Which Camera Lenses Do You Need?

It’s no surprise that if you purchase a new camera with an interchangeable lens system, one of the first questions you might ask yourself is ‘which lens should I buy for my camera?’. That is not quite as easy a question to answer as you would hope.

Manufacturers offer increasingly varied lenses to suit different photographers’ requirements. To add to the confusion, there is also quite a varied range in price and quality to take into consideration. On top of that there is also the cropped sensor and full-frame issue to consider. Certain lenses will only work with certain camera bodies because of the mounting system used, and so on and on it goes.

Everyone shoots differently, with a different style and preference and the type of shot you are trying to capture will also greatly influence the kind of lens you need. If you are a diehard landscape photographer, then lenses with a greater angle of view are what you will want to capture the environment in all its sweeping glory. If however, you are a portrait photographer, then your lens requirements will be quite different.

It’s a bit of a minefield but we’ll try to break down the main types of lenses available as you look deeper into your next choice of lens.

Prime Lens

A prime lens is a lens that is a fixed focal length. That means that it cannot zoom in or out, so you have to buy a prime lens with a focal length that suits your needs. Prime lenses are light and usually of better optical quality; but you will have to carry more of them to around cover a range of focal lengths. Although people might prefer the convenience of a zoom lens that covers a wide focal length range, the main factor in considering getting a couple of prime lenses in your gear bag, is that they offer models that have a very wide maximum aperture. Primes can be purchased with apertures of f/2.8 to f/1.4. This allows greater flexibility in low light conditions and also allows you to shoot images with very shallow depth of field for those lovely out of focus backgrounds.

Zoom Lens

Zoom lenses have the advantage that they are more versatile than prime lenses. So much so that just a couple of lenses can cover a very wide range of focal lengths. You could for instance have a 1635mm wide angle lens, a 24-105mm lens and a 100-400mm super telephoto and not need another lens for most of your shooting requirements. From a framing and composition standpoint, you do not have to physically move, you can simply zoom the lens to achieve the framing you are after. There are even certain zoom lenses that cover a focal length range of 18-300mm. For most practical requirements, you could use that one lens for every shoot you do. The main downside is that optical quality is often not as good as a prime lens and you will need to be aware of camera shake when using the longer focal lengths as any small amount of unwanted camera movement will be magnified and potentially ruin your shots.

Pancake Lens

Typical focal length: Wide, Normal, Telephoto

Simply put, a pancake lens is a very flat prime lens. It is shorter than it is wide and very small and light. Photographers use them primarily when they are after a small, compact camera and lens system and are used with DSLR and Micro Four Thirds cameras. Relative to their diminutive size, they can produce very good images. Despite being a prime lens, they generally have a maximum aperture of no greater than f/2.8, although there are a couple of exceptions.

Standard Zoom

Typical focal length: 24-105mm (full-frame equivalent)

This is the most common focal length, suitable for general photography and useful for everything from landscapes to portraits. Most systems will include a couple of lenses in this focal length range: usually a cheaper, slower version often included as a kit lens with a new camera, with a maximum aperture that is usually around f/3.5-f/4; and a premium quality lens often costing a lot more that may offer a maximum aperture of f/2.8-f3.5.

Ultra Wide

Typical focal length: 16-35mm (full-frame equivalent)

This is the most common focal length, suitable for general photography and useful for everything from landscapes to portraits. Most systems will include a couple of lenses in this focal length range: usually a cheaper, slower version often included as a kit lens with a new camera, with a maximum aperture that is usually around f/3.5-f/4; and a premium quality lens often costing a lot more that may offer a maximum aperture of f/2.8-f3.5.

Macro Lens

Typical focal length: 50-100mm (full-frame equivalent)

A true macro lens by definition should be able to record an image at 1:1 scale on the sensor or medium it was shot on at its closest focusing distance. This magnification factor means that a macro lens is able to fill the frame and reveal amazing detail on very small objects. Some of the more recent models have image stabilisation built in, to assist with camera shake that can potentially ruin a shot.

Medium Zoom

Typical focal length: 70-300mm (full-frame equivalent)

The medium telephoto zoom is useful for amateur wildlife or sports photography and portraits at the shorter end of its focal length range. Telephoto zooms have a smaller effective aperture than standard zooms, usually ranging from f/3.5 to f/5.6. A decent 70300mm lens can be purchased quite cheaply.

Super Telephoto

Typical focal length: 400-1200mm (full-frame equivalent)

Specialist lenses are used mainly by professionals and advanced enthusiasts. These include both zoom and prime ultra-fast telephoto lenses used by sports and wildlife photographers. They are very expensive but essential when it comes to capturing action at some great distance.

Tilt-shift Lens

Typical focal length: 17mm 24mm 35mm (full-frame equivalent)

A tilt-shift lens is quite a rare breed and not many of its type are available. It is the modern equivalent of an old bellows film camera. The lens can be rotated relative to the sensor to control the position of the area of sharpest focus, as well as moved parallel to the sensor to move the image area.

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Russ Ware

Russ has been testing, reviewing and writing guides for tech since the heady days of Windows 95 and the Sega Saturn. A self-confessed (and proud) geek about all things tech, if it has LED's, a screen, beeps or has source code, Russ will want to master it (and very likely take it apart to see how it works...)

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