Using different lenses can be quite challenging for novice photographers. Do you really need a wide angle lens and telephoto? Or you can do just fine with ‘normal’ lenses. Mastering photography skills can be demanding. You need pretty expensive gear, and you need a lot of it. Starting with a good camera, you were told that you need a camera tripod, remote shutter release, a couple of lenses, camera bag, cleaning kit, memory cards, battery chargers, external flash… It seems like a never-ending list. Well, here’s a piece of advice: forget about the list.
Great equipment won’t make you a decent photographer instantly. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with having a top-notch gear from the start. Actually, you need to have a decent camera. It is just that your focus should be on practicing and learning instead of your gear.
So, to answer the question from above, if you are an absolute beginner you don’t need fancy and versatile lenses. But as you uncover the secrets of photography, and sharpen your skills, wide-angle lens and telephoto lenses will provide more options and more creativity.
“My inspiration has always been photography’s ability to stop time and reveal what the naked eye cannot see.” – Lois Greenfield
When it comes to wide angle lenses, newbies tend to use them for the wrong reasons. First of all, there’s no manual that will tell you this lens is for landscape, and that lens is for portraits or sports photography. Sure, there are some basic guidelines, but to use them properly you need to understand how lenses work first. Then you should consider what you want to achieve, what message to convey. After that, you choose the lens that will help you get the desired result. So, let’s see how lenses work.
Types of Lenses
There are three basic types of lenses: standard, wide angle lens and telephoto lenses. However, all lenses may come in two versions: prime and zoom.
Prime lenses don’t zoom. They have a fixed focal length. Without an ability to zoom in or out, you need to work harder to achieve the right exposure while maintaining your composition. I strongly recommend prime lenses for beginners. You won’t get lazy and you will get a better feel for all aspects of photography. You will master composition techniques and camera settings faster. And that is not all. You will never stop using prime lenses even when you include zoom lenses to your kit. Prime lenses are generally, faster, lighter, and produce superior image quality.
Zoom lenses have a range of focal lengths. So, you can zoom in or zoom out. A zoom lens provides more versatility. You don’t have to move to change the frame. Zoom lenses are heavier than prime ones but overall, you need less gear as one lens covers a wide range of options. You can also get creative with different compositions without moving. On the other hand, the image quality is somewhat lower. The more you approach range limits, the more noise you get in the image.
Standard or normal lenses produce images with an angle of view similar to the human eye. Strictly speaking, a standard lens has a focal length of 50mm. But, in practice, it covers a range from 35mm to 80mm. Anything below 35mm would be a wide angle lens. Anything above 80mm is a telephoto lens. Standard lenses are the most versatile lenses. Also, they produce pretty natural-looking images. You can shoot pretty much everything with standard lenses -from closeups to landscapes.
Usually, standard lenses are fast and work great in low light conditions. So, with standard lenses, you get pretty much a natural perspective, great image quality, and lots of possibilities.
The name says it all: wide angle lens captures images with a wide angle of view. It is a wider field of view than our eyes can see. It makes images a little unnatural, but we desire that effect in certain situations. The widest wide angle lens can capture the field of view up to 180 degrees! Anyway, wide angle lenses have focal lengths from 6mm to 35mm. Most photographers would say that ‘normal wide angle lenses have focal lengths between 24mm and 35mm. Ultra-wide angle lenses cover focal lengths between 14 and 24mm. Anything below 14 mm would be a fisheye lens. This division can vary, for example, some photographers consider all lenses with focal lengths below 24mm to be fisheye lenses. But, whatever you call them those are all wide angle lenses.
All of them will distort the images. It is your task to use that distortion to create a great composition and benefit from it. The wider the angle, the greater the distortion. Wide angle lenses exaggerate the distance between the foreground and the background. It means that subjects close to the camera will be magnified, while distant objects will be compressed and diminished. With wide angle lenses, you get a deeper depth of field. The result is a pretty much sharp image throughout. Actually, the sharpness decreases towards the edges of the frame. But it is slow, gradual, and almost unnoticeable drop. It works great for some landscape images. On the other hand, you can’t accentuate your subject by blurring the background.
Overall, it is a little bit tricky to use wide angle lenses. They offer a chance to create unique images, but it is easy to cross the line and get a grotesque result. So, you need to be careful and use them wisely.
