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Camera Lenses: Focal Lengths, Zoom vs. Prime, and Lens Types

Photo of four different lenses for Sony mirroless camera

I’m always keen to share my insights about photography equipment with other enthusiasts so I couldn’t leave this topic aside. I’ve done a Sony Lens guide before, but nothing more general.

Today, I’ll be delving into understanding lenses, specifically their focal lengths, the debate between zoom and prime lenses, and the various types of lenses available.

Let’s get into it!

What is Focal Length

In a nutshell, the focal length of a lens, expressed in millimeters (mm), directly influences the field of view captured in your photograph.

Choosing the right focal length matters a great deal. A lens with a short focal length (such as 18mm) provides a wide-angle view, making it perfect for landscape or architectural shots.

On the other hand, lenses with a long focal length (like 200mm) offer a narrowed perspective, suitable for portrait photography or wildlife photography.

Play Video about Choosing camera lens focal length

Different Focal Lengths Examples

  • Fixed focal length – primes like 35mm, 50mm, and 85mm.
  • Variable focal length – 24-70mm or 70-200mm lenses.

Prime vs. Zoom Lens

There are a few different types of lenses, but the difference between prime lens vs zoom is the most critical aspect to know.

A prime lens, or a “fixed lens,” possesses a single, unchanging focal length. This means the distance from the lens to the object in focus is constant, offering no capacity to zoom in or out – unless you move closer to the subject.

Sony FE 2.8 90mm MACRO G OSS fixed lens
Sony 90mm fixed Macro lens

These lenses are often simpler in design, affordable, and lightweight due to their lack of internal moving parts. On the downside, their non-adjustable focal length limits their versatility, compelling photographers to physically move or switch lenses to achieve the desired shot.

On the contrary, a zoom lens provides a range of adjustable focal lengths, allowing you to zoom in and out on your subject without repositioning yourself.

For instance, an 24-70mm zoom lens can shift the focal length anywhere within that spectrum, offering more flexibility. However, this added functionality often results in a bulkier design, a potentially smaller maximum aperture, and a higher cost.

Sony FE 2.8/24-70mm GM II zoom lens
Sony FE 2.8/24-70mm GM II zoom lens

Zoom lenses are a practical choice for unpredictable shooting environments like events or street photography. Prime lenses are more fit for beautiful bokeh (blurred background) effects and dreamy portrait shots.

For my day-to-day photography, which includes capturing beautiful portraits of my son and wife, I rely on the Fujifilm X100V with its fixed 35mm equivalent lens. This camera choice is ideal for portrait photography, offering a flattering perspective and precise capturing of their essence.

Fujifilm x100v mirrorless camera with fixed 35mm equivalent lens

The Fujifilm X100V, with its 35mm equivalent fixed lens, is not only perfect for portrait photography but also an excellent choice for travel photography. Its lightweight, compact, and discreet design allows me to effortlessly capture captivating images while exploring new destinations, like my recent trip to the Amalfi Coast in Italy.

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For my professional work, however, I primarily use my newly purchased Sony 7C with an FE 2.8/24-70mm G-master zoom lens.

Although it’s a bulkier setup compared to my Fujifilm X100V, it provides greater versatility and enables me to capture photos from a much greater distance.

Sony 7C mirrorless camera with Sony 24-70mm G Master II zoom lens
My Sony 7C Mirrorless Camera with Sony 24-70mm G Master II Zoom Lens

Types of Lenses

There’s a broad variety of camera lens types, each serving various purposes and different focal lengths, so let’s take a closer look at them:

Standard Lenses

A standard lens falls within the focal length range of 35mm to 85mm and is designed to mirror the field of view approximating human sight.

The term “standard” or “normal” comes from this lens’ ability to reproduce images that closely match our normal visual perception, thus ensuring what we see through the camera’s viewfinder is similar to what we see with our naked eyes. Both prime and zoom lenses can fall into this category.

