Talking about Camera Lenses

One of the greatest advantages of a digital SLR is that you can change the lens, so you can take the pictures you want to take. For some photographers the decision over which lens to buy will be determined by budget, while for others it’s a case of getting the right lens for the job, regardless of how much it costs. The lens should not be an afterthought . it is a major factor in getting the best image quality from your camera, whatever the make or model. In fact, in the days of 35mm SLR cameras many photographers would Best Prices for the best lenses they could afford and save money on the camera body – after all, you’re more likely to upgrade your camera than you are your lenses, especially as digital SLRs are constantly evolving and improving.

This article is about photographic lenses for single-lens reflex film cameras (SLRs) and digital single-lens reflex cameras (DSLRs). 

For a more general discussion about lenses, see Photographic lens.

Interchangeable lenses

The major advantage of SLR and DSLR cameras is the possibility of changing lenses, to select the best lens for the current photographic need, and to allow the attachment of specialized lenses. Film SLR cameras have existed since the late 1950s, and over the years a very large number of different lenses have been produced, both by camera manufacturers (who typically only make lenses intended for their own camera bodies) and by third-party optics companies who may make lenses for several different camera lines.

DSLRs became available around the mid-1990s, and have become extremely popular in recent years. Some manufacturers, for example Minolta, Canon and Nikon, chose to make their DSLRs 100% compatible with their existing SLR lenses in the beginning, allowing owners of new DSLR's to continue to use their existing lenses and get a longer lifespan from their investment. Others, for example Olympus, chose to create a completely new lens mount and series of lenses for their DSLRs.

A collection of lenses a DSLR owner might have
A collection of lenses a DSLR owner might have. These are three Olympus zooms (40-150 mm, 11-22 mm and 14-54 mm) and a Sigma prime (30 mm), all for the Four Thirds System.

As implied by the above, lenses are only interchangeable within the "mount system" for which they are built. It is not possible (at least not without an adapter) to mount, for example, a Pentax lens on a Sony camera body.

Aperture and depth of field

Main articles: Aperture, f-number, and Depth of field

The aperture of a lens is the opening that regulates the amount of light that passes through the lens. It is controlled by a diaphragm inside the lens, which is in turn controlled either manually or by the exposure circuitry in the camera body.

Large (1) and small (2) aperture
Large (1) and small (2) aperture

The relative aperture is specified as an f-number, the ratio the lens focal length to its effective aperture diameter. A small f-number like f/2.0 indicates a large aperture (more light passing through), while a large f-number like f/22 indicates a small aperture (little light passes through). Aperture settings are usually not continuously variable; instead the diaphram has typically 5–10 discrete settings. The normal "full-stop" f-number scale for modern lenses is as follows: 1, 1.4, 2, 2.8, 4, 5.6, 8, 11, 16, 22, 32, but many lenses also allow setting to half-stop or third-stop increments. A "slow" lens (one that is not capable of passing a lot of light through) might have a maximum aperture from 5.6 to 11, while a "fast" lens (one that can pass more light through) might have a maximum aperture from 1 to 4. Fast lenses are typically larger than slow lenses (for comparable focal length), and typically cost more.

The aperture affects not only the amount of light that passes through the lens, but also the depth of field of the resulting image.

Focal length and angle of view

Main articles: Focal length and Angle of view

The focal length of a lens, together with the size of the image sensor in the camera (or size of the 35 mm film), determines the angle of view. A lens is considered to be a "normal lens", in terms of its angle of view on a camera, when its focal length is approximately equal to the diagonal dimension of the film format or image sensor format. The resulting diagonal angle of view of about 53 degrees is often said to approximate the angle of human vision; since the angle of view of a human eye is at least 140 degrees, more careful authors will qualify that, for example as "similar to the angle of crisp human vision." A wide-angle lens has a shorter focal length, and includes more of the viewed scene than a normal lens; a telephoto lens has a longer focal length, and images a small portion of the scene, making it seem closer.

Lenses are not labeled or sold according to their angle of view, but rather by their focal length, usually expressed in millimeters. But this specification is insufficient to compare lenses for different cameras because field of view also depends on the sensor size. For example, a 50 mm lens mounted on a Nikon D3 (a full-frame camera) provides approximately the same field of view as a 32 mm lens mounted on a Sony α 100 (an APS-C camera). Conversely, the same lens can produce different fields of view when mounted on different cameras. For example, a 35 mm lens mounted on a Canon EOS 5D (full-frame) provides a slightly wide-angle view, while the same lens mounted on a Canon EOS 400D (APS-C) provides a "normal" or slightly telephoto view.

