When you got your first DSLR, you almost certainly purchased the camera body bundled with what is called a "kit lens." Kit lenses are great tools for beginners, because they give you a wide range of focal lengths to work with in a single, convenient package. They're also great for when you're travelling light—most of us don't love of being encumbered by a huge camera bag when were out on our travels, and it's nice to have a lens that that will let you shoot at both wide angles and zoomed in. But while your kit lens may be great for certain situations, at some point you need to branch out. That means you need to start using different focal length lenses for different situations, so that you can really start to get a feel for how versatile your DSLR actually is.
Now if you have yet to purchase your first DSLR, don’t skip ahead—this information is still relevant. While you can’t switch out the lenses on your point-and-shoot camera you can still seek to understand the focal lengths your camera offers and what the differences will be between completely zoomed-out photos and those shot at maximum zoom.
Wide angle lenses
A wide-angle lens is exactly what the name implies—a lens that gives you a very broad field of view. These lenses are usually in the 14mm to 35mm range, and they're great for when you're shooting a very large subject and you want include as much of it in the frame as possible. A wide angle lens is the go-to lens for most landscape photographers, because that broad field of view can really capture the scale of a beautiful scene. But it’s also great for shooting in enclosed places—when you use a wide angle lens indoors, you can capture an entire room instead of just a small part of it. This makes it great for architectural photographers—both for those interior scenes as well as for exterior scenes, when you want to be able to capture the whole building without having to step too far back in order to do it.
The word “telephoto” is often used interchangeably with the word “zoom,” because a telephoto lens allows you to get visually close to your subject without having to use your feet. I do want to make sure that you understand the difference between those two words, however—a zoom lens has a variable focal length (for example, 70mm to 210mm). “Telephoto,” on the other hand, is the word for a lens that has a long focal length—it may zoom or it may be fixed.
A telephoto lens is the go-to lens for most wildlife photographers and sports photographers. But telephoto lenses are useful for any subject that is a long way away, especially when it’s difficult to get physically close to it or when you want to be able to photograph it undetected. This is often true for wildlife—most wild animals don't want to have a whole lot to do with photographers. If you have a very long focal length lens, you can hide in the bushes or behind a bird blind and shoot clear, close-up images as if you were standing only a few feet away.
Telephoto lenses are a great for sports, too, because oftentimes you will find yourself sitting in the bleachers or too far away to get a good shot with a shorter lens. Even if you’re lucky enough to be standing on the sidelines you're not always going to be close enough to the action to get a great shot. A telephoto lens can help you get closer without having to walk out on the field, which is generally frowned upon at most sporting events.
One thing to keep in mind when you’re using a telephoto lens is that the longer your lens is, the faster your shutter speed will need to be. In fact with a telephoto lens you may find you’re still getting camera shake even at reasonably fast shutter speeds—the reason why this happens is because as you magnify your subject, you also magnify any movement in your camera and lens. Now this actually varies depending on whether or not your telephoto lens has image stabilization technology, but for the most part the bottom number of your shutter speed should be roughly equivalent to the focal length of your lens. For example, if you're shooting with a 200 mm lens, you want your shutter speed to be 1/200 or higher—any slower than that and you’ll get some camera shake. Again, the exception to this is with lenses that have image stabilization, which is designed to avoid the problem of camera shake. When you have image stabilization you can shoot at shutter speeds three or four stops slower than you would be able to shoot with if you were using a lens without image stabilization.
The fisheye lens was originally designed for astrophotography (it was once called a “whole sky lens”). With a fisheye, an astrophotographer could take in an almost impossibly broad field of view, which gave the viewer a great sense of the scope and scale of the night sky.
But it wasn’t long before photographers figured out that fisheye lenses could be used for other fun and creative purposes, too. As it turns out, that semi-spherical shape you get with a fisheye lens can be used for comedy—nothing is quite so funny as a close-up of your dog, cat or child shot with a fisheye. The fisheye is extremely distorting, so noses and foreheads will become large and ears will become small. You can also use a fisheye to emphasize the curvature of the earth or to make huge objects look even huger. Playing with a fisheye lens is something I recommend every photographer try—it can really help jumpstart your creative process, and you will get a lot of fun and interesting photos to add to your portfolio. Just remember that when you use a fisheye you’ll need to stand pretty close to your subject—a lot closer than you think you probably need to be.
