DSLR Lenses - An Introduction

DSLR Lenses – An Introduction

DSLR LensWhen I first started writing about digital cameras the main question i was asked by readers was ‘Which Camera should I buy?‘ Usually they were in the market for a point, fairly entry level point and shoot digital camera.

However these days with the increase in people buying DSLR cameras (they are so much cheaper and more people are feeling comfortable enough with digital now that they want to take it to the next level) the biggest question that I’m now asked is ‘Which Lens Should I buy for my DSLR?

Answering the question is something of a minefield as each digital camera manufacturer offers a large range of lenses of different qualities and budgets. Add to this that each photographer shoots differently and has their own styles and preferences and it can be something of a minefield to navigate to answer the ‘which lens’ question.

What follows below is an attempt to unpack the different types of lenses that most manufacturers offer in the DSLR market. I’m not going to get into talking about specific lenses but want to give a brief introduction to some of the terms and types of lenses that you’ll come across as you begin to explore the DSLR lens market.

Keep in mind that most DSLRs are not what are known as ‘full frame’ cameras. Their sensors are generally smaller than full frame and as a result lenses don’t have the same impact on these cameras as they would on a film camera. This is why you’ll often hear manufacturers talking about the ‘equivalent’ focal length of a lens.

Types of DSLR Lenses

Standard Lenses – this is a term that seems to be disappearing a little from terminology. Traditionally on film cameras it was used to describe lenses in the 50mm range because this is what usually came with the camera.

Kit Lenses – These days the lens that is offered as a package with the DSLR is generally called the ‘kit lens’. It is generally an entry level quality zoom lens. They are usually a fairly general purpose lens designed for everyday shooting. My personal preference is always to buy the DSLR as a body only and to upgrade the lens from the kit lens as they are generally at a lower to medium end of the spectrum of lenses.

Prime Lenses – A prime lens is a lens that has one focal length only. They are becoming less popular in an age where photographers like to have the convenience of a range of focal lengths at their finger tips (see zoom lenses) but they are definitely worth considering. Zoom lenses are increasing in the quality that they offer but prime lenses are known (especially at the top end) for their image quality and speed (faster aperture).

While many like the convenience of zoom lenses I actually enjoy the challenge of prime lenses and find that they make me think about my photography a little more than when I have a zoom attached (I get a little lazy).

DSLR LensesTelephoto Zoom Lenses – Zoom lenses are the most popular DSLR lenses at present and come in a range of configurations and levels of quality. Obviously the benefit of zooms are that you do not need to physically get closer to your subject to get a tighter framing of the image. These lenses can have quite narrow ranges or quite long ones.

Keep in mind that if you buy one with a long focal length (for examples you can get them in lengths ranging up to 300mm or longer) that the longer your focal length the more impact that camera shake has on your images. More and more lenses these days are being released with Image Stabilisation (IS) to combat camera shake.

Macro Lenses – these lenses are specifically designed for shooting objects up close. Many lenses and cameras come with a ‘macro’ setting but true macro lenses will produce images that are life size and that enable you to get in incredibly close from the subject you’re shooting.

Wide Angle Lenses – As their name suggests, these lenses enable their users to take shots with a very wide perspective. They are useful for landscapes and for getting in nice and close to subjects still fitting a lot of them in.

Wide angle lenses come both as prime lenses but also are being found at the lower end of telephoto zoom lenses increasingly. Be aware that very wide lenses will sometimes distort your image a little (or a lot), especially at the edges of your photos where they can be quite curved. This can be used to great effect but can also be quite frustrating at times.

At the extreme end of the ‘wide angle’ range are ‘fisheye lenses’ which purposely distort your image in a curved way to get more into the shot. Again this is a style of photography that many love but is an art to get right.

So there you have it – you’re now at least equipped with some definitions and starting points for shopping for your next DSLR lens purchase.

Related Reading on DSLR Lenses

Read more from our Cameras & Equipment category

Darren Rowse is the editor and founder of Digital Photography School and SnapnDeals. He lives in Melbourne Australia and is also the editor of the ProBlogger Blog Tips. Follow him on Instagram, on Twitter at @digitalPS or on Google+.

