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Choosing the right lens for the task can become a complex trade-off between cost, size, weight, lens speed and image quality. This tutorial aims to improve understanding by providing an introductory overview of concepts relating to image quality, focal length, perspective, prime vs. zoom lenses and aperture or f-number. All but the simplest cameras contain lenses which are actually comprised of several "lens elements." Each of these elements aims to direct the path of light rays such that they recreate the image as accurately as possible on the digital sensor. The goal is to minimize aberrations, while still utilizing the fewest and least expensive elements.
Optical aberrations occur when points of the image do not translate back onto single points after passing through the lens, causing image blurring, reduced contrast or misalignment of colors (chromatic aberration). Lenses may also suffer from uneven, radially decreasing image brightness (vignetting) or distortion. Try moving your mouse over each of the options below to see how these can impact image quality for extreme cases.
The focal length of a lens determines its angle of view. Some of these lens artifacts may not be as objectionable as others. when a lens is referred to as having lower optical quality than another lens. resolution & contrast. Therefore longer focal lengths still result in narrower angles of view.Loss of Contrast Original Image Chromatic Aberration Vignetting Blurring Distortion Original Any of the above problems is present to some degree with any lens. and thus also how much the subject will be magnified for a given photographic position. Wide angle lenses have small focal lengths. In the rest of this tutorial. Note: The location where light rays cross is not necessarily equal to the focal length. as shown above. Required Focal Length Calculator Subject Distance: Subject Size: Camera Type: þÿ þÿ þÿ þÿ þÿ þÿ Approximate Required Focal Length: . this is manifested as some combination of the above artifacts. depending on the subject matter. as depicted. but is instead roughly proportional to this distance. while telephoto lenses have larger corresponding focal lengths. please see the tutorial on camera lens quality: MTF. Note: For a much more quantitative and technical discussion of the above topic.
and actual uses may vary considerably. perspective only changes with one's location relative to their subject. If one tries to achieve the same subjects filling the frame with both a wide angle and telephoto lens. Many will say that focal length also determines the perspective of an image.therefore requiring a closer position for the wider angle lens. The relative sizes of objects change such that the distant doorway becomes smaller relative to the nearby lamps. Perspective control can be a powerful compositional tool in photography. and often determines one's choice in focal length (when one can photograph from any position). The following table provides a overview of what focal lengths are required to be considered a wide angle or telephoto lens. Move your mouse over the above image to view an exaggerated perspective due to a wider angle lens. whereas the telephoto lens compresses or flattens perspective. many use telephoto lenses in distant landscapes to compress perspective. Please note that focal lengths listed are just rough ranges. Note how the subjects within the frame remain nearly identical-. in addition to their typical uses.Note: Calculator assumes that camera is oriented such that the maximum subject dimension given by "subject size" is in the camera's longest dimension. but does take into account small changes in the angle of view due to focusing distance. but strictly speaking. Bird & Wildlife . the wide angle lens exaggerates or stretches perspective. Calculator not intended for use in extreme macro photography. Lens Focal Length* Less than 21 mm 21-35 mm 35-70 mm 70-135 mm 135-300+ mm Terminology Extreme Wide Angle Wide Angle Normal Medium Telephoto Telephoto Typical Photography Architecture Landscape Street & Documentary Portraiture Sports. then perspective does indeed change because one is forced to move closer or further from their subject. For these scenarios only. for example.
To adjust the above numbers for your camera. when shining this pointer at a nearby object its bright spot ordinarily jumps around less than for objects further away. Wide angle lenses are generally more resistant to flare. See thetutorial on reducing camera shake with hand-held photos for more on this topic. one needs to convert into a 35 mm equivalent focal length. whereas this cannot be changed with a "prime" or fixed focal length lens. when using a 200 mm focal length on a 35 mm camera. Think of this as if one were trying to hold a laser pointer steady. Telephoto lenses are more susceptible to camera shake since small hand movements become magnified within the image. the exposure time needs to be at least as fast as one over the focal length in seconds. the laser's bright spot would not change with distance. If you have a compact or digital SLR camera. For users of digital cameras with cropped sensors. some may be able to hand hold a shot for much longer or shorter times than this rule estimates.*Note: Lens focal lengths are for 35 mm equivalent cameras. the exposure time needs to be at least 1/200 seconds-otherwise blurring may be hard to avoid. then you likely have a different sensor size. partially because the designers assume that the sun is more likely to be within the frame for a wider angle of view. Other factors may also be influenced by lens focal length. This is primarily because slight rotational vibrations are magnified greatly with distance. In other words. A common rule of thumb for estimating how fast the exposure needs to be for a given focal length is the one over focal length rule. similar to the shakiness experience while trying to look through binoculars with a large zoom. The primary advantage . A zoom lens is one where the photographer can vary the focal length within a pre-defined range. whereas if only up and down or side to side vibrations were present. Longer focal lengths require shorter exposure times to minimize burring caused by shaky hands. Keep in mind that this rule is just for rough guidance. please use the focal length converter in the tutorial on digital camera sensor sizes. This states that for a 35 mm camera. A final consideration is that medium and telephoto lenses generally yield better optical quality for similar price ranges. The focal length of a lens may also have a significant impact on how easy it is to achieve a sharp handheld photograph.
