If you want to make it as a photographer, or just take high-quality photos as a hobby, then you need to get familiar with camera equipment such as lenses.

You can get started without giving much thought to photo accessories and lenses, and take eye-catching photos, but sooner or later you’ll need to experiment with different lenses and other photography equipment.

Why?

Because lenses are what allow you to see the world in different ways, hence the expressions about seeing situations through a different lens.

You can have a fantastic idea for a photo in which you capture a stick insect strutting its stuff on a tree branch, but if you don’t have the right lens for that the photo won’t match up to your expectations. It's just as important as other factors such as white balance and autofocus for example.

So it’s important to know, even as a beginner, what photography accessories and lenses are and how they can help you take better photos. In this guide, we’ll discuss this topic, as well as how to find the perfect lens factoring in your preferences, and the equipment you currently own.

zoom lens
A zoom lens is a good option if you want flexibility with your photoshoots. Unsplash
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What Does a Lens Do?

To give a brief definition, the lens is what illuminates a set focal point, and sends light to the camera sensor.

Contrary to what most beginners think, the lens can be as important if not more than the camera itself when it comes to determining image quality.

It’s easy to get sucked into the myriad features and bells and whistles of various cameras when you first start out, but you’re arguably better served hunting for the right lenses in the beginning.

Splashing out somewhere in the region of £1,000+ on a high-end camera will certainly increase your options and help you take better photos in various ways, but investing in a more affordable camera and a few different lenses could offer your more value for your money.

In fact, many photographers will tell you that your camera is only going to be as good as your lens.

When you think about it like this, the lens takes on a whole new level of importance.

If you’re on a limited budget and you’re wondering what your first purchase should be, it might just be worth spending a little more on lenses than you initially thought.

Of course, any old lens isn’t going to miraculously help you take better photos, you need to be clear on what kind of lens you need.

How do you figure out what the perfect lens is for your needs?

Well, you need to consider everything from the type of camera you’re using, to the types of photos you’re planning on taking. Then, when you narrow it down to a specific type of lens, you’re going to want to dig into the details such as focal length and aperture settings.

Type of Camera

compact camera
A compact camera like this one will have a fixed prime lens, which isn't what you want if you want to experiment with different lenses. Unsplash

First things first, there’s no point even thinking about lenses if you have a compact camera or a camera with a fixed prime lens.

Cameras with fixed lenses will have the lens they came with, and that’s about it.

If you want to be able to switch out lenses and get creative with your photos, you need to invest in a camera that allows for interchangeable lenses. This includes mirrorless and DSLR cameras, which are popular cameras to look at due to their versatility.

Once you know you have a camera that allows you to switch out the lens, you’re more or less free to pick and choose your favourite lenses.

There is a caveat, though.

You have to stay loyal to the brand of your camera. That is to say, you can’t buy a Canon camera and then expect a Nikon lens to fit it. As such, it might even be worth your time to browse a camera manufacturer’s lenses and which would be compatible with the camera you’re interested in before you part with your cash.

Types of Lens

Now here’s where things start to get interesting.

There isn’t just one type of lens out there, but many, which all fall into two categories: prime and zoom.

Prime - A prime lens refers to any lens that has a fixed zoom, or focal length. This is usually what compact cameras are fitted with, meaning you won’t be able to zoom in or out. They can be quicker to use though, so it’s worth considering if you like to draw your camera like a pistol in a Western film when you take photos.

Zoom - A zoom lens is the type of lens that allows you to scroll through various zoom lengths so you can capture subjects both near and far. This type of lens affords the photographer an extra degree of flexibility, though they are heavier lenses.

So now that you know the two main types of lenses, we’re going to take a look at various prime and zoom lenses that are best suited to different styles of photography.

  • Macro Lens

The macro lens is a specialist lens that is used in macro photography to make tiny subjects appear lifesize. It’s the type of lens that allows you to focus on subjects that are as close as 8-12 inches away, and this is what helps you make a humble ant look like an intimidating creature.

If you’re interested in close-up nature photography, with the subjects being flowers, bees, and everything in between, then you need a macro lens.

  •  Wide Angle Lens

The wide-angle lens can be considered the polar opposite of the macro lens.

Instead of allowing you to get up close and personal with your subjects, this is a lens that opens up your view to vast, sweeping landscapes.

If you’re interested in nature, but not the small creatures that inhabit it, then this is a great lens to have in your arsenal. The lens will keep more or less everything in frame in focus, which makes it good for street scenes and rolling hills.

  •  Telephoto lenses

The telephoto lens is an excellent lens for those who like to capture subjects far off in the distance. It’s a great lens to have with you if you’re ever lucky enough to go on a safari, for example.

While it offers exceptional magnification though, you’ll have to work with a narrow field of view as a trade-off.

  •  Basic Lenses

Your basic lens is any lens that’s between 35mm-85mm in focal length.

This standard lens is adaptable to most situations, giving you the ability to zoom in on your subjects, or take a step back and get a wide-angle view of landscapes.

  • Other Lenses

There are other lenses that are less commonly used, such as the infrared and fisheye lenses.

The infrared lens allows you to take infrared photos for an interesting effect, whereas the fisheye lens lets you take photos with an exceptionally wide-angle.

Lens Buyer’s Guide

aperture
Aperture refers to how much light comes into the camera, which can affect your shots drastically. Unsplash

Ok so now you have a more concrete idea of what type of camera and lens you need to get started out.

Now, it’s time to get into the nitty-gritty and assess the two main factors that affect the quality of a lens.

These terms may seem alien at first, but over time you’ll understand them in more depth and knowing a bit about them now can make a big difference when you set out on your first photography mission.

Focal Length

Arguably the most important factor when considering what lens you need to buy is the focal length.

The focal length refers to the angle of view you will get with the lens, whether wide or narrow.

The larger the number you see (focal length is measured in millimetres), the narrower the angle of view is going to be.

So if you want to take photos of landscapes in nature, your best bet is to invest in a lens with a low focal length number as that will give you a wide-angle view.

If you want to be able to take photos of distant subjects, you’ll be looking for a higher focal length number as that will give you a narrow field of view and let you zoom in to a greater degree.

Aperture

Aperture is arguably responsible for the most confusing part of lenses.

Whenever you see a lens listed on an online website or in-store, you’ll see that it has an ‘f’ followed by a forward dash and a number with a decimal point. This is referred to as an f stop, and it tells you about the aperture of the lens.

Basically, if you have a small f stop number such as f/1.4 you’ll have a wide aperture, which allows you to snapshots with blurry backgrounds. At the other end, you have high f stop numbers such as f/11 which gives you a narrow aperture.

With aperture, another confusing element is that the lower the number the wider the aperture opens, which may seem counterintuitive.

Learning about lenses can take time, and it might take some one-on-one tuition to really come to terms with what they can do. You can work with a photography tutor through Superprof, and take classes either online or in person.

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Samuel

Sam is an English teaching assistant and freelance writer based in southern Spain. He enjoys exploring new places and cultures, and picking up languages along the way.