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Digital Camera Lenses

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This entry will attempt to cover points common to all Digital SLRs and Digital Bridge Cameras. The detail of camera lenses is already covered in the Photographic Lenses Entry so for the technicalities please refer to that. This Entry is intended as a guide to what is available and makes no recommendations other than you think carefully about what you need for your photography.

Digital Bridge Cameras and Lens Options

Digital Bridge Cameras have a hybrid lens that attempts to combine all the features of several lenses in the one lens.

These hybrid lenses begin with a wide angle capability and work up to magnifications of around 40×, or better. This is more than adequate for most users. If you decide to buy a Bridge Camera check what the lens is capable of, and make sure it has the ability to do what you want, plus a bit more.

Lenses fitted to Digital Bridge Cameras can have an amazing range: from a fisheye1 wide angle to 56× zoom. As the camera's focus is automatic and any zoom function may be powered it is relatively easy to use. However, remember that extreme zoom is not practical in low light without a tripod.

Focal Length and Lens Magnification

As some people find this confusing, just a word to help dispel the mystery of the term × times magnification and mm focal length. To discover the × zoom of a 100mm lens compared to a 50mm standard lens is simple - just divide 100 by 50. Therefore a 100mm lens has an approximate magnification of 2×.

Similarly, a 50mm to 400mm zoom lens provides a normal view with a magnification of up to 8×. A Digital Bridge Camera lens with focal length 5mm to 90mm provides a wide angle view and a magnification of up to 18× in comparison with the 5mm wide angle view. Comparing the 90mm focal length with the 9mm normal view, the magnification is 10×.

DSLR Cameras

A new Digital SLR will come with a lens packaged by the manufacturer or dealer. It will normally be a good, useful lens. This lens will be able to do nearly all your day-to-day photography. You have a choice of lenses, so discuss your options with the dealer before you decide what to buy. Remember to ask the dealer's advice; if they are enthusiastic when you ask questions, it is a good way of judging future help and service. If they show interest in you it's a good indication that they care about your business.

However the point of a DSLR is its ability to use a range of interchangeable lenses, in order to extend the camera's range of uses. So if you buy one you have chosen a good middle-range lens with your camera. What other lenses you buy depends on what you want to do. One thing to remember is that a DSLR is capable2 of producing better results, especially with prime lenses.

The Camera Choice

The main question you should ask yourself is, 'Do I need a DSLR and extra lenses?' - be honest and your answers could save you some money.

The standard lens supplied with a DSLR is normally of a useful and variable focal length, giving you an ordinary view lens plus a limited zoom capability. To be honest, for an average user there may be little point in buying a camera which requires many supplementary lenses. Think carefully; it could be you might possibly be better off buying a Digital Bridge Camera - the lenses on these now are excellent.

Why buy a DSLR? A good Digital SLR will cost the equivalent of almost five Digital Bridge Cameras, plus cost of the range of extra lenses you may want to buy. Any difference in quality between the two is hard to see in print form or on a PC screen. However, put a top range prime lens costing a few thousand pounds on a DSLR and you will notice a difference if you compare prints3, but most people do not.

If you are a professional and want to sell your work, the choice is easier as a DSLR will be your choice. If you see a shot that makes you think 'Wow!' the odds are it was taken by a DSLR.

Remember there are some excellent used DSLR and Bridge Cameras for sale at reputable local dealers.


Why do you need a tripod? There are two main reasons:

  • The first, and most important, is that you must remember the camera can't focus properly unless the image in the viewfinder is still and stays still.

  • Secondly, as a human, in poor light conditions you simply will not be able to hold your camera still enough to take an un-blurred photograph.

Without a tripod, the extreme zoom will be difficult to handle, or unusable, particularly if you want to do a lot of long lens work such as wildlife photography. A tripod of the Benbo type, with a smooth operating tilt/pan head would be an excellent choice, but in any case get a good, solid tripod. This will give you the ability to take a photograph of a subject such as a crescent moon that will fill the frame. The image will also be in perfect focus.

Interchangeable Lenses

Prime Lenses

Prime Lenses are also known as fixed focal length lenses. They have no capability for zooming in and are set at a point between 50mm and 800mm, or even higher. The 50mm to 100mm were the most common as they were once a standard option supplied with a new camera prior to the arrival of the zoom lens. They are often maligned as uninteresting because they take a similar view of the world as you see through your eyes. However, what they force you to do is compensate for their limited adjustability by making you think about the composition of the photograph - you need to move around to get the best view, and avoid unwanted elements in the photograph by getting closer to your subject. There is a plus side - the quality of these lenses is superb, and so they are often the professional's choice.