This advantage is often critical for dynamic subject matter. Two Options Available with a Zoom Lens: Change of Composition Change of Perspective Why would one intentionally restrict their options by using a prime lens? Prime lenses existed long before zoom lenses were available. to achieve the opposite perspective effect. If a prime lens were used. the best prime lenses almost always offer better light-gathering ability (larger maximum aperture) than the fastest zoom lenses-. Alternatively. Keep in mind that using a zoom lens does not necessarily mean that one no longer has to change their position. the change of perspective was achieved by zooming out and getting closer to the subject.often critical for low-light sports/theater photography. then a prime lens with a similar focal length will be significantly smaller and lighter. An inexpensive prime lens can generally provide as good (or better) image quality as a high-end zoom lens. weight and speed. one often had to be willing to sacrifice a significant amount of optical quality. Finally. The primary advantages of prime lenses are in cost. Similar to the example in the previous section. one could have zoomed in and gotten further from the subject. . more modern high-end zoom lenses generally do not produce noticeably lower image quality.of a zoom lens is that it is easier to achieve a variety of compositions or perspectives (since lens changes are not necessary). such as in photojournalism and children's photography. However. zooms just increase flexibility. and still offer many advantages over their more modern counterparts. When zoom lenses first arrived on the market. the original position is shown along with two alternatives using a zoom lens. Additionally. In the example below. unless scrutinized by the trained eye (or in a very large print). then a change of composition would not have been possible without cropping the image (if a tighter composition were desirable). and when a shallow depth of field is necessary. if only a small fraction of the focal length range is necessary for a zoom lens.
Note that larger aperture openings are defined to have lower f-numbers (often very confusing). Additionally. respectively. which is often listed on the box along with focal length(s). etc.digital zoom is not the same as optical zoom. aperture opening (iris) is rarely a perfect circle. Corresponding Impact on Other Properties: Light-Gathering Area Required Shutter Speed (Aperture Size) Smaller Larger Slower Faster f-# Depth of Field Wider Narrower Higher Lower When one is considering purchasing a lens. Therefore. Lenses with a greater range of aperture settings provide greater artistic flexibility. The aperture range of a lens refers to the amount that the lens can open up or close down to let in more or less light. . 4X. the shutter speed can be made faster for the same exposure. Note: Above comparison is qualitative. zoom designation refer to the ratio between the longest and shortest focal lengths. Lenses with larger apertures are also described as being "faster. as the former only enlarges the image through interpolation." because for a given ISO speed. Apertures are listed in terms of f-numbers. due to the presence of 5-8 blade-like lens diaphragms.For compact digital cameras. lenses listed with a 3X. in terms of both exposure options and depth of field. The maximum aperture is perhaps the most important lens aperture specification. specifications ordinarily list the maximum (and maybe minimum) available apertures. Read the fine-print to ensure you are not misled. which quantitatively describe relative light-gathering area (depicted below). a concept also termed the depth of field. a smaller aperture means that objects can be in focus over a wider range of distance. the rest of this tutorial refers to lenses in terms of their aperture size. a larger zoom designation does not necessarily mean that the image can be magnified any more (since that zoom may just have a wider angle of view when fully zoomed out). These two terms are often mistakenly interchanged. Additionally.
For digital SLR cameras.0 f/2. then smaller minimum aperture (larger maximum f-number) lenses allow for a wider depth of field. respectively.6 Relative Light-Gathering Ability 32X 16X 8X 4X 2X 1X Typical Lens Types Fastest Available Prime Lenses (for Consumer Use) Fast Prime Lenses Fastest Zoom Lenses (for Constant Aperture) Light Weight Zoom Lenses or Extreme Telephoto Primes Minimum apertures for lenses are generally nowhere near as important as maximum apertures. lenses with larger maximum apertures provide significantly brighter viewfinder images -.0 f/5. Manual focusing is also easier because the image in the viewfinder has a narrower depth of field (thus making it more visible when objects come into or out of focus).8).8 f/4.4 f/2. and because these may require prohibitively long exposure times.An f-number of X may also be displayed as 1:X (instead of f/X). For cases where extreme depth of field is desired.0 f/1. This is primarily because the minimum apertures are rarely used due to photo blurring from lens diffraction.8 lens (whose box is also shown above and lists f/2. .possibly critical for night and low-light photography. Typical Maximum Apertures f/1. in order to be capable of a narrower depth of field or a faster shutter speed. as shown below for the Canon 70200 f/2. These also often give faster and more accurate auto-focusing in lowlight. The narrow depth of field in a portrait helps isolate the subject from their background. Portrait and indoor sports/theater photography often requires lenses with very large maximum apertures.
8 photograph.0 or f/1. or require carrying equipment for extended periods of time. Also note that just because the maximum aperture of a lens may not be used. -Back to Photography Tutorials- • .8.0 would mean that the maximum available aperture gradually changes from f/2.0 on a lens with a maximum aperture of f/2. some zoom lenses on digital SLR and compact digital cameras often list a range of maximum aperture. The primary benefit of having a zoom lens with a constant maximum aperture is that exposure settings are more predictable.0 (at full zoom). This *may* therefore mean that if one wanted the best quality f/2.0 (fully zoomed out) to f/3. hiking and travel photography because all of these often utilize heavier lenses. size and weight.0-3. Want to learn more? Discuss this and other articles in our digital photography forums. larger and more expensive. Lenses with larger maximum apertures are typically much heavier. a f/2.4 lens may yield higher quality than a lens with a maximum aperture of f/2. not overall range. regardless of focal length. Other considerations include cost. Lenses typically have fewer aberrations when they perform the exposure stopped down one or two f-stops from their maximum aperture (such as using a setting of f/4.0). A range of f/2.Finally. this does not necessarily mean that this lens is not necessary. because this may depend on how far one has zoomed in or out. Size/weight may be critical for wildlife. These aperture ranges therefore refer only to the range of maximum aperture.