Choosing the Right Lens for Creative Photography

For the photographer pursuing certain types of images, the choice of lens is very important. Most people start off with a ‘kit lens’, which is a zoom lens of average quality. This will suffice to start but at some point, if the aspiring photographer wishes to learn new techniques or styles, different lenses will be of interest. This page will introduce you to few broad choices, and some example shots which provide an insight into either how that image was taken, or what type of lens would be required for that type of effect or image.

Lens Basics

When looking at lenses, they will have a focal length and an aperture. The focal length is the distance from the front lens to the camera sensor, and is expressed in millimeters. As the number of millimeters goes down, the angle of view gets wider. A 20mm lens will provide a wide angle of view which is often desired in landscape photography, and also works well indoors, particularly in real estate shots. A 200mm lens will be a telephoto lens that zooms in on far away objects yielding good detail.

The aperture is a measurement of the amount of light that can pass through the shutters. In terms of lenses, the number refers to the diameter of the opening, expressed as the maximum opening size that the lens provides. It can also be called the f-stop, and the number will always be preceded by an f, such as f1.4 or f5.6. A smaller number is actually a wider opening, and the higher number is a smaller opening. How this affects the photographer is two fold. First a larger opening allows in more light, so this can be useful in low light situations either indoors or outdoors. But you can also compensate for low light by increasing your ISO which is your light sensitivity, or by a combination of both. The big difference for photographers is that changing the aperture allows the depth of field to be altered. The depth of field is the distance that is in focus, so for a landscape shot a smaller aperture will ensure that everything is in focus, from the nearby objects to something far away on the horizon. But for the person who wishes to take a photo of a person or flower, and would like the background blurred, the wide open aperture is preferred. With the right lens this will create a spectacular image that separates the subject from the background noise.

Types of Lenses – Zooms and Primes

Looking at the modern autofocus lenses, they can be of two types – zoom and prime lenses. Both have a place in the photographers’ camera bag for different types of shots or for different purposes.

The zoom lens allows flexibility in dynamic situations; it can be used for a variety of shots without the need to change lenses. This can be very important in busy situations or where dirt, dust, and wind can get on the camera sensor when changing lenses. Zoom lenses range in quality and a top model will cost several thousand dollars, however an amateur photographer can capture decent images with a less expensive model. Examples of common zooms would be a 16-50mm or an 18-250mm. There are many variations on the zoom range and these are just provided to get you familiar with the terminology, In this instance the 16-50mm would be good for wide angle shots such as landscapes. An 18-250 would be a zoom that covers the entire range, from wide shots to telephoto shots. However a zoom that covers a large range will usually have some limitations on the quality of the shots it takes. The utility and usefulness comes from the photographers intended purpose.

A prime lens has a fixed focal length that has no zoom, so has a consistent field of view. This might sound like a drawback but prime lenses are able to use significantly lower aperture settings. Most good prime lenses will be in the aperture range of f1.4 to f2.8. This allows for the depth of field to be made a lot shallower. Most zoom lenses, unless they are very expensive, can not do what a prime lens does with the wide aperture. In addition to a prime lens having the advantage of using a wide aperture, or being useful in low light situations, they generally yield better quality images as there are less glass elements than in a zoom lens. The zoom lenses are designed to give a decent image quality over the entire focal range, but a prime lens is optimized to provide the maximum image quality.

Prime Lenses Wide Open

Prime lenses used wide open (with the aperture at its widest setting), provide some of the most beautiful portrait and nature shots. These can range from 16mm up to 300mm and there are lenses that push the boundaries even more at both ends of the spectrum.

24-28mm lenses provide a fairly wide angle of view. These vary amongst manufacturers, but many are at f2.8 which is good for low light shots, but not so much for the shallow field of view. That is not to say that they don’t allow it, but that the background won’t be as blurred as more wide open lenses.

A lens that is common to most camera manufacturers will be a 50mm f1.4 to 1.8. A 50mm lens provides about the same field of view as you can see from your own eyes. When the aperture is wide open at it lowest f-stop of f1.4 or f1.8, it will create a very shallow depth of field. One of the creative effects that photographers like to achieve is called ‘bokeh’ which refers to the characteristics of the out of focus areas. Some lenses create a smooth background where nothing is really distinguishable and the colors blend together nicely – this is called a creamy bokeh. Other lenses are well know as they can render patterns in the background, especially noticeable when looking at out of focus lights in night time shots, or where the light comes through trees in a dappled effect. It is for these reasons that prime lenses are so coveted amongst photographers.


A 50mm f1.7 lens wide open.

Another sought after focal length is the 85mm f1.4. The focal length and aperture will vary between manufacturers but most have a lens very similar to this one. This is generally a heavy lens with a big piece of glass, which is required to keep the aperture small. These are highly regarded by portrait photographers as they allow a comfortable distance between the subject and the photographer. The image quality will be exceptional with one of these types of lenses, and if you are considering getting into portraiture you should see if you can borrow some ones lens to try out for yourself.

Prime lenses of 135mm f2.8 are often overlooked but have a special place in photography. They are generally quite small and unobtrusive yet will bring in an intimate view from across a room or in a crowd. Although the f2.8 aperture is not as wide open as in the 50mm, it still has a narrow field of view due to the distance and can take shots with only a few centimeters in focus.

After this come the big guns of prime lens that could be in 200mm, 300mm, or even 400mm. You will see these lenses on the cameras of sports photographers on the sidelines of games. These are very expensive lenses costing several thousands of dollars that are suited for specialized situations, such as when you want to show the dirt in the teeth of an athlete across the field. For some one whose livelihood depends upon this type of work, these lenses pay for themselves.

Wide Angle Zoom Lenses

If landscape shots are what you are after, you will be hard pressed to find anything much better than a wide angle lens. The term ‘wide angle, in it’s most general sense would be from about 28mm and wider. But for those really great landscape shots that you see in magazines or on websites, you really want an ‘ultra’ wide angle lens. These will be in the range of 10-20mm, or 8-16mm, they usually have a minimum aperture of about f2.8 but most photographers will use them closed up so that everything from the foreground to the background is in fine focus. This can be accomplished with an aperture of about f11 and up. You might even be able to do it with a wider aperture, depending upon your situation.


A 10mm ultra wide lens showing the potential to capture large landscapes.

These lenses are also used by everyone who takes real estate or commercial/architectural building shots. The wide angle lens is also good for taking photos of people at events or festivals. The ultra wide angle lenses can also be used in the creation of 360 degree shots.


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