Due to the quality of the optical elements and the faster image-capturing ability of prime lenses, they have now become very expensive. However, they are very reliable as there are fewer moving parts, so there is less that can go wrong. The zoom lens has become the most popular with new cameras, though, as it replaces several more bulky prime lenses (for example a 500mm prime lens is 2/3m in length and not much fun to carry around).

The Zoom Lens

The variable focal length telephoto lens, or to give it its common name, the zoom lens, will allow the user the benefit of combining several lenses of various focal lengths into one lens. Allowing the photographer the ability of altering the magnification of the image, this is commonly referred to as zoom capability. These lenses often give you a small amount of wide angle too.

How does a zoom lens work? It produces a range of magnifications by moving the lens elements within it. By this method the lens has the ability to cover a series of focal lengths. However, you can often pay for that convenience with increased weight and compromised optics – prime lenses generally produce sharper pictures and have faster maximum apertures.

When you consider zoom lenses, the choice widens. Think seriously about what you want to do; are you a casual photographer who wants to have the ability to get a good range of results?

The safest and most cost effective choice is to supplement the lens that came with your camera with some carefully chosen interchangeable medium zoom lenses. A 60mm to 350mm lens from your camera manufacturer's own range would probably be the most useful. Remember a manual zoom is the easiest to use.

If you use a zoom lens there is a trap you must try to avoid. Many people get carried away and zoom in too far, sometimes cutting off sections of the subject (photographs of trees are particularly vulnerable to this accidental cropping). Remember you can always edit the image later but if you have zoomed in too far the damage is irreparable.

Wide Angle Lenses

For landscape photography a good wide angle lens is often very useful. The choice will range from medium to ultra wide angle. This ultra wide angle lens is interesting but very rarely used. The best use is the night sky; pointing straight up it will capture the night sky from horizon to horizon - make sure you need this or the lens could just gather dust in a cupboard.

A wide angle lens is a lens that reproduces the human binocular view of the world. How? The best way to explain is to ask you to do a little experiment. Look at the horizon - find a tree or something to be the centre of your view. Now without moving your eyes, note what you can see on the far left and right - that is a wide angle view. Now do the same focus on your fixed point with both eyes, then close one eye. The field of view narrows - like a normal lens view. We humans see in wide angle, whereas a normal camera lens has a limited width of view. Now if you use a standard wide angle lens it will return that extra width, and that's all a wide angle does - it gives back the natural view to our photographs.

Extreme Wide Angle Lenses AKA Fisheye Lenses

Extreme wide angle lenses will curve the image away to the left and right. Ultra wide angles will produce a circular image of limited practical use, but do produce excellent shots of the night sky, or novelty images that soon lose their charm.

Portrait or Studio Lens

For portrait photography a 35mm to 50mm lens is quite a good choice. Its name is a little misleading as it is also useful for event crowd, street, gallery and exhibition photography.

The Macroscopic Lens

The true macroscopic, macro or close focus lens is one with properties of extreme magnification. It has limited use for the average photographer so the macro ability has now become a feature of many standard production lenses. Nearly every modern Bridge Camera has a good ultra close-up or macro ability built into its lens. If you have an interest in photographing the hairs on a bee's back, ask your dealer. There will be sample photographs from the popular makers in all photographic stores. DSLR cameras will have a similar range available - again, ask the dealer and you will find a good choice. Remember, if your original image is sharp enough, you can always try increasing the magnification in a PC editing session.

Mix and Match Lenses the Way of the Enthusiast

There are a wide variety of lens manufacturers and a wide variety of lenses, so you may be tempted to mix and match if you find what looks like a bargain lens. It is not recommended that you try this! There is a possibility that in the end you may save very little money and the quality of your photography might suffer. There will always be those who love to follow a different path. If you are an experimental photographer you can collect a variety of lenses to explore all aspects of photography. It will depend upon finding an adapter(s): expensive things adapter rings! You will need these to get the lenses to fit your camera, possibly even if the body and lens are from the same original maker. But it will provide you with a choice of some wonderful used or new fixed focal length or zoom lenses, and speciality lenses such as tilt-shift. Remember, as the camera will not fully connect to the lenses they will not focus automatically, and you will need to make sure that they are manual focusing lenses. Beware if you go down this route you risk serious damage to your camera, and no warranty will cover that, so if you must try, buy and experiment with a used digital SLR you are prepared to throw away. Remember you have been warned!

1This is often applied digitally by the camera - check the features before buying.2If the photographer is sufficiently skilful.3There are fewer lens elements in an SLR prime lens. In a DSLR zoom lens light has to pass through several more - this can and will have an effect on the clarity of the image. Photography magazines often correctly point this out. But for most of us the difference is not noticeable and so not that important.

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