Zoom, prime, wide, or telephoto? Here’s how to pick your next camera lens

If you recently acquired your first interchangeable lens camera, you’re probably already thinking about what lenses to add to your bag. As cool as your new DSLR or mirrorless camera is now, it won’t reach its true potential until you take a deep dive into the world of lenses. It’s a somewhat sad fact that most interchangeable-lens camera buyers never take off the kit lens that came with the camera, which sort of defeats the purpose of having an interchangeable-lens camera. Chances are, investing in a new lens will offer a bigger boost to image quality than upgrading your camera itself, although if you are in the market for a camera, check out  our digital camera buying guide.

Before we get started, you may want to brush up on the concept of crop factor, as lenses look different depending on the size of your camera’s sensor.

It’s about more than zoom

When you buy an interchangeable lens camera, you’re entering a relationship with that specific brand and the lenses available for it. For example, Nikon and Canon DSLRs use incompatible lens mounts. While sometimes two or more companies will share a mount (such as Panasonic and Olympus with Micro Four Thirds, or Panasonic, Leica, and Sigma with the L mount), you can’t just mix and match any lens to any camera.

DSLRs and mirrorless cameras — particularly entry-level models — are often sold in kits, meaning they are typically supplied with a basic zoom lens, which may be something like an 18-55mm or 14-42mm depending on the brand and format of your camera. One common misconception about interchangeable-lens cameras is that they offer inherently better zoom capability than a compact camera. In fact, the opposite is often true. An 18-55mm lens is only a 3x zoom. Compared to a compact camera like the $400 Canon PowerShot SX730 HS with a 40x zoom or the Nikon P1000 with a 125x zoom, this is nothing.

Typically, the maximum zoom power you’ll find in an interchangeable lens is around 10x, but comparing a DSLR or mirrorless camera to a point-and-shoot isn’t really fair. Interchangeable lens cameras use much larger sensors that produce very high-quality images compared to compact models, but those large sensors require equivalently larger lenses. This is why small cameras can have oodles of zoom, while larger cameras require on multiple lenses to cover the same range.

Zoom is also commonly confused with how close a lens can bring a subject. The zoom number, like 3x, only shows the range from the widest to narrowest angle of view for that lens. Zoom is a good indicator of flexibility, then, but not how close you can get with that lens. For that, you need the focal length, like 50mm, 100mm, etc. In point-and-shoot cameras, it’s more common for manufacturers to advertise the zoom rating of a lens (10x, 40x, etc.), whereas DSLR and mirrorless lenses will be advertised by their focal length range (18-55mm, 24-120mm, etc.). If a lens has a single focal length number, e.g. 50mm, it is a prime lens and doesn’t zoom at all, but generally offers superior sharpness, depth of field control, and light-gathering ability.

Wide-angle to telephoto: What is focal length?

Focal length indirectly indicates the angle of view of a lens. A wide-angle lens may have a focal length of 18 or 24mm, while a telephoto lens may be 100mm, 200mm, 400mm etc. On a full-frame camera, the switch from wide-angle to telephoto happens around the 50mm mark, with lenses near 50mm being referred to as “normal” focal lengths. Here are some various lens categories based on full-frame equivalent focal length (again, see our explainer on crop factor for an understanding of different formats and how they relate to full frame).

  • Fish-eye lenses are typically wider than 14mm (although something this wide is not necessarily a fisheye)
  • Wide angle lenses typically cover between 14-35mm
  • Standard, or normal, lenses sit around 50mm, give or take
  • Telephoto lenses cover between 70-200mm
  • Super telephoto lenses start around 300mm
  • Macro lenses come in multiple focal lengths, but allow you to get up close to the subject for extreme detail

Wide-angle lenses are often used for landscapes or working in tight quarters, while telephotos are popular for wildlife and sports. Portrait lenses generally fall in the short telephoto range, from 50mm to 105mm, although they can be longer. While shooting portraits with a wide-angle lens can be done, such lenses tend to cause distortion. This is why your nose always looks bigger in smartphone selfies, since phones have wide-angle lenses, but this can also help emphasize distance, which is why wide-angle lenses are popular for sports like skateboarding.

While a macro lens is most often a telephoto, what’s actually important here is the magnification, or reproduction, ratio. A typical macro lens will have a reproduction ratio of 1:1, which means if you photograph, say, a coin, the image of the coin projected by the lens onto the sensor will be the exact same size as the coin itself. You can imagine, then, how much detail will be visible when you look at that image on your computer screen or make a large print.

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