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Lenses and Focal Length Photography Tutorial

In Photography, your lens is often your most important purchase. This photography tutorial outlines some important qualities of different lenses, and how each performs in identical situations.

Choosing a lens is often more difficult then choosing a camera when it comes to purchasing. One thing to remember is that a lens will last several times longer than digital cameras. A D-SLR has a limited lifespan of a couple of years, the prices on cameras just keeps on dropping and purchasing a new camera every 3-5 years is quite reasonable if you want good quality photographs & equipment. A lens on the other hand will (if handled correctly) last much longer then that, so a good lens will be an investment that you can use for a longer period of time.

Another thing to think about is the fact that all the light that reaches the sensor needs to pass through the lens. A low quality lens on a high quality camera will result in bad image quality, but a good lens on a low quality camera can still produce good results (and with low quality camera I mean the companies “entry level” D-SLR cameras).

It’s important to realize that different lenses distort and compress the view. A wide angle lens will distort the view and distances can seem greater than they really are, while in contrast, a telephoto lens will compress the view and make far away object seem closer than they are. To show this effect I have taken three photos with different lenses, the front object (a street sign) is kept at the same size but the background is drastically different.


Above: 18mm, Wide Angle

Above: 50mm, Normal

Above: 300mm, Telephoto

Normal lens

Normal lenses have a focal length of around 50mm; it resembles the view of the human eye and creates a natural view — unlike wide-angle that distort and telephoto that compresses the view. These lenses usually have a very low f-number, which makes them perfect for photographing in low light conditions.

Back in the days this was the standard lens everybody had, often a 50mm prime lens (more about prime lenses later in this article) with an aperture of f/1.2–f/1.8. The fact that they were so widely used might be one of the reasons why they have now been left behind for most beginners and amateurs — they are just seen as too boring.

I personally would recommend everybody to go out and purchase a 50mm prime lens, even if you already have a zoom lens that covers the focal length. The 50mm primes on the market today are often cheap but with exceptionally good optics for the price.

Wide-angle lens

Lenses with a wide angle of view have become standard as kit-lenses on most low-end D-SLR cameras on the market, always as zoom lenses. These lenses are great for landscapes, architecture and indoor photography — but be aware of the distortion they create. The closer you are to your object the more distorted it will become, and the distortion is most predominant in the corners.
With such short focal length they can be useful in low-light situations, both because they take in light from a wider angle and because a little camera shake is not as visible as it is on longer focal lengths.

Be careful when using wide-angle lenses for close portraits, the distortion created by the lens is magnified at close ranges and gives the model unnatural shapes. The effect can be effective and useful in some situation but it’s a technique that should be used with caution.

Telephoto lens

These lenses have a narrow view field and a long focal length. Telephoto lenses are great for wildlife and sport photography, and can be good to use for portrait when you want to isolate the model from the background. Telephoto lenses compresses the view which can be both positive and negative depending on the situation.

Telephoto lenses with their longer focal length require better light conditions or the use of a tripod. There are fast telephoto lenses, like a 400mm f/2.8, but these are often very expensive and out of reach when it comes to most amateurs — and most of these lenses are too heavy to be handheld.

The last decade most companies have started to produce these high end telephoto lenses with Image Stabilizer (different companies have different names for it, but the effect is the same) to make them more usable without tripods. Lately this feature has been implanted in more and more low-end lenses as well.

Macro lens

Macro photography is close-up photography. Macro is a word that has been severely abused lately, every photograph of an insect or flower is not macro, and many people seems to have missed the point of what macro is supposed to be. True macro photography is at the scale of 1:1 or greater — this means that the object you’re photographing should be the same size or larger on the sensor.
Most macro lenses have a focal length between 50mm and 200mm, and they usually have a large maximum aperture (low f-number) that gives them both the ability to be fast as well as totally isolate the subject. The background and shallow depth-of-field is a very important part of macro photography and can take quite a lot of time to master.

Many modern macro lenses can focus to infinity and are prime lenses which can make them ideal when it comes to portrait photography, so just because it’s a macro lens doesn’t mean it can only be used for that type of photography.

There are several ways to achieve macro or a macro-effect without a true macro lens; I will go into detail about this in a later part of this series.

Special lenses

FISHEYE LENS
Fisheye lenses are extreme wide-angle lenses, having a 180° horizontal angle of view. There are both Circular and Full-frame fisheye lenses, the circular will create a round image in the center with unexposed (black) edges and the full-frame lens will fill the entire sensor but will only have 180° horizontal and not vertical.

Fisheye lenses are widely used photographing and filming skateboarding, since the entire scene is always in focus and you can easily capture the entire trick without too much movement.