In order to make it easier to compare lens–camera pairs, it is common to talk about their 35 mm equivalent focal length. For example, when talking about a 14 mm lens for a Four Thirds System camera, one would not only indicate that it had a focal length of 14 mm, but also that its "35 mm equivalent focal length" is 28 mm. This way of talking about lenses is not just limited to SLR and DSLR lenses; it is very common to see this focal length equivalency in the specification of the lens on a digicam.

Values in the following table are approximate, and apply to rectilinear lenses only, not to fisheye lenses.

Lens view Angle of view
(deg. diagonal)
Focal length (mm)
  Sensor size: -> 35 mm or full-frame Canon APS-H APS-C Foveon X3 Four Thirds
  Crop factor: -> 1.0 1.3 1.5 or 1.6 1.7 2.0
Lens 35mm Angle of View 35mm Focal
Length mm
Effective Focal
Length mm
Length mm
Effective Focal
Length mm
Length mm
Ultra wide-angle 180 10   15mm 17mm 20mm
  118 13   20mm 22mm 26mm
  111 15   22mm 25mm 30mm
  100 18   27mm 30mm 36mm
  92 21   31mm 36mm 42mm
84 24   36mm 41mm 48mm
  75 28   42mm 48mm 56mm
63 35   52mm 60mm 70mm
"Normal" 59 - 47 40 - 50   60 - 70mm 68 - 85 80 -100mm
Portrait lens 34 70   105mm 119mm 140mm
  32 75   112mm 127mm 150mm
  29 85   127mm    
  23 105   157mm    
Telephoto 18 135   202mm    
  14 180   270mm    
  12 210   315mm    
Long Telephoto 8 300   450mm    
  6 400   600mm    
  5 500   100%mm    
  4 600   900mm    
  3 830   1245mm    
Very long telephoto 2 1200   1800mm    

35 mm or full-frame APS-H APS-C Foveon X3 Four Thirds
Some cameras
using this
sensor size:
35 mm film
Canon EOS-1Ds III
Canon EOS 5D
Nikon D3
Nikon D3X
Nikon D700
Sony α 900
Canon EOS-1D II N
Canon EOS-1D III
Canon EOS 400D
Nikon D40x
Nikon D50
Nikon D60
Nikon D70
Nikon D80
Nikon D90
Nikon D200
Nikon D300
Nikon D5000
Pentax K20D
Pentax K10D
Pentax K200D
Pentax K100D Super
Pentax K110D
Pentax K100D
Sony α 100
Sony α 300
Sony α 350
Sony α 700
Konica Minolta Maxxum 7D
Konica Minolta Maxxum 5D
Sigma SD9
Sigma SD10
Sigma SD14
Leica Digilux 3
Olympus E-410
Olympus E-510
Panasonic DMC-L10


Types of lenses

Zoom lenses

Nikkor 28-200 Zoom Lens
Nikkor 18-200 mm zoom lens, extended to 200 mm at left and collapsed to 18 mm focal length at right
Main article: Zoom lens

The focal length of a zoom lens is not fixed; instead it can be varied between a specified minimum and maximum value. Modern lens technology is such that the loss of image quality in zoom lenses (relative to non-zoom lenses) is minimal, and zoom lenses have become the standard lenses for SLRs and DSLRs. This is different from only 20 years ago when, due to image quality concerns, most professional photographers still relied primarily on standard non-zoom lenses.

Zoom lenses are often described by the ratio of their longest to shortest focal lengths. For example, a zoom lens with focal lengths ranging from 100 mm to 400 mm may be described as a 4:1 or "4×" zoom. Typical zoom lenses cover a 3.5× range, for example from 24 - 90 mm (standard zoom) or 60 - 200 mm (telephoto zoom). "Super-zoom" lenses with a range of 10× or even 14× are becoming more common, although the image quality does typically suffer a bit compared with the more traditional zooms.

The maximum aperture for a zoom lens may be same for all focal lengths, but it is more common that the maximum aperture is greater at the wide-angle end than at the telephoto end of the zoom range. For example, a 100 mm to 400 mm lens may have a maximum aperture of 4.0 at the 100 mm end but only 5.6 at the 400 mm end of the zoom range.

