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Difference between zoom, macro, and telephoto lens

Daniel Kingsford Osabutey , Nov 18, 2013; 06:59 a.m.

I would like to know the difference between zoom, macro and telephoto lenses as I intend to buy some of the basic lenses as a beginner. I planed to purchase Canon EOS Rebel T5i DSLR Camera with EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS STM. I love to take pictures during events like wedding, party, sports and other programs. Your recommendations for the of basic lenses and other tools needed for a beginner will be much appreciated. Thanks


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Ed Avis , Nov 18, 2013; 07:37 a.m.

The main characteristic of a lens is its focal length. Roughly speaking this determines the angle of view, with a shorter focal length meaning a wider angle. (You can check Wikipedia or other sites for the exact definition.) A 'zoom lens' is one where you can change the focal length, so changing the view and letting you 'zoom in' or 'zoom out'. Technically, it also means The lens you mentioned is of this type.

Focal length in the early days was also the physical length of the lens. So if you wanted to have a narrow angle of view, for photographing far-away objects, you needed a big long lens. This is still true to some extent but ways have been found to make the lens not quite as long, so a 200mm lens for example might be shorter than 200mm physically. This is called a 'telephoto' lens. More loosely, the term is used for any lens with a long focal length, typically used for head and shoulders portraits, animal photography and so on. That might mean a focal length of 85mm or more.

'Macro' photography is taking pictures of things where the final photograph shows it bigger than life size. For example a picture of a tiny spider in a poster sized print. Some take a stricter definition, insisting that the image formed on the camera's sensor should be life size or bigger. A 'macro lens' is one that lets you take these high magnification photographs, usually by moving the camera very close to the subject. An ordinary lens might not be able to focus on things that close, just as if you're over 25 you probably can't focus on a finger held just in front of your nose.

Your planned purchase sounds fine and I suggest experimenting with that before buying any extra lenses.

James Elwing , Nov 18, 2013; 08:23 a.m.

There is often a 2 lens deal with these cameras which includes something like a Canon 55-200mm zoom. That would give you 18mm-200mm focal lengths, roughly equivalent to 28mm-300mm on a full frame camera.
That would keep you busy until you develop tastes in specific focal lengths.

Dan M , Nov 18, 2013; 09:11 a.m.

The only think I would add to Ed's comment is that manufacturers use the word "macro" very loosely.A true macro lens can focus very close, typically close enough that the size of image on the sensor is life-size. That is, the image of a 1 cm bug will be 1 cm on the sensor. These are specialty lenses that you need only if you are going to be doing extreme close-up work. None of them are zoom lenses. A lot of zoom lenses are labeled "macro," but they are not true macro lenses. When a zoom is labeled "macro," that just means that it can focus somewhat closer than many others.

G Dan Mitchell , Nov 18, 2013; 10:26 a.m.

Zoom lenses let you adjust the focal length - you might get normal to telephoto in one lens. The 18-55 you mention in your post is such a lens.

Telephoto lenses have longer focal lengths and make things seem closer due to their small angle of view. A 100mm lens would be a telephoto on your camera.

Macro lenses are able to focus on closer subject than other typical lenses. They are designed for photographing very small objects from short distances.

If you are a first time DSLR buyer you probably should keep your life simple at first and get the 18-55mm lens that you mentioned. Shoot a lot with that lens and you'll begin to understand many of these concepts more directly, and as your photographic experience increases you will be able to make better choices about whether or not you need other lenses and, if so, what lenses they might be.

Anthony Oresteen , Nov 18, 2013; 11:06 a.m.

Ed Avis, Nov 18, 2013; 07:37 a.m. wrote:

Focal length in the early days was also the physical length of the lens. ......

This was never true. The focal length of a lens is measured from the rear focal node to the film plane when the lens is focused to infinity. With normal lenses the rear focal node is located inside the lens. Telephoto lenses have the rear focal node in front of the lens. Wide angle lenses have the rear focal node behind the lens.

The physical length of the lens has nothing to do with the focal length of a lens.

JDM von Weinberg , Nov 18, 2013; 02:17 p.m.

To recap:
Zoom lenses are variable focal length lenses, as opposed to what are commonly spoken of as "prime" lenses - ones with only one, set focal length.
There are both zoom and prime lenses for either the normal focal lengths or for telephoto.
Most telephotos with a marked "macro" range are not true (1:1) Macro lenses, rather they are very handy "CLOSE-FOCUS" lenses. That's all you need unless you want lifesize bug pictures, etc.

The suggestion to get the "kit lenses - your 18-55, and the longer 55-250 is excellent. For the time being, that's all you need and they are both far better, dollar for quality, than anything else in the lineup. They want to suck you into Canon lenses so you will buy their more expensive ones later on. :), sort of loss leaders.

William W , Nov 18, 2013; 05:52 p.m.

"Your recommendations for the of basic lenses and other tools needed for a beginner will be much appreciated."

I recommend buying only the kit lens that you mentioned - OR – perhaps buying the TWO kit lens system mentioned i.e. the 18 to 55 Lens with the additional EF-S 55-250mm f/4-5.6 IS.
I think that you should consider how much you will “save” by buying the two lenses as a kit, with the camera. IF you do NOT “save” a lot of money then just buy the kit lens (18 to 55) that you mention. I think that a “saving lot of money” is saving more than US$50~$80.

The point is, you don’t really know what you want, at the moment: that said - the addition of the 55 to 250 lens will mean that you can zoom in to farther away subjects – and if you have a passion for getting out onto a playing field and shooting some sports action – then go for that 55 to 250 lens. On the other hand – if buying the kit with two lenses is only $10 or $20 cheaper than buying the 55 to 250 or another telephoto lens later on, then, later on you will have more experience and knowledge to assess exactly where your Photography is going.

I also advise you that for much of your interests a dedicated Flash and Flash Modifiers and learning the skills to use same, will probably be a better investment than another lens, initially.

You will probably read or hear about “Fast Lenses” – especially “Fast Prime Lenses” and the ability / usefulness of these lenses to: “have nice bokeh”; "get very shallow Depth of Field” and “good for low light”.
I suggest that you go very slowly into the purchase of any such lenses and wait until you can assess what you can and cannot do with the gear that you have. I suggest that you always buy a piece of gear for an output and purpose – that is to say be able to define what the tool will allow you to do, or do better, that you cannot presently do with the current gear. This method obviously means that, at the beginning you have very few bits of gear – and you grow your kit from YOUR needs and WANTS – and not based upon what other people have and use.


Ed Avis , Nov 19, 2013; 05:48 a.m.

Anthony O. you are quite right, I should have said that with normal lenses the length of the camera as a whole, body and lens together, is at least the focal length.

Daniel Kingsford Osabutey , Nov 19, 2013; 07:26 a.m.

I am really honoured and privileged to have great men and women sharing their great experiences in the photography profession with beginners like me. Thanks to all of you for your professional advise. God bless you all. I would also like to plead with you if anyone could link me to where I can get genuine Canon EOS Rebel T5i. I first intended to buy from Amazon but read some comments that shows I may be likely to buy fake camera with fake lenses from there. Thank you all once again

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