Let’s Talk Photography, Part 6: Lenses

Note: This post was originally published by Mary Coleman on her blog, “Simply Horse Crazy”, on December 7th, 2013. She also took many of the photos featured unless credited otherwise. Huge thanks for Mary for letting us repost this series here!

Thus far, we’ve covered several topics: white balance, shutter speed, ISO, and aperture. Putting all these things together and balancing them, depending on when and where you are taking pictures, is how you create beautiful shots.

But now let’s talk about the most important part of your camera. Your lens.

Lenses come in many varieties and serve many many purposes. Being able to to decide exactly what you want and need can be a challenge, especially when you don’t know what exactly you’re looking for.  As an example, let’s take the lens that you get if you purchase a camera/lens kit from Canon:

EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS

You’ve probably seen these numbers/letters before, but maybe you haven’t had any idea what they mean.

Let’s divide this in four parts and talk about each part separately before looking at this as a whole. The first part reads:

This refers to the lens mount of Canon cameras and their lenses. EF lenses are the Canon standard, and are recognizable by a red dot. EF-S are just a subset and are distinguishable by a white square. If you camera is compatible with EF-S lenses, it’s also compatible with EF lenses (the opposite is not true).

The red dot signifying an EF lens of the left and the white square signifying a EF-S lens on the right.

The next part reads:

This refers to what is called focal length. In the basic sense, (it’s actually more scientific than this but we don’t really need to get too terribly technical, I don’t think) focal length is the distance from the surface of the lens to the point of focus (the camera’s senor or, if you’re old school, the film). In other words, focal length deals with zoom.

The higher the number, the more you can zoom in. The lower the number, the more you can zoom out, and the wider the angle of view.

This is where the different types of lenses comes into play. The three main types of lenses are wide-angle, standard view, and telephoto (there are also more specialized types such as ultra wide-angle, super telephoto, and macro, but for our purposes, the three main distinctions will do).

Wide angle— 28mm and under is considered “wide angle.” Very popular for capturing landscapes and scenery. Not great for portrait photography because they can distort the face.

Standard— Focal length is usually considered 35-85mm. Great for portraits because they don’t distort and they make features look as they should.

Telephoto— Telephoto are considered 100mm plus. While you can use them for portraits, they tend so cause some distortion at the higher ranges because they compress your view. Best for sports and any form of action-type photography because you don’t have to be close to your subject.

Now each of these types of lenses can be further broken down into either “zoom” or “prime” lenses. Zoom lenses have variable focal lengths such as 24-70mm. Prime lenses have fixed focal lengths such as 50mm.

Moving on, the next part of our lens number reads:

Hopefully, if you’ve read my other posts in this series, you recognize this as having to do with aperture.
Some lenses have one number, such as my little 50mm f/1.8 and the Canon 70-200mm f/2.8. Other lenses have two numbers that encompass a range, such as the kit lens we’re talking about, or my 18-225mm f/3.5-5.6.

If a lens has two numbers, it means that at the low end of the focal length range, 18mm, the aperture can go all the way down to f/3.5 and open fairly wide to allow a lot of light in. However, at 55mm the aperture can only go to f/5.6, which isn’t a great aperture for indoor arenas or badly-lit rooms.

My 50mm f/1.8 is a prime lens, so I can’t zoom in or out but it takes very crisp pictures and goes all the way down to f/1.8 which makes it perfect for indoor use. The long-coveted 70-200mm f/2.8 goes all the way down to f/2.8 at 70mm, BUT IT CAN ALSO remain at f/2.8 all the way through to 200mm, which is awesome (and makes it very expensive).

Now to show you just how important large apertures (remember, larger apertures = smaller numbers) are, I went and took the same photo twice. Both pictures are taken at 50mm with the same ISO and shutter speed. One was taken with my 18-225mm f/3.5-5.6. The other was taken with my 50mm f/1.8. I used the lowest aperture possible for both lenses, which obviously for the 50mm was f/1.8, however, for the 18-225mm, the lowest I could go was f/5.0. (both images are SOOC—straight out of the camera. AKA no editing)

aperture: f/5.0 shutter speed: 1/200 sec ISO: 800
aperture: f/1.8 shutter speed: 1/200 sec ISO: 800

Pretty big difference, huh?

The final part reads:

Now many lenses don’t have this in their name and other might have OS instead. Pretty much the same thing, only Canon-made lenses will always have IS as opposed to OS (this is not to say that all Canon lenses have “IS”).

So what does IS stand for? “Image Stabilization,” which is fantastic for minimizing blur in images if you hand isn’t steady or if the object is moving faster (Note, OS stands for optical stabilization). Many lenses come in both IS and non-IS varieties, of course with the IS variety being more money. I like IS a lot and find it useful, so while I can get the 70-200mm f/2.8 for significantly cheaper without IS, it’s worth my money to save up for the IS version, especially since I spend a lot of time photographing kids and horses, both of which are prone to action.

In conclusion, the type of lens you want varies drastically on the type of photography you’re interested in. If you bought a camera with a kit lens, I highly recommend ditching it for a different lens. They just aren’t made of the best glass and you’ll be amazed at the picture quality even with a lens that is a slight upgrade. Most people don’t want to spend $2500 on a lens, but you really don’t have to. That little 50mm f/1.8 retails for about $125 new from Canon. It takes crisp images and the bokeh (background blur) is fantastic. I’ve been using it a lot for portraits. A lot of people want zoom lenses, but prime lenses really force you to get up close and personal to what you are photographing and the image quality is amazing.

You can also save a lot of money by purchasing Sigma or Tamron brand lenses instead of ones manufactured by Canon or Nikon. (Example, Canon’s 70-200mm f/2.8 with IS runs around $2500. Sigma’s 70-200mm f/2.8 with OS runs $1250. Sigma is not quite at the level of Canon, but to the budget-minded photographer, that is a big difference).

We hope you enjoyed this photography series! If you have an idea for a blog series, please email egoddard.art@gmail.com to pitch your idea.

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