The truth is, filters just aren’t as important to today’s photographers as they were to yesterday’s photographers. We no longer need warming or cooling filters, or those special effects filters that we so dearly loved back in the 70s and 80s. Most of what photographers once did with filters can be accomplished easily in post processing, so you no longer need to have even those filters that were once considered essential. But it’s not true that there’s no such thing as a useful filter anymore. There are still a few filters that can’t be replaced by post processing, and it’s worth knowing what they are.
The original purpose of a UV filter was, you guessed it, to filter out UV light. When you shoot with film on a sunny day, UV light can actually add a blue cast to your photos. Now, digital cameras aren’t nearly as sensitive to UV light as film cameras were, so the UV filter doesn’t serve the same purpose as it once did—but you still need one for one important reason: because it provides a protective barrier between your lens and the outside world. That makes a UV filter an almost indispensible tool. Now here’s the one caveat about UV filters—you need a good quality one. Poor quality UV filters can actually have a negative impact on the quality of your images.
A polarizing filter is another tool that can’t be replaced by post-processing. The polarizing filter filters out polarized light, much like a good pair of sunglasses does—which means that when you use one you can decrease or eliminate glare and reflections. This is particularly useful when you’re shooting water—especially clear water, where you might want to actually shoot through the surface at objects below, such as fish or river rocks. Without a polarizing filter you may get nothing but the reflections on the surface of the water—with one you’ll be able to see right to the bottom.
Using a polarizing filter takes some practice—they’re circular, which means that you have to rotate them to get the best effect. And you need to be standing in the right place, too. Circular polarizers work best when the sun is on your right or left side—when it’s in front of you or behind you, you won’t get the effect you want.
Finally, keep in mind that polarizing filters decrease the amount of light that reaches your camera’s sensor, so you’ll need to use faster shutter speeds or larger apertures to achieve the same exposure you’d get without one.
Neutral density (ND) filters
There will come a time in your photography life where you will want to shoot brightly lit scenes with a long exposure. Why on earth? Because that’s how you get those wonderful misty waterfall/river/ocean photos that I know you’ve often admired. To capture water as a soft mist, you need a slow shutter speed, and you can’t do that during the day without a neutral density filter.
The neutral density filter performs a very simple task—it cuts back on the amount of light that reaches your sensor. They’re really like a pair of sunglasses for your lens, only without the polarizing effect. The end result of using a neutral density filter is that you can use a slower shutter speed even when the day is bright. That means you can capture motion trails in day-lit scenes, you can turn water into mist and you can even remove tourists from tourist traps (during very long shutter speeds your camera won’t even register people walking in and out of the frame).
Neutral density filters are rated according to the amount of light they block—a 1 stop filter blocks 1 stop of light, a 3 stop filter blocks three stops of light and so on. You can buy ND filters in sets or you can get a single variable ND filter, which lets you adjust the number of stops of light reduction.
Graduated neutral density (GND) filters
The graduated ND filter is essentially just an ND with a twist—instead of a uniform dark surface, the graduated ND starts out dark and gradually fades to clear from the top to the bottom. This is particularly useful when you’re shooting landscapes on brightly-lit days—place the dark side of the GND over the sky and the clear side over the landscape and you’ll cut out a lot of that very bright light that can lead to dull-looking skies and poorly-defined clouds.
These particular screw-on filters have yet to be replaced by a post-processing filter, but there are a lot of things you can do in post processing today that you formerly could only do with a filter. Darkening certain color channels in black and white images, for example, or adjusting white balance (we used to do that with warming or cooling filters) are all tasks that can now be easily performed in post-processing or even in-camera.
I’m not saying you need to run out and spend a bunch of money on special equipment today, but both lenses and filters are certainly tools you’ll eventually want to own. They can help with creativity as well as certain technical problems, and both of those things add up to better photos in the long run.
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