If you’ve just gotten your first dSLR, you’ve probably already thought about buying another lens to go with it. Maybe you want something that will let you shoot telephoto, or wide angle, or macro. Maybe you want something faster. Most likely, you don’t know what you want, but somebody told you that the kit lens wasn’t very good and you believed them.
You did what anyone would do, and started surfing the web looking at lenses. Pretty soon, your head was swimming and your eyes were glazed over after looking at all those lens terms. What’s an EF-S? What does 70-200 mean? Why is that lens so much more expensive than the one that seems like the same thing?
I’ll do my best to unravel it all for you, though I’ll warn you up front that some of this is Canon-specific. If anyone wants to write a guest entry and explain Nikon-specific terminology, or terminology for other brands, leave me a comment.
First off, an easy one. The writing on the front reads “CANON LENS EF 50mm 1:1.8 II CANON INC. (theta)52mm”. This is the Canon “Nifty Fifty” 50mm lens. (It’s a steal at around $75, and I highly recommend picking one up if you shoot Canon.) The “CANON LENS” is easy enough that I won’t insult your intelligence by explaining it.
“EF” is a Canon-specific term, and it stands for Electro-Focus. This is the type of lens that is used on the Canon EOS line of SLRs. As of this writing, all digital SLRs are EOS-type cameras, so if you have a Canon dSLR any EF lens should work. Some lenses are EF-S rather than EF. The S stands for “sticks out in back” or something like that– the back part of the lens sticks out a little farther than an EF lens. If you have the Canon 18-55 kit lens, it’s an EF-S mount. EF-S lenses work on almost all Canon dSLRs except for the high-end professional models.
“50mm” is the focal length of the lens– I explained what focal length is in the previous entry. 50mm is kind of a mid-range focal length, neither long enough to be telephoto nor short enough to be wide-angle. It’s a good general-purpose length.
“1:1.8” is the maximum aperture of the lens– the widest that it can open. The term “1:1.8” means exactly the same thing as f/1.8, and we all know what f-stops are now, right? Right?
I’ll be perfectly honest here and say that I’m not certain what the “II” means, but I’m guessing it means something like “Version 2”.
On the other side of the lens it says “CANON INC.” and then “52mm”. That last number is the size of the filter threads. Almost all lenses have threads on the outside that will let you screw a filter onto the front, either to protect the front glass from damage or to add some sort of special effect. On this particular lens, the diameter of the threads is 52mm, which means that you need to buy a 52mm filter if you want to add a filter. It is common practice and a very good idea to keep a UV filter on the front of your lens at all time, to protect the lens from damage.
Notice that instead of “CANON LENS” it says “CANON ZOOM LENS”. The word zoom means that the lens can change its focal length. In the previous example, the 50mm lens was always 50mm and you couldn’t make the focal length any longer or shorter. In the case of a zoom lens, there’s an extra ring on the lens that lets you zoom in or out to get closer or farther away from your subject. In this case, if we look just a little bit farther on the lens, we’ll see “18-55mm”. That means that the lens can zoom out to be as wide as 18mm, or zoom in to get as close as 55mm. You can, of course, use any length in-between those as well. Zoom lenses are nice because they let you have a lot of flexibility in how the image looks without having to change to a different lens.
I’ve already explained the “EF-S” part, but I’ll remind you that it’s Canon-specific.
Now it gets interesting. The maximum aperture is listed as “1:3.5-1.5.6”. We already know that means f/3.5-f/5.6, but why would a lens have more than one number? As it turns out, zoom lenses are really nice to use, but they’re harder to make than fixed-focal-length (also called “prime”) lenses. Some zoom lenses have the same maximum aperture at both their shortest and longest focal lengths, but sometimes the maximum aperture changes. When you see two numbers, the first one is what the maximum aperture is when the lens is at its shortest focal length, and the second one is at its longest.
In this case, that means that when the lens is zoomed out to 18mm, the widest possible aperture is f/3.5. When it’s zoomed in to 55mm, the widest it can open is f/5.6. As you can probably guess, if you’re in the middle of that range the maximum aperture is somewhere between those two values.
Finally, this lens has 58mm filter threads.
There are a few more terms you’ll commonly see for Canon lenses. “USM” stands for ultrasonic motor, and specifically the motor that is used for focusing. All you really need to know is that USM lenses focus faster than their non-USM counterparts, and they’re quieter.
“IS” stands for image stabilization. This is a piece of real technical magic that helps get rid of camera shake on longer exposures. It can be extremely useful for getting shots where you can’t quite hold the camera steady enough to get a solid shot. It won’t help you with moving subjects, and it won’t do any good for very long exposures, but it’s great when there’s almost but not quite enough light. IS lenses are much more expensive than their non-IS counterparts, though.
And finally, some Canon lenses have the “L” designation. This stands for “Ludicrously Expensive.” OK, not really, but it might as well. Canon L lenses are their top-of-the-line professional models. They are generally the highest-quality lenses that Canon makes, but they come with a high price tag.
I hope that helps, at least a little. Again, if someone wants to guest author a similar article about Nikon or other brand lenses, leave me a comment.