When we think about image quality in photography there are generally two things to consider - the camera body and its lens.
The body is the brain of the whole camera configuration because all processing happens there. But its potential cannot be used to its fullest extent if it’s not paired with a suitable lens.
You may wonder what lens is suitable for your camera. There isn’t a simple answer to that question because the choice of lens depends on what you want to shoot.
My goal with this article is to preview all the major types of lenses you will ever need. If you’re serious about photography, chances are you will actually need more than one.
Let’s see what you can choose from.
Different types of lenses used in photography
There are different ways we can categorize lenses, depending on a particular feature. You will see that one lens can fall into two or more categories. So let’s see what these categories are.
Types of lenses based on focal length
Focal length refers to the distance between the lens and the sensor when the camera is focused at infinity. It is measured in millimeters. The longer the focal length, the more “zoomed-in” your object looks.
We distinguish the following types of lenses on the basis of their focal length:
Ultra Wide Lenses
Less than 16mm on a full frame sensor (less than 10mm on a cropped sensor)
These lenses provide an extremely wide angle of view, up to 180 degrees.
Although an ultra wide image generally seems unnatural, these lenses have their own uses. They allow capturing huge buildings such as cathedrals or palaces in one single shot, thus being great for architecture photography.
The downside is that they’re too specialized. Their characteristic image distortion simply doesn’t make them suitable for general photography.
Wide Angle Lenses
16-35mm on a full frame sensor (10-24mm on a cropped sensor)
Wide angle lenses, as their name suggests, allow us wider angles of views and, consequently, fitting in a large scene into a single frame. That makes them the perfect choice for landscape photography.
Apart from that, short focal length lenses allow for a larger depth of field. With them, we can easily produce an image that is sharp from foreground to background, which is what we usually want in landscape photography.
Wide angle lenses are also perfect for shooting architecture and indoor scenes where we want to fit as many objects as possible into a single frame.
A practical accessory for landscape photographers is a lens hood. It will minimize the lens flare in situations when you want to shoot toward the sun.
36-70mm on a full frame sensor (24-50mm on a cropped sensor)
Also known as standard, these lenses are perfect for general photography. A 50mm lens (on a full-frame camera), particularly, provides an angle of view that is very similar to what you see right in front of you with a naked eye.
Normal lenses generally have fixed focal length, that is, they can’t zoom in or out. You need to adjust your position while framing. The upside, though, is they usually allow using big apertures which is a great plus in low-light situations or when aiming for a great bokeh effect in portraits.
These lenses are especially good for street photography but can also produce great results when shooting portraits or documentary.
Medium Telephoto Lenses
70-200mm on a full frame sensor (50-150mm on a cropped sensor)
A lens in this focal length range is perfect for shooting portraits.
The bigger the focal length, the narrower the depth of field - another rule of photography that portrait masters love to exploit with such a type of lens. It will allow your subject to stand out against a completely blurred background which is what you actually want when shooting portraits.
200-300mm on a full frame sensor (140-200mm on a cropped sensor)
Telephoto lenses get you extremely close to your object. This makes them the go-to choice for wildlife or sports photographers who can’t physically approach their objects too close.
The rule I mentioned above is valid here as well - the big focal length allows for a very shallow depth of field. In nature, that means shooting a bird (from a distance, without scaring it away) against a completely blurred background.
Telephoto lenses, however, are really heavy. Without a tripod or at least monopod, your images will most definitely end up blurred due to camera shake.
Super Telephoto Lenses
More than 300mm on a full frame sensor (more than 200mm on a cropped sensor)
Super telephoto lenses get you even farther than telephoto lenses. With them, you can shoot sports or wildlife from even greater distances.
Types of lenses based on their ability to zoom
Here you have only two types of lenses to choose between - lenses that can zoom and lenses that can’t zoom. Let’s look at both with greater detail.
Prime lenses have a fixed focal length which means they can’t zoom in or out.
They have several advantages over zoom lenses.
First, they are built with fewer components than zoom lenses which makes them smaller and lighter. A lighter lens is a lighter camera overall - something every photographer will appreciate when traveling or shooting without a tripod in low light.
Apart from that, prime lenses usually have better optical design than zoom lenses and hence, provide better quality images.
And as I mentioned above, they normally support big apertures such as f/1.8, f/1.4 or even f/1.2. Such apertures allow for excellent results when you shoot in low light or when you want to completely blur your background. So this makes them equally good for portraits or night-time photography.
The downside is that, obviously, you can’t change the focal length. You need to move physically which is not always possible.
Unlike prime lenses, zoom lenses support a range of focal lengths. Some zoom lenses are only wide-angle ones while others cover a larger focal length range, like 35-200mm.
As a rule, though, the bigger the focal length range, the worse the image quality you can expect. Many (but not all!) zoom lenses with a big focal length range are considered entry-level and professionals tend not to use them. Here I especially mean kit lenses but I’ll talk more about them below.
Zoom lenses are also bigger and heavier due to the more complicated construction. This may be a problem for someone who prioritizes light weight.
Also, zoom lenses tend not to support larger apertures like f/1.4 and above, especially at big focal lengths. This might limit the photographer’s options in low-light situations.
