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How to Use and Choose Standard Lenses for Photography

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If you're a photographer and you’d like to know more about lenses, then you’ll love our free course, What Every Photographer Should Know About Lenses. The standard zoom lens is a great lens to have for situations where you need flexibility and quality. In this tutorial, you’ll learn why it's called a standard zoom and see some photo tips and examples of what you can get with standard lenses.

What Is a Standard Zoom?

A standard zoom lens is a lens that covers a normal focal length and offers a wider and a narrower field of view.

In photography and cinematography, a ‘normal lens’ or a lens that has a ‘normal focal length’ is a lens that reproduces a field of view that renders objects roughly the same size as they appear to you in real life.

For example, if you were sitting down and off in the distance was a piano, you'd see it at a certain size. If you then put a ‘normal’ lens on your camera and hold it up, the size of the piano won’t change; it’ll look the same as it does in real life.

This is in contrast to a shorter focal length lens, which would make the piano look smaller. Or, in the case of a longer focal length lens, the size of the piano would be bigger than it looks with just your eyes from the same distance.

To sum it up, a normal focal length lens is a lens that has a field of view that makes objects look about the same size as they do in real life. For different camera sensors, a ‘normal’ focal length will be different:

  • Full frame: about 50mm.
  • APS-C: 28mm to 30mm (depending if you're using a Canon or a Nikon APS-C-sized camera)
  • Micro four-thirds: about 23mm.

If you had a full-frame camera, a standard zoom might be 24mm-70mm. For an APS-C, you'd be looking at a lens of around 17mm-50mm, and a Micro four-thirds camera would be around 12mm-35mm.

If we apply the field of view crop factor multiplication to these lenses, they're all about the same. The 17mm-50mm is the equivalent field of view of a 27mm-80mm lens if we use the 1.6x crop factor for Canon APS-C sized cameras. For Nikon's DX cameras, we get a 25mm-75mm equivalent field of view.

For the Micro four-thirds cameras, we just have to double it, so we take the 12mm-35mm standard zoom, and that has the equivalent field of view of a 24-70 mm lens on a full-frame camera.

It's also worth mentioning that for many cameras, these standard lenses are interchangeable. You can take a Canon EF lens that was designed for a full-frame camera and put it on a Canon APS-C camera. It'll work just the same but you’ll have the field of view crop factor to deal with, which makes the lens have a narrower field of view.

You can also use these standard lenses with Micro four-thirds camera systems using an adapter, though depending on what adapter you use, some of the features of the lens may or may not work properly.

The 24mm-70mm lenses and the equivalent field of view lenses on crop sensor cameras are the standard because they offer a general purpose range from wide angle to short telephoto, giving you fantastic flexibility.

Let's take a look at what these standard zoom lenses look like in action.

Standard Lenses in Action

Building taken at 24mm Building taken at 24mm Building taken at 24mm
Building taken at 24mm / David Bode

This photo was taken in Kazakhstan several years ago, with a Canon 18-55mm lens on a Canon 300D Digital Rebel.

Portrait taken at 47mmPortrait taken at 47mmPortrait taken at 47mm
Portrait taken at 47mm / David Bode

It was a fantastic lens to give a variety of shots because it covers pretty wide-angle stuff while also letting you get in a bit tighter. It was a great carry-around lens, particularly at a time when there weren’t a lot of great lenses available for a crop sensor.

Portrait taken at 55mm Portrait taken at 55mm Portrait taken at 55mm
Portrait taken at 55mm / David Bode

The 50mm range is a nice middle-of-the-road focal length for portraits. It's maybe not the best focal length, but it definitely works, and it's much better than using a wide-angle lens.

Portrait taken at 50mm Portrait taken at 50mm Portrait taken at 50mm
Portrait taken at 50mm / David Bode

This photo was taken with another standard zoom lens,  the Sigma 17-50mm f/2.8 with optical image stabilisation.

A live show taken at 45mmA live show taken at 45mmA live show taken at 45mm
A live show taken at 45mm

This works for a whole range of stuff; this is a shot of a live show. It’s a great walking-around lens because it gives you a really great range for focal lengths.

A portrait taken at 45mmA portrait taken at 45mmA portrait taken at 45mm
A portrait taken at 45mm / David Bode

This was taken using a flash with a reflector as a diffuser.

