Camera Lenses Explained: Complete Guide

black camera lenses in various sizes

Last Updated on September 10, 2022 by seanmichaelpritchard

If you’re new to the world of photography, this post will help you to understand the different types of camera lenses, and their uses.

All types of lenses will be covered in this complete guide to camera lenses explained.

So, whether you’re searching for a lens that can produce telephoto photos, or wide angle shots, you’ll soon be able to understand what the best camera lens would be to purchase next for your genre of photography.

At a glance, here are the main topics covered, click on a link to skip to the section you need.

Let’s get started!


Firstly, what is a camera lens?

A camera lens is arguably the most crucial component of your photography gear. Your camera body would be unable to capture photographs without a lens. It is sometimes known as the camera’s “eye.” 

The primary function of your camera lens is to capture light reflected from a scene or subject.

The reflected light beams are directed to the camera’s image sensor as they enter the camera lens and travel through the elements.

The image sensor will then record the colours and intensity of incoming light entering the camera through the lens.

The collected light can then be replicated exactly as the image was viewed via the camera’s viewfinder or LCD screen when the shutter release button was pushed.

Camera lenses are made up of a sequence of convex (curved outward) or concave glass plates (curved inward).

In order to decrease aberration, modern lenses aim to adjust the angle of incidence and angle of refraction to similar values, and they feature a focus element that allows the operator to determine which regions of the image are crisp and which are blurred.

close up of types camera lenses explained

Camera lenses explained: What to consider when buying a camera lens

Choosing the appropriate lens for your camera kit is critical since it allows you to use your camera to its full potential.

Your final image quality and resolution will suffer without a suitable camera lens for your camera.

Even if you have a low-cost camera, adding a high-quality lens to your camera equipment can help you take outstanding photographs.

However, using a low-quality lens with one of the finest camera bodies available, on the other hand, might result in poor image quality.

These types of lenses are referred to as workhorse lenses since they perform admirably in all genres, including both portrait and landscape photography.

The size and weight of the lens should be taken into account as well. Large telephoto lenses can be very heavy, although the photos are worth it!

So, before purchasing consider the intended use of your camera and lens; if it’s just for taking family photos, get a lighter, more portable model.

However, if you’re a professional photographer who specialises in sports or wildlife, a telephoto lens is essential for getting those distant and rare photos.


Camera lenses explained: understanding the letters & numbers in the names of camera lenses

In addition to the points above, when purchasing a new lens, you should also evaluate the characteristics of each lens you’re considering.

Each number and letter will indicate important lens features such as focal length, maximum aperture, lens version and focusing motor.

Other characteristics that may also be highlighted in the name include stabilisation, filter diameter, and focusing distances.

If you are a beginner or amateur photographer, the majority of the letters and numbers won’t make too much difference.

The most important features that you should consider before purchasing are:

Lens mount

This will impact whether or not the lens will physically fit your camera.

Canon, for example, has an EF series of lenses designed for cameras with an EF mount and an RF range of lenses suited for cameras with RF mounts.


Image stabilisation

This increases image quality by reducing the vibration caused by natural handshake while shooting without a tripod.

While some camera bodies include in-built stabilisation, having in-built stabilisation in your lens further reduces the likelihood of your image being out of focus.

When shooting wildlife with large telephoto lenses, for example, in-lens stabilisation is really handy to obtain sharp wildlife telephoto photos.

It is important to recognize that various camera manufacturers use different letters in their lens names to indicate whether or not image stabilisation is included in the lens.


Focal length

The focal length of a lens is one of the most crucial characteristics to consider when purchasing a new lens. This is the distance between the point of convergence of your lens and the sensor capturing the photos, which is usually measured in millimetres. 

A lens’ focal length is stated as a number (mm). This number informs you how much of the scene your camera can capture.

Smaller numbers have a broader field of view and reveal more of the scene, whereas larger numbers will zoom further into your subjects.

Zoom lenses are distinguished by two numbers that denote the variable focal range that could be achieved.

A 24-70mm lens, for example, is a standard kit zoom lens. Prime lenses, on the other hand, are indicated by a single number, such as 35mm, they do not zoom and have a fixed focal length.

The table below outlines the most common focal length sizes, types of lenses and when to use them.

FOCAL LENGTHTYPE OF LENSSUITABLE GENRE
4mm – 14mmFisheyeCreative & Action
14mm – 35mmWide AngleArchitecture & Landscapes
35mm – 85mmStandardStreet & Travel
85mm – 135mmShort TelephotoWeddings & Portraits
135mm – 300mmMedium TelephotoNature & Events
300mm +Super TelephotoWildlife & Sports
50mm, 100mm, 180mmMacroInsects & Flowers
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Aperture

The size of the area that allows light to enter your lens is called the aperture and is defined in f-stops.