Prime lenses

Compact 85mm Canon prime lens with a maximum aperture of f/1.8
Main article: Prime lens

Standard non-zoom lenses are called prime lenses or simply "primes". Their advantage, in addition to typically giving a slightly better image quality, is that they are smaller, lighter and cheaper than a zoom lens of the same quality. A prime lens may also be "faster", i.e., have a larger maximum aperture (smaller f-number), so it can be used with less light (with the same shutter speed), and can provide less depth of field in situations where this is desirable.

Macro lenses

Main article: Macro photography

Macro lenses are designed for extreme close-up work. Such lenses are popular for nature shooting such as small flowers, as well as for many technical applications. As most of these lenses can also focus to infinity and tend to be quite sharp, many are used as general-purpose optics.

Special purpose lenses

Special-purpose perspective control lens for architectural photographs
Most users of SLR and DSLR cameras stick to using zoom lenses, while a few of the more adventurous amateurs and many professional photographers also invest in a few prime lenses. Special purpose lenses are, as the designation implies, for special purposes, and are not so common.

There are many different kinds of special purpose lenses, the most popular being fisheye lenses, which are extreme wide-angle lenses with an angle of view of up to 180 degrees or more, with very noticeable (and intended) distortion.

Some other kinds of special purpose lenses, such as perspective control lenses and soft-focus lenses, were more popular with film SLRs but are less popular for DSLRs because the same or similar results can be obtained with post-processing software.

For a more complete discussion of special purpose lenses see Special-purpose photographic lenses.

Automatic focus

Electronics of a Canon EF-S lens
Main article: Autofocus

Almost all modern lenses for SLRs and DSLRs provide automatic focus. The autofocus sensor(s) and electronics are actually in the camera body, and this circuitry provides electrical power and signals to a motor inside the lens that adjusts the focus. (Some older autofocus systems are based on a motor in the camera body and using a mechanical connection to the focus mechanism in the lens.)

There are two different kinds of in-lens electronic focus drive motors currently in use, the traditional servo motor and the more modern "ultrasonic" drive systems. These ultrasonic drives go by different names according to the manufacturer, for example USM (Canon), AF-S/Silent Wave (Nikon), Super Sonicwave Motor/SSM (Sony), Supersonic Wave Drive (Olympus), Extra Silent Motor (Panasonic/Leica), Supersonic Drive Motor (Pentax), and Hypersonic Motor/HSM (Sigma). These ultrasonic focus drives typically provide faster focusing than the non-ultrasonic drives, as well as being practically silent and using less battery power.

Optical image stabilization

Image stabilization is a technique used to reduce image blur caused by the camera not being held steady. There are two kinds of image stabilization used in SLR and DSLR cameras and their lenses:
  • In-body image stabilization is implemented by moving the image sensor in an attempt to counteract the sensed motion of the camera. The advantage of this technique is that it works for all lenses mounted on the camera, at least if they provide necessary information to the camera body's electronics regarding focal length (or current focal length in the case of a zoom lens).
  • Optical image stabilization is implemented in the lens itself, and moves the lens elements in in an attempt to counteract the sensed motion of the camera. The advantage of this kind of image stabilization is that it typically provides slightly better results, especially for long telephoto lenses. The disadvantage is that you have to pay the extra cost for every lens you buy for which you want image stabilization.
Note that image stabilization can not reduce blur if the subject is moving, or if the camera is being panned in a continuous movement. Note also that mounting a lens with optical image stabilization on a camera with in-body image stabilization does not provide improved results; on the contrary, you must switch one of the two systems off.

Lens mounts

Main article: Lens mount

There is almost no commonality between different camera makers regarding lens mount systems. Each manufacturer has developed their own system, and build camera bodies and lenses that only work with their own lens mount, with the Four Thirds System being a partial exception. This was different before 1970 when most of the manufacturers use either M42 or M39 lenses, most of which can still be used depending on the particular adapter you can find.

This does not necessarily mean that one is limited to only mounting, for example, Pentax lenses on a Pentax camera body. There are independent optics companies that make lenses for the various otherwise proprietary mount systems, As a result providing alternative sources for lenses that are often of equal quality and/or less expensive than the camera maker's own lenses. Another possibility is the use of adaptors that allow mounting a lens for one system on a camera with a different lens mount. However, the use of an adaptor usually results in reduced functionality, typically requiring the manual setting of aperture and focus, or perhaps not being able to use any aperture other than "wide open".


Used by Leica, Nikon, Pentax, Canon


Used only by Leica, Contax

Canon EF and EF-S lens mounts

The electronic contacts (gold-plated) of an EF mount lens.
Canon introduced the EF lens mount in 1987 as part of the EOS system. It broke with the most common technique for implementing autofocus at that time by not having a mechanical connection to a motor in the camera body, having instead only electrical connections and requiring a motor to be part of each autofocus lens.