Wide-Angle Lenses

Of all the lens types, these have the shortest focal length (less than 35mm) and a broad field of view from side to side, creating a panoramic perspective surpassing the field of view of a standard lens. They’re mostly used for landscape, architecture, or interior photography.

Wide angle Canon lens 16-35mm
Canon 16-35 wide angle zoom lens

These lenses are used in landscape photography due to their ability to accommodate broad, expansive scenes within one frame, effectively broadening the horizon and incorporating more of the environment into the photograph.

In addition, these lenses hold significant value for architectural and real estate photography, as well as when photographing interiors.

Interior photography with wide angle lens
Wide angle lenses are frequently used for interior photography

Ultra-wide Lenses

These types of lenses have a focal length of less than 14mm. They offer a broad view that causes a spherical distortion around the edges of the image, an effect reminiscent of the view seen through a fish’s eye.

Although the exaggerated field of view provided by fisheye lenses may not appeal to all photographers due to the pronounced distortion, they do find application in fine art photography and extreme sports photography, where the encompassing perspective enhances the dynamism of the scene.

Photo of a biker in a desert shot with an ultra wide angle lens

Telephoto Lenses

If your subject is a majestic eagle soaring high or a footballer about to score a goal, these are your lenses of choice.

Telephoto lenses are renowned for their impressive zoom capabilities, enabling photographers to capture detailed, close-up images of distant subjects. However, their field of view is relatively narrow, and if it’s a telephoto zoom lens, it often features a small maximum aperture.

A man taking a photo with a digital camera and a telephoto lens

Telephoto lenses can be further divided into two subgroups:

  • Short telephoto lenses with focal lengths ranging from 85 to 135mm
  • Standard telephoto lenses with focal lengths from 135 to 300mm.

These long-focus lenses are the choice for wildlife, sports, or any situation where your subject is far away.

For example, a sports photographer can photograph riveting action from the sidelines without intruding onto the playing field. Similarly, a wildlife photographer can capture up-close shots of animals in their natural habitat without causing disturbance or risking their safety.

close up shot bird telephoto

Super-telephoto Lenses

Super-telephoto lenses are a step further, offering even more significant magnification with focal lengths extending beyond 300mm. These lenses are more prominent, heavier, and more expensive!

Like standard telephoto lenses, they are excellent tools for sports and wildlife photographers. 

A professional photographer taking sport photos using a long range telephoto lens.

Moreover, their superior zoom capabilities make them ideal for astrophotography, capturing extraordinary details of celestial bodies like galaxies and nebulae in the night sky.

Macro Lenses

Macro lenses enable photographers to take extreme close-up photographs of minuscule subjects, thanks to their short minimum focus distance.

Instead of being classified based on their focal length, which can range anywhere from 35mm to 200mm, macro lenses are identified by their ability to focus on objects at a very close range, producing life-size or larger-than-life reproductions of the subject.

Macro lenses may not be as versatile as other lenses since their primary application is capturing incredibly detailed images of small subjects.

For example, a product photographer may use a macro lens to capture fine details of a piece of jewelry, where even minute textures and reflections can be appreciated in high resolution.

A professional photo of a men's watch for an e-commerce store.

My wife, Alina Kareva is a professional product photographer. She often relies on her Sony FE 90mm f/2.8 Macro G OSS Lens to capture highly detailed product photos for her clients. For example, the photo of the watch above was taken using this Sony macro lens.

Sony 90mm macro lens G master

A macro lens can also be used to photograph intricate details of a flower’s petal or capture the intricate design of a butterfly’s wings, highlighting the textures and patterns that would otherwise go unnoticed by the naked eye.

Moreover, macro lenses can be used for portrait photography, creating an even more appealing bokeh effect than prime lenses.

Tilt-shift Lenses

Tilt-shift lenses provide the unique ability to manipulate an image’s perspective and focal plane by adjusting the lens’s orientation in relation to the camera sensor.

