As this is such a broad topic, I will only be discussing lens classification based on focal length in this article. If you’ve ever come across terms such as zoom, prime, telephoto, macro, or fisheye and been left scratching your head, this article is for you.
Camera lenses can be divided into two segments: primes and zooms. All other classes and types are subcategorizations of these two main segments.
Let’s look at each of these segments and subcategories.
Prime lenses have a fixed focal length, which means you cannot zoom in or zoom out. At first glance, this may seem counterintuitive, but let’s dig a little deeper.
Why Invest in a Lens That Cannot Zoom?
The simple answer is that prime lenses tend to be much sharper than their zoom counterparts. Prime lenses have fewer moving parts, thus engineers can direct all their resources toward the optical efficiency of the lens.
There are additional benefits to using prime lenses. These lenses tend to have a wide-open aperture that is wider than most zoom lenses with comparable focal lengths.
Let me give you a few examples.
The 70-200mm f/2.8 is widely considered one of the best lenses for weddings, photojournalism, travel, and other purposes. However, the maximum aperture of this lens is f/2.8.
On the other hand, if you use an 85mm prime, an f/1.8 maximum aperture is almost a given. That’s about one-and-a-third stops faster than an f/2.8 lens.
This allows you to capture more than double the amount of light, which comes in handy when shooting in low-light conditions.
However, the maximum aperture is a damper. The lens opens up to only f/6.3 when zoomed in to 600mm. On the other hand, if you look at the Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS III USM, this lens offers the same focal length reach, but the maximum aperture is f/4. Sure, the 600mm prime costs 10 times more, but it does give you a host of benefits beyond just the maximum aperture.
I have heard some users state that prime lenses tend to be lighter. I feel this is too much of a generalization. The 600mm behemoth that I referred to above weighs a shade over 3 kilos, whereas the Sigma lens weighs 1.8 kilos.
Standard Prime Lenses
Standard prime lenses are a very popular category. That’s why they warrant a special mention.
These lenses are named as such because they tend to offer a field of view that is similar to the human eye. A 50mm is widely considered to be a standard prime lens because the field of view it offers when mounted on a 35mm camera is the most similar to what we see.
Here it’s important to note that the mounting camera’s sensor and crop factors are also relevant. If you mount a 50mm prime lens on a micro-four-thirds camera, the effective focal length becomes 100mm – so it no longer qualifies as a standard prime.
On the other hand, if you mount a 35mm lens on an APS-C camera, the effective focal length becomes 52.5mm and therefore, qualifies as a standard prime lens.
Zoom lenses have variable focal lengths. Tiny elements inside the lens barrel move back and forth to change the focal length and increase or decrease image magnification. The obvious benefit of this type of lens is that you can control the composition of subjects close to or far away from the camera.
Zoom lenses are much more complicated than primes and thus tend to be more expensive to manufacture.
Some zoom lenses come with a variable maximum aperture. This means the maximum possible aperture for the entire focal length isn’t constant – it changes as you change the focal length.
Let’s look at an example. The Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM is a zoom lens. The maximum aperture of the lens is f/5 when you’re using the “wider” focal length, which is 150mm. When you zoom to 600mm, the maximum aperture drops down to f/6.3.
How does that impact your photos?
The first thing is – with a smaller aperture, the ability of the lens to capture light drops. From f/5 to f/6.3, you will lose two-thirds of light. In low-light situations, that will be a setback.
When the amount of light drops, you naturally compensate by choosing a higher ISO number. But, depending on the camera model and the sensor, you will notice some drop in dynamic range. An increasing ISO number will also lead to more apparent image noise.
See also: Prime vs Zoom Lenses (Complete Guide)
Focal Length Categories
Before I get into the details of this category of lenses, I would like to briefly explain the meaning of focal length.
Focal length is the optical distance between the sensor at the back of the camera (film, in the case of film cameras) and the point where the light rays converge after traveling through the lens barrel.
Focal length is always expressed in millimeters, and it does not have a relationship with the physical length of the lens.
The focal length determines how much magnification will be applied. It also determines the angle of view.
A lens with a shorter focal length will have a larger angle of view and a smaller magnification and will converge the light more sharply. On the other hand, a lens with a longer focal length will have a smaller angle of view and a larger magnification and will converge the light less sharply.
Telephoto lenses can be further subdivided into short telephoto, such as the 85mm, medium telephoto, such as the 135mm, and super telephoto, such as the 500mm. I will discuss each of these focal lengths in further detail in this section.
See also: How to Use Telephoto Lenses
The Best Use Case for Short Telephoto Lenses:
Short telephoto lenses are best suited for portrait photography. One of the best examples of a short telephoto lens ideal for shooting portrait photography is the 85mm.
This particular focal length comes in several maximum aperture options – f/1.2, f/1.4, and f/1.8.
If you are unsure about how changing the aperture value can change your image, our article diving deeper into what aperture entails may help. In a nutshell, increasing the aperture, i.e., using a smaller f-stop, will result in a larger opening. This, in turn, allows a lot more light to get inside the camera.
If a lens can capture a lot of light, it can produce well-exposed photos without requiring an external artificial light source or the need to push the ISO number.
The Best Use Case for Medium Telephoto Lenses:
Medium telephoto lenses are a versatile group of lenses that are suitable for a wide range of photography genres. For example, you can shoot portraits, some wildlife, product photography, weddings, headshots, and dip your toe into a few other categories.
A typical medium telephoto lens starts from around 135mm and goes up to 300mm, perfect for the genres mentioned above.
In terms of portrait photography, the 105mm and the 135mm options are the most popular.
Both of these are fixed focal length lenses, or prime lenses, just like the 85mm lens that I mentioned earlier.
Telephoto lenses offer excellent background compression and blur. The majority of portrait photographers look for lenses that are capable of capturing beautiful bokeh, a smooth background that highlights the subject.
Beyond portrait photography, medium telephoto lenses, especially those that are around 200-300mm, are also used for wildlife photography.
The Best Use Case for Super Telephoto Lenses:
I mentioned wildlife photography in the previous section, but every photographer has their preferences. For wildlife photography, my favorite lens is the 400mm.
You can use the lens on its own and utilize the sweet f/2.8 (or f/4) aperture. Alternatively, you can combine the lens with a 1.4x or a 2x teleconverter to extend the effective focal length, albeit at a loss of 1 and 2 stops of light. However, the ability to extend the focal length means you can use the same lens in several shooting situations.
Another use case for super telephoto lenses is in sports photography. Sports photographers, such as those shooting field- or action sports, have to maintain a safe distance between themselves and their subjects and thus need a longer focal length. With a longer lens, you can achieve a greater reach that provides you with a closer view of the action from a secure distance.
Wide-angle lenses, as the name suggests, are designed to capture a broader perspective of the scene in front of the lens. This is ideal for capturing landscapes, group shots, interiors, and other moments where a broader perspective is necessary.
Wide-angle lenses can push the background back, which has the effect of making things appear smaller than they are. On the other hand, if there are objects that are closer to the lens, they will appear larger and often distorted.
Wide-angle lenses can potentially distort facial features, making them an unpopular choice for typical portrait photography. As a photographer using a wide-angle lens, you have to be careful about where you place your subject in the frame. Wide-angle lenses tend to distort anything that’s at the periphery or edges of the frame.
Does that mean you can’t use wide-angle lenses for portraits?
No, you can, but you have to employ a few safeguards.
The wider the lens, the greater the amount of distortion you will get. When working with wide-angle lenses, you have to keep in mind to place your subject near the center of the frame and not bring the lens too close to the subject.
The Best Use Case for Wide-Angle Lenses:
Landscape photography is one of the best use cases for wide-angle lenses. However, there are several other genres where wide-angle lenses are applicable – weddings, group shots, real estate, interiors, etc.
Macro lenses are designed to capture larger magnification while being able to shoot from a close distance. They have an extremely close focusing distance, which allows you to capture larger-than-life pictures.
Many lenses on the market are labeled as macro. However, not all of them are true macro lenses. To be a true macro lens, a lens must be capable of capturing a life-sized image of a subject on the image sensor.
In other words, it must be able to capture an image that’s the same size as the subject in real life. If this is what you are hoping to achieve, look for the term “1:1” when searching for macro lenses.
Now, as you may have realized, these lenses are ideally suited for capturing images of small subjects and then magnifying them to make them appear larger.
You can capture images of insects in the garden, extreme close-up shots of flowers, wedding rings, intricate details of embroidery on a dress, and so on. Macro lenses open up a completely new world of photography.
Macro lenses almost always have a fixed focal length, meaning they’re prime lenses.
Macro lenses are extremely sharp across the frame – a big reason why these lenses are also used for other photography genres, including portraits and fashion.
Some of the popular macro lenses include:
- Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM
- Nikon AF-S VR Micro-NIKKOR 105mm f/2.8G IF-ED
- Sigma 105mm f/2.8 EX DG OS HSM Macro
If you’re looking for inexpensive APS-C lenses, then the Nikon AF-S DX Micro NIKKOR 40mm f/2.8G is a good option for f-mount Nikon DX-format cameras.
The IRIX 150mm f/2.8 Macro is a particularly popular lens in this segment that comes in several iterations suitable for different camera mounts.
The Best Use Case for Macro Lenses:
Macro lenses are ideal for shooting close-ups of bugs and critters, product photos, and details of small items like machine parts, watches, or embroidery. These lenses are also suitable for general-purpose use such as portraits and everyday photography.
Fisheye lenses offer an extremely wide angle of view, accompanied by significant visual distortion due to their design. These lenses differ from standard rectilinear lenses. With rectilinear lenses, straight lines appear straight, and there are very few, if any, visual distortions. However, some lenses do exhibit unwanted signs of barrel and pincushion distortions. Fisheye lenses, however, are renowned for their substantial distortions and “curved” images.
What Is the Standard Angle of View for Fisheye Lenses?
The standard angle of view for fisheye lenses ranges between 100 degrees and 180 degrees.
The Canon EF 8-15mm f/4L Fisheye USM offers an angle of view from 180° to 175° 30′, which is exceptionally wide.
The Rokinon 8mm F/3.5 Fisheye is a dedicated APS-C lens available for both Nikon and Canon camera systems.
Why Would Someone Use Fisheye Lenses?
The primary reason is that fisheye lenses offer an angle of view unlike anything you’ve used before. The pronounced distortion makes ordinary subjects appear extraordinary and provides a completely different perspective. If you’ve seen images of stadiums, events, and rooms where photographers have employed a fisheye lens to capture an extreme angle of view, you understand the implication here.
However, some photographers don’t appreciate fisheye lenses precisely for the unique quality they bring. Some photographers dislike the oddly distorted edges and rounded features of straight lines that these lenses produce.
Fisheye lenses are undoubtedly an acquired taste—and they may never grow on photographers who strive to capture reality perfectly. Some creatives, however, love the rounded curvilinear effect that enables them to capture distinctive perspectives, such as urban landscapes, interiors, and event spaces.
The Best Use Case for Fisheye Lenses:
The best use cases for fisheye lenses include event photography, urban landscapes, and interiors. They likely won’t be of value for genres where accurate recreation is of the essence, such as in wedding photography.