A smaller number, confusingly, indicates that the lens has a greater maximum aperture – a wider hole – and hence can gather more light; a F2.8 lens, for example, catches twice as much light as a F4. 

The depth of field in your images is affected by the aperture that your lens is set at. A larger aperture (e.g., F2.8) will provide a shallower depth of field, while smaller apertures (e.g., F16) brings more of the picture into focus.

Adjusting the extent of the photo that is in focus is one of the best techniques a photographer has for attracting the viewer’s attention.

Landscapes, for example, are frequently shot with small apertures (e.g., F16) to ensure that everything is in focus.

Whereas, if you were shooting product photography you would want to use a lens with a large aperture (e.g., F2.8), to have the ability to blur the background and draw your audience’s attention to the product.

The maximum aperture a lens can open is usually listed on the barrel of the lens. Lenses with a larger maximum aperture often cost a little more.

A lens with a large maximum aperture is ideal for low-light circumstances, so keep this in mind if you plan to shoot night photography. 

different kinds of wide angle shots lenses

Camera lenses explained: Basic types of camera lenses

Now that you know what lens features to look for, let’s have a look at the various types of lenses available for your camera.

When you first start out in photography, learning the different types of camera lenses and what they should be used for may seem complex.

This section will break down the basic types of lenses and what type of photography they are suitable for.


What is a zoom lens?

Zoom lenses offer the capacity to alter focal length, allowing you to zoom into or away from your subject. You are able to modify your angle of view by adjusting the optical components inside the lens. 

This is quite appealing to certain photographers, particularly travel photographers, because it allows you to have the equivalent of multiple types of lenses in one. 


What is a prime lens?

In contrast to a zoom lens, a prime lens is one in which the focal length cannot be changed. Your field of vision is ‘fixed’, and if you want to shoot closer to the subject you will need to physically move.

A fixed focus length forces you to envision your composition before you shoot. Therefore, many believe that the constraint of only shooting with a single focal length can inspire creativity and develop your photography skills quickly. 

In general, prime lenses provide far higher quality photographs than zoom lenses. They also have the added benefit of usually being a lot lighter in weight than zoom lenses.

However, each focal length is appropriate for a distinct set of circumstances. The 50mm prime lens, for example, is ideal for portraiture since the focus length is as near to the human eye as possible. A 35 mm prime lens, on the other hand, is typically used by landscape photographers.

Check out these RF prime lenses from Canon!


What is a telephoto lens?

If you need additional reach in your photography, than a regular zoom lens can provide, you’ll need to invest in a telephoto lens to get the photos you’re after.

These types of lenses are often extremely large and expensive! Telephoto lenses can be heavy and frequently require a tripod to hold them, which means they are far less practical than a regular zoom lens.

However, if you are a professional wildlife or sports photographer, a telephoto lens is a must have lens to get the required photos.


What is a wide angle lens?

These lenses capture more of the scene in front of you than a zoom lens, which is necessary for wide angle shots.

As a result, wide angle lenses are essential for capturing landscapes because they allow you to capture a larger portion of the scene.

They’re also great for shooting architecture, especially taller structures, because they allow you to get wide angle shots that will include the whole building in front of you.


What is a fisheye lens?

A fisheye lens is an ultra-wide-angle lens with a massive field of view for epic shots. These types of lenses can have a focal length as little as 8mm.

Surf photographers, for example, frequently use a fisheye lens to get the renowned inside the barrel of the wave view.


What is a macro lens?

The term macro refers to a lens with extremely close-focusing capability, allowing you to photograph tiny subjects such as insects or flowers.


Camera lenses explained: The advantages of the most common lens sizes

This last section in this guide to camera lenses explained will help you to understand the most common lens sizes and the advantages of using each of these types of lenses.






assorted black canon types of lenses for telephoto photos

Final Thoughts

Hopefully, this guide to camera lenses explained has helped you to understand the basic features of the various types of lenses. 

There are multiple types of camera lenses for practically every circumstance you can encounter as a photographer.

However, the principles of things to consider while looking for a new type of lens remain the same, regardless of whether you want to capture telephoto photos or wide angle shots. 

Remember, when choosing the next lens to add to your camera gear, contemplate the focal length, aperture capability and the type of photos you want to capture. 

Knowing which lens is best for your genre of photography will help you take your abilities to the next level. 

Still unsure where to start?

Check out these posts for a quick round up on the best types of lenses for these popular brands:

DISCLOSURE: I may earn a small commission from some of the links above. For the benefit of the doubt, please assume all links might be affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

three black photography lens

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