The EF-S lens mount is a newer subset of the EF standard, introduced in 2003. EF-S lenses can only be used on Canon digital cameras that use the APS-C sensor, for example the 400D (EOS Digital Rebel XTi) and the 40D. Note that while you can not mount an EF-S lens on a camera that uses the EF mount, the converse it not true; you can mount EF lenses on cameras designed for both the EF and the EF-S standards.

As noted above under focal length, Canon makes DSLRs with various sensor sizes, and all using the EF or EF-S lens mounts. This leads to the interesting phenomenon of the same EF lens providing different angles of view depending on which camera it is mounted on.

Third-party lenses compatible with Canon's EF and EF-S mounts are manufactured by Sigma, Tamron, and Tokina. The manufacturers of these lenses have reverse engineered the electronics of the EF lens mount. The use of these lenses is not supported by Canon. However, many users find these lenses to be cheaper, and sometimes superior alternatives to Canon lenses.

Four Thirds System

The Four Thirds System was created by Olympus and Kodak in 2001, and is designed exclusively for digital cameras. It is the only lens mounting system that is not completely proprietary; it is a semi-open standard that may be licensed by third parties. Currently Olympus, Leica (in cooperation with Panasonic), and Sigma are making lenses under Four Thirds System consortium licensing.

The Four Thirds System sensor size (17.3 mm x 13 mm) is the smallest currently being used in DSLR cameras. This leads to both advantages (theoretically smaller, lighter and cheaper lenses and camera bodies) and disadvantages (slightly lower image quality, especially in low-light situations).

There are currently over 35 lenses available for Four Thirds System cameras. A complete list can be found on The Four Thirds System page.

Minolta AF lens mount

A Minolta Maxxum AF 50mm f/1.7 prime lens with type “A” bayonet mount with the aperture all the way closed at F22.

The same Minolta AF 50mm f/1.7 prime lens with the aperture all the way open at F1.7.

Rear view of Minolta Maxxum/Dynax lens showing the port for the external autofocus drive

Konica Minolta sold the rights to their Minolta AF lens mount to Sony in 2006. See below under Sony α mount system.

In North America, Minolta began using the name 'Maxxum' for the SLR autofocus cameras, lenses and flashes while in Europe they were called 'Dynax', though they were otherwise identical in appearance and function - all of the equipment is 100% interchangeable regardless of which of the two names it carries.

Most Minolta Maxxum/Dynax compatible lenses, whether built by Minolta or one of the aftermarket lens manufacturers, are focused externally by a shaft connecting the autofocus computer and motor inside the camera body that mechanically connects to the internal focusing gears inside of the lens body. A couple later Minolta lenses do have a built in ultrasonic focus motor (SSM lenses), like other SLR and DSLR systems (i.e. Canon and Nikon) where the AF computer is inside the camera body and there is a digital interface connecting body to an electric motor and the focusing gears built into the lens body creating a "drive-by-wire" focusing system.

This shaft driven autofocus design has several benefits such as allowing for smaller and lighter lenses and also keeps the cost of lenses down because there are no internal focusing motors or digital interfaces built into the lens ... also, by keeping the autofocus motors inside the camera body and as far away from the lens glass as possible there is a vibration reduction benefit as well.

This shaft driven autofocus system has been extremely successful and continues to this day with Sony's current breed of state-of-the-art digital SLR cameras, the A-100, A-200, A-300, A-350 and A-700. Though Sony has also released more SSM lenses under the Sony and Zeiss brands.

Nikon F-mount

The Nikon F-mount was introduced by Nikon back in 1959, and is As a result one of the most venerable lens mounts still in existence. Another factor that makes the Nikon F-mount popular is that several other camera manufacturers, for example Fujifilm, have adopted it. F-mount photographic lenses are currently made by Nikon, Zeiss, Voigtländer, Schneider, Sigma, Tokina, Tamron, Hartblei, Kiev-Arsenal, Lensbaby, Vivitar, and others, and over 400 lenses are compatible with the system.

Most Nikon F-mount lenses cover the standard 36×24 mm area of 135 film, while "DX" designated lenses cover the 24×16 mm area of the Nikon DX format sensors, commonly referred to as APS-C format. "DX" lenses produce vignetting when used on film cameras or full frame digital cameras such as the new Nikon D3. However, the Nikon D3 has a DX-compatible mode that reduces the resolution from 12.2 megapixel to 5.1 megapixel and avoids vignetting.

