Short And Long Lenses For Photography And Their Uses

As a young person with a growing interest in photography, you’ll eventually want to buy a second lens for your camera. Perhaps you’ll be thinking about either long lenses or short lenses to meet this meet.

Good lenses are expensive, so you’ll need to know enough about them to make an informed choice. If you buy a good lens and take care of it, you’ll be able to enjoy it for decades.

Different lenses accomplish different goals. For example, you shouldn’t use the same focal length to photograph a basketball game, a close-up of a flower, and a landscape. In other words, no one lens is right for every type of photography. As your experience broadens, you’ll want to own a variety of lenses, each best suited for a particular job.

long lenses

When photographers use the words “long” and “short” to describe a lens, they’re talking about the magnification the lens provides. A longer lens provides more subject magnification–so you can stand farther from your subject and not have the subject appear too small in the picture.


Lenses of 120 mm to 300 mm and above are considered long. A 90 mm is fairly long. The longer the lens, the farther away you’ll stand from your subject to take the picture. For example, to photograph a boat under sail while you’re standing on the shore, you’ll need a very long lens, say 300-400 mm.

Long lenses are also great for photographing sporting events, since you’ll want to be some distance from the playing field. On the other end of the spectrum, a 120 mm lens works beautifully for portraits. Longer lenses can do the job, but you’d have to stand away from your subject.

My two-year-old daughter was not aware I was taking this picture. I used a 90mm lens, which allowed me to stand several yards away. I never would have gotten a shot like this if she knew I was there.

If you’re photographing indoors, either in your house or a studio, lenses over 120 mm won’t work. The room won’t be large enough to permit you to move far enough away. Outside, however, longer lenses work well for photographing people in informal situations.

Since you won’t be in their faces, your subjects probably won’t notice you clicking away, so they’ll look comfortable and relaxed. This long distance technique works especially well when you’re photographing kids at play.

You might want to note, however, that the longer the focal length, the more expensive the lens. Long lenses are also heavy to carry around, and super-long lenses need the help of a tripod.



Short lens have a wider angle, so you can “get more in” the picture. Typical wide lenses are 24 mm and 28 mm. The wider the angle, the more distortion you’ll see. That’s why pictures taken through a fisheye lens look extremely weird.

The trick to successful wide-angle photography is getting close to your main subject. I prefer to avoid wide-angle lenses for photographing people, because portraits taken with these lenses end up looking too bizarre. When you stand close enough, your subject ends up with a nose that appears wider than it is (not a popular effect).

Wide-angle lenses are useful for street photography–if you have the nerve to stand close to a stranger’s face to snap your shots. You’ll capture your main subject, yet still be able to see the atmosphere of the city.

Although you may get some distortion in your subject’s face, what you’re looking for isn’t a portrait but an image of city life. Wide-angle lenses are also useful if you’re in a small space and need to include the entire scene.

French medieval village. This was the image I took with my 28 mm wide-angle lens. I was able to get the whole courtyard. Any distortion you see in the foreground stone is hardly noticeable and doesn’t detract from the overall image.
What not to do! This is a common mistake when using a wide angle lens. The subjects are much too far away and too small to see who they even are. Getting much closer to your main subjects would have improved this image without sacrificing any of the background.

Another advantage to using a wide-angle lens is the amount of light they let into the camera compared to a longer lens. You can often shoot until sunset without a tripod if you open the lens all the way.

My 28 mm came in handy this past summer while I was in France. After shooting much of a medieval village with a 90 mm, I wandered into a small courtyard framed by interesting architecture and a brightly colored flowering vine growing up a white stone building, all set against a bright blue sky.

It was a beautiful shot (see below), but it presented me with a problem. I could shoot the vine, the building, or small areas of each, but I couldn’t shoot the entire scene with my 90 mm. There simply wasn’t room for me to step far enough away. Luckily, I had brought my wide-angle lens with me, just in case.

I changed lenses and shot the scene with my 28 mm. This allowed me to get the image I wanted with no compromise. It’s helpful to own two lenses, one long and one short.


These are popular lenses that allow you to constantly change the focal length without having to change the lens. There are advantages and disadvantages to zooms.

The good news:

Zoom lenses are convenient. You won’t have to keep taking the lens on and off your camera. Also, you won’t have to buy a bag to carry your collection of lenses. You’ll have less risk of damage to the lens since it will never be off the camera.

The bad news:

With a zoom lens, you’ll never learn all you can about focal length and distance as it relates to composition and available light. When you examine your photos, you won’t know if you took the image at 35 mm, 50 mm or 60 mm.

This information may not seem important now, but not knowing means you aren’t in complete control of your camera. If you become a professional or serious amateur, you’ll need to understand all your tools so you can manipulate them.

Another issue that accompanies zoom lenses (although some will disagree) is sharpness. The makers of zooms insist that the quality of their lenses is as sharp as lenses with fixed focal length. I’m not sure I agree. After buying two zooms, I still think my fixed focal length lenses are sharper. I would rather go through the trouble of changing lenses to get the best possible quality. The results are worth the extra effort.

THE 50 mm LENS

50mm-lens. SHORT LENS

The fifty-millimeter is a standard lens that comes with most camera bodies and can be used for many projects. It’s not all that wide, nor all that long. But this short lens is great for learning, because both the portraits and the landscapes you create will be acceptable.

It allows you to get close enough with minimal distortion. Fifty millimeters are fairly inexpensive and are a good choice for people beginning to explore the art of photography.


When you see ultra close-ups of insects on flowers, the photographer used a macro (or macro attachment) lens. Unlike long lenses that require you to stand far away to get a close-up, macros let you stand just an inch or so away from the subject to shoot the same close-up. Macros are fun to use for abstract photography, too.


By joining a photography group, you’ll meet people who have equipment they wish to sell. If you buy something from someone you see often, chances are that person won’t sell you damaged goods. For the same reason, don’t gamble your money at places like flea markets, where you’ll never see the seller again.

Ask your photography teacher or an experienced friend to evaluate used lenses for you. Another good place to find acceptable used lenses is a retail camera store. Bring your camera and test the lens you like. If you approve of the quality, then buy the lens.

Because they depend on repeat business, these stores often offer a limited warranty and allow returns if you’re not satisfied. However, to be safe, be sure to ask about the return policy before buying.

Take time to get to know your new short lens or long lens. Spend time testing all the apertures and photographing various subjects at all distances, just to play with the results. The more you use it, the friendlier your lens will become and the better photos you’ll produce.

by Marci Cooke
Some photos are Copyright © Marci Cooke. They have been digitally watermarked and may be used for your on-line viewing pleasure only. No other uses are allowed without expressed written permission from Marci Cooke.

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