Buying DSLR Camera Lenses: How to Pick the Lenses That You Need

Updated on March 20, 2020
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Rose is a full-time freelance writer who frequently writes about education, special education, DIY projects, food, Milwaukee, and more.


Buying a DSLR camera lens is a big decision. Most lenses cost hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars, which means that you want to make sure that you're getting a lens that you'll use for years to come. With dozens of lenses available, it's often hard to know where to start. While the decision can be overwhelming, finding the right buying guides with comprehensive reviews and comparisons will make the process quicker and less stressful. The following walks you through the basic information that you need as well as the most useful resources available so that you can buy the right lenses for your DSLR photography.

Prime Lenses vs. Zoom Lenses: Which is Better?

The basics

There are two critical basics that you must familiarize yourself with before moving forward with the lens purchasing process.

Zoom vs. prime

The first basic is learning the difference between zoom lenses and prime lenses. A zoom lens is any lens that has a range of focal lengths (i.e. 70-200mm). A prime lens is any lens that has a single focal length (i.e. 50mm). Typically prime lenses offer higher quality (i.e. sharper images, faster focusing) while zoom lenses offer more flexibility. Most photographers shoot with both zoom and prime lenses.

Types of lenses

The second basic is learning the various types of lenses. The following includes a brief overview of the most popular types of lenses.

  • Kit. A kit lens is the lens is offered with package deals for entry level DSLRs, such as the Canon EF-S 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS. Most current model kit lens are solid lenses. If you're a new DSLR user, these lenses are a great place to start. You can get comfortable shooting with a lens before you commit to a big investment.
  • Wide angle. The term wide angle is self explanatory. If you want to shoot a wide perspective or want to get in close to a subject while still fitting a lot of detail into a frame, you should consider a wide angle lens.
  • Macro. A macro lens lets you shoot subjects up close. Many point and shoot cameras have a macro setting. However, a true macro lens offers a level of detail that you can't get with a macro setting. Just a few popular uses for macro lenses include product photography, food photography, and certain types of wildlife photography (i.e. flowers, insects).
  • Telephoto. A telephoto lens is a great option when you want to shoot subjects that are far away while still capturing small details. Many people use them for shooting animals both in captivity and in the world.

Key questions

Now that you're familiar with the basics of DSLR camera lenses, you have to ask yourself two key questions.

  1. What kind of shooting do you enjoy? One of the most frustrating aspects of deciding which camera lens to buy is that there is no single lens that is a great fit for everyone. You have to think about what types of shooting you do and what lenses will be the best fit for them. For example, a 100mm macro lens may be a great fit for a commercial food stylist while a 70-200mm zoom lens may be a better choice for a wedding photographer.
  2. What is your budget? For most photographers, cost is an important factor. You want to get lenses that meet your needs without breaking the bank. It can be fun to daydream about high end future purchases, but ultimately you must be realistic about your budget and should research camera lenses in your price range.


As you start to narrow down the lenses that you're most interested in purchasing, there are a number of resources that you can use to help you with your decision. Even entry level lenses can cost several hundred dollars. As such, you don't want to rush into anything. Consider using one or more of the following resources to help you make an educated decision.

Written reviews

There are numerous photography sites and blogs with detailed written reviews for all sorts of photography equipment, including DSLR lenses. You can also read reviews on e-commerce sites, such as Amazon and B&H. If you want reviews for a specific lens or a specific type of lens (i.e. macro, telephoto), simply do a Google search for it and browse several of the top results. Many reviewers include photos that they've taken with the lenses.

Macro Photography Options (Canon 100mm L vs Tamron 90mm vs Extension Tubes vs Filters)


On a similar note, there are tons of photography YouTube channels that have extensive gear reviews. With a video review, you often get a hands on feel for a lens that many written reviews can't offer. If you're considering a specific lens, it's best practice to watch multiple channels. While it's great to have a few go to resources that you trust, it can be helpful to get varying perspectives with a range of image samples before making a major purchase.

As you search for written reviews and videos, look for content that compares varying lenses. For example, if you're thinking about buying a macro lens, look for videos in which reviewers compare the Canon 100mm f/2.8L against the Canon 60mm f/2.8.

If you've never shot with a prime lens before, the 50mm 1.8 is a great place to start.

Personal recommendations

Do you know other DSLR photographers? These people can be a great resource for future lens purchases. Talk to them about what they do and don't like about given lenses and what they think would be a good fit for your shooting needs and preferences. If you don't know a lot of DSLR photographers, you can also get personal recommendations via photography forums and channels, such as Facebook pages and Twitter feeds. Don't be afraid to ask fellow photographers for advice. Many people are more than happy to share their insight.

Recently I borrowed the Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8 from Borrow Lenses for a trip to Orlando.

Click thumbnail to view full-size

Rental / borrowing sites

It's extremely helpful to read and watch reviews about photography gear, but there is nothing quite like trying it out for yourself. There are quite a few sites that allow you to rent lenses for a fraction of the retail price. It may seem crazy to sink money into renting a lens, but it can be well worth it. You're better off spending a hundred dollars figuring out that you don't actually need a lens than putting thousands into a purchase that you're going to turn around and re-sell a few months later. Many sites offer perks such as in person pick ups and counting rental fees toward purchases.

Many local camera shops offer gear rental as well.

ProGear Rental:
1740 West Carroll Avenue, Chicago, IL 60612, USA

get directions

Dodd Camera Professional Sales & Rental:
2077 East 30th Street, Cleveland, OH 44115, USA

get directions

Pro Photo Supply:
1112 Northwest 19th Avenue, Portland, OR 97209, USA

get directions

Flickr search for the 50mm 1.8.
Flickr search for the 50mm 1.8. | Source


Flickr has a dedicated Camera Finder but not a dedicated Lens Finder, which is too bad. However, you can still use the general search function to get an idea what kind of images people create with particular lenses. For example, if you shoot landscapes, look for images of landscapes in the search results for the lens of your choosing. It's important to use this tool as a general guideline. Photographers of all different skill levels shooting with entry level to professional cameras and everything in between post their images on Flickr. Just because an image looks spectacular or mediocre on Flickr doesn't mean that the images that you take with the lens will look the same way.

© 2015 Rose Clearfield


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    • randomcreative profile imageAUTHOR

      Rose Clearfield 

      3 years ago from Milwaukee, Wisconsin

      Yes, absolutely! Feel free to use any images for social promotions. I really appreciate it!

    • eugbug profile image

      Eugene Brennan 

      3 years ago from Ireland

      Hi Rose, can I use the image from the top of this article when I tweet it?

    • profile image


      3 years ago

      Excellent info. Thank you. I would highly recommend renting an expensive lens before buying it. Based on reviews I was ready to buy a Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 lens that cost close to $2000. After a $90 rental I decided it was not something I would use often enough to purchase. I'm now renting a Canon 85mm f/1.2 for evaluation. Try before you buy!

    • randomcreative profile imageAUTHOR

      Rose Clearfield 

      5 years ago from Milwaukee, Wisconsin

      Thanks, DzