If you’re the owner of a new digital SLR or mirrorless camera with changeable lenses, you can better tailor your photography to your subject by changing lens. Though there’s no photographic rulebook when it comes to focal length and aperture, there are a few best practices to remember.

If you’re looking to improve your photography skills, it pays to know how to get the most out of your equipment. Here are five examples of common photo lens, what they’re good for and when you should use them.

The Basics

Before we get into the different kinds of lenses, it pays to know a bit about what makes them so different. The most basic measurement that differs betwen lenses is focal length, represented in millimeters and often in a range, like “50-200mm.”

The focal length is essentially the zoom level of the lens (you can see how a different focal length affects images with one of these online DSLR simulators). A 300mm lens will make far-away subjects appear a lot closer than a 24mm lens. A lens with a range of focal lengths (e.g. 18-55mm) is a zoom lens, and these are frequently bundled with entry level cameras.

In the image below, you can see four lenses with different focal lengths (if they look a bit strange, it’s probably because their lens hoods are flipped backwards for storage).

camera-lenses-various

Although it’s not an exact calculation, the equivalent focal length to what the human eye can perceive is about 50mm on a full-frame camera and 27mm on a Nikon APS-C or equivalent sensor. This means that what you can see through a lens at this focal length is approximately what you’d see if you were looking at the scene with a naked eye.

It’s important to remember that the size of the sensor of your camera can make a big difference in actual focal length.

Wide Angle Lens

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A wide angle lens is basically a “far zoomed out” lens; it can capture more of the scene than the human eye can focus on. A typical wide-angle lens has a focal length of 24-35mm. Ultra-wide-angle lenses, which capture even more of a scene, have very short focal lengths of 24mm or less.

Because of the very wide viewing angle of these types of lenses, straight lines near the edges of the picture can end up looking curved. Rectilinear lenses correct for this, creating straighter lines, but cause some interesting perspective shifts: the objects near the edges of the picture appear quite a bit larger than those further away. Fisheye lenses increase the curve of straight lines, result in very distinctive pictures.

milky-way-wide-angle

Using this type of lens often results in pictures that draw attention to the “bigness” of the scene that’s captured by making the horizon seem further away. Wide angles are great for photographing many types of landscapes; when you want to evoke a sense of wonder at the size of the scene from your viewer, you should reach for a wide angle. To get the best effect, it’s good to have something in the foreground to anchor the picture and give the viewer something to focus on (in the photo above, the trees serve as the anchor).

You can also use wide-angles for cool effects with smaller objects that you’re much closer to. For example, photographing a field of wildflowers with a wide angle lens will highlight the flowers in the foreground by making them larger than the ones in the background, but still capturing the overall effect of the entire field. Using a rectilinear lens (or adjusting for the distortion in post-processing) will keep these images from looking distorted around the edges.

It can take some time to get used to the perspective shifts and straight-line distortion of a wide angle lens, so if you decide to start using one, it’s a great idea to practice using it in different situations to see how it performs differently.

Standard “Kit” Lens

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When you bought a DSLR or an interchangeable-lens camera as a beginner photographer, it almost certainly came with a standard “kit” lens. These lenses are very versatile, and have focal lengths between 35 and 70mm (on my Nikon, because of the smaller sensor, the standard lens is 18-55mm). As you might have surmised, the standard lens is among the easiest to use, as it provides a similar viewing angle to the human eye.

wine-glasses-standard-lens

Whether you’re going for landscapes, portraits, action photos, urban shoots, or anything else you might come up with, a standard lens will work. They work best for subjects at close-to-medium distance, when you don’t need to zoom in on something far away or get super close to a small object. These lenses are designed to be versatile, which is why they are included with most cameras as a “kit” lens.

One of the best times to use a standard lens is when you’re travelling; because it’s such a well-rounded lens, you can carry it and maybe one other lens instead of bringing two or three extra.

Telephoto and Superzoom

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Telephoto lenses have a focal length of over 70mm, and are designed to get you as close to a far-away subject as possible. Superzooms are similar to telephoto lenses, but they offer a wide range of focal lengths. For example, the second lens I bought for my camera was a 55-200mm superzoom. You can get even wider ranges, like 55-300mm, but with added versatility comes added cost.

tiger-telephoto

Telephoto and superzoom lenses are best for when you want to get close to a distant subject. It could be building on the horizon that you can’t see very well with a standard lens, or a face in a crowd you want to isolate. It could be an animal that you can’t get close to, as in the image above.

Your subject doesn’t have to be really far away. If you’re trying to craft an image that’s filled by the subject, a telephoto or superzoom can help you get a picture that makes the viewer feel very close to the subject. Shorter telephoto lenses can be great for portraits, as they tend to make your subject really stand out from the background of the photo, as well.

Macro

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Macro lenses are specialized lenses that excel at close-up photography and many of them produce a 1:1 image, which means that your subject is reproduced on the camera sensor at life-size which allows for huge amounts of detail. Many photographs of flowers, insects, and other small objects are taken using macro lenses, though they can be used in other situations as well.

flower-macro-lens

While flowers and insects make up a significant portion of macro photography, getting close to anything makes for fascinating images. Coins, old mechanical parts, wood, and everyday mundane objects like your keys or a glass of water can become huge landscapes with textures and patterns that you never noticed before. Macro lenses also excel at creating images with a shallow depth of field, leaving only the foreground in focus, as in the image above.

If you want to draw attention to the magic of the ordinary, a macro lens is the way to do it. It’s worth noting that, while a macro lens will give you the best results for this type of photography, it’s possible to take these pictures without a macro lens, as the Poor Man’s Macro group on flickr shows. Learning Photography? Join 8 Flickr Groups For Eye-Opening Lessons Learning Photography? Join 8 Flickr Groups For Eye-Opening Lessons Flickr has been a home for serious photographers, and you will find the best clustered around Flickr Groups. Flickr remains the old watering hole for great photographs and tips on how to take them.

Prime Lenses

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A prime lens is the opposite of a zoom lens: it has a single focal length. You can get prime lenses in any focal length, from ultra-wide angle to telephoto. With the ready availability of zoom lenses in any focal length, it might seem like a technological step backward to use a prime lens, but there are some distinct advantages.

For example, because they have fewer moving parts, prime lenses often produce higher-quality images that come out extremely clear, which makes them popular for portraiture. Another big advantage is that they often have faster apertures, meaning that they can capture better images in low-light or non-optimally lit situations, making them good for night and sports photography. And, of course, no moving parts means that they can be quite a bit cheaper than zoom lenses.

hotel-night-photography

Of course, using a prime lens means that you lose the ability to zoom. You can think of this as a disadvantage, but many photographers believe that the need to “zoom with your feet” will make you a better photographer, as you need to learn to best position yourself and the camera to get your shots.

When should you use a prime lens? Anytime you want to get a sharp, high-quality picture. Portraits, night photos, and action shots are some traditional uses for primes, but a range of focal lengths (from 10mm up to 300mm and beyond) means you can find a prime lens for any type of photography that you’re interested in. 50mm “nifty fifty” primes are great all-around lenses, and 85mm are often the preferred portrait lenses for professional photographers (though not so great for self-portraits).

Rules Are Made to Be Broken

Of course, what makes photography so fun is that you can impart your own style onto anything that you’re working with — you can use these lenses for the purposes that they’re recommended for, but you can always branch out. You can use a standard lens for portraits, or you can use a telephoto to play with the perspective. Or you could use an ultra-wide angle to capture the same scene and see what happens. Check out how  professional photographers use their selection of lenses for ideas.

Experiment! Have fun with it find out what makes your personal style unique.

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