When you are shooting with a camera that features interchangeable lenses—DSLRs and MILCs—changing your lens can mean completely changing your shot, changing the view of your scene, changing the magnification of your subject, changing the way that your camera reacts to light. Interchangeable lenses can add enormous flexibility to your digital photography.
That said, let’s look at the different categories of lenses available for digital photographers. In general, these categories are based on the focal length property of the lens. The focal length of the lens determines the angle of view and how much the scene within your camera’s viewfinder is magnified.
Zoom vs. Prime
Before looking at different focal length lenses, it’s important to understand the difference between a zoom lens and a prime lens.
A zoom lens is one that has a variable focal length. With a zoom lens, you can rotate a ring on the barrel of the lens to change the magnification and angle of view of your scene.
A prime lens is a lens with a single, fixed focal length. So with a prime lens, there is no zooming capability and no ability to change the magnification or angle of view on your scene.
Both types of lenses have their advantages and disadvantages.
The biggest advantage of zoom lenses is the flexibility they give you in your digital photography. With a zoom lens, you can easily zoom in and out to make your subject larger or smaller, allowing you to quickly change your framing and composition to fit more or less of your scene into your image. And, you only have to carry one lens to have lots of focal length capabilities.
But the ability to move through a large focal length range in one lens can mean that the quality of the lens can sometimes be suspect.
On the other hand, since a prime lens has a single focal length, you can’t easily recompose your shot. So, in order to reframe your scene, you need to physically reposition your camera.
The fixed focal length of a prime lens also means that you need to think carefully about the type of digital photography you plan to do before making a purchase.
But prime lenses tend to be first-class lenses. With a prime lens, you get flawless glass and optimum light flow, meaning that these lenses take wonderfully high quality images.
Standard or Normal Lens
A standard lens is a lens that includes focal lengths of between 35mm and 65mm. These are lenses that are middle-of-the-road, a versatile lens that works well in lots of situations, including portrait photography.
Wide Angle Lens
A wide angle lens is a lens with a focal length of less than 35mm. These types of lenses are great for landscape photography because they allow for a wide angle of view (hence the name). But this wide angle tends to distort faces, so it’s best to stay away from portrait photography with these types of lenses.
A telephoto angle lens is a lens with a focal length that’s greater than 65mm. Telephoto lenses compress distance, allowing you to get up close and personal when photographing sports, school plays and nature. A short telephoto lens, one that has a focal length that’s about 70mm – 110mm is my personal favorite for portrait and people photography because it creates images that show the human face as it is, without distortion from too wide of an angle and without creating a sense of flatness from too much compression.