TILT-SHIFT LENS
Tilt-shift lenses are common in architectural photography to avoid the distortion a regular wide-angle lens creates while keeping the entire building in focus. Tilt-shift lenses have more features than just correcting the distortion, they also gives the photographer total control over the focus and depth of field. The lens can create rather odd looking photographs where the field of depth looks “unnatural” and the entire scene looks like it’s a photograph of a miniature.

Prime lenses vs. Zoom lenses

There are two types of lenses, prime and zoom. A prime lens is a lens that has a fixed focal length, these lenses comes in all shapes and price classes. Zoom lenses have taken over the market almost completely on the lower-end; this is mostly because zooms are more versatile. A zoom lens can be a wide-angle lens, a normal lens and a telephoto lens — all in one — where as a prime can only be what it is. High-end telephoto lenses as well as macro lenses are almost always primes.
So why choose a prime instead of a zoom lens then?

Most prime lenses are considerably sharper than the zooms in the same price class, even when you go to the very high-end lenses the primes are sharper but the difference is not as distinct. Not only are primes sharper but they often have a larger maximum aperture which makes them faster and ideal in low-light situations. However, the technology is moving forward at a great speed right now and the noise levels at high ISO isn’t as visible as it was before which makes zoom lenses able to be faster as well.

All in all I would recommend that people have at least one prime in their camera bag, preferably a normal lens, which is the perfect lens for many situations — sharp, fast and light-weight.

Most lenses have a “sweet spot” where the lens is performing better than on other settings. Zoom lenses are often best in the middle of their range and there can be some quality loss on both the maximal and minimal focal length, but it’s different from lens to lens so your best bet is to try and see where you find the sharpest results.
The aperture will also affect the sharpness, and most lenses are softer when they are wide open (largest aperture). To prevent this you can always step down one or two f-stops, if the situation allows for it.

Some quick advice on buying a new lens

When it comes to purchasing a new lens there are a few things to consider.

  • Who much are you willing to spend
  • What do you need it for (sport, landscape, portraits etc)
  • What lenses do you already own
  • Prime or Zoom
  • Image Stabilizer or not
  • Filter size

The budget question is rather obvious, don’t buy lenses you can’t afford, period. What you need your lens for is another very important factor, both when it comes to focal length and speed. Previously in this article I explained what the different focal lengths were used for, but I didn’t go into the different lenses in each of the focal length categories. For instance, there are many telephoto zoom lenses on the market but many of them are not suitable for sport due to the fact that they are too slow — and with slow I mean that their largest aperture isn’t letting enough light through to freeze action. Many sport situations require a lens that has an aperture of f/2.8 or larger (consumer telephoto lenses are often f/5.6). For situations with low light, especially weddings and such, requires even faster lenses, often between f/1.2 and f/1.8.

It’s also important to consider what lenses you already have in your collection and what a new lens will add. Sometimes you purchase a new lens as an upgrade from your previous lens, sometimes it’s for a focal length that you do not already have. Don’t worry to much about small gaps in the focal length in your collection. For example it’s no problem to have a 16-35mm wide angle, a 50mm prime and a 70-200mm telephoto lens — sure you don’t have lenses that covers 36-49mm or 51-69mm, but those are not big gaps and buying extra lenses to fill such gaps is not something I advice you do.

My personal opinion is that upgrading should add more than just better image quality, for a worth upgrade you should get a faster lens, or a feature such as image stabilizing (article on Image stabilizing coming later). The choice between prime and zoom lenses was described earlier in this article and there’s no right or wrong here, just personal preferences and also depending on the situation.

Last but not least, an aspect that is overlooked most of the time, the filter size. If you don’t use filters you can skip this part. If you’re like me and use several different filters it’s more economical to have the same filter size on all your lenses as well as more convenient. Let’s say you have several lenses with a filter size of 77mm and your looking for a new lens, you can either buy a cheaper 67mm or a more expensive 77mm lens (remember, I’m talking about filter size here). It might actually be more expensive to buy the cheaper lens since you need to buy an extra set of filters. Using step-up rings are an alternative, but they often prevent you from using a lens hood.

So after decided on your next lens purchase, where to buy? The only non-Swedish photo store I can personally recommend is B&H Photo. Great service, good prices and a useful website, I recommend B&H to everyone that ask, it’s a great store. There are other stores, but be careful, there are a lot of fake/bad photography stores online.

If you want more personal and specific advice, feel free to on head over to our COMMUNITY FORUMS and we will do our best to find the perfect solution for your needs.

36 Comments

  1. Add point Subtract point
    MicMart (3 Points) April 20, 2011 at 7:44 am

    It’s a big thing reading this article. I learned a lot. Thanks

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  2. Add point Subtract point

    It was really helpful , thank u for this tutorial .