But then some people do appreciate the fact they can move from “landscape” to “portrait mode” or from “wide” to “wider” without having to change the lens. Not only does this save time but it also minimizes the risk of dirtying your sensor that lens changing carries.
Types of lenses based on their maximum aperture
Maximum aperture is a lens characteristic some photographers value a lot. In fact, they’re ready to spend $1000 more for a model that allows opening the aperture up to f/1.4.
Based on the maximum aperture they allow, we distinguish between two types of lenses:
Fast lenses support very big apertures like f/2.8 and above. They are called “fast” because they allow a lot of light to come into the camera through the lens without the need for slow shutter speeds.
Fast lenses make a great difference when shooting in low light without a tripod. In addition, the shallow depth of field they can produce makes them perfect for portraits.
Unlike fast lenses, slow ones typically support apertures down from f/4. They don’t really perform well at low light and can’t produce a great bokeh effect.
However, if you generally want to have images with a larger depth of field and don’t mind shooting with slow shutter speeds (and many landscape photographers don’t), a slow lens will do the job perfectly. (If you want to shoot night-time landscapes, though, you’ll appreciate a lens that supports larger apertures.)
Types of lenses based on their focusing system
Most lenses manufactured today allow switching between autofocus and manual focus. Unless you are planning to shoot with an older lens, possibly with a model made for a film camera, you won’t really have to make the choice between auto or manual focus.
You can actually make great use of both modes. Here’s when:
You’ll probably use autofocus in most situations, from shooting portraits to fast-moving objects. Indeed, in many scenarios, the autofocus mode will give you a sharp image in less time and with fewer attempts. That’s something a photojournalist or a wedding/sports photographer wouldn’t go without.
Why trusting your own eye when you camera sees perfectly?
Well, it actually doesn’t. Autofocus is not always precise, especially in low-light or/and low-contrast situations.
When shooting landscapes in such conditions, I would recommend getting the desired sharpness by manually operating the focus ring.
You would also appreciate the manual focus mode when shooting videos.
Types of lenses based on their presence or lack of stabilization
Lens Stabilization is the complex technology that reduces the camera shake by moving internal glass elements.
As the category suggests, it consists of two types of lenses:
These lenses do not have an integrated stabilization technology. Due to their simpler construction, nonstabilized lenses are generally cheaper to produce, smaller and lighter than stabilized lenses.
Although many photographers prefer sensor stabilization to lens stabilization, the latter has a few advantages over the former.
Stabilized lenses perform better at low-light conditions because they allow for more precise metering and autofocusing.
Additionally, lens stabilization technology yields better results at the long telephoto/super telephoto focal length range than in-camera stabilization. So photographers interested in sports or wildlife photography might find the support of such technology to be an indispensable feature.
There are a few types of lenses which cannot be used for general photography but still deserve a place here.
Macro lenses are used for photographing objects from a very close distance. Think of close-up shots of flowers, insects, jewelry and so on.
Tilt-shift lenses are designed to correct the camera perspective when you’re shooting upward or downward. An end result is an object that looks straight. The effect is achieved with the frontal lens element that gets shifted to oppose the tilt of the camera.
Perspective correction works best in architectural photography. Tilt-shift lenses are often used to take images of buildings that look straight even when shot at street level.
They are called “fish-eye lenses” because their protruding glass resembles the eye of a fish. These lenses often support an angle of view of up to 180 degrees allowing you to fit “the whole world” into a single frame.
Fish-eye lenses provide many opportunities for compositional experiments and are most often used in architectural and abstract photography.
The last category of lenses I will talk about is kit lenses. I briefly mentioned them above in the zoom lens section.
A kit lens is a lens that comes in your camera kit, hence the name. It is a zoom lens that most often covers a focal length range like 18-55mm and normally supports maximum apertures of the range f/3.5-5.6.
Mind that you would not expect to get a kit lens when buying a mid- to a high-level camera. Kit lenses are designed to satisfy the needs of starting or occasional photographers only. They are almost always poorly built and provide moderate results at best.
Still, you can start with a kit lens to learn the basics. Once you find your “favorite” focal length or aperture(s), though, consider updating your system with a well-built prime or zoom lens.
And then, there are always exceptions. The Fujinon 18-55mm kit lens by Fujifilm is an exceptional piece of glass.
Some important photography concepts related to lenses
If you’re a beginner, you might have come across certain terms I used above that you’re not familiar with.
Below I have enlisted some of the most important concepts related to lenses that you should know. Let’s see what they are.
The word “bokeh” comes from Japanese and can be translated as “blur”. It is the aesthetic quality of the blurred area of your frame.
To achieve a good bokeh you need to open up the aperture as much as you can. Fast lenses are perfect for this purpose. They allow your object to stand out against a softly blurred background where lights appear as pleasant circular shapes and there are no hard edges to distract the attention.
By back focus we mean an error in your camera and/or lens whereby the focus lands behind your object instead of right onto it.
Front focus is similar to back focus. The only difference here is that your focus has landed somewhere in front of your object instead of right onto it.
