I often get asked what lens should I buy? Whilst you can photograph anything with any lens often this isn’t advisable or possible. For example, no one wants to get too close to a lion to take a photo. Or trying to capture a cityscape with a telephoto lens means you have to stand so far away which might make it almost impossible. So having different lenses will give you more opportunities to be able to photograph different situations. I have never been one to advocate spending too much money on unwanted equipment. But when it comes to lenses, unfortunately, quality does matter. The better the quality of the lens, the better your images will be. Sharpness and the colour will be better with a better lens. It will also allow you to take photos with a faster shutter speed as you can select a wider aperture. This means that you can take photos handheld at lower light conditions. So if you have been unsure about which lenses do what, here is our guide to the different types of lenses.
Super wide-angle lenses
Super wide-angle lenses generally are less than 24 mm focal lengths. With this wide angle of view, they lend themselves to landscape photography and architectural photography. The only other scenario where these lenses might be useful is when you are working in confined spaces. For example, photographing a market vendor with a lens like this will allow you to capture their surroundings as well. But these lenses have to be used carefully otherwise you may find that your subject appears too small within the competition.
These are general wide-angle lenses. They are what most photographers use day-to-day. These will often be 24-70 mm and will allow the photographer to be able to photograph a wide range of scenarios with one lens. Over 90% of the photos that I would take on any shoot will be taken with this lens. This should be the first lens that you buy.
Most photographers these days would have zoom lenses that allow you to have a range of focal lengths. Prime lenses are set so you cannot change the focal length. In other words, you can’t zoom in or zoom out. The benefit of these lenses is that they are often cheaper than buying good quality zoom lenses. They often also have a fast aperture such as f/1.2. This will allow you to capture photos in very low light conditions handheld.
Prime lenses are also a good way to practice becoming better as a photographer. Because you have to move around and get closer to your subject, you will find yourself doing the same when you have a zoom lens. Even if you don’t own a prime lens it’s always worth renting one for a few days and setting yourself the task of capturing photos with just that lens. You may be surprised by the results and your progression as a photographer.
Telephoto lenses range from about 65-250 mm. The main characteristic of telephoto lenses is that they magnify your subject. In other words, you can capture closer photos of things which are further away. The other characteristic of telephoto lenses is that they will shorten perspective. This will make everything in a scene seem more compact. These lenses are generally used for head and shoulder portraits which give a pleasing perspective of the face of your subjects. The other benefit of these lenses when taking portraits is that it allows you not to be too close to your subject. Often that little bit of space can help relax them a little bit more and give better photos. The telephoto lenses are also useful for landscape photography especially cityscapes. When things are too far away they are useful in isolating a small section of a wide scene.
Super telephoto lenses
Anyone wanting to venture into wildlife photography, bird photography or even sports photography you would likely need these super-telephoto lenses. They will have a very narrow-angle of view and will often be very big and heavy to carry. If that doesn’t put you off the price often will. But for certain scenarios, you will not be able to capture a photo as well as you could without one of these lenses.
For example in bird photography, if you want to take pictures where you can actually see the bird close up, you are going to need at least a 500 mm lens. You may sometimes get away with using a shorter telephoto for some scenarios such as sport and some wildlife. But if you want to capture photos as you see in magazines and newspapers you are going to need one of the big serious telephoto lenses.
Perspective correction lenses
Perspective correction lenses or tilt and shift lenses are primarily used by architectural photographers. The main benefit of tilt and shift lenses is that they can eliminate linear distortion. This occurs when you take photographs of buildings where you tilt your camera upwards. By allowing you to control the angle of the plane of focus you can keep the image plane parallel to the building. Thus eliminating that effect of a building looking like it’s falling backwards. Keep in mind that these lenses are expensive and these days you can remove converging lines using post-processing software. Adobe Photoshop or Lightroom can remove this distortion easily.
Macro lenses are ideal for photographing very small things such as insects or individual flowers. Generally, these macro lenses are described by the degree of magnification possible. A macro lens with 1x magnification is capable of one-to-one reproduction. A lens capable of 0.5x times magnification reduces objects at half life-size. They are specialist lenses for these types of scenarios.
Teleconverters are accessories that fit between the camera body and the lens. They are used to increase the focal length of the lens and come in a variety of magnification (i.e. 1.4x, 2x, and so on). So for example using a 2x teleconverter on a 70-210 mm lens will turn that lens to a 140-240mm lens. They are ideal if you need a one-off solution where you need to magnify your lens. For example, if you are going on a safari and don’t want to rent or spend money buying an expensive super-telephoto lens this is a cheap alternative. But unfortunately, they do come with the downside of inferior optics. This will have an effect on the sharpness of your images. So you need to decide whether you would want to put a cheap piece of glass between your expensive lens and your expensive camera?
This is a feature that is available on most lenses these days. It is especially useful in telephoto lenses as it allows you to take photos at shutter speeds two or three stops below the recommended minimum shutter speed. For example with a 200 mm lens, image stabilisation will allow you to photograph at 1/60th or even 1/30th of a second handheld. Whereas without image stabilisation you would need a shutter speed of at least 1/200th sec or more. You will often see the image stabilisation referred to with IS on Canon and VR on Nikon. So in summary image stabilisation will allow you to take photos at slower shutter speeds then you would normally be able to handheld.
Like most things a photographer carries, lenses will be added to over your photography journey. The key is to always buy the very best lens that you can afford. Because lenses make a huge difference in the quality of your photos. But always buy what you actually are going to use. You can always rent a specialist lens for a one-off trip, assignment or even for personal photography. So there you have it. A brief summary of lenses and what they are for.
Photo credits: Kav Dadfar – All rights reserved. No usage without permission. Dreamstime.