Prime, zoom, telephoto or wide angle lens?

On photography forums I see a lot of confusion about what is meant by prime lenses, zoom lenses, and telephoto lenses in particular.

  • A zoom lens is able to change its focal length, i.e. to zoom in and out. This does not necessarily mean that it is a telephoto lens.
  • A prime lens has a fixed focal length. It can be any focal length.
  • A telephoto lens has a long focal length and high magnification, and “sees” a narrow field of view. It can be either a zoom lens or a prime lens.
  • A wide angle lens has a short focal length and low magnification, and “sees” a wide field of view. It can be either a zoom lens or a prime lens.

This table shows the crossover of these lens types, with some typical examples.

Zoom lens Prime lens
Telephoto lens 70-300mm 300mm
Normal lens 18-55mm 50mm
Wide angle lens 10-20mm 20mm

So as you can see, all lenses are either prime or zoom, and also fall into a category of telephoto, normal or wide depending on their focal length. Check out which lenses count as which category.

Just to mix things up a bit, some zoom lenses span two of the categories, so an 18-135mm lens would be a normal-to-telephoto zoom lens.

Hope this helps someone!


  1. Sam Toogood
    April 29, 2013

    It’s worth mentioning that the focal length measurements in each category are for 35mm cameras. A 50mm lens on your Mamiya RB67 Pro, for example, would be quite wide angle.

    • April 29, 2013

      You’re absolutely right. However, this article is aimed at beginners who aren’t sure of the nomenclature, so for the sake of confusion I’ve just stuck with APS-C crop-sensor digital SLRs.

      I do indeed have a 50mm lens for the RB67, and it is insanely wide. I like it 🙂

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