What are the different types of camera lenses?
If you are new to photography, you may be wondering how more seasoned photographers know what kind of lenses to use.
After all, there are so many types of lenses, and it can be tempting to get one of each especially if money is not an issue. But what if you are on a budget and you’re not willing to spend a fortune on expensive lenses that you won’t end up using?
There are several key aspects to keep into account when buying a new lens. You won’t find a single lens that is perfect for every situation. An ultra-wide lens might be useful for landscape photography, but not for portrait and so on. Different camera lenses also differ in quality and price.
Lenses are probably the most important investment you will do as a photographer, arguably more than the camera body. Read on to know about the types of camera lenses and how to choose the right lens for your photography.
Different Types of Camera Lenses
Camera lenses can be grouped into two categories:
- Prime Lenses
- Zoom Lenses
Each category includes several types of lenses that differ from each other mainly for their focal length and are commonly used as described in the following table.
|Camera Lens Type||Focal Length||Common Uses|
|Fisheye (ultra-wide)||8mm – 24mm||Astro Photography, Landscapes, Creative Effects|
|Wide Angle||16mm – 35mm||Landscape and Street Photography|
|Standard||35mm – 85mm||Any Types of Photography|
|Short Telephoto||85mm – 135mm||Portrait and Street Photography|
|Telephoto||135mm – 300mm||Action, Sport and Wildlife Photography|
|Super Telephoto||300mm +||Action, Sport and Wildlife Photography|
|Macro||35mm – 200mm||Macro Photography, Creative Effects|
|Tilt-shift||–||Panos, Architecture, Real Estate, Creative Effects|
In the table above you also see a third category of lenses: creative lenses.
These are specific to certain types of photography and we’re going to treat them separately.
1. Prime Lenses
Prime lenses are lenses that have a fixed focal length. They can come with maximum apertures of f/1 or f.1.2 and higher and tend to have great optical quality.
Prime lenses are hence popular among photographers that value sharpness over versatility. Finally, prime lenses excel in low light conditions due to their wide aperture.
It’s not a rule but the most common focal lengths in this category are:
- Standard 35mm – 85mm
- Short telephoto 85mm – 135mm
With that being said you can find telephoto or super telephoto prime lenses but they are exceptions and cost a fortune.
1.1 Standard Prime Lenses
Starter standard lenses for new photographers include the nifty fifty or the 50mm with an aperture of f1.4 or f/1.8.
Another favorite is the 35mm which also comes with apertures ranging from f/1.2 to as small as f/2.8. Standard lenses offer the right mix of creamy and blurry backgrounds, called bokeh, and a decent field of view. Good for all-around photography, these lenses work for shooting weddings, portraits, street, and even landscape photography.
1.2 Short Telephoto Prime Lenses
Even though less common than standard prime lenses, there are photographers out there that will follow in love with a short telephoto prime. A 135mm prime lens, for example, offers the perfect focal length for portrait photos and thanks to a bright aperture (usually f/2) is able to produce breathtaking images.
2. Types of Camera Lenses: Zoom Lenses
Zoom lenses extend and retract depending on the distance of your subject, which means the lens allows you to take photos from different angles and distances. One of the best things about zoom lenses is that you can stay in place as you focus on faraway objects without being too noticeable.
The most common zoom focal lengths are:
- Wide-angle zoom 16mm – 35mm
- Kit lenses 18mm – 55mm
- Telephoto zoom 100mm – 400mm + (and up to super telephoto)
2.1 Wide-Angle Zoom Lenses
Wide-angle lenses allow you to get a wider field of view making them perfect for landscape photography and night photography. Wide-angle lenses can be as wide as 14mm or 16mm and as close as 35mm and they tend to come in more compact builds compared to standard lenses.
Small pancake lenses are great for landscape photography especially for those who want to travel light. One downside is that the wider the lens, the greater the lens distortion you tend to get. Distortion is easy to fix in post-production, however.
