best camera lens types

There are so many camera lens types offered in the market that you can get confused on which one to use. Here are some thoughts to help you find your way through the maze.

400mm Prime Lens400mm Prime Lens

Standard Zoom LensStandard 24-70
Zoom Lens

18-200mm Super 18-200
Range Zoom

Rokinon Wide Angle Fish-eye LensSuper Wide Angle
Fish-eye Lens

85mm Prime LensPrime Wide
Angle Lens

You can divide lens types into categories based on focal length, based on what you use it for, or even based on its design features. Lens manufacturers often try to paint a picture of their lens as the best lens for a certain type of photography.

That's why it's confusing!

I.  lens types based on length

Lenses fit into three main categories when talking about focal length; wide angle, normal, and telephoto.

Wide angle lens typeWide-angle Lens

Standard-normal lens typeStandard-Normal Lens

Telephoto Lens TypeTelephoto Lens

These three photos are of lenses that are non-zooming. They are called prime lenses. Non-zooming prime lenses have the highest quality optics and produce the sharpest images without distortions, chromatic aberrations, and other flaws.

wide-angle lenses

Wide angle lenses are generally shorter in length.

They give you a wide angle of view of your subject.

Wide angle lenses are best used for group photos, landscape photography, and indoor photos where you want to fit a lot into your composition. Wide-angle lenses give you an ability to have deep depth of field.


"Normal" is a questionable word to use, but normal or mid-length lenses offer a similar perspective that we enjoy with our own naked eye.  These lenses are also called "standard" lenses.

The focal length of a normal or standard lens for full-sized sensor cameras is 50mm. With Cameras that have smaller sensors like Nikon DX and Canon APS-C, a normal focal length for the lens is around 32mm. A normal lens focal length on a tiny cell phone camera lens is around 4mm. 

Normal lenses for cameras with smaller sensors are smaller because their optics don't have to cover as big of an area.  The biggest advantage of using a camera with a smaller sensor is that you can use a smaller, lighter, more affordable lens.

The different sensor sizes and their correspondingly different "normal" focal lengths can add to the confusion. The best way to compare lenses is to look at their focal length equivalency.  

The "normal" perspective lens size for the APS-C sized sensor shown above (32mm) has the equivalency of a 50mm lens on a full frame sensor camera.


Eagle photographed with a long telephoto lens

Telephoto lenses are longer lenses.  

They have a narrow angle of view and bring the subject closer in appearance.

Wildlife and sports photography are the two most popular situations to use long lenses. I just sold my 400mm prime lens in the the versatility and affordability of my new Tamron Sports and Wildlife Lens. Here's my own review.

There are also super wide-angle or super telephoto lenses too. It's useful to know that these categories are just more extreme versions that are either very wide or extra long. 

II. lens categories by use

This might be the most useful way to understand different camera lens types, but also can be the most confusing.  

There is a wide gamut of lens use for specific situations. Portrait lenses, bird lenses, landscape lenses, wedding lenses, macro lenses, and sports lenses are just a few. 

Blurry background from long telephoto lens

Here is what I mean by the confusion of categorizing lenses by use. Portraits are often more appealing with longer lenses because you can achieve a pleasingly blurry background. These lenses have less depth of field

Telephoto lenses can give beautiful soft blurry backgrounds, but you'd need a wide angle lens for a large group portrait. When photographers talk about good portrait lenses they usually mean a longer lens that gives a nice pleasing perspective AND can give a pleasing blurry background. 

How about a good lens for nature photography? Nature photographers would want to use a wide angle lens to take photos of expansive landscapes but also want a super long telephoto to photograph a close-up of the moon or an Eagle's nest high up in a tree.

What about shooting concerts? The best lens for concert photography would have to have a very large maximum aperture to capture the images in dimly lit situation. This type of camera lens could be a wide-angle, a normal, or a telephoto length.

III. camera lens types by design 

These are the technical differences in design and are way beyond my comprehension and way beyond the need of 99.99 % of photographers need to know.

I just added these camera lens types to give you an idea of how much technology is put into your average DSLR lens.










This list of lens types supplied by Wikipedia





other lens categories

Of course you can also talk about zoom lenses vs prime lenses.

Then you have specialty lenses like macro lenses and tilt-shift lenses for architectural photography. Fisheye lenses and Lensbaby lenses have very specific uses too.

Tilt-shift lens for architectural photographyCanon Tilt-Shift Lens

The bottom line is that for 90% of photography situations, zoom lenses are the best route to take if you can only have one. They generally handle a lot of picture-taking opportunities. They are the most convenient to use because you don't have to change the lens to get many different focal lengths.

You can get zoom lenses that cover mostly wide angle situations like a 17-40mm. Try a general purpose zoom like a 28-70mm, or for sports and wildlife photography you might want a 100-300mm telephoto zoom.

There are compromises in quality when you add zooming capacity to a lens design. Some of these image defects are more noticeable than others and each zoom lens has its own specific shortcomings specific to its exact design. 

A great place to read camera lens reviews is an online retail site that gets lots of consumer reviews.

I am an Amazon junkie when it comes to reading reviews on camera lens types, other photography equipment, and even household goods.

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