Some Older Comments

  • Bijisroy June 14, 2013 03:29 pm

    its great information on different Dslr camera lense can i get more information on different lens and hoow to use it on different occasion



  • artha January 10, 2013 12:01 am

    hi everyone that was a good start for my photography, but I have some doubts between the micro and the macro lens, and I am looking forward to buy a camera, what camera would suit for a beginner, and what lens should I get for head start or should I buy the camera and buy the lens later as per requirement.

  • bhagya senanayake December 6, 2011 06:02 pm

    can i know what types (Portrait Lenses , Wide Angle Lenses greater than the max focal length of 55mm) of NIKKOR lenses should buy for a aperture?

    if u can please include their Focal Lengths...

  • bryan September 8, 2011 02:12 am

    50mm would do it but the real trick is moving to avoid glare and straitening the image in photoshop

  • Chantelle September 7, 2011 02:11 pm

    Hi there,

    Just wanted to ask I am a newborn baby to photography so still trying to understand all the lingo etc... but just wanted to ask for some advice please. If i was hired to photograph individual framed paintings in an art gallery what sort of lenses would I use??
    Thank you

  • Jay January 15, 2011 12:13 am

    No, do not always buy Canon or Nikon lenses...There are a host of companies that build quality lenses. This is just the same old dumb fight about brands and cameras and mine is bigger than yours baloney.
    Current technology is favoring the amateur photographer like never before. Great quality, great prices and wonderful selection of equipment is at your fingertips.
    Try Olympus, Sony, Panasonic, Fuji, Leica (ok a bit pricey), etc. Dont buy the myth of Canon and Nikon being the "best"...just the ones with the biggest marketing budgets.

  • Bryan Grant November 19, 2010 12:07 pm

    ok ok....
    everyone should have a middle range zoom lens - a 28-105 this will cover most things. where it gets confusing is when people start talking about how fast the lens is or glass quality. this has alot to do with the widest aperture setting of the lens. the lower the # the faster the lens and wider the hole it has and the more $$ it will cost you. if you are just getting your feet wet a aperture of 3.5-5.6 should do you. this lens would look like 28-105:3.5-5.6
    meaning zoom of 28 to 105mm and when the lens is at 28mm the aperture is at 3.5 and when at 105mm the aperture is at 5.6. All my lenses are 2.8 or faster but this is what i do. however if you buy a 2.8 lens you may not ever need to replace it. another word of advice... and others will disagree. always buy Nikon or canon lenses. especial on the high end ones.

  • Karin Horton November 19, 2010 08:19 am

    50+ lady that needed a hobby so my dad bought me a Nikon D3000 with the kit lens 18 - 55 mm, i know i can do a lot with this lens but i would like to take pictures of my grandchildren without being on top of them but still have them in the foreground, plus take some landscapes including distance shots. I am getting a little confused with all of the lenses that are on sale, and after reading all of the above comments on lenses, can any one come to my rescue and advise me of what i might need.

  • bryan November 10, 2010 01:47 am

    when i first began to get serious i bought my first canon "L" series lens 70 -200... and then that was it L from here on out. ive used others but nothing really beats the canon L and i think its the nikon D series. ive used these lenses for years and years and even dropped them (not recommended) and they still work like the day i bought them. camera bodies come and go but a quality lens you will hold forever or you can get a decent resale value out of them aswell...... make sure they didnt get dropped thou.

  • SwordOfScotland July 28, 2009 03:32 pm

    Until I came to DPS I honoured myself with the title "Amatuer Photographer". The more I read, the more I realize I don't know, so, I am backing up to Square One and calling myself an Indentured Beginner!

    This article is enlightening, but the commentary really broadens my understanding. Thanks,guys.

  • Fabien October 20, 2008 03:40 pm

    Thanks for all these articles and the precious advices that come along them... great site, keep on the good work.

  • Suzyseven July 24, 2008 11:48 pm

    I am an amateur photographer - looking to take better landscape photos with my Nikon D40 - My choices right now as I have done research are: Nikon 16-85 or the Sigma 10-20mm.

    Any suggestions, pros!


  • pranav praveer September 12, 2007 02:01 pm

    hi this is very impressive site , a lots of information is stored here...good for learning

  • Manvendra July 13, 2007 05:01 pm

    Telephoto lens refers to lenses which can take photos of objects far off. The word 'Tele' in Greek means 'Far off'. The American Heritage Dictionary refers tele as distance or distant. So even a zoom lens with say 170mm-500mm could be called as a tele-zoom lens.

