Thursday, March 12, 2009

camera lenses - a primer

I've heard from many seasoned photographers that the lens is the most important purchase any of us budding photographers make - even more important perhaps than the camera body itself. With that being said, it's probably time we discussed camera lenses. Keep in mind this is a PRIMER - I just want to review the basics with you, but if you have any questions or would like to start a discussion about a particular lens, leave a comment and let me know.

Most of us purchased a camera with a "kit lens" (or at least that's what they called it at the store I frequented in Berkeley). Your run-of-the-mill standard lens is usually 50mm for film SLRs and approximately 35mm for digital - this is regarded as "standard" or "normal" because the image a 50mm lens makes is very close to what we see with our eyes. (The reason for the different numbers between film and digital is due to the different field of view - generally speaking the sensor in a digital camera is smaller than a single negative of 35mm film. Click here for a more detailed explanation).

So now that a "normal" lens has been established, let's talk about some other lenses. This chart illustrates the amount of area in front of your camera at various focal lengths.

Wide Angle:

Wide angle provides a greater field of vision than what our eyes see. There are, generally speaking, 3 types of wide angle lenses (note these are film focal lengths - these will vary with digital lenses):

24 mm - 35 mm Wide-Angle
17 mm - 21 mm Ultra Wide-Angle
6 mm - 15 mm Fisheye

Wide angle is great for landscape photography, or for photographs in small, enclosed spaces.

Long Focus/Telephoto Lenses:

Long Focus/Telephoto lenses are any lens with a focal length longer than normal (i.e. 50mm). FYI, the difference between a "long focus" and a "telephoto" lens? A lens that is shorter than it's focal length is considered "telephoto." Generally speaking this fun fact is not really that important - just thought I'd share.

Telephoto lenses are used to photograph objects at a distance, such as wildlife photography. I have a 50-150mm digital lens that I also use to photograph kids at play, so I can get shots of their little faces without me standing directly in their face.

Portrait lenses:

Portrait lenses are usually between 85mm to 115mm. Most articles/blogs I've read discussing portraits find this focal length to be the most flattering for portrait pictures. I recently purchased a 50mm fixed focal length digital lens just for portraits - still learning how to use it, but so far I really love the portraits I've taken with it!

Here's a nifty chart to help you visualize various focal lengths.

And for reviews of various lenses, check out Digital Photography Review. Anyone shopping for camera lenses knows that these suckers aren't cheap, so make sure you do your homework before plunking down some cash for one.

Happy shopping!


Patti March 12, 2009 at 3:59 PM  

Hi Melissa!

I'm in the market for a very low aperture - 1.8 or so - lens for my nikon. Do you have any suggestions?


Melissa Brandman March 13, 2009 at 7:19 AM  

I just bought the Nikkor 50mm/1.4 and I LOVE it. If you've seen the pics I took at Kensington's birthday party (family pics and cake pics) those were with this lens.

Can't say I did a ton of research - mostly asked friends of mine and a little internet research. But so far I'm pretty happy. Kind of pricey but if you're taking a lot of portrait shots I think it's worth it.

Mel August 16, 2009 at 4:51 AM  

Ooooh! I know this in an older post, but I just saw the words Nikon 50m 1.4....I just bought one and it's the new love of my life!