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!

2 Comments

  1. Sam Toogood
    April 29, 2013
    Reply

    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
      Reply

      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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