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    PhotoNewbie (1 Point) January 26, 2011 at 10:21 pm

    Brief and to the point! Thank you for that tutorial. I would love to see a similar style tutorial for each of the different lenses.

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  4. Add point Subtract point

    Photoshop tutorials, from beginner to advanced. photo manipulation, icon design, text effects, interface, layout, painting, photo effects, psd tuts, maxon cinema 4d, designing.
    http://photoshopcs8.co.cc

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    Nikon Binoculars India (1 Point) November 20, 2010 at 2:33 am

    Yes it is better tutorial post for photography but many new comer who does not understand basic knowledge for them, this tutorial is something lower well keep it up………

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    Nikon Binoculars India (1 Point) November 20, 2010 at 2:31 am

    Yes it is better tutorial post for photography but many new comer who does not understand basic knowledge for them, this tutorial is something lower well keep it up……

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  7. Add point Subtract point

    Yes it is better tutorial post for photography but many new comer who does not understand basic knowledge for them, this tutorial is something lower well keep it up………

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  8. Add point Subtract point
    stuart bernstein (1 Point) September 30, 2010 at 12:14 pm

    I enjoyed your tutorial. I have a D5000 camera with a 18-105 lens. My wife enjoys watching birds and would like closeup pictures of hummingbirds, birds and other nature things. Could you suggest a reasonable lens for these types of pictures. I’ve been looking at the 55-300 and the 70-300 nikon lenses but I would appreciate hearing back from you with your suggestion since I am a beginner.
    Thanks,
    Stuart

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    Boldis Media (1 Point) April 29, 2010 at 4:30 am

    Great! A lot of info for nube photographer like me!

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  10. Add point Subtract point
    Siddhartha (1 Point) February 21, 2010 at 11:52 pm

    Your articles are great!! and I learnt a lot of things about photography from them. Just one question, I was browsing through the list of zoom lenses in Nikkon’s website. I found most lenses of ranges upto 200 mm or more has a very low aperture range 4.5-5.6 or 3.3-4.5. Needed to know why is like that?, does zoom lenses which focusses far distant objects cannot effectively capture images with smaller aperture? If that is true, I couldn’t understand why the lower range is starting from 3.5, and not from 1.8. Could you please throw some light on it.
    Thanks in advance,
    Siddhartha

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  11. Add point Subtract point
    O’Fallon IL Photographer (2 Points) February 6, 2010 at 6:28 pm

    If you’ve got a decent collection of good lenses, and you’re finding that you’re needing a different focal length, you may consider buying a full frame sensor camera if you already have a cropped sensor or vice versa. Using a cropped sensor will essentially give you a different focal length. For example, we use our 24-70 L Series lens both on our full frame sensor and cropped sensor camera, but on the cropped sensor, it acts like a 38-112. Just something else to consider when you’re thinking about purchasing a new lens.

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    เพลงใหม่ล่าสุด (1 Point) February 2, 2010 at 11:47 pm

    Great reading! Thanks for sharing134

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    เพลงใหม่ล่าสุดเดือนนี้ (1 Point) February 2, 2010 at 1:32 am

    Great reading! Thanks for sharing127

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    เพลงสากลใหม่ (1 Point) February 1, 2010 at 2:49 am

    Great reading! Thanks for sharing122

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  15. Add point Subtract point
    ดาวน์โหลดเพลงฟรี (1 Point) January 30, 2010 at 11:14 am

    wow Great article, thanks!

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  16. Add point Subtract point

    very helpful article.
    could you please be more specific/detail in tutoring of fish eye lens , since mostly these lens is selling in manual , unless stated like well known brand of nikkor

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    Elf Evans (1 Point) January 1, 2010 at 12:25 pm

    Very comprehensive article, worth paying attention to time and money saving guidelines for the “first & next time ” lens purchasers.

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  18. Add point Subtract point

    Thanks for this post. I am planning to start a hobby in photography and is saving for a DSLR camera and a lens. This post will be very helpful for me in buying a lens. Again thank you for this post.

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  19. Add point Subtract point

    Hey Fredrik!
    Just visited your website, fantastic work dude!
    Must say, you’re simply awesome.
    By chance if you ever in Singapore, please do call on me, I’ll be most happy to show you around.
    Thanks lots for the incredible info…
    Have a blessed day ahead!

