It can be pretty daunting to browse lenses online. Let alone try to choose one! All those letters and numbers can just look like a huge, confusing jumble of techno babble. So here’s some info I figured out in these past couple years. Now, when I look at lenses, I know exactly what they’re talking about!
Here are some letters you will see often:
EF-S – The name of the mount which is the point of contact between the Canon body and lens (in modern Canon DSLRs) is called EF-S. This mount on a lens is only compatible with Canon cameras produced after 2003 as this is the year the mount was introduced. The reverse of the EF-S is the Canon EF lens. According to Wikipedia: “The ‘S’ in EF-S stands for “short back focus”, which means that the rear element of the lens is closer to the image sensor than on regular 35 mm SLR cameras. The proximity of the rear element to the image sensor greatly enhances the possibilities for wide angle and very wide angle lenses, enabling them to be made smaller, lighter (containing less glass), faster (larger aperture) and less expensive.” For a list of Canon cameras which are compatible with EF-S lenses, check the Wiki entry here. There’s a great list.
EF – The EF lens mount is far older and more established than the above mentioned EF-S. It’s been around since 1987 and is the ‘standard lens mount’ for Canon cameras. ‘EF’ stands for ‘electro focus’ which means that focusing is controlled by a fine motor built within the lens. Now remember above I mentioned the EF-S lens which only came out in 2003? It’s important to note that EF lenses can be put on EF-S cameras (exe: a 500D), although the image will be cropped. So while I have just purchased that lovely new 24-105mm lens, what I’m seeing and photographing is not a true 24 or 105mm because my 7D isn’t a full frame camera. But of course, I don’t know the difference so I don’t really care yet. Now, an EF-S lens cannot go on an EF body. So if I still had that EF-S 18-55mm kit lens that came with my first camera, I wouldn’t be able to use it when I move up to a full-frame some day. Don’t panic! Because when you and I get to the caliber of those cameras, trust me, we probably won’t be using EF-S lenses anymore. None of my current lenses are EF-S and they’re not all particularly luxurious ones either.
IS – “Image Stabilisation” is the ‘IS’ you will see in lens names. And boy does it make my world a happier place! Through the invention of a gyroscope and floating element inside the lens, IS minimises camera shake due to unsteady hands, especially at long focal lengths. You may notice that when you use a zoom lens without IS, the images come out blurry/shaky. It’s not easy to zoom way out there and keep a steady hand. So a lens with IS is particularly important with long lenses. Think about it: when is it the hardest to keep the camera still and steady? When you’re using a slow shutter speed, right? Well with IS lenses, you can go a specified amount of ‘stops’ slower than you would without it. So although my 24-105mm can only have a max aperture of f/4, I can use two stops down (slower) shutter speed than I would without IS which helps to compensate for a not-so-wide open aperture. Other brands have IS too.
USM – In lens lingo, USM means ‘ultrasonic motor’. Canon pioneered the ultrasonic motor in the 80’s.
AF-S and AF-D – As far as I can tell from my reading, Nikon, unlike Canon, haven’t changed the mounting ring on their lenses. AF-S lenses have a focusing motor in the lens. AF-D lenses do not and the focusing comes from the camera. The ‘d’ in AF-D stands for ‘distance’ and speaks of the lens being able to communicate information back to the camera about the light situation at a distance. The camera can then evaluate, compensate and expose correctly.
SWM – ‘Silent wave motor”. Nikon’s version of the USM technology above.
VR (Nikon) – “Vibration reduction” is Nikon’s version of Canon’s IS (see above)
HSM – “Hyper sonic motor” (See USM above)
OS – ‘optical stabilisation’ (see IS above)
EX — “Excellence”, professional series. Sigma’s equivalent to the coveted Canon L series.
[SONY FOR MINOLTA]
Minolta cameras take Sony lenses
SSM (Minolta, Sony) – “Supersonic motor”. See USM above.
DT – “Digital Technology”, lenses for APS-C size sensors (what a DSLR is when it isn’t a full frame sensor)
G – “G” Series, Sony professional lenses.
SAM – “Smooth Autofocus Motor”, in-lens motor offered on some entry level lenses since 2009.
SDM (Pentax) – “Supersonic drive motor”. See USM above.
DA – these are the lenses for digital cameras
FA – last of the pre-digital generation. Will only work with 35mm film cameras
D-FA – 35mm film lens, but are also updated to work better with APS-C sensors (digital)
USD (Tamron) – “Ultrasonic silent drive”. See USM above.
SP — ‘Super Performance’, professional lenses
IF — ‘Internal Focus’
LD — “Low Dispersion” elements
XR — Extra Refractive Index glass
VC — “Vibration Compensation” — in lens image stabilisation (see IS above in the Canon section)
USD — Ultrasonic Silent Drive
Here’s the fun part. The part that used to make me scratch my head the most. The numbers! When looking at a lens name, there will be two sets of numbers. One tells you the focal length and the other tells you of the aperture capabilities of the lens.
[FOCAL LENGTH – PRIMES]
A prime or ‘fixed’ lens is one which doesn’t zoom in and out, but stays fixed at a certain length. Examples of how these look within the names of lenses are: “Canon 50mm f/1.4 USM”. The 50mm part means that the lens stays fixed at 50mm. Other popular ones are 24mm, 85mm or 200mm.
[FOCAL LENGTH – ZOOMS]
If the name of the lens has two numbers, that means it’s a zoom lens. For example: “18-200mm” means that when the lens is at it’s ‘shortest’ or ‘widest’, it’s an 18mm lens. When fully extended, ‘zoomed’ or ‘long’, it can go up to 200mm. And of course, it can cover anything in between.
[APERTURE – PRIMES]
The aperture of a lens is measured in f/stops. Remember, aperture is like how wide open the pupils of your eye are. The more wide open (the lower the number) the more light is let in. The higher the number, the more closed the aperture and the less light, thus requiring slower shutter speeds or higher ISOs to properly expose your photos. Which isn’t ideal for indoors.
So on a prime ‘fixed’ lens, there will be one such number. Exe: 50mm f/1.4. The focal length is 50mm and the most wide open aperture you can get on that lens is 1.4. Canon makes a f/1.2 50mm lens but that’s about as wide open as you’re going to get without spending many thousands on a lens. So 1.4 is pretty good.
[APERTURE – ZOOMS]
On a zoom lens, there’s usually an aperture range (two f/stop numbers) much like the two numbers to tell you the range of the focal length. On the lens which often comes with Canon cameras, the name looks like this: “Canon EF-S 18-200mm f3.5-5.6 IS Lens” 18-200mm is the focal length(s) and the aperture measurements are f/3.5 to f/5.6. Which means that when the lens is at it’s widest (or shortest), the min f/stop can be down to 3.5. When it’s zoomed all the way to 200mm, the min f/stop is f/5.6. Now, f/5.6 is really not a good aperture to ever be using indoors so I traded this lens for a more friendly zoom for weddings which brings me to my next point.
Some zoom lenses only have 1 f/stop in the name, even though it zooms in and out. Exe: “Canon 24-105mm f/4 IS”. This means that no matter what length I’m using this lens on, the aperture can remain at f/4. Which also means that I can set my manual settings and zoom in and out without the exposure of the photo being affected. Which isn’t true of the above mentioned kit lens.
THE END ::
Whew! What an epic post this was. Is anyone even still reading? :) It might just need to be one of those things you refer to when browsing for your next lens. But anyhow, hope it helped!