  • J. Sanders July 12, 2007 10:21 pm

    I have a question about macro lenses and portrait lenses.
    When is a macrolens called a macrolens and when is a portrait lens called a portraitlens? Does it depend on the focal length? The clossenes you can get to the object?
    I miss a bit explenation about this.

  • FFred June 27, 2007 09:28 pm

    Macro lenses are definitely a special case. A macro lens will project the subject at a 1:1 ratio or larger on the focusing surface (film or sensor). This requires a prime lens. A zoom with a "macro" setting doesn't actually do macrophotography, just close ups, or what is sometimes called "proxyphotography".

  • Rudolf Leitgeb June 22, 2007 10:32 pm

    Things that weren't mentioned here (and also in related articles), but should be noted:

    - Wide angle lenses are frequently bought so one can do group photos in tight environments. Note, that the shorter the focal length gets, the worse the distortion gets (and that's not a flaw of the lens, that's just optics laws), rendering those group photos ugly to useless. If you think you need such a lens for that purpose, at least try them out before you buy them!

    - A zoom range that's less than 1:2 is almost worthless, it's so hard to see the difference when you zoom. Most of the time it's better to take a fixed focal length lens at the wider end and crop the frame later. Multimegapixelcameras together with sharp lenses allow for that without serious loss of image quality.

    - If you are shopping for a tele lens, make sure it's not too long because you can't use it hand held (unless you get really pricey IS/VFR lens). Using a long tele lens on a tripod is particularly tedious because the frame is so tight that it's hard to find you target if it moves fast.

    - If you get a fast lens, you won't use it for low light environments too often, the depth of focus is just ridiculously thin (think a few cm, if that). A main advantage of fast lenses is that they allow you to focus at much lower light. Also they focus much more accurately at any light condition.

    - If you are a beginner, don't waste your money on expensive lenses. The main cause for lost or poor photos will not be the poor kit lens but the fact, that it takes so long to get your camera ready and mistakes like focussing on the wrong spot, bad exposures, motion blur and other common mistakes. Once your skills improve, you can still upgrade and will probably get more and better lenses for the same or lower price.

    - If you are a beginner or intermediate photographer, don't worry too much about the build quality which is mentioned so often. Most of us spend so much money on camera + lens, that we take proper care. Only pros bang their cameras against rocks or stairs all the time :-)

    - Don't spend all your money on lenses, save some for a decent flash and a tripod. With a decent flash you can remove or lessen shadows of highly contrasty motives even during daylight (the cheap builtin flash is too weak for that). A tripods works wonders if you want at least some decent pictures where you also appear on :-)

    - If you shop for several lenses, make sure you don't have too many different filter thread diameters. You will eventually like the effect of polarizer filters, they are expensive and using them with filter size adapters is tedious.

    Note, that all these recommendations apply mostly to newcomers, pros may have totally different priorities.

  • Phil June 20, 2007 10:52 am

    I could see possibly calling out macro lenses as a special case. Other than that, I'm in agreement with Luis.

  • Andrew Ferguson June 19, 2007 05:29 am

    Solid article, but it sounds like theres a lot of confusion over your use of 'Telephoto zoom lenses' for that one section.

    I'm with the majority of the commenters here, zoom and telephoto are two distinct separate qualitative categories. People get them confused a lot though.

    Silverhalide makes a good point; why bother separating out kit lenses as a separate category? They aren't really. They're often just standard zooms of a lower quality.

  • Silverhalide June 19, 2007 04:44 am

    I want to second Luis Cruz's classification.

    Zoom is definately distinct from telephoto.

    For example, the Canon EF-S 10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 is zoom, but nowhere near being telephoto; it's actually an ultrawide through wide zoom.

    And a EF 400mm f/5.6 is definately telephoto, but not a zoom.

    Also when you see a point and shoot that says 4x zoom, all that is saying is the range from narrow to wide is four times. The 10-22mm lens mentioned above is a 2.2 time zoom (22mm/10mm), but again, isn't telephoto. When designing a zoom, the manufacturer needs to optimize focusing, sharpness, chromatic aberation, and other optical qualities over a range of focal lengths. It is generally thought that ranges of more than 3.5x have to make significant compromises, and image quality will suffer.

