirrorless lenses for its R range, ensuring that your lens is technically aligned to your sensor type becomes extremely important.

Once you reach an intermediate level of photography you can begin experimenting with foreign lenses and lens mounts i.e. using a Canon tilt-shift lens with a lens adapter on a Nikon full-frame body. More info on how to use a lens adapter here

Combining a Minolta lens with a Nikon camera body using a lens adapter.
HOW TO CHOOSE A WIDE ANGLE LENS

A wide-angle lens is a must-have for landscape photography. The lower you go in the focal length range, the more field of view you’ll find within your photograph. 

There’s lots of really great prime wide-angle lenses to choose from from every manufacturer, but the Sigma AF 10-20mm f3.5 EX DC HSM is one of the best camera lenses for beginners because of its optical quality and ability to produce sharp images. At a low price (for quality wide-angle zoom lenses) of $699, expect the Sigma to help improve your landscape photography.

Often wide-angle images will be quite distorted (the borders of your subject matter will look curved). Fish-eye lenses that produce a deliberately distorted image are generally 8mm in focal length, so if you’re zooming towards or shooting close to this length, take notice of the distortion it may produce.

Photo taken with a 16mm wide angle lens.
HOW TO CHOOSE A TELEPHOTO LENS

Telephoto lenses are defined by the distance between subject and photographer. They are so powerful that they give the appearance of proximity. This style lens is adopted by wildlife photographers, for example. From a serious distance (and safety), you can take what seems like a beautiful close-up of a lion.

The Sony E-Mount 55-210mm f4.5-6.3 provides exceptional value at only $349.95. This lens would be a great addition to any kit, and what’s more, it’s lightweight and relatively compact, which are not common adjectives for these large telephoto lenses.

Photo taken with a 400mm telephoto lens
HOW TO CHOOSE A MACRO LENS

The hallmark of a macro lens and macro photography is the ability to get close to your subject. If you’ve seen detailed close-up photographs of bees in the bud of a flower, or similar photographs of small things, these would most likely have been taken on a macro lens.  

Most camera manufacturers have made life easy and will include the word ‘Macro’ in their lens title.

The Canon EF-S 35mm F2.8 Macro IS STM Lens is a great entry level macro lens for beginners, retailing at $599. The strength of this lens is its large maximum aperture of f/2.8, as well as the fact that it’s not limited solely to macro photography — the 35mm field of view means versatility for various different photographic styles. 

Photo taken with a macro lens at an aperture of 1.8.

Summary

Hopefully you now have a clearer idea of which types of camera lenses will be investments in your future of photography. For beginner photographers, it can be difficult to part with money and without full comprehension of the equipment you’re purchasing. There’s no greater advice than to say, do your homework.

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2020-11-25T23:32:13+00:00Categories: Gear|Tags: , |