Are you shooting with a DSLR, cinema camera or camcorder with interchangeable lenses? Choices in your optics can be mind boggling.  What each lens does varies by price, type and ability. This primer on lens families should point you in a new direction, giving you abilities you never had before in depth of field, bokeh and control over your imaging.

  • Zoom (or varied focal length) are by far the most common type of lenses known to the average consumer. Prosumer camcorders and professional video cameras often come with it right from the box. This is the case because with zoom lenses you can go telephoto or wide-angle at the push of a button. It’s a no-brainer; if you can zoom in or zoom out, the lens is called a zoom lens.The disadvantage of zoom lenses is the loss in image quality, which is minimal but still present. Narrative filmmakers should always use prime lenses, unless they are going for a specific camera effect or trick, such as the dolly counter zoom.
  • Prime (or fixed focal length) can’t zoom in or zoom out. Therefore, when using a prime, every time the filmmaker wants to get tighter on his composition, he can either (1) physically move the camera closer to his subject or (2) change the camera lens for one with a longer focal length and narrower field of view – the telephoto lens. Accordingly, if the filmmaker decides for a wider composition, he can either (1)  move the camera away from the subject or (2) change the camera lens for one with a shorter focal length and wider field of view – the wide-angle lens. As a trade-off for the inconvenience of switching lens, the image quality is far superior with prime lenses, offering more pristine, clearer recordings. Professional narrative filmmakers always prefer prime ones. These are the different flavors of primes:
  • Telephoto are longer than the average. In comparison to a normal lens or the human eye, telephoto can get really tight on the subject. It correlates to a zoom in with zoom lenses. The image is optically enlarged to show fine details from a subject that is far away.Telephoto lenses compress space, making people and objects that are far apart appear really near one another. If a filmmaker is shooting a scene on the freeway where actors have to run among speeding vehicles, telephoto lenses can be a safe method to keep actors distant from danger while still selling the illusion that the talent is just a few feet away from moving cars.
  • Wide-angle are the opposite of telephoto. Wide-angle lenses have a broader field of view, and therefore they can show sweeping panoramas of mountains, oceans, and forests. Since camera jiggle is minimized with wide-angle, this choice of lens is ideal for handheld work.
  • Normal lens are halfway between telephoto and wide-angle lenses. Normal lenses mimics what the human eye sees, without neither getting too close to the subject nor distorting it, nor compressing the distance among the several grounds you may have.