Photography 101: Learning Lenses

I was in the middle of pursuing a graphic design degree when photography stepped in, grabbed my heart, and with heart in hand, towed me along down a path that I’d never before imagined for myself. I felt like Dorothy, following this yellow brick road with no idea where I actually was. There was so much to learn, and though I was taking introductory courses in school, in a class of 25 students all with questions about settings and f-stops and lenses (oh, my!), the going was often slow. So I did what any twenty-first century Dorothy lost and looking for directions to the Emerald City would do: I Googled.

Let me preface: I don’t advise diving face-first into the Internet Pool of information available to you on photography. You’ll likely jump into a deep end filled with rafts and ropes that will catch you and hold you under the water. Or you’ll find a pair of floaties that work really well for others, but just don’t fit on your arms and leave you struggling even in the kiddie pool. When you start, find a few sites that answer the big questions you have and are welcoming to new photographers. I still love checking for gear reviews and is an ENDLESS resource on photography information! But probably the biggest place I learned was by following photographers I admired. Many have a photography-specific category on their blogs with invaluable tips and tricks for all kinds of situations. Read. Follow. Learn. And no matter what, take everything at face value. Nothing a photographer shares as opinion is the last word in photography. It’s just that—an opinion—and what works for one photographer may not work for you.

Some of the most useful resources I found in my research were when photographers listed the gear they used, specifically lenses. To most people, the idea of SLR (Single Lens Reflex) lenses that each have a different purpose is pretty foreign. We’ve gotten so used to our Point and Shoot cameras that we’ve forgotten where the basic ideas implemented in them first came from. And lenses are confusing with all of their numbers and letters what on earth is the difference between a 1.4 and a 5.6?? If you’ve ever asked yourself questions like this, you’re not the only one!

There are two main distinguishing factors between lenses: focal length and maximum aperture. Focal length is always followed by “mm”, and it describes how “zoomed” in or out your view will be when looking through the viewfinder. If a focal length is smaller, say 24mm, you’ll be able to see more of what is in front of you, often described by photographers as a “wide” view. If you have a lens with a focal length of 200mm, you know that your image is going to be much more cropped. These longer lengths are great for when you don’t have the luxury of standing right next to your subject but you still need to get shots that are up close and personal, all up in your subject’s business. Wedding ceremonies, for instance! Lenses can either be zoom lenses, able to go from one focal length to another (70-200mm, for example), or prime lenses, with one set focal length. They both have their advantages, but I love using prime lenses, mostly because they produce much sharper images, and because they’re able to handle low-light situations much better, which are both a result of their maximum apertures, up next!

The second number that you’ll find to describe a lens is the maximum aperture. Aperture is one of the three variables (along with shutter speed and ISO) that determine how much light is let into your camera when taking a picture. The smaller the aperture, the larger a lens is able to open it’s shutter, and the more light can be let in. Small apertures are great for taking sharp photos in low-light settings, AND they are able to produce images with that amazing blur in the out-of-focus areas of a photo, called bokeh! This is because as the aperture gets lower and lower, the area that is in-focus in the resulting photo also gets smaller and smaller, meaning more gorgeous bokeh blur in the background!

So how does all of this affect the lenses you might choose to invest in and carry with you to shoots? Here’s how I’ve chosen to use all of this info for my lens collection!

Not pictured: the 28 mm 2.8. Had to take the picture with something!

Each of my lenses have a maximum aperture of 2.8 or less, so that I can work in a variety of lighting conditions AND so that I can achieve images with smooth, bokeh-y backgrounds. My favorite and most-used lens is by far my 50mm 1.4. It’s on my camera almost 90% of the time, because I know I can work with it both in a bright afternoon sun-soaked field as well as a dimly-lit church basement and produce images that I’m proud of in both settings.

If I don’t have the 50mm on my camera, you will most likely find the 28mm 2.8. For me, this guy is nothing fancy, but he does his job. I plan on upgrading to the 28mm 1.4 this year to give myself more versatility in different lighting conditions, but for now the 2.8 is what I go to when I need a wider perspective. Pulled back ceremony shots that include the crowd, portraits in a small room with not a lot of room to “manually zoom,” aka step backwards… I’d be really limited if I didn’t have this guy on my roster.

If you see me during wedding ceremonies toning my arms and holding a giant lens to my eye, that would be the 70-200mm 2.8. The 70-200mm is NOT a little guy! But I would—again—be so limited without him! This lens allows me to get really intimate shots even when I’m in the back of the church aisle. My two favorite reasons to use this lens? To allow a couple to “warm up” at the beginning of a session by giving them some space to themselves. It can be nerve wracking to start a session and them BAM! your photographer is all up in your grill! With the 70-200mm, I can also be much more discreet during wedding ceremonies. I can stand in the aisles and in the back of the church and I don’t have to be blocking the mother of the bride’s view to get the my shot. This guy was quite the investment, and isn’t used nearly as much as my 50mm, but definitely worth it to have more range!

And last but not least, is my 105mm 2.8 macro lens. This lens is how I photograph little details like jewelry and ring shots—no way could I achieve the detail that I want without it. I practice with this guy a lot to learn how to make my ring shots as crisp and detailed as I can, and I certainly still have a lot to learn! The 105mm can also be used like a non-macro lens if I want a bit more zoom than my 50mm, but for the most part I stick with him for my details and let the 70-200mm handle the telephoto work.

This is the glass that I carry on me at every wedding. With this team of lenses that I can shoot any wedding and be confident that I’ll have the tools that I need. I have no idea if this information is of any use to any of you out there, but if it clears the world of lenses up just a little bit for even one person, then I’m satisfied. I know how vast photography seemed to me when I first jumped in, and it was only through the openness of other photographers that I started to grasp it more and more. So for me, it’s not an option NOT to share what I’ve learned.

If you’re reading this and still have more questions about anything photog-related, I’d be happy to chat with you! Just shoot me an email at stephdougher[at]gmail[dot]com! Happy Tuesday, friends!


  • February 11, 2013 - 6:35 pm

    Sarah - so i took a photography class in college and your brief explanation was so much better for my understanding than my three hour class on aperture and f-stops and ISO. THANKS!!ReplyCancel

    • February 11, 2013 - 6:59 pm

      Steph - Sarah, that makes me so happy!! Also sad, because I know how frustrating those classes can be and I think they tend to turn a lot of people off from really getting into photography! Anyway, I’m glad I could help!ReplyCancel

  • January 30, 2014 - 9:33 pm

    Kara - So, what would you use for landscapes? When your traveling and what to photography scenery?ReplyCancel

    • January 30, 2014 - 9:50 pm

      Steph - Ooh, awesome question, Kara! With landscape/travel photography, you usually want to be able to fit as much of the scene into one image as possible, so you’ll probably want something wider to take with you. On my recent UK trip, I had my 28mm on almost the whole time, which never happens! A zoom lens can be great for travel too, to give you more range without having to carry multiple lenses. One thing to note, if you’re shooting manually or in aperture priority mode, you’ll want your aperture to be set higher (at least about f/5.6 or so) so that you have a greater depth-of-field and more of you image is in focus. For sweeping landscape shots, f/16 will make sure the whole scene is sharp! Hope that helps!ReplyCancel

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