    Therefore, while your 18-200mm f/4.5-5.6 lens (an 11x zoom) may be convenient, it probably won't provide as good quality an image as two or three zoom lenses, each covering a portion of that range (for example, 18-55, 35-85, 70-200). The ultimate in quality would be a collection of primes: 20, 28, 35, 50, 85, 135, 200; however, these six lenses are nowhere as convenient as one 18-200mm.

    I would also question identifying kit lens as a separate category. All that kit lens implies is that it came with the body. In the past kit lenses were typically a 50mm. Generally now it is a standard range zoom. The other common thing is that the kit is typically a fairly inexpensive lens.


  • Marie June 19, 2007 01:26 am

    Although prime lenses lack zoom, aren't they built for speed (f1.2, f1.4, f1.8, etc)? I'm not sure if they make zoom lenses that fast. I see that as a pretty big selling point.

  • Dr. Tan June 18, 2007 08:13 pm

    Speaking of kit lenses..

    When I just got my DSLR, I was itching the whole world for some money to upgrade because of my friend's poison. But looking back now, it isn't that bad. The images even beat my brother's FZ-30. Of course now that the lens is broken, a new L lens is coming :D

  • Luis Cruz June 18, 2007 05:53 pm

    I think we're misusing some terms here... zoom and telephoto are separate terms. Zoom refers to the "travel" of a lens - the ratio between its shortest focal length and its longest. Telephoto refers to the range of the lens.

    There are prime lenses and there are zoom lenses. Those are the two basic types of lenses.

    Prime lenses, as described, have only one focal length.

    Zoom lenses, on the other hand, can be adjusted to cover a range of focal lengths.

    Now that we've tackled the types of lenses, we can go on to another characteristic - range.

    There are four general ranges of lenses: wide, normal, short telephoto, and long telephoto.

    The two types of lenses (primes and zooms) can fall into any of these ranges.

    I'll explain the normal range - and the rest should be self-explanatory.

    A normal lens is one that approximates normal vision - it depicts in the camera pretty much what we see with our own eyes. On a 35mm camera, this is a 50mm lens. On DSLRs, this is something between 30mm and, in the case of full-frame models, 50mm.

    For zooms, a normal zoom is one that stays in the normal neighborhood - think of 24mm to 70mm as the normal range.

    Also, zoom lenses can cover more than one range. A typical kit lens at 17-55 for example, covers some of the wide and normal ranges. An 18-200 covers wide, normal, and short telephoto.

    Anyway, that's my (more than) 2 cents worth.

  • conholster June 18, 2007 03:17 pm

    "But isn’t a not exactly top of the line lens better than no lens at all?"
    Yea, sure it is, like a good photographer will get a good shot with any gear, the shitty photographer buys Canon 'L' lenses.. ;)

  • Chris Osborne June 18, 2007 01:05 pm

    I'll agree with you that the kit lenses generally aren't that good. And I've hardly touched mine since I got it. But isn't a not exactly top of the line lens better than no lens at all?

  • Geoff Wilson June 18, 2007 11:39 am

    "Standard lens" or "Normal lens" is actually one that does not distort the perception of perspective. As you noted, going wider can produce some visual distortion. Going to a longer lens produces compression of the perspective. This is why a longer lens is typically used for portraits, as the compression is pleasing to the eye for faces.

    On a 35mm camera, the 50mm lens is considered to be normal/standard. With the different crop factors for DSLRs the focal length for normal is different.

    See wikipedia for details: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Normal_lens

  • Garrett June 18, 2007 09:59 am

    I agree with Damian.

    There are plenty of prime telephoto lenses out there. The wording is somewhat off-base. :)

  • Damian Robertson June 18, 2007 07:30 am

    Hang on, I thought telephoto lens referred to lenses of a high focal length (Wikipedia agrees). There's often confusion between the words "telephoto" and "zoom" and I don't think this helps.

  • AC June 17, 2007 11:56 pm

    I am thinking of upgrading to a DSLR soon - so this makes for a very interesting read. Thanks.

  • Puplet June 17, 2007 09:57 pm

    Two obvious omissions:

    Teleconverters: lenses that don't do anything themselves but, once attached to the back of a lens, magnify the final image.

    Legacy lenses: old manual focus lenses from the days of film cameras that can (with an adapter if necessary) be mounted on dSLRs.

    I'd also add that macro lenses are usually fantastic optically and make for great protrait lenses also.