DSLR Lenses are generally categorized by their focal range or specific function if they’re a specialist lens. Below we’ve taken a look at a few of the most common types of lens, thought about the characteristics their images are said to have, and considered how they can be used.
What they are: Ultra Wide angle lenses have a focal length of around less than 24 mm (in 35 mm-format), this means they can take in a wider scene than is typical, though they’re not only about getting all of a subject into a shot. Rectilinear ultra wides help keep straight lines, just that, while fisheyes will reproduce buildings with curved walls.
Image characteristics: Because of the wide field of view, shots with ultra wide angle lenses typically feature a large depth of field. Images tend to pull in subjects that are close, and push away more distant ones making them appear further apart. Perspective distortion of ultra wides can give falling-building-syndrome (where vertical lines converge) but this can be corrected in post-processing, or minimized with good technique.
What they are used for: While often seen as a specialist lens, ultra wide angles can be used in a number of ways. Typical uses include landscape, architecture and interior photography. Even the distortion can be used creatively, especially when using fisheye lenses.
What they are: Typically covering a focal length between 24 mm and 35 mm, Wide Angle lenses are available as primes or zooms and come with either variable or fixed maximum aperture. Offering a wide field of view, they often also boast close minimum focusing distances.
Image characteristics: Wide angle photographs can magnify the perceived distance between subjects in the foreground and background. Wide angles suffer less distortion than their ultra wide counterparts, but you still get an exaggeration of lines and curves which can be used artistically.
What they are used for: Many people only reach for a wide angle lens when trying to get the whole of a subject in frame, whether that’s a building, a large group of people or a landscape. However, while those are perfectly good uses of one, they can also be used for interesting portraits where you want to place a subject in a situation. Just be careful not to distort faces unflatteringly by shooting too close.
Standard / Normal
What the are: The kit lens your DSLR or interchangeable lens mirrorless camera came with is probably an example of a standard zoom lens, covering a focal range of around 35-70 mm. Ones with better optics and faster maximum apertures are also available. Many photographers consider a 50 mm prime (in 35-mm-format) as a normal lens, as it’s said to reproduce an image with a angle of view which feels “natural” and similar to what you see with your eyes – even thought this isn’t technically true.
Image characteristics: Standard zoom lenses and normal primes sit between wide angles and telephotos in terms of image characteristics and are much more like you see with the human eye. Normal prime lenses tend to have faster maximum apertures which can allow for a shallow depth of field and lower light shooting.
What they are used for: As their name would suggest, normal or standard lenses are versatile lenses which can be used for almost all sorts of photography whether street, documentary, landscape, or portrait. Because normal prime lenses tend to feature faster maximum apertures, they allow you to shoot with a shallower depth of field and in lower light.
What they are: Telephoto lenses are those with a focal length in excess of 70 mm, though many people would argue that “true” telephoto lenses are ones which exceed 135 mm. They focus on a much narrower field of view than other lenses, which means they are good for focusing in on specific details or distant subjects. They are generally larger and heavier than equally specified wider lenses.
Image characteristics: Because they have a narrower angle of view, telephoto lenses bring far away subjects closer. They can also have the effect of compressing the sense of distance in a scene and making objects appear closer together. A narrow depth of field means that a subject can be in focus with a blurred background and foreground.
What they are used for: In addition to being used to photograph subjects you can’t (or don’t want to) get close to – like sports or wildlife – telephoto lenses can be used for shooting portraits and even landscapes where their normalization of relative size can be used to give a sense of scale.
What they are: Superzooms are do-it-all lenses which cover focal lengths from wide to telephoto. They can be good for uses in situations where you can’t or don’t want to be changing lenses and they normally change in length as you zoom.
Image characteristics: Because compromises have had to be made producing a do-it-all lens, superzooms do not have the same image quality of more dedicated lenses and often have slower and variable maximum apertures.
What they are used for: Offering a one-lens package, superzooms come into their own if you can’t (or don’t want to) change lenses. This could be when in situations where it wouldn’t be safe to switch lenses, or when travelling – you don’t necessarily want to be weighed down by five lenses when on holiday with the family.
What they are: One of the more specialist DSLR lenses, marco lenses are technically those which are capable of reproduction ratios greater than 1:1. However, the term is frequently used to refer to any lens which can be used for extreme close-up photography. Macro lenses typically have focal lengths somewhere between 40-200 mm.
Image characteristics: Macro lenses normally have excellent image sharpness, though it’s worth noting that when working at close distances they also have a tiny depth of field. You can often end up with a shot of an insect where only a fraction of it is in focus.
What they are used for: Though normally used for close-up photography (at which they excel), macro lenses can also be great for portraits thanks to their typical sharpness and focal lengths.