Finding the right lens for your camera can vastly improve your images and overall production, but learning what you need to know about video and photo camera lenses can be expensive and time-consuming.
In this article, we explain the different types of photo and video camera lenses so that you can understand which lens, or set of lenses will be the best option for you moving forward.
Types of Camera Lenses
THE DIFFERENT TYPES OF CAMERA LENSES
1.1 TYPES OF CAMERA LENSES
Camera lenses for photo and video
There are various different types of camera lenses. That’s why it’s good to follow a camera lens guide to help you buy or rent the best lenses.
In fact, many lenses can simultaneously be two different types.
You can have a prime lens that is also a standard lens.
You can have a zoom lens that is also a parfocal lens.
You can have a long-focus lens that is also a telephoto lens.
Different lenses for different situations, and this isn’t limited to photo lenses or video lenses because the image properties are based on the quality of the lens and the focal length.
Also, the types of DSLR or mirrorless lenses available are based around the lens mount, and not the focal length or lens capabilities.
You can have a prime lens for a DSLR, or a fish-eye lens for a mirrorless camera as long as the mount of both the camera and the lens are the same.
Let’s break it down:
1.2 TYPES OF CAMERA LENSES
What is a Prime Lens?
A prime lens is any lens with a set focal length. Therefore it cannot be “zoomed” in to transform the field of view of the lens. A lens with a set focal length of 50mm is one example of a prime lens.
You're unable to change the focal length of a prime lens, however you are still able to adjust the focal distance of the lens via the focus ring.
This shot from Blade Runner 2049 was captured with a Zeiss super prime lens.
Prime lenses are often considered to be the film industry standard, though some cinematographers prefer zoom lenses over primes, and even more bounce back and forth depending on the circumstances.
It often depends on tone and subject matter, but there is no hard and fast rule.
The lens in the video above is a 100mm prime lens. You cannot change the focal length to anything but 100mm, because this is a prime lens.
Again, a prime lens isn’t just a cinema lens. Photography prime lenses absolutely exist, and the lens quality is often better because you don’t have to worry about the lens elements shifting during a zoom.
Prime lenses are better quality for photo and video because they are built around a specific number of set parameters rather than constantly fluctuating parameters like in a camera zoom lens.
1.3 TYPES OF CAMERA LENSES
What is a Zoom Lens?
A zoom lens is any lens with a variable focal length. It can be “zoomed” in to transform the focal length, and therefore the field of view of the lens.
The zoom lens in the video above is a 50-100mm with a T2 rating. This means that the widest focal length of the lens is 50mm, while the longest focal length is 100mm. The ‘T2’ refers to the aperture rating, and this means no matter which focal length you’ve set this zoom lens at, you can have a wide open T-Stop of ‘2’ (pretty great for this type of lens).
Some Cinematographers prefer zoom lenses, but generally prime lenses are thought to be better because the set focal length allows often translates into a high level of control and quality of image.
You also will often gain a wider aperture rating in prime lenses, which allows for more light and a shallower depth of field.
A few examples of comedy shows that make use of the zoom lens on a regular basis would be The Office, Parks & Rec, and Brooklyn 99.
Wes Anderson also uses zoom lenses in his films, and he uses them for dramatic zooms and as well as a bit of comedy.
The famous Vertigo shot was created by simultaneously zooming in with the lens and dollying backward. This changed the focal length of the lens while keeping the same relative shot composition.
1.4 TYPES OF CAMERA LENSES
What is a Parfocal Lens?
Parfocal refers to a lens that will stay in relative focus while the focal length of a zoom lens is changed. Any lens that is considered parfocal must be categorized as a zoom lens because the focal length of a prime lens cannot be changed.
If you plan to use a zoom lens on your next project and want to change focal length while recording, it’s better to have a parfocal lens.
Keeping your subject in focus while also changing the focal length is a nearly impossible task on a varifocal zoom lens.
Another benefit of prime lenses over zooms is that a prime lens forces you to move the camera to a more intentional angle rather than just zooming in from your last setup.
Since zoom lenses have their own advantages, manufacturers have invested a large amount of time and energy into improving them to act more like primes.
Professional cinematographers know that a good parfocal zoom lens is a really nice tool for any filmmaker to have, but they’re also commonly expensive.
Like… $1500 - $7,000 expensive.
