DSLR Camera Lens Basics

Here is an article I wrote for another one of my websites “actuallysimple.com”:

If you own a Digital SLR camera, but have yet to buy a lens besides the one that came with the camera, you are missing out. In this article and video, I will go over a few lenses that you might find interesting to get more fun and quality out of your DSLR.

Part 1 of 2:
Click here to view the video in high quality.

Part 2 of 2:
Click here to view the video in high quality.

What photography basics do I need to know?
Aperture: There is a number value that says how much light is let in through the camera lens (measured in “f-stops”), and how much of the picture will be sharply focused. Inside each lens there are diaphragm blades that control the size of the opening (the word Aperture means the opening). A lower number, say 1.4, allows more light in, but only a small part of the picture is focused. With a large aperture number, less light gets in, but the light rays are aligned straighter, allowing more of the image to look sharper.

Depth of Field: This is a term that refers to how much of the picture is sharply focused. Having the whole image in focus is called deep focus, and having only a small part of the image in focus is called shallow focus. Shallow focus is used by photographers a lot when trying to make artistic pictures that have one subject with the rest of the image nicely blurred. The camera’s opening (Aperture) is used to control what depth of field you want. Generally, a lens with a large number of diaphragm blades that are rounded produces nice background blur.

Kit lens:
This is the lens that came with your camera. While it is probably decent quality, you would be surprised by how much higher quality you can get from a lens you buy separately. Kit lenses these days tend to be zoom lenses in the range of 18-55mm, 50-200mm, and 75-300mm, many of which lack metal mounts and easy shifting of the manual focus ring to save on production cost.

50mm Prime Lens:
This lens is a good starting point to get into the finer aspects of photography. A prime lens is a lens that has only one focal length. If you have a standard kit lens with a zoom range of 18mm – 55mm, you will see something similar to your most zoomed in view on the kit lens all of the time with a 50mm prime. You can experiment with shallow depth of field, shoot sharp photos in lower lighting, and get generally sharper photos than you can with kit lenses. Look to spend between $150 to $400 for a quality 50mm prime lens. For most entry level DSLR cameras, you should consider a 35mm prime lens instead as it is the new standard focal length for these camera bodies (the sensor inside entry level and midrange cameras is smaller than the standard 35mm of film days, so there is a crop factor generally around 1.5x).

Large Zoom Lens:
Quality fast lenses in this range are generally pretty expensive. If you don’t have a long zoom, it’s probably better to start out with a basic cheap zoom lens in the range of 75mm-300mm with an aperture like “4 – 5.6.”

High-end zoom lens:
These lenses are in the same range as a standard kit lens (18-55mm), but the quality is much higher. They generally have larger apertures, a zoom range around the same as a kit lens, are constructed with quality materials, and produce better results overall compared to a kit lens. These lenses can be a good compromise that will allow you to have a jack-of-all-trades type lens that can do pretty much everything okay. I would suggest a lens that can have a fixed aperture of 2.8 or 4 through the whole zoom range. Meaning you can be at 24mm or 55mm and still be able to have an aperture of 2.8 or 4 depending on how much you want to spend. Whereas the kit lens would be 4 at 24mm and 5.6 at 55mm. That lens in my part 2 video can have a 2.8 aperture through the whole zoom range, which is why the lens is very heavy with such a large front glass element.

Wide angle lens:
If you enjoy the outdoors and are interested in taking photos of vistas like the rocky mountains, a quality wide angle lens is a good idea. The lens I shot those videos with is a 10mm – 17mm wide angle lens with a fish-eye effect. The fish-eye effect is an interesting visual distortion of the picture, especially around the edges of the frame. For a standard wide angle lens without distortion, I would suggest something around the 15mm range.

Older used lenses:
These lenses are a good option if you don’t want to spend much money, but still want to branch out into more aspects of photography. Make sure your camera is able to connect to older lenses before going this route. You can find a multitude of different lenses such as manual focus ones or even auto-focus ones that were made for film cameras, but work just as well on digital SLR cameras. Some places to look would be local camera shops, pawn shops, and online from stores like keh.com

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