Telephoto lenses have longer focal lengths. They create a narrow field of view. Telephoto lenses are divided into three groups: short, medium and super telephoto. Short telephoto lenses have focal lengths between 85mm and 135mm. Medium telephoto ranges from 135mm to 300mm. Super telephoto has focal lengths over 300mm. Telephoto lenses are great to capture distant subjects. That’s why they are called zoom lenses, too. They naturally zoom in the frame, but they can come in both prime and zoom version, just as other types of lenses. With these lenses, you can capture images from very far away, while keeping the sharpness. But, that’s not the only use of these lenses.
Telephoto lenses are the opposite to wide angle lenses, kind of. While wide angle lenses provide a deeper depth of field, telephoto lenses give a shallower depth of field. Wide angle lenses amplify the distance between the subject and the background, telephoto compresses the image and shortens the distance. And of course, you get a narrow field of view.
So, how does all this affects your images? Telephoto lenses flatten the image and the background appears to be closer to your subject. Also, you don’t have to do anything to blur your background. These things allow you to accentuate your subject, eliminate distractions, and do that from a fair distance! So, it is great and flattering for portraiture. Whenever you need nice bokeh telephoto lenses will do a great job. Don’t even think about serious wildlife and sports photography without a telephoto lens. Have you ever seen astonishing close shots of the Moon? Yes, that’s super telephoto lens at work. Astrophotography is yet another niche where you should use telephoto lenses.
When to Use Wide Angle Lenses
I’ve already said that using a wide angle lens is tricky. Most of the times you will be walking on a thin line between amazing photo and useless image that even an amateur would be ashamed of. So, it’s important to practice and persevere even when you fail. Even the best professional usually need at least several garbage shots to get the right one.
But, let’s take one step at a time. Wide angle lenses work great for landscapes, architecture, cityscapes, and interiors. The use of wide angle lens doesn’t stop there. But before you move on and dare to take on some artistic and creative uses, you need to master the basics.
A distortion is your best friend and your worst enemy when you use wide angle lenses. The closer you get to your subject, the greater the distortion. Now, you need to play this to your advantage. If your subject is a human it will look unnatural and strange. But, buildings, cars, or sand dunes can look unique and enhance the message you want to convey.
“Light makes photography. Embrace light. Admire it. Love it. But above all, know light. Know it for all you are worth, and you will know the key to photography.” – George Eastman
Landscapes, Distances, and Negative Spaces
When it comes to landscape photography wide angle lenses are a must. Capturing a waterfall at its full size, or any beautiful landscape with decent sharpness throughout the frame is impossible without a wide angle lens. You can also use these lenses to emphasize the foreground, while the background will appear smaller and further away. It allows you to create some unique compositions.
The exaggerated ratio between the foreground and background allows you to use negative space a lot. Actually, it is sometimes challenging to avoid empty spaces with such a wide field of view.
So, even though these lenses aren’t the most versatile ones, you have so many possibilities. You can fit in myriads of details or you can use negative space. It is all up to your imagination.
Interiors and Confined Spaces
Wide angle lenses come quite handy for some indoor shooting. It is not my favorite way to use these lenses, but I can’t deny they are convenient. For example, you can use a wide angle lens to capture the whole group at indoor celebrations. Real estate companies use these lenses to show the whole room, more or less. The room will appear bigger than it really is.
What to Avoid
A wide field of view allows you to fit more things into your frame. That is an advantage of wide angle lenses, but it can work against you sometimes. Including too many elements can produce distractions and some messy compositions. Be it your shadow, or anything else that will turn attention away from your main story. Creating a perfect composition can be challenging when your camera sees everything.
Lens flare is another common problem when using a wide angle lens. With a wide field of view, it can be hard to avoid the sun, but there is no magic solution here. You may choose a different part of the day, or try to block the sun with a tree or something else in your frame. For more tips on how to avoid lens flare read our article Lens Flare and How to Prevent It.
Avoid using filters. Simply, they don’t work great with wide angle lenses. It’s not like it is forbidden, but it is very tricky. In most cases, the vastness of the scene will prevent filters to do their job properly. This is even more true for polarising filters. Uneven brightness is the most likely outcome.
Vignetting is also common for wide angle lenses. It depends on lighting conditions and the quality of the lens. However, it is pretty easy to get rid of it using Photoshop or some other similar software.
Wide angle lenses are great for a wide range of photos. They create some unique effects to allow you to get very creative. However, overuse can lead to useless shots. Actually, in most of the situations, you can either create a unique and interesting image or ruin it. So, using a wide angle lens can be challenging and frustrating for beginners. But, once you master the settings and effects you will get a whole new world of possibilities in front of you.