Types of Camera Lens Angles
HOW THE SIZE OF YOUR LENS IS DESCRIBED
2.1 DIFFERENT TYPES OF CAMERA LENSES
What is a Standard Lens?
A standard lens has a set (prime) focal length that is around the same length as the sensor or film (measured diagonally).
For a full frame sensor, your focal length would come in right around 42mm. Often a lens with a focal length that falls between 35mm to 55mm can be categorized as “standard” focal length.
Standard lenses are purported to have a similar field of view to that of the human eye, though this has been disputed considering that the human eye has a true field of view closer to that of a 17mm to 25mm lens, with a f/3.2 aperture rating.
The true reason 35mm to 55mm are similar to the human eye is that of our cone of visual attention, which thins the field of view of the human eye.
2.2 DIFFERENT TYPES OF CAMERA LENSES
What is a Wide-Angle Lens?
A wide-angle lens is any lens with a set focal length that is shorter than the length of the sensor or film (measured diagonally). For a full frame sensor, your wide-angle focal length would be anything below 35mm.
Often any lens with a focal length that falls between 35mm to 23mm can be categorized as a wide-angle lens. To go down any further would push the lens into fisheye territory, which can still be considered wide-angle, but the fisheye label makes that a bit redundant, and is more specific.
It is important to think about your lens decisions before you ever step on set, so when creating your shot list, it is nice to have the option to specify your lens.
That way, you'll know what kind of gear you need to rent for your shoot days so that you can get the most out of each and every visual choice you make.
2.3 DIFFERENT TYPES OF CAMERA LENSES
What is a Long-Focus Lens?
A Long-focus lens is any lens with a set focal length that is significantly longer than the length of the sensor or film (measured diagonally). For a full frame sensor, your focal length would be anything above 55mm.
Often any lens with a focal length that falls between 55mm to 500mm can be categorized as a long-focus lens. You may hear a cinematographer or camera operator refer to them simply as ‘long lenses’.
Some long lenses are also telephoto lenses, but this only occurs in a specific situation where a telephoto group of glass is built inside.
The next section goes into further detail on the extreme types of camera lenses including fish-eye, telephoto, macro, and smartphone lenses.
Extreme Types of Camera Lenses
CAMERA LENSES USED IN EXTREME SITUATIONS
3.1 TYPES OF EXTREME CAMERA LENSES
What is a Fisheye Lens?
A fisheye lens is any lens with a set focal length that is significantly shorter than the length of the sensor of film (measured diagonally). For a full frame sensor, your fisheye focal length would be anything below 23mm.
Often any lens with a focal length that falls between 22mm to 1mm can be categorized as a fisheye lens.
3.2 TYPES OF EXTREME CAMERA LENSES
What is a Telephoto Lens?
A telephoto lens is a lens with a special lens group built inside, known as a telephoto group. This is because some lenses have a focal length that is greater than the physical length of the lens. An example of this could be a 500mm lens, but it depends on the physical length of the lens.
Consider how a telescope can spot planets that are years away, but its physical size does not extend further than your bedroom window.
3.3 TYPES OF EXTREME CAMERA LENSES
What is a Macro Lens?
A macro lens is a lens that reproduces an image on the sensor plane or film plane that is of similar size to that of the actual physical subject. Macro lenses are most often used to capture a very small subject, like an insect or a coin, in very fine detail.
This is a photography example, but if you’re deliberate and careful, you can apply this to your filmmaking as well.
Think of those great shots Guy Ritchie gets in the Sherlock Holmes films.
Below is a really cool video from photographer Karl Taylor where he uses lens extension tubes to allow his long lenses to act like macro lenses.
As you can see from the video, you can get pretty great results by spending $50 as opposed to buying a $1000 macro specialty lens.
3.4 TYPES OF EXTREME CAMERA LENSES
What is a Smartphone Lens?
With many indie filmmakers and social media influencers are turning to their smartphones for video, so we need to touch on iPhone lenses and Samsung lenses at the very least.
One of the best is called Moment.
You will need to buy the Moment Brand case to attach the lenses to the iPhone or Samsung body, but once the case is secured, you can switch lenses in a jiffy.
Each lens runs around $100.
Related: Best Video Cameras for Filmmakers →
Guide to the Best Camera Lenses
Now that you have a better grasp on lenses, check out our post on the Guide to the Best Camera Lenses.
We set you on the right path to find a lens or set of lenses that works best for your camera and your production.