Group shot 18mmGroup shot 18mmGroup shot 18mm
Group shot 18mm / David Bode

A shot like this works really well for this particular lens, where space is tight and the camera can’t get back any further, and 18mm is a good length to get that wide shot without the distortion that would come with a wide-angle lens.

A portrait taken outside at 25mmA portrait taken outside at 25mmA portrait taken outside at 25mm
A portrait taken outside at 25mm / David Bode

This is straight out of the camera with no cropping or editing.

An in-studio portrait at 47mmAn in-studio portrait at 47mmAn in-studio portrait at 47mm
An in-studio portrait at 47mm

A lens like this works great when you're out and about in daylight maybe with an on-camera flash, but it also works really well in a studio situation using off-camera flashes or strobes. In the case of this image, several speed lights and strobes were used.

A team shot - 50mmA team shot - 50mmA team shot - 50mm
A team shot - 50mm / David Bode

A prime lens would have worked for this, but it was much more convenient and easier to do the setup and get the composition and framing quickly with a standard zoom lens. When you're dealing with young kids, you have to move quickly, so standard lenses work really well.

Kit Lenses

Canon 18-55 'kit lens'Canon 18-55 'kit lens'Canon 18-55 'kit lens'
Canon 18-55 'kit lens' / David Bode

The vast majority of the standard zoom lenses in use are kit lenses that you'll often see bundled with many DSLRs or mirrorless cameras. Some of these kit lenses are just okay, like this 18-55mm f/3.5 to f/5.6 Canon standard zoom lens. These lenses are usually made at the lowest possible price, but still achieve acceptable performance. They’re capable of producing decent quality images but do have some limitations.

When stopped down, they usually perform a little bit better, and even though they may be a little bit soft in the edges and corners, centre sharpness can often be quite good. If you’re limited on funds or are someone who normally makes very small prints, an okay lens can be quite useful to begin with.

On the other hand, if you want to make large prints, shoot with the lens wide open, or need corner-to-corner sharpness, a ‘just okay’ lens wouldn’t be a good choice.

Professional Lenses

David Bode with a professional Canon lensDavid Bode with a professional Canon lensDavid Bode with a professional Canon lens
David Bode with a professional Canon lens / David Bode

Next in the food chain are lenses that make more extensive use of metals for the internal parts, such as gears, cams, and retaining rings. The lens mounts on these lenses are almost always metal. They usually have better focusing motors, resulting in quieter and faster focusing. These lenses usually have a distance scale for focusing and often use internal focusing, which is not only faster but also means that the lens doesn't change length during focusing, and the front element doesn't rotate. The optical quality is somewhat better than the cheaper lenses, and this shows up in better performance at larger apertures and better edge and corner quality.

The overall image quality may be improved by using a few special elements such as aspherics or elements made from low dispersion or high-index glass. These things all add to the lens's performance but make it more expensive to build. Better lenses generally provide the best value for most photographers. The very best lenses are designed with performance in mind, and they tend to be quite expensive. Usually, you'll find these lenses with a metal barrel and internal metal components, and they’re designed to stand up better to hard, or professional, use.

Some may include better sealing against dust and moisture. Canon's L series lenses, for example, have sealing gaskets at the lens mounts, and they also have waterproof sealing around the switches.

The very best lenses often use multiple elements made of exotic glass and or expensive optical material, such as fluorite.

The scope of lenses is pretty vast. You have OEM lens makers from Canon, Nikon, Sony, Pentax, Panasonic, Olympus, Leica, Sigma, Fuji Film, and Samsung. Then you also have third-party lens makers such as Sigma, Tamron, and Tokina, as well as many others.

The other third-party lens makers mostly make prime lenses. The main advantage of these third-party lens makers is cost. Some of the lenses you get from third-party lens makers are nearly as good or better than the OEM version for two-thirds to half of the cost.

More Lens Tutorials and Photo Tips

About the Video Author

David Bode created the video course that includes this lesson. Dave is an expert on video and audio production, and he lives in the upstate NY area. He works as a camera operator, editor, inventor, motion graphics designer, recording engineer, and studio musician.

Marie Gardiner wrote the text version of this lesson, and it was edited and published by Jackson Couse. Jackson is a photographer and the editor of the Photo & Video section of Envato Tuts+.

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