Do you know the difference between a Zoom lens and a Telephoto Lens? If you have ever wondered what all the different types of camera lenses are, then here is the complete guide you must read!
Below, we will cover all types of camera lenses: zooms, primes, telephoto, wide-angle, etc. We will also dive into more specialized and obscure lenses, such as tilt-shift lenses, macro lenses, and others.
Understanding these terms will help you match your biggest investments in camera gear with your style of photography, your favorite subjects, and of course your budget! With that said, let’s dive in.
What Is a Prime Lens?
A prime lens is one of the most simple types of camera lenses: It is a single focal length, meaning, it does not zoom in or out. Depending on the exact focal length of the lens, it will give a specific angle of view. This means that if you want to fit more into your picture, you have to physically back up! Or, as some photographers call it, you must “zoom with your feet” and walk/move closer to a subject if you want it to fill the frame.
Photographers choose prime lenses over other types of camera lenses for many different reasons. One simple reason is that, without the ability to zoom, using a prime lens really forces you to think carefully about the framing and composition of every photo you take. This can be a setback at times, but it can also encourage creativity. Some of the most common prime lenses are 50mm, 35mm, and 85mm.
Other photographers may choose a prime lens because it is capable of having a faster, brighter aperture. This allows easier shooting in low light, faster shutter speeds, or increased background blur, AKA bokeh. Last but not least, one of my own favorite reasons for choosing a prime lens is its size. It’s usually just really small, lightweight, and portable!
Types of Camera Lenses: What Is a Zoom Lens?
A zoom lens, as you might guess, can zoom in and out, which means it varies its focal length. This allows you to zoom in on a subject and fill your image frame with it, or zoom out to add more of the surroundings to the frame.
There are different types of zooms, though. There are wide-angle zooms, normal zooms, and telephoto zooms, to name the three main categories. With a telephoto zoom, as you might imagine, zooming “out” doesn’t give you much of a wide-angle view. The opposite is true for a wide-angle zoom.
Zoom lenses are useful mainly because they are more versatile than other types of camera lenses like prime lenses. You can frame all kinds of compositions from the same spot, and/or you don’t have to change lenses! In some photography conditions where you are unable to move around, this is absolutely essential. In other photography conditions, where maybe you have plenty of time to change lenses, having a zoom is less critical.
Generally speaking, zoom lenses are also rather large, heavy, and expensive compared to prime lenses of relatively equal quality. There are some zoom lenses that are small and compact, but they usually have rather slow apertures and limited zoom ranges. Other zoom lenses that have extremely fast apertures may cost a lot of money and be extremely heavy.
What Is a Superzoom?
One special type of zoom lens is called a “superzoom”. These types of camera lenses get such a name because they have an impressive zoom range or zoom ratio. (More on this next!) Usually, superzooms offer both wide-angle and telephoto focal lengths, such as 24-200mm.
The drawback of a superzoom is that such optics are usually not perfect at one or more focal lengths. For example, the lens may be very sharp at its wide-angle half, but a little soft when used at its telephoto range. Also, they usually have relatively dark, slow apertures.
Modern technology has largely overcome the first drawback, and some new superzooms are very sharp throughout their whole zoom range. They still have rather slow apertures, though, and they get slower as you zoom in, such as f/4.5 at the wide-angle end and f/7.1 at the telephoto end.
What Is Zoom Ratio?
Photographers may refer to zoom lenses as a “3X” zoom, or a “10X” zoom. What does this mean? It’s a simple calculation of the zoom range. For example, a 50-100mm zoom would be a 2X zoom, just like a 100-200mm zoom lens, or a 200-400mm zoom lens. Even though the focal lengths are very different, the “magnification” of that focal range is the same.
Speaking of which, in case you’re wondering, a superzoom usually has a zoom range around 8-10X, such as 24-200mm or 24-240mm lens.
We’ll talk more about actual magnification later when we get to macro lenses, but “X zoom” is not to be confused with that type of spec.
Types of Camera Lenses: Primes VS Zooms
And now for the decision. “Should I buy a prime or a zoom? Which is better?” The “right” answer is a highly debated subject for many photographers. Thankfully, there is no right answer! This decision is made based on the type of photography you do, as well as your own unique creative style. Other factors include your budget or even how strong your arms and wrists are.
Prime lenses do have some advantages for certain subjects because they can offer faster apertures which allow for brighter exposures in extremely dark conditions, as well as shallow depth for things like portrait photography.
Zoom lenses are excellent for anything where versatility comes in handy, whether it is a restriction on your vantage point or a fast-paced situation where changing lenses isn’t an option.
Types of Camera Lenses: What Is a Telephoto Lens?
A telephoto lens is any lens, prime or zoom, that has a longer focal length such as 100mm, 200mm, 400mm, etc. A telephoto lens is very useful for photographing far-away subjects that you simply cannot get any closer to.
It could be a moonrise over a distant landscape or an action sports game where you are stuck on the sidelines. Or, of course, telephoto lenses are immensely useful for any type of wildlife photography where the animal is either unsafe to approach, or just too elusive and shy.
Common telephoto focal lengths are zooms such as 70-200mm, 70-300mm, or 100-400mm. Many primes exist covering virtually every telephoto focal length, too.
Telephoto VS Super-telephoto
While any lens that is 85mm or longer is considered a telephoto lens, some telephoto lenses also fall into the category of “super-telephoto.” This is a more vague term that is a little bit subjective. However, most photographers consider 300mm to 400mm to be the transition zone from telephoto to super-telephoto.
Super-telephoto lenses often reach 600mm or 800mm. Some truly exotic ones reach 1000mm or 1200mm!
Zoom Lenses Are Not Telephoto Lenses!
