Camera Lenses 101

Ways to improve your photography by changing the lenses you use.

Zooms, telephoto, wide angle lenses? Ever feel confused about how to use different lenses or what the difference might be between them? Here is an easy primer on what camera lenses are all about.

Speaking in very general terms, here are some of the characteristics of wide lenses and long lenses:


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  • Have a wider field of view so you see more in the frame
  • Exaggerate. If you want to make someone’s nose look big, use a very wide lens and get close to their face. The widest lenses are called “fish eye” lenses and are often used for security cameras
  • Extend the background, making things close to your subject look very far away.
  • Make backgrounds stay more in focus
  • Are great for landscapes



  • Shoot a narrow field of view, making things that are farther away look closer
  • Allow you to stand farther away from the subject. This can be especially useful when shooting pictures of animals of your self-conscious nephew
  • Compress the background, making things far in the background look closer.
  • Make backgrounds go more out of focus, isolating the subject more from the background.
  • Are great for flattering portraits



Wide Angle Lens


Long (telephoto) lens

The top picture was made using the widest lens on my point-and-shoot (usually, this is the setting you get when you turn on the camera). The second shot is virtually the same but I moved about 6 feet away from the subject and zoomed in all the way. This technique isolates the subject from the background and makes it pop. What do I mean by “pop?” I mean that you don’t notice the background as much and the camera is what your eye focuses on. It pops from the soft-focus background. This is called manipulating “depth of field.” (See next week’s article about depth of field). You can also see how the long lens shot has a softer look. Do you see how the front of the lens is more exaggerated with the wide lens? It may be that you want that exaggerated look, and now you know how to achieve it. But for a portrait, that might not be what you’re aiming towards.

Simply altering your choice of lens can make a big impact on your photography.


Long (Telephoto) Lens
One of the most common mistakes for family photographs is that people turn on the camera, stand about 4-feet from their subjects and shoot. By shooting this way, the backgrounds are always in focus (making family members blend into the background, and distracting you from their faces) and the wide lens is often unflattering on faces.


A simple fix of moving the camera farther away from the subject and zooming in will make family photos instantly better. Do you see how the photo above on the right is flattering to all and your focus is on their faces and not the tree and fence in the background as in the picture on the left?
Another way to improve family photos using lenses is to move in closer when shooting children and filling the frame with their faces. By using a wide lens and moving very close to the child, you will create a more intimate shot. Another benefit to shooting children this way is that the wide lens will help the shot stay in focus when the kids move around.

The best way to test these tips is to practice. The next time you’re confronted with a family photo situation, experiment with different lenses and move your body to different positions, either closer to or farther from the subject.

There’s also no reason that you have to take only one shot for a family portrait. Why not shoot 6 or 7? It might be a little irritating for the people in the shot at first, but they’ll be so pleased with how great the shots turn out, they won’t remember that they had to sit through half a dozen clicks of your camera