FEATURED OCT 7 - WRITTEN BY Phyllis Davis

Photography for beginners: What is a camera lens and how to use them?

Photography for beginners: What is a camera lens and how to use them?

Photographic technique can only get you so far. Technique by itself—without passion or vision—is shallow and meaningless. Cameras don’t take photos; people do. That said, almost all photographers who create effective photos have mastered their craft. Sometimes I think of my camera as a musical instrument. If I want to be a virtuoso, I need to practice. Indeed, I take photos almost every day. If a week goes by in which I haven’t done much photography, then I feel rusty when I pick it up again. It takes a few hours for me to really feel comfortable and get back in my “groove.”

Understanding my camera and photographic technique leads to a compositional advantage. I know how the technical choices I make in the field will affect my compositions; I have an awareness of the “palette” of techniques available to me; and I can use my camera and its full range of photographic tools to enhance my compositions.

Another way to say this is that understanding photographic technique is necessary to being good at composition, but it’s not sufficient. Before you get to the more abstract and virtuoso aspects of photographic composition, you need to understand the notes—the basic elements of your craft.

So here’s the deal. Almost two-thirds of Creative Composition: Digital Photography Tips & Techniques covers photographic composition in a way that assumes you know photography basics. The first third is a kind of “cheat sheet”: It briefly covers what you need to know about technique to become adept at composition. Specifically, this section on technique and composition includes know-how on:

Photography for beginners: What is a camera lens and how to use them?

Again, these topics are covered because, while Creative Composition is not a book about exposure, for instance, you definitely need to know something about exposure to compose great photographs.

I put the images together using the Statistics script, which is available in the Extended versions of Photoshop. In other words, creating the gallery below required considerable technique in order to achieve the right exposures and to assemble the pieces that make up the image.

I needed technical “chops” to achieve this image, but I had to start out with a pre-visualization of what I wanted to achieve. Without foresight of where I was going, I could not have created these photos.

The photos on this article tell a story of working with your camera, and not against it. At best, a camera is an extension of you: your implant with digital image storage capabilities. When you are truly “in the zone,” your compositional decisions are achieved almost as fast as thought—which is good because light can change very quickly. If you hesitate, you may lose the decisive moment.

Photography for beginners: What is a camera lens and how to use them?

Lenses and Focal Lengths

Focal length is the distance from the end of the lens to the sensor. This measurement, in combination with the size of the sensor, determines whether a lens appears to bring things closer or makes them seem further away.

Normal lenses

Normal lenses

Normal lenses
Normal lenses

Normal lenses provide roughly the same angle of view as human sight, about 43 degrees. You can use a normal lens to make things seem, well, normal. Images, in terms of perspective and angle of coverage, will approximate human vision. If you are working with a 35mm film camera, a “normal” lens will have a focal length of about 50mm. 

Telephoto

Telephoto

Telephoto
Telephoto

Telephoto lenses bring things closer (think “telescope”). Telephoto lenses are good for isolating specific parts of a subject against an out-of-focus or blurry background. The optics of a telephoto lens work to compact lines of perspective. This effect can be used with moderate telephoto lenses to create flattering portraits, and, in some cases, to increase the attractiveness of landscapes. Moderate telephoto lenses have a focal length ranging from about 70mm to about 150mm, and stronger telephoto lenses go up from there.

Wide-angle

Wide-angle

Wide-angle
Wide-angle

Wide-angle lenses show a more broad view of the world than we are used to seeing. They are good for bringing expansive subjects into a single frame; show a cohesive view of a scene using the inherently high depth-of-field of wide-angle focal lengths. In 35mm terms, lenses in the 28mm to 40mm focal length range are considered moderate wide angle; focal lengths less than 21mm in 35mm terms are definitely extreme wide-angle.

Zoom lenses

Zoom lenses

Zoom lenses
Zoom lenses

Much of the photography you’ll do is with zoom lenses, which offer variable focal lengths. Some zoom lenses range from wide-angle though telephoto. So it’s not strictly correct to speak of “wide-angle” or “telephoto” lenses; it may really be the focal length setting on a zoom lens that one refers to. There are many special purpose lenses that can be used for creative compositional effects. Special purpose lenses that I use frequently include a macro lens, a fisheye lens, perspective-correcting lenses, and a Lensbaby.

Macro lenses

Macro lenses

Macro lenses
Macro lenses

Macro lenses are used to create close-up photos. A macro lens can have a telephoto, normal, or wide-angle focal length. Wide-angle macros are uncommon and undesirable. Macro lenses can also be used to take photos that are not close-up. They tend to have a crisp, but flat, overall look, which works well for detailed subjects, but is not flattering for portraits. Good macro lenses are designed to be optically first-rate when used with small apertures (which is often not the case with non-macro lenses).

Fisheye lenses

Fisheye lenses

Fisheye lenses
Fisheye lenses

Fisheye lenses are used to capture an extremely wide-angle hemispherical view with pronounced optical curvature.

Perspective correcting lenses

Perspective correcting lenses

Perspective correcting lenses
Perspective correcting lenses

 

Perspective correcting lenses and the Lensbaby allow you to move the barrel position around. Perspective correcting lenses can be precisely adjusted and are used to alter lines of perspective. The Lensbaby started out as a piece of optical glass at the end of a flexible hose! And while Lensbabies have come a long way from their origin, the concept of adjusting the lens tube to change the “sweet spot” of focus remains the same.

Sensor Size and Focal Length

Not all sensors are the same size. The smaller the sensor, the closer a given focal length lens brings you to your subject. For example, if a sensor has half the area of another sensor, then a specific focal length lens will bring you twice as close on a camera with the smaller sensor. Yet small sensors often have issues with noise and resolution. But that’s a different story for a different time.

In terms of focal length, smaller sensors are good for telephoto lenses and hard on wide-angles; larger sensors make for good wide-angle optics but diminish the potency of telephoto lenses.

Since different cameras have different sized sensors—unlike in the days of film—it is not possible to have a uniform vocabulary of lens focal lengths. So people compare focal lengths to their 35mm film equivalent by adjusting for the sensor size. This is why I introduced 35mm focal length equivalents in my description of normal, telephoto, and wide-angle optics.

To make the comparison with 35mm film focal lengths, you need to know the ratio of your sensor to a frame of 35mm film, which is called the focal-length equivalency. The photos in this article were created using Nikon DSLRs with a 1.5 times 35mm focal-length equivalency. To find out how the focal lengths I used compare with 35mm focal lengths, multiply my focal lengths by 1.5.

To compute the comparable focal length on your own camera, you need to know the focal-length equivalency factor of your sensor. Check your camera manual for this information.

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