There are basically three types of F mount Nikon lens;

MF = Manual focus lenses AF & AF-D = Auto focus by camera body driven focus motor, the D version provides distance information AF-I & AF-S = Auto focus by integrated/ultrasonic motor in lens Industrial F-mount lenses have varying, often small, film/sensor coverage. Older F-mount lenses designed for film cameras will work on modern SLR or DSLR cameras with some limitations, typically not providing autofocus or automatic aperture setting. Entry level Nikon DSLR's such as Nikon D40, D40x and D60 dont have an integrated focus motor, so will not auto focus with AF & AF-D lenses. Similarly, some AF-I & AF-S lenses wont work on some older Nikon AF film SLR's.

Pentax K mount

Pentax K10D "Crippled" KAF2 mount
The Pentax K mount (or just "PK mount") was created by Pentax in 1975, and has been used by all Pentax 35 mm and digital SLRs since. The mount has been developed over the years, resulting in a large number of designations such as KF mount, KA mount, KAF mount, KAF2 mount and KA2 mount, plus a couple of more recent versions that are not completely backward-compatible and are As a result referred to as "crippled" versions. ("Crippled" in this context does not imply any lack of modern functionality, just a lack of compatibility with past lenses.) For more information see the Pentax K mount article or Bojidar Dimitrov's web site.

A number of other manufacturers have produced K-mount lenses, and several other manufacturers have made K-mount cameras. In 2005 Pentax and Samsung entered into a cooperation resulting in the Samsung GX line of DSLRs, based largely on Pentax technology including the Pentax K mount.

Sigma SA mount

Sigma Corporation, better known for manufacturing lenses for other cameras, has made some film SLR and DSLR cameras themselves. These cameras use the Sigma SA mount, for which Sigma makes a line of lenses.

The Sigma DSLR cameras that use the SA mount are the Sigma SD9, Sigma SD10 and Sigma SD14. These cameras are noteworthy for their use of the Foveon X3 sensor, an image sensor that works on quite different principles from the sensors used in all other digital cameras.

Sony α mount system

The Sony α mount system is based on the Minolta AF lens mount, which was introduced with the Minolta Maxxum 7000 camera in 1985, along with 11 AF-mount lenses. Minolta (and later Konica Minolta) followed up by producing a large number of AF-mount lenses over the years up until 2006.

Sony acquired Konica Minolta's camera technologies in 2006, and chose the "α" (alpha) brand name, already in use by Minolta in Asia, for their new "Sony α" digital SLR system. The Minolta AF lens mount was retained from the old cameras and is now officially known as the "Sony α mount system"

Sony has produced several new lenses for the Sony α mount, and the current list of Minolta and Sony α mount lenses has over 60 entries. Some of the newest α mount lenses are designated "DT" for Digital Technology; these are for digital cameras with APS-C sensors, and will result in vignetting if used on a film SLR.

Third party lenses for the AF lens mount are made by Zeiss, Sigma, Tamron, Tokina and Vivitar.

Nikon D200 digital SLR

Mount compatibility across camera generations

The Nikon F-mount lens systems and the Pentax K-mount systems are the only 35 mm SLR camera systems (apart from the Leica M-mount rangefinder system) that allow a photographer to use a mechanical SLR camera body, a fully automatic SLR camera body, and a DSLR camera body, all utilizing the same lenses. As a result, if a photographer is working in extreme climate conditions (i.e., the top of a high mountain where the temperatures are below freezing), that photographer can change from a digital camera body, which is totally dependent upon battery power, to a mechanical film camera body, which has no battery or power limitations, and continue photographing. The only aspects of these manufacturers' lenses that have changed are the addition of electronic contacts, autofocus abilities and, in some cases, the elimination of the external aperture ring for electronic control (i.e., Nikon's 'G-type' auto-Nikkors, which cannot be used on a mechanical SLR camera body).

Canon, Minolta (Sony), Olympus, and other manufacturers have changed lens mounts. Much older Canon film cameras used the FD lens mount, which was discontinued in 1987 in favor of the EF lens mount. Olympus discontinued the OM lens mount for the OM series cameras in favor of the Four Thirds System lens mount. Minolta (Sony after 2006) phased out its bayonet-mount MC and MD Rokkor lenses for a modified bayonet mount (supporting autofocus) in 1985.

See also

External Links