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  20. Add point Subtract point
    Suvarghya Dutta (1 Point) September 14, 2009 at 12:10 pm

    Hello,

    I bought a Canon EOS 450D very recently and as a kit lens they provided a 18-55mm IS lens. Also was offered a Tamron 18-200mm non IS lens. Since my interest in photography is more for landscapes and household photos I thought having both a telephoto and a wide angle will complete my needs, as I probably wont be able to afford the other professional lenses. This is my first foray into manual photography as before I used a Digital Compact camera from Canon (A 720 IS). I find the matter on this website to be very educative. Thanks a lot for the kind publication of this matter. Please keep publishing such interesting tips and guiding tools.

    Thanks.

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  21. Add point Subtract point

    Great tut. Have taken pics w/ 35mm for years never totally understanding the why’s completely. Just purchased K20D and am having a ball. This helps me with rhe filters I purchased and giving me insite in my next lense purchase (100mm macro)

    Tanks for taking the time to explain things in a way that is NOT confusing.

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  22. Add point Subtract point
    huwaw69 (1 Point) May 3, 2009 at 4:23 am

    This is great for photographers, and interesting for me…

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  23. Add point Subtract point

    Good overview over the various lens types out there. I found one small error though: full frame fish eye lenses have neither a 180° horizontal nor a 180° vertical angle of view, but a diagonal angle of view of 180°.

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  24. Add point Subtract point

    The 3 pictures of the traffic sign at the top are awesome!!! Never seen anything like it. It was a real eye-opener. Thx

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  25. Add point Subtract point
    Mahésh (1 Point) January 30, 2009 at 9:26 pm

    Great tutorial. Im clear about the type of lens I choose when I buy next. I just entered DSLR world and have its default lens 18-55mm and checking books and magazine for suggestion to buy lens. So far I can be distinctive about lens that I require for my photography.

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  26. Add point Subtract point

    First of all, great tutorial. Can you tell me why it is that a longer focal length lens admits less light for a given-sized lens opening than a shorter focal length lens with the identical sized lens opening? I understand that to be the reason why the longer lens needs a larger diameter opening than the shorter lens in order to admit the same amount of light, but what is the physics why it is true that light diminishes as it passes through a longer lens than a shorter lens? Thank you.

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    NW777 (1 Point) June 24, 2008 at 4:32 pm

    Fredrick – great article!

    Could anyone possible tell me, what the best lenses, as well as software I would need to create virtual tours and panoramic shots?

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    Iceberg (1 Point) May 24, 2008 at 6:23 pm

    That explains it perfectly. Thanks Fredrik, you really know your stuff :)

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    No, they don’t really correspond to a unit per se, it’s a mathematical term and to get into the complexity of it: it’s the size of the aperture in diameter in relation with the focal length. So for example, a 200mm lens with an aperture of 4 means that the aperture’s size (the hole so to speak) will have a diameter of 200/4=50mm. A 100mm lens with an aperture of 4 would give you a diameter of 100/4=25mm. The amount of light that reaches the sensor is the same, but the 200mm lens diameter is double in size.
    Canon makes a 85mm f/1.2 lens, wide open this lens has an aperture diameter of 71mm. Sigma makes a 200-500mm f/2.8 zoom, @500 wide open that lens has a freaking 179mm aperture diameter…
    So the lower the f-stop number, the more light the lens lets through. From 5.6 to 4 you will double to amount of light that reaches the sensor, from 4 to 2.8 the amount of light is doubled again and so on. A lens with an aperture of 1.2 will be able to let so much light through you can quite easily use it even when the light is very dim.
    I hope that helped some to explain it…

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    Iceberg (1 Point) May 24, 2008 at 5:17 pm

    How is f/1.2 and f/1.8 different from f/5.6? What do the numbers mean, and do they correspond to a certain measurement or unit such as length or meters?

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    Tyler Bramer (1 Point) May 13, 2008 at 8:36 pm

    I myself am not a photographer but my father recently started last year when he took over a previous photographer’s jobs since he was retiring. I know that he has been trying to learn how to use different settings and lenses to get different effects, and now I know I can send him here to look at these tutorials. Great work and explanations.

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  32. Add point Subtract point

    Yet another incredible Photography Tutorial. Keep up the good work Fredrik!

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  33. Add point Subtract point
    Tyler Durden (1 Point) May 12, 2008 at 4:09 pm

    man your photography tuts are absolutely amazing probably some of the best i have seen

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    Henry Posner (1 Point) May 12, 2008 at 2:33 pm

    “The only non-Swedish photo store I can personally recommend is B&H Photo. Great service, good prices and a useful website, I recommend B&H to everyone that ask, it’s a great store.”

    Thank you. This is very gratifying.

    Henry Posner
    B&H Photo-Video

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    Matthew (1 Point) May 12, 2008 at 11:29 am

    Such an awesome post! I am very impressed and thank you very much.

    I am currently shooting with the kit lens that came with my Rebel XTi and look forward to using this tutorials to help choose my next investment!

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