Depth of field
The depth of field relates to the area of your image that appears sharp. When the depth of field is shallow, just a small part of the image is sharp and everything else is blurry. When it’s wide, your image may look sharp all over.
Depth of field is directly influenced by the choice of aperture, the shooting distance and the focal length of the lens. It’s a concept you need to master if you want to be good at photography. Take a look at the article I’ve dedicated to it to learn how to control it.
F-stop is a number your camera uses that corresponds to a certain aperture. f/2.8, for example, means the aperture is open wide and a lot of light will come in. At f/11 the aperture is much smaller and much less light will enter the camera.
You can learn more about f-stop here.
A sharp lens is well-built and well-designed lens that delivers ultra sharp images. There are numerous lens previews based on tests you can find on the internet that will help you find the sharpest lens for your specific camera body.
By soft lens, we mean one that cannot produce acceptably sharp images. These are cheap or poorly designed lenses that can only be used for occasional photography. Soft lenses are usually worst at their widest apertures. At f/8 - f/11, though, they are likely to yield acceptably sharp results.
Soft focus lens
A soft focus lens is a type of lens that allows us to blur our object slightly while maintaining its edges sharp.
The soft focus effect is most often used in fashion or portrait photography to minimize blemishes or imperfections on people’s skin. It can also be used to add a dreamy or vintage feel to photographs.
Lens Buying Guide
A good lens doesn’t come cheap so before buying one you should do an extensive research.
Today, I want to share my system of selecting the best lenses to meet my photography needs.
My method is simple—it’s a short questionnaire. As you plug in your specific data, the range of available lens options becomes more and more limited.
Questionnaire: Selecting the Right Lens
What focal length do I need?
To answer this question, start with what kind of photography you want to do. Are you interested in landscape photography? Then you need a wide-angle lens. You want to shoot portraits? A medium telephoto lens of the range 80-135mm is perfect for your purpose. Or say you need to take good-quality photos from a great distance - a telephoto or super telephoto lens is what you should look for.
Zoom or prime?
Prime lenses generally deliver better results. Besides, they are also smaller and lighter.
However, if you want to cover a big focal length range, this will mean carrying a few prime lenses in your backpack. And then constantly changing one lens for another will slow you down and will be exposing your sensor too often, potentially increasing the risk of dirtying or scratching it.
In this sense, a zoom lens might be more practical and convenient. Moreover, some of today’s zoom lenses are almost indistinguishable in quality from primes.
How fast do I need my lens to be?
As you already learned, the fastness of your lens depends on its capability to use wide apertures. If you’re planning to shoot landscapes only, you won’t need fast lens because in the majority of cases you will be using f/8-f/11 aperture range. Basically, any good lens with a maximum aperture of at least f/4 will do.
If however you’re planning to shoot extensively during the night or are rather interested in portrait photography, you’d better invest in a fast lens.
Do I absolutely need a lens with Autofocus?
Most lenses today come with the ability to autofocus anyway. Still, there are certain lenses out there that are cheaper and/or lighter but support manual focus only. And in some situations, they will perform better than autofocus ones.
For example, if you’re interested in astrophotography only, it makes sense for you to choose a manual focus lens because you would not be able to use autofocus at night anyway. It would be too dark to do that.
Do I need a stabilized lens?
As I said above, lens stabilization yields better results at low-light conditions and in bigger focal lengths than in-camera stabilization. However, stabilized lenses are generally heavier and more expensive.
In my opinion, in-camera stabilization is perfectly enough in most photographic situations. So if your camera supports the technology, you can save money and just go for a non-stabilized lens.
Here’s my completed questionnaire
I used it when I was selecting a landscape lens for my Fujifilm X system:
- Focal length: from 10mm to 18mm at least.
My Fujifilm XT2 camera has an APS-C (cropped) sensor and my most used focal lengths when shooting landscapes lie between 10mm and 16mm.
- Zoom or Prime: Zoom
As a travel photographer, I prefer to have a single zoom lens instead of carrying multiple primes.
- How Fast: f/4
Most of my landscapes are shot using a tripod with the aperture range between f/8 and f/11, so I absolutely do not need a lens faster than f/4
- Autofocus: Yes
Modern cameras have pretty sophisticated autofocusing systems and I use it in 90% of cases.
- Stabilization: Yes
My Fujifilm Xt2 camera does not have in-body stabilization so I prefer to have stabilized lens when shooting hand-held.
After answering five questions I ended up with only one choice: Fujinon 10-24 f/4. This is the model I purchased and it became my favorite landscape lens.
The lens as the eye of a camera
Remember when in the very beginning I said the body of a camera is also its brain? Well, think about the lens as its eye. Before the camera processes the data, turning it into an image, it has to see your object first. And the better and more suitable your lens is, the better your camera will see it and the more you’ll be pleased with the final result.
Finding the right lens(es) for your camera may take time but if you’re serious about photography, it’s definitely worth it. Things like online reviews, sample images, second hand gear or lenses to rent can help you a lot on this journey.
Do you still need help in choosing the right lens for your camera or for your specific photographic needs? Ask me a question in the comments section below. I’ll be happy to answer your queries.