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Header graphic for a photography blog post about how to choose the correct lens - wide, standard or telephoto.

Choosing Lenses: From Wide to Telephoto

beginners composition creative gear landscape technique tips Feb 07, 2024

When embarking on a photographic assignment, the choice of lens is as crucial as the camera itself. Different lenses open up various possibilities, allowing photographers to capture their subjects in distinct ways. In the realms of landscape, wildlife, and sports photography, the debate often centres around wide-angle versus telephoto lenses, but sometimes stepping away from convention can bring unexpected, and creative, results. Each type of lens brings its own unique strengths to the table, and understanding these can greatly enhance your photographic outcomes.


Wide-Angle Lenses: Masters of Landscape


Wide-angle lenses, typically ranging from about 10mm to 35mm in focal length, are the go-to choice for landscape photographers. Their wide field of view allows for capturing expansive scenes, from the vastness of open landscapes to the frenetic chaos of urban scenes or the crispness of contemporary architecture.


Depth of Field: These lenses offer a deep depth of field, ensuring that both the foreground and background elements are in focus, adding depth and context to the scene.


Exaggeration of Space: Wide angles can exaggerate the sense of space and depth, making objects closer to the lens appear more prominent and creating a sense of drama.


Creative Distortion: While they can cause some distortion at the edges, this can be used creatively, especially in architectural and street photography, to add a unique sense of altered perspective.



Standard Lenses: The Versatile Middle Ground


Nestled between the wide-angle and telephoto lenses is the often-overlooked but incredibly versatile category of standard lenses, typically ranging from about 35mm to 70mm in focal length. These lenses are known for their ability to closely replicate the human eye's field of view, making them a favorite for various photographic styles, including street, portrait, and everyday photography.


Natural Perspective: Standard lenses offer a field of view that feels natural and comfortable to the viewer, closely mirroring human vision. This makes them ideal for capturing images that feel relatable and true to life.


Versatility: Their moderate focal length makes standard lenses incredibly versatile, suitable for a wide range of photography genres. They're excellent for portraits, street scenes, and even landscapes when you want a more contained perspective.


Minimal Distortion: Unlike wide-angle lenses, standard lenses have minimal distortion, which is particularly important in portrait photography where maintaining natural facial features is key.


Portability: Standard lenses are generally compact and lightweight, making them a great option for photographers who prefer to travel light or for those who want a single, versatile lens for different types of photography.


Aperture and Depth of Field: Many standard lenses come with a wide maximum aperture, allowing for significant control over depth of field. This can be used creatively to isolate subjects with a beautifully blurred background or keep everything in sharp focus for more detailed shots.


Low-Light Performance: With wide apertures, standard lenses perform well in low-light conditions, allowing for faster shutter speeds and lower ISO settings.


When to Choose a Standard Lens:


Street Photography: Capturing everyday life with a perspective that viewers find instinctively familiar.

Portraiture: Creating natural, distortion-free portraits, especially when space is limited.

General Photography: When you need one lens that can do it all, from candid shots to landscapes.

Low-Light Situations: Their wide apertures make standard lenses suitable for indoor and evening photography.


In essence, the standard lens is a jack-of-all-trades in the lens world. It may not offer the dramatic perspectives of wide-angle lenses or the reach of telephotos, but its strength lies in its versatility and natural perspective. For many photographers, a standard lens is an indispensable tool in their kit, ready to tackle a wide array of photographic challenges with proficiency. So, whether you're just starting out or looking to simplify your gear without sacrificing quality, a standard lens might just be the perfect addition to your photographic arsenal.



Telephoto Lenses: The Detail Seekers


Telephoto lenses, generally ranging from 70mm to 300mm or even longer, are prized in wildlife and sports photography. They allow photographers to capture distant subjects with clarity and detail, bringing viewers up close to the action. Many telephoto lenses are actually zoom models, with a range of focal lengths to choose from.


Zooming In: Telephoto lenses enable photographers to zoom in on distant subjects, essential for wildlife and sports photography where getting physically close isn’t possible or safe.


Isolating Subjects: With their shallower depth of field, telephoto lenses are excellent for isolating the subject from the background, creating a focus point and a pleasing bokeh effect.


Compression Effect: These lenses can compress the sense of space, making distant objects appear closer together, which can be used to great effect in creating a sense of intimacy or drama in the image. The compression effect of a moderate telephoto lens, perhaps around 100mm, can be particularly flattering for portraits.


Considerations for Lens Choice


When selecting between a wide-angle and a telephoto lens, consider the following factors:


Subject Matter: If your interest lies in capturing landscapes, cityscapes, or working in confined spaces, a wide-angle lens is preferable. For wildlife, sports, or any situation where you will be shooting at some distance from your subject, a telephoto lens is more appropriate.


Portability and Weight: Wide-angle lenses are generally lighter and more compact, making them easy to carry on long hikes or travels. Telephoto lenses, especially those with longer focal lengths, can be heavier and may require additional support like a tripod.


Depth of Field Requirements: If you require a deeper depth of field to keep more of your scene in focus, a wide-angle lens is the way to go. For a shallower depth of field to highlight your subject against a blurred background, choose a telephoto lens - preferably with a large maximum aperture such as f2.8.


Budget and Cost: Lenses can vary significantly in price. Professional-grade telephoto lenses, especially those with longer focal lengths and faster apertures, can be quite expensive. It’s important to balance your budget with your photographic needs.



In summary, there’s a lens for every situation. Both wide-angle and telephoto lenses offer unique advantages for different types of photography, but don’t overlook the standard lens for everyday versatility. The wide-angle lens is a landscape photographer’s best friend, offering a vast field of view and deep depth of field, while the telephoto lens is indispensable for wildlife and sports photographers, providing the ability to zoom in and isolate subjects. Your choice will largely depend on your specific photographic interests, the typical subjects you shoot, and the creative effects you wish to achieve. By understanding the strengths and limitations of each lens type, you can make an informed decision that elevates your photography and helps you capture the world in your unique way. But as with any creative endeavour, don't be afraid to break the rules.


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