Samyang 24mm tilt-shift lens

The “tilt” function enables you to control the depth of field extensively, allowing for an almost infinite depth of field at the broad end or a very selective focus at the narrow end. The “shift” function, on the other hand, enables you to manage the perspective in your image.

Because of this, an architectural photographer may use a tilt-shift lens to photograph a skyscraper from a ground perspective. 

Meanwhile, a product photographer might use the tilt function to selectively focus on a particular part of an object while artistically blurring the rest of the image.

Unconventionally, you can also use a tilt-shift lens in portrait photography:

Play Video about Tilt shift lens for portrait photography

Which Lens Should I Pick?

Selecting your next lens ultimately concerns your specific photographic needs and interests. For instance, a standard zoom lens might be your best bet if you seek a versatile, all-purpose lens.

I am a user of Sony and Fujifilm cameras. With my Fujifilm X100V and its fixed 35mm equivalent lens, I haven’t had the opportunity to try other lenses from Fujifilm.

However, with Sony, I have tested various lenses, both fixed and zoom. If you’re in search of a versatile all-round lens for your Sony mirrorless camera, I highly recommend considering these two options:

Sony FE 2.8/24-70mm and Tamron 28-75mm zoom lenses

I own both lenses and to be honest, there isn’t a significant difference between Tamron’s 28-75mm and Sony’s 24-70mm lenses. 

If budget is not a concern and you desire the best gear possible, I suggest opting for the Sony 24-70mm F2.8 GM II lens. Otherwise, the Tamron 28-75mm F/2.8 is also an excellent lens choice.

If you love capturing wildlife, a long telephoto lens will serve you well. For sweeping landscape shots, a wide-angle lens will be key. And, of course, for unique specialties such as close-up photography or astrophotography, macro lenses and fast ultra-wide lenses, respectively, are indispensable.

Of course, if you want to experiment with many photography genres, you don’t have to buy ALL the lenses at once. Many great photographs can be achieved with just a single versatile lens.

Pro Tips for Choosing Camera Lenses

  • If you’re into portrait photography, I recommend a prime lens with a focal length between 85mm and 135mm. It provides flattering proportions and a comfortable distance between you and the subject.
  • Selecting the perfect lens isn’t just the focal length. Your camera’s sensor size (full-frame or crop) is another critical player in the game, impacting the effective field of view. It’s like pairing wine with a meal – you need both elements to create the perfect blend!
  • I suggest starting with a versatile zoom lens, like a 24-70mm or 18-55mm for beginner photographers. As you grow more confident and understand your shooting style, you can invest in prime lenses matching your preferences.

Wrapping it Up

To conclude our camera lens tour, remember the words of photography maestro Ansel Adams:

“The single most important component of a camera is the twelve inches behind it.”

Therefore, equip yourself with photography knowledge, and you’ll see the difference in your frames.

I hope my shared wisdom lights up your photographic journey. 

Ultimately, the right lens aligns with your vision and resonates with your style. So grab the one you have at hand and look at our other articles at OhMyCamera before you go out into the field!

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Aleksandrs Karevs

Aleksandrs Karevs

Hi, my name is Aleksandrs and I am a full-stack digital marketer passionate about digital photography. In my free time, I enjoy taking photos with my everyday companion – FUJIFILM X100V. Read full story here.

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Aleksandrs Karevs OHMYCAMERA Founder & Author

ARTICLE BY

Hi, my name is Aleksandr and I am a full-stack digital marketer from Riga, Latvia. In 2018 I became obsessed with photography and decided to create this blog to share my knowledge about both photography and marketing. In my free time, I enjoy taking photos with my everyday companion – FUJIFILM X100V.

Aleksandrs Karevs OHMYCAMERA Founder & Author

ARTICLE BY

Hi, my name is Aleksandr and I am a full-stack digital marketer from Riga, Latvia. In 2018 I became obsessed with photography and decided to create this blog to share my knowledge about both photography and marketing. In my free time, I enjoy taking photos with my everyday companion – FUJIFILM X100V.

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