There’s one important thing to clear up. Some photographers may hear the term “zoom” and think it implies zooming in on your subject. Therefore, there might be confusion that a zoom lens is a telephoto lens.
As you’ve already learned, though, there are many types of camera lenses, and many types of zooms. Not all of them reach telephoto focal lengths! So, keep this in mind when you are talking about lenses to anyone who might not be familiar with photography terminology.
What Is a Wide-Angle Lens?
A wide-angle lens is any lens, prime, zoom, or other, that offers a very wide angle of view. This allows you to include a lot in your frame. Wide-angle lenses work great for landscapes and any type of scenic view. Also, these types of camera lenses can be very handy when you are indoors and want to include a whole scene but cannot just back up.
Common wide angles include 24mm and 14mm for prime lenses, or, 14-24mm, 16-35mm, or 17-28mm for zooms. In comparison, the least-wide wide-angle lens would be somewhere around 35mm.
Wide-Angle, Ultra-Wide, …Super-Ultra-Wide?
Just like how some telephoto lenses can also be labeled as super-telephoto lenses, some wide-angle lenses may be called “ultra-wide.” This is once again a slightly subjective descriptive term, but anything wider than 20mm is usually considered ultra-wide, and anything wider than 14mm might be called super-ultra-wide. You can just call them all wide-angle lenses, though!
Types of Camera Lenses: What Is a Normal Lens?
A “normal” lens is any type of lens that has a focal length in the middle zone between wide and telephoto. Usually, this is a simple 50mm prime. However, a “normal zoom” or standard zoom is one that has 50mm as its approximate middle between wide and tele, such as a 24-70mm zoom lens.
Less common prime lenses such as 40mm and 60mm are also classified as normal or standard focal lengths. Any lens within this range makes a great tool for general photography because the angle of view feels “normal” to the human eye. You may have to do a lot of “zooming with your feet,” but the results can be very creative.
Other Types Of Camera Lenses
Wide, normal, and telephoto are categories that literally all types of lenses can be a part of. However, there are still many other types of lenses that fall into these main categories! Let’s dive into those now, with the understanding that each of these camera lenses is still one of the above categories…
A crop-sensor lens is any lens that is designed to optically “fit” an image onto a sensor smaller than the standard of “full-frame” which is based on the 35mm film standard frame size.
There are many different size sensors, and therefore, different types of lenses are made to suit them perfectly. The main two are APS-C and Micro Four Thirds.
For example, if you mount any 50mm lens on a full-frame camera, it usually gives a 46.8-degree angle of view. However, if you mount the same 50mm lens on an APS-C crop-sensor camera, its smaller sensor will result in a 1.5x “crop” of the resulting image, equivalent to a 31.4-degree angle of view. This is about the same as a 75mm lens, hence the “1.5X” crop.
If you like the perspective/angle you get from that 50mm on full-frame, however, you might instead want to use a 35mm lens, which when cropped by 1.5x, gives a similar angle of view, 43.8 degrees.
Note, both a full-frame 35mm lens and a crop-sensor 35mm lens would give this same angle of view. The difference is, the crop-sensor 35mm lens creates an optical image that is only big enough to cover the crop sensor. In other words, you can’t mount a crop-sensor lens on a full-frame camera unless you crop its image down to the APS-C size too.
For more info about crop-sensors VS full-frame, read this article here.
A macro lens is any lens that allows you to get really close to a small subject. A “dedicated” macro lens usually has so enough up-close focusing capability that it can “magnify” a subject to 1X magnification on the image sensor. This means, for example, a tiny bug that is only 5mm long in real life would actually be rendered as 5mm long in the optical image on the physical sensor.
Other lenses truly do magnify a subject to be larger than life, reaching 2X magnification and beyond. Meanwhile, many lenses have “macro” in their name, but they don’t actually magnify a subject to dedicated macro reproduction, they are often just 0.5X or 0.3X magnification. This is still useful for many types of photography.
Types of Camera Lenses: Macro Lens Magnification VS Reproduction
This is covered in-depth in our complete article about macro lenses here, but macro lenses have two important measurements that are actually the same thing: magnification, and reproduction ratio.
The magnification of a macro lens is stated as “1X” or “2X”, and the reproduction ratio is stated as “1:1” or “2:1”. The latter of each means the same thing: the subject is magnified to twice its actual size.
A tilt-shift lens, or just a shift lens, is one of the more highly specialized types of camera lenses that is mostly useful for architectural, real estate, and landscape photography. This article covers these lenses in greater detail.
The basic concepts are these: the tilt function is used to change the angle of the plane of focus, to more easily focus on surfaces that are at a different angle from the camera. A shift lens allows a photographer to change the angle of their composition (up, down, left, right) while avoiding the common perspective distortion of parallel lines “leaning” one way or another.
Cinema lenses are basically any lens, whether prime, zoom, tele, wide, etc, that is physically built to suit videography instead of photography. Cine lenses often have mechanical aperture control that is seamless and smooth, and sometimes have physical gears for control by an accessory knob or motor. Also, cine lenses can have other features such as power zooming for smooth, steady zooming. Last but not least,
Types Of Camera Lenses | Conclusion
Did you make it all the way through this article without losing track of all the numbers and different types of camera lenses? Congratulations! You now understand virtually every type of camera lens in existence.
If any one type of lens piqued your interest, then you should definitely check one of them out! If you are merely curious about a new genre of photography, such as macro photography or super-telephoto wildlife photography, I highly recommend simply renting or borrowing a dedicated lens, before you dive in and spend a lot of money on a specialized lens.
Leave a comment below with your own stories about your journey in choosing the right lens for the type of photography you do, whether it is prime VS zoom, wide-angle VS telephoto, etc!