Using wide-angle lenses that have a zoom instead of a fixed focal length gives you a level of flexibility that allow you to use your wide lens even for portrait at a focal length of 35mm.
2.2 Kit Lenses
A special place in my list of zoom lenses goes to kit lenses. These starter lenses are in the backpack of new starters since they often bought together with a camera body. The good thing about kit lenses is they allow you to start shooting quickly.
Even though they are not of great quality, they are inexpensive, and cover focal length ranges from 18mm to 55mm. This gives you the versatility to start shooting from landscape to street or portrait photos without changing glass or spending extra money. Kit lenses don’t have a constant aperture and usually have f/3.5-5.6, which it’s not supreme if you’re looking for the sharpest results and low light performance. Despite this, when buying a new camera, never underestimate the value of kit lenses because they can take you far.
2.3 Telephoto Zoom
I’m listing telephoto lenses under the zoom types of camera lenses. But don’t get confused, as I said before you can find telephoto prime lenses too. The reason I’m listing telephoto lenses here is that they give you more flexibility.
Telephoto lenses are lenses with long focal lengths. Normally a lens with a focal length starting at around 70mm should be considered telephoto, but it’s more common to consider 85mm as a starting point.
Telephoto lenses are ideal for shooting wildlife and events like sports or weddings. One downside is that they can be heavy and can cost five to ten times than a standard prime lens. Due to the size and weight, you may need to use a tripod when using this lens especially if you are using super-telephoto lenses.
3. Creative Types of Camera Lenses
3.1 Fisheye Lenses
Fisheye lenses are artsy lenses that allow you to take ultrawide photos of landscapes and other subjects.
Fisheye images have a characteristic convex appearance, giving you a 100-180 degree image. Due to this unique characteristic, fisheye lenses aren’t suitable as all-around walking lenses, unless this is the kind of effect you want in all your photos.
3.2 Macro Lenses
Macro lenses are for taking close-up pictures of really small subjects, like water droplets or leaf blades. Macro lenses are great for details like ring shots or flowers. They can also be used for product photography.
Like fisheye lenses, macro lenses produce a characteristic image making them unsuitable as all-around photography lenses. In fact, they give the name to the macro photography style.
3.3 Tilt-Shift Lens
A tilt-shift lens is another creative lens that rotates the lens in relation to the sensor. This allows the shooter to get a wide depth of field at the biggest aperture while keeping the subject in focus.
Tilt-shift lenses are great for panoramic shots, architecture photography, correcting converging lines, and creating miniature effects in photos.
Types of Camera Lenses, Aspects to Consider
Buying a new lens is an important step. A good lens can make a huge difference in the final quality of an image. So before spending money it’s important to know not only what types of camera lenses are out there, but you have to keep an eye at certain aspects:
The aperture of a lens determines the quantity of light that hit the camera sensor. The aperture is expressed in f-stops. A small f-number (e.g.: f/1.2) means a wide aperture. Wide aperture lenses are more expensive but allow you to produce sharper photos.
Wide aperture lenses give you a shallow depth-of-field, while narrow apertures give you a longer depth-of-field. A shallow depth-of-field allows you to produce a creamier background while with a longer depth-of-field everything is in focus.
The size and weight of a lens are important aspects to consider especially if you are a traveler. Prime lenses are lighter than zoom lenses, but zoom lenses allow you to carry less tools in your backpack since they cover different focal lengths.
Types of Camera Lenses Video Guide
Photography lenses vary according to focal lengths, apertures, and functions. If you are new to photography, start with standard kit lenses until you discover your photography style.
You could gravitate towards nature photography, portraits, or even macro photography.
Knowing what your style is can help you choose the right lenses that can take your photography skills to the next level.
See all the types of camera lenses from Canon here.
Stefano Caioni is a photographer from Sydney, Australia. Founder and editor of Pixinfocus, his passion for photography helps him explore new places and live new adventures. Thanks to photography he reconnected with the outdoors and was able to travel the world and take photos of some of the most beautiful places on Earth.