Choosing a Lens

Too close! Too far! Distorted pictures are no laughing matter!


You try to convince your family that the little white dot on your picture is really an albino moose, your wife is tearing up all the pictures that definitely do not show her good side and, well, your pictures of the Formula 1 Grand Prix look like they were taken by a serious caffeine junkie with double vision. Are you using the right lens for every occasion? In this newsletter, I will guide you down the path to the wonderful world of photographic optics.

From a wide-angle to a telephoto lens

1. When and Why

Let's just say, for the sake of argument, that there is no such thing as the perfect lens, but rather an ideal lens for each type of picture you would like to take. If you want to take pictures of animals and plants in great detail, then you need a macro lens. If your interests lie more along the lines of urban architecture, then a wide-angle lens is the one for you. However, if you prefer taking pictures of sporting events and concerts, you might want to think about getting a super telephoto lens.

2. Perspective, Distorsion and Background Compression

Choosing the proper focal length is another way of guaranteeing you get the shot you want. For example, taking a family portrait with a 20mm super wide-angle lens could put a damper on your relationships with certain members of the clan, especially where your mother-in-law is concerned. The resulting distortion caused by the wide-angle lens will add a few unflattering inches to people's waists and cause their heads to be stretched out, making it appear that they took your advice to "have a nice, big smile for the picture" a little too literally. Using a regular 90 to 135mm telephoto lens will ensure your family members will be all smiles, both before and after they see the fruit of your photographic labours. Save your wide-angle lens, with its perspective effect and ability to accurately capture large backgrounds, for taking panoramic shots. This type of lens lets you include a lot of information in one photo, like a fisherman holding his record catch while standing on the shore of a lake, with a rowboat tied to a dock behind him and a superb mountain range in the background. Now your pictures will truly be worth a thousand words.

A telephoto lens allows you to isolate your subject and capture the action between seconds of the clock, such as an Olympic athlete bursting out of the starting blocks or a football player in mid-tackle. The result? Your eye will be drawn to the main subject owing to background compression and shallow field depth.

A super telephoto lens (400mm+) is the tool of choice for taking landscape shots at sunrise or sunset. Examples:

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Wide-angle effect


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Variable focal length or fixed focal length?

What a tough choice! Some experts will tell you a fixed wide-angle lens is better than a wide-angle focal length, but others will claim that optical tests prove there are no longer any difference between the two. So, who to believe?!

Truth be told, each manufacturer has its own strengths and weaknesses. One may be renowned for its wide-angle lenses, while its competitor may have the best telephoto lenses on the market. However, all theses lenses give good results where variable focal length is concerned. Technology is evolving so quickly that we are presently reaching new heights that we did not even imagine possible even 5 years ago. Basically, your choice of lens is related to your interests and the types of pictures you plan on taking.

Are you a beginning amateur photographer? Then your best bet would be a basic 28 to 105mm lens with variable focal length.

Would you like to concentrate your photographic efforts in a particular area? If so, the ideal solution would be to acquire two lenses with variable focal length: a 17 to 35mm wide-angle and a 70 to 210mm telephoto, depending on the shots you want.

But things get more complicated when you want to work with close-ups, low-level lighting, rapid action shots or tight spaces. A lens with fixed focal length, like a 14mm super wide-angle, macro or 600mm f4 super telephoto lens, is often the tool required for such conditions. Special tools to meet the challenge posed by tricky situations.

What about the quality of the lens?

More appropriate questions might be "How much you are willing to spend?" and "Are you a perfectionist?"

I believe that if you are an amateur photographer, it would be better for you to have a range of reasonably-priced lenses that will allow you to accommodate the greatest number of situations possible. In this way, you can try your hand at taking pictures under all kinds of conditions instead limiting your creativity because you bought only one really expensive lens.

Perfectionists and those who want to take high-quality photographs should opt for excellent quality lenses in order to obtain the results they are looking for.

Lens durability should also be taken into account. The quality of professional lenses stands out by virtue of the fact these lenses contain more parts made of metal and fewer of plastic.

If you have traded in your standard camera for a digital model, I suggest you buy the best lenses available. And why is that? Because the resolution of current sensors (6+ megapixels) need superior quality lenses to offer the best possible performance. Preferably, you should select lenses specially made for digital cameras that also correct colour abnormalities.

Specialized lenses

You will need a specific lens if you want to take a close-up shot of the inside of a flower or a subject in motion, correct perspective or use a 4/3 sensor! Below is a description of some of the lenses currently on the market:

1. USM, IF

This type of lens has an autofocus feature with integrated micromotors that adjust the focus quickly and quietly.

2. ED, DG, DX

All lenses with a low dispersion glass filter give better results with digital cameras. Some have a smaller image circle, while others have aspheric lenses. All companies use complex optic physics to combine characteristics to produce high-performance equipment.

3. IS, VR

An image stabilizer or anti-vibration device is a very handy accessory to have for live action photography, as it allows you to work without a tripod at a speed equivalent to up to 3 shutter openings faster than is possible with a regular handheld camera (without blurring the image)!

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Without stabilizer

With stabilizer

4. 1.5X, 2X, 3X

Focal length multipliers allow you to increase your lens's focal capacity. For example, a 200mm telephoto lens functions as a 400mm when a 2X multiplier is used. Keep in mind that this type of accessory causes you to lose from 1 to 2 light diaphragms, which reduces your maximum aperture size from f2.8 to f5.6.

Although a focal length multiplier is obviously less costly than buying a new lens with the equivalent functions, the multiplier will not produce results as good as those obtained with a lens. But I guess it will have to do until you have a little extra cash to buy that new lens…


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Wide-angle aspherical


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Super telephoto


In every edition of this newsletter, we have been saying that a photographer's primary concern is the quality of the picture he or she wants to take. Lenses are just tools to help create the right message. Using the inappropriate lens, no matter how powerful it is, will cause your message to be unclear, while the proper focal length will highlight what you want to say.

In life, as in photography, it is always best to be close to other people and to see the big picture. It's simply a question of choosing the right lens!

Go for it, and Happy Shooting!

With the cooperation of Jacques Bourdages, PFE.