For beginning photographers, picking the right lens for each shooting situation can seem like a daunting challenge. Particularly when thinking about buying that very first additional lens, this can seem very confusing if you’ve never had the opportunity to look, compose and shoot through a wide variety of lens choices. How do you know where to start? We’ll answer these questions here and give you a good basic understanding of how different lenses will affect your results.
First, some definitions.
Normal lens. Back in the day(pre-digi), when you bought a 35mm still camera, it usually came with a cheap 50mm lens attached to it. (Now of course, when you buy a digital DSLR, it’ll come with a cheapo wide-angle-to-normal zoom lens attached.) That 50mm lens was and still is considered a ‘normal’ lens for 35mm cameras, and by extension, our current generation of DSLR’s. What do they mean by ‘normal’? Well, simplistically speaking, looking through it and shooting is supposed to generate something akin to what the average human sees when looking around: you’ll get a photo that roughly correlates with the reality in front of you. (I don’t actually find that my eyes and brain work that way, something I’ve referred to in a post on panorama photography, but that’s another story.)
Wide Angle Lens. Anything with a wider field of view than the just-mentioned 50mm is considered a wide angle lens. For me, it’s really anything wider than a 35mm lens. So your 18-55mm zoom would qualify, as would a 16-35mm f2.8 piece of Canon glass or a 17-55mm f2.8 Nikkor. If it can display and shoot wider than the field of view generated by the 50mm, it’s a wide angle.
Telephoto Lens. Everything with a tighter field of view, ‘telescopic’ in perspective, is considered a telephoto. So this includes all sorts of zooms and expensive ‘long’ lenses, like the Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS USM Super Telephoto Lens , the favorite of sports photographers shooting NFL football.
But you knew all of this already didn’t you? You want to know from a practical sense how these different optics will affect your results, right? So we’ll do exactly that. What follows are three photographs of the same subject (which has appeared elsewhere on The Discerning Photographer, I keep using him because he doesn’t talk back and will stay still for me). The subject is roughly the same size in each composition and is placed in the same position within the frame. But as you’ll see, lens selection has a tremendous effect upon the results we will achieve.
In this first image, I’ve shot my red chicken with my Canon 16-35mm f2.8 zoom wide open at 16mm, 1/200th sec @ f2.8. Due to my closeness to the subject, there is noticeable distortion to the figure and although not in focus, the wide angle field of view generates lots of background detail, even at f2.8 aperture.
Second image. This was shot at 35mm, the other ‘end’ of this zoom lens. Notice the change in the background perspective and the lack of distortion in the bird.
Third image. I’ve switched to my 70-200mm f2.8 Canon zoom now. Zoomed all the way to 200mm, shot at the same exposure of 1/200th sec @f2.8 aperture. Now the bird stands completely alone, isolated by the totally-out-of-focus background. This photograph bears almost no resemblance to the 16mm version, even though they are both of the exact same subject!
So there you have it in a nutshell. Your choice of focal length has a huge impact upon your results!
So when thinking about making that first additional lens purchase, think long and hard about the sort of photography you like to do. What sort of lens should you buy first? Are you interested in landscapes, details, sports? Study the images from talented photographers you admire. What sort of lens was used to achieve the result you find attractive? The answers to these questions will help you sort out your purchase decision.
Hi, I’m Andrew Boyd, a.k.a. The Discerning Photographer, and I hope this post has been interesting and informative. Please leave me a comment about it, let me know what you’d like to see more of on the site! You can also sign up for email delivery of all future articles or my RSS feed. Thanks!–DiscerningPhotog