Photography 101: The Lens Game

The hardest part of moving into the SLR/DSLR arena is what to get for a lens. There are so many choices, each crammed with numbers and abbreviations to cause more confusion than reading a Sun Tzu book. Let’s dive into what makes a lens a Fast Super Zoom Image Stabilized piece of work worthy of your money.

Wide-angle Lenses – These lenses take in great amounts of subject matter. Wide-angle lenses often come in the small millimeter ranges. Think anything from 1mm – 50mm. You may use a wide-angle lens to capture a vast amount of beachfront, or capture a whole city skyline. These lenses are also great for close-up shots in which you want to bring in a lot of surrounding details. Like a doorbell surrounded by grungy brickwork.

Standard Lenses – This lens type still takes in a vast amount of detail, but this amount is much less than a wide-angle. The focal length on these types of lenses often sits in the 50mm – 55mm range. Keep in mind that standard lenses are more a term you heard back in the film days, these lenses are still usable, and enjoyed, today.

Telephoto Lenses – Telephoto lenses are like having a small telescope mounted to your camera. These lenses usually start at the 70mm range and can work all the way up to a 1200mm lens that looks like a small cannon (ironically Cannon is the one that made this 1200mm beast). Telephoto lenses take in less subject matter, but are great for bringing far away objects up close. Many wildlife and sports photographers use this type of lenses.

Prime Lenses – Prime lenses are one set focal point lens. If you want a good workout, then this is the lens for you. A prime is often denoted by a simple focal length like 50mm. These are great lenses as they can provide super sharp, detail rich photos, but the focusing mechanism is your body. If you are willing to move around, these lenses are a great addition to your bag of gear.

Super Zoom Lenses – Now we are getting into the melding of lens types. Super zoom lenses are those lenses that cover great focal lengths. An example is the Nikon 28mm – 300mm lens. This lens gets you a decent wide angle, and zooms in with the power of a telephoto lens. While these make great all around lenses, they should be used with a bit of caution. The mathematics to make these lenses work is terribly complex, and that complexity often leads to undesirable results at one, or both ends of the focal spectrum. You may get barrel distortion at the 28mm side, while sharpness tanks at the 300mm side. These are great lenses, but they do come with their own complexities that need to be researched before you buy.

Macro Lenses – Those who want to get up close and personal with their subject will want to consider a macro lens. These lenses allow you to zoom in on subjects like a tiny ant, or the rust texture that covers an old car. Macro lenses come in various focal points. If you are going to get close to a hornet, you may want a 105mm macro lens. Those who shoot macros of flowers maybe pleased with a 60mm. Knowing what you plan to shoot will help you determine what is best for you.

Fish-eye Lenses – These lenses are the device that captures that fun bubble like photos. These photos are those that look like they were shot off one of those half-circle security mirrors. Fish-eye lenses are often the widest end of the wide-angle lens spectrum. Think 8mm – 10mm here. These lenses provide a great bit of drama.

Tilt-shift Lenses – These lenses can be very complicated when you first look at them. The mechanics of these lenses allow you to move the lens around even when it is mounted to your camera. These lenses provide several benefits, but two benefits stand out the most. The first benefit is to make lines nice and straight. Photographing architecture, fence posts, and Lightsabers all benefit greatly from having nice straight lines. The second benefit, which has become very popular as of late, is fake miniaturization. Any photo that people look like toys, cars resemble hot wheels, or planes look like they need an RC controller, has most likely all come from a tilt shift lens.

Kit Lenses – You may hear of people referring to a kit lens. These lenses are simply the lenses that are included with a camera. When you buy an SLR/DSLR, you may be given two prices. One is a body only price, and is often a reduced cost. The second is a body and lens combination. Kit lenses are great to get people started in photography.

IS/VR – IS = Image Stabilization, VR = Vibration Reduction. These are systems in the lenses themselves to help reduce shake/vibration. They help keep things like your breathing from affecting a photo. These systems also help you shoot without a tripod in low-light situations. Do keep in mind that these are not ever going to replace a solid tripod, but can be very beneficial to those folks who like to shoot tripod free.

Lens mount – Sadly, every camera manufacturer has their own way of attaching a lens to the camera body. This means you won’t be buying a Pentax lens and putting it on a Cannon body. Yes, this sucks as there are great lenses that only show up on one manufacturer that is not your chosen brand.

Fast lenses – When someone calls a lens fast, often this is referring to the aperture setting of that lens. An aperture like f/1.4 or f/2.8 is considered a fast lens, with f/2.8 being the slower number of the two examples. The reason for this is that these apertures allow in copious amounts of light, which can help drive shutter speeds to drastically quick fractions of a second. Fast lenses are key to stopping motion.

Price – Lenses range so much in price it can drive you mad. You can find a lens for as little as $50 to as much as a small castle. You may think that a lens that goes from 28mm – 300mm would cost more than something stuck at 50mm would, but there in lies the hitch to all of this. Photographers often say get the best glass you can, and this is where the price finds its driving factor. Good optics, solid lenses enclosures, and various glass coatings all go into making lenses. If the 28mm – 300mm is using cheap glass, poor construction, then the price should reflect this lower quality setting.

How do you put all this stuff together? The best I can offer you is this. Start out small and cheap while you learn. There are plenty of options online that will allow you to rent a lens that costs a small fortune. This has been a lifesaver for me as I grow and develop. I will rent a lens I am contemplating purchasing and give it a spin for a week. This allows me to see how the photos turn out, find the nuances, and decide for myself if the lens is worth my slaved over dollar.

These are just a few of the basics. The key to any lens is research. You know how and what you enjoy photographing. Use a lens that caters to the things you love to shoot. This will keep you growing in your trade instead of constantly fighting your tools.

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