Because they know about my avid interest, friends and family are often asking me for photography advice. Sometimes their questions are about styles or camera features, but far and away the most common question asked of me is, “What kind of lens should I get?” I always respond to this question with the same answer: a shrug and “What do you want to take pictures of?” While this may seem like a vague and unhelpful response, it also effectively communicates just how many lens options a photographer has these days. But don’t worry, I’m not mean and I don’t leave it at that. For this article, I’ve summarized what I explain to those who come to me for lens advice by breaking down the most commonly used lenses by their unique features and the type of photography for which they’re typically designed.
What it is: A standard lens typically has a focal length range of 35-85mm, and is usually the lens that comes with your new DSLR camera.
What it does: A great “walk around” lens, a standard lens will allow for wide angle photography such as landscape on the 35mm end, and great portrait work on the 85mm end.
When to use it: Use your standard lens in situations in which you may need to move quickly to capture an scene, such as travel photography, street photography, and documentary photography. Some of these standard lenses are fixed, thereby forcing you to move around into different positions to capture the best frame for your image.
Wide Angle Lens
What it is: Wide angle is generally 21-35mm, while anything under 20mm is classified as super wide angle.
What it does: A wide-angle lens will allow you to focus on a close object, while still including a lot of background.
When to use it: Wide-angle lenses come in handy when shooting in tight areas, such as small rooms or cars. They are most commonly used for photographing landscapes and architecture, though you may also find one helpful when photographing large groups of people.
Medium Telephoto/Portrait Lens
What it is: Portrait lenses typically have a focal range of 18-135mm.
What it does: This lens has the ability to frame a nice portrait, or act as a telephoto lens and bring an object closer.
When to use it: Though medium telephoto lenses are so often referred to as portrait lenses because they’re ideal for framing heads and shoulders in a headshot-type portrait, this is actually a very versatile lens that can be used by an amateur photographer for any number of subjects.
What it is: A true telephoto lens has a focal range of 135-300mm.
What it does: Telephoto lenses are the opposite of wide-angle lenses. They compress distance and make everything appear closer.
When to use it: While a telephoto can be used for any type of photography, it is the best lens for photographing wildlife or sporting events (or any other situation in which the subject is not quite approachable).
Super Telephoto Lens
What it is: Super telephotos have focal lengths of more than 300mm.
What it does: Just like the more traditional telephoto lens, super telephotos will make distant objects appear closer in a frame.
When to use it: Super telephoto lenses are used by professional sporting photographers, and [very] serious wildlife photographers.
What it is: Macro lenses are specially designed to focus very tightly without any additional accessories. Focal ranges vary, as a 50mm lens will not necessarily give you a better macro view than a 100mm lens that can focus to four inches. Macro lenses are described in terms of magnification, and a good macro lens might have a magnification of 1x (meaning a 1:1 ratio).
What it does: Macro lenses offer a 1:1 ratio of object to image, and are able to focus closer to an object than a standard lens is able.
When to use it: Use a macro lens for still-life photography, and to shoot very small objects and animals such as bugs and insects, raindrops on a leaf, and snowflake designs (to name but a few).
What it is: Similar to wide-angle lenses, fisheyes are so wide angled that they produce a sort of distorted image.
What it does: Fisheye lenses magnify the center of an image, thereby stretching or diminishing in size any objects around it.
When to use it: You can have a lot of fun with a fisheye lens! Use it for special effects photography, unique portraits, and especially artistic street photography.