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Guide to Camera Lenses for Beginner Photographers

February 01, 2021

Guide to Camera Lenses for Beginner Photographers

Maybe you’re an amateur photographer looking to upgrade, or maybe you’re looking for a way to make your photos stand out from the more than 95 million posted every day on Instagram, but you don’t know where to start. One option is to update your equipment. 

The huge array of available cameras and lenses can make such a purchase feel daunting. Although most people use digital cameras today, the main components of a single-lens reflex (SLR) are the same whether you’re shooting with a film camera or digital. SLR cameras have a single lens and reflex mirror that bends the light path to the optical viewfinder for framing. This brief and basic guide to the camera lens is a good place to begin your quest for taking great photos. 

What Does mm Mean in Lenses? 

Focal Length: Millimeters measure the distance from the center of the lens to the sensor when your subject is in focus. The lower the number, the wider the shot. The higher the number, the longer the zoom. Wide-angle focal lengths of 14mm, 20mm, 24mm, 28mm, and 35mm enable getting more in your shot, e.g. a sweeping landscape. While telephoto lenses have less depth of field but are excellent when you need to capture details from afar, e.g. shooting sporting events or close-ups. 

Other Key Camera Lens Terms 

Aperture: This is the circular-shaped hole in a camera lens that appears when the shutter opens. The aperture controls how much light enters the lens. A large aperture is an opening with a relatively wide diameter vs. a small aperture with a short diameter opening. In digital photography, aperture works in concert with the camera shutter speed, ISO, and image resolution to determine picture quality. 

F-Stop: The important aspect of aperture you need to remember when shooting pictures is the f-stop. F-stop numbers aren’t uniform across all lenses. The smallest number f1.4 allows the most light in and is best for dark settings like shooting at dusk, while the largest number f 32 allows in virtually no light and might be used outdoors in the blazing sun. The most common f-stops fall between f2 and f16. 

Depth of Field: This is the distance between the foreground, subject, and background, or in simple terms, the degree to which an image is in focus. For example, with landscapes, you would use lens apertures or f-stops such as f11 or f16 to keep everything in focus. 

Types of Camera Lenses 

Prime Lens 

A prime lens is a fixed focal length that doesn’t allow zooming in or out. Most digital SLR cameras (DSLRs) come with a zoom lens, while film cameras typically come with a prime lens. A prime lens allows shooting at a fast/wide-open aperture and a more shallow depth of field. Shooting wide-open with a small depth of field isolates the subject from its surroundings. The closer the lens is to the subject, the softer the foreground/background, which can produce a nice effect. A 50mm lens is a popular fixed lens focal length that allows atmospheric depth of field with a dream-like background, as well as sharper and crisper photos than a zoom lens. 

Zoom Lens 

As mentioned, many DSLR cameras come standard with a zoom lens. The term is often used synonymously with telephoto lenses. Zoom lenses often encompass a short (wide-angle) to long (telephoto) focal length, while traditional telephoto lenses are only a fixed long focal length. 

This type of lens is perfect for taking action photos from the bleachers of your child’s baseball game or close-ups of animals at the zoo. The main disadvantage is that with a variable f-stop range, you lose the capability to allow more light into the lens when you zoom in closer. More expensive zoom lenses with a fixed f-stop are available if you don’t want to lose any depth of field or light. An 18-200mm with a fixed f2.8 lens could set you back $400 to $1000. 

Telephoto Lens 

Available in different focal lengths from 85mm to 1200mm, this type of lens allows you to photograph subjects from a distance. Most amateur photographers won’t need a lens greater than 200mm. This type of lens is an absolute necessity if you take shots of wildlife. If you watch sporting events on television (e.g. tennis tournaments), you’ve likely noticed all the photographers with enormous telephoto lenses on their cameras. 

Other Considerations - Image Stabilization and Lens Mount 

Today, many good quality lenses come with image stabilization to compensate for shaking when hand holding your camera. This allows using slower shutter speeds in dimly lit situations to prevent blurriness. The lens mount is the connection between the lens and the camera body. In most cases, lenses will only fit on cameras made by the same company (e.g. Canon), although you can buy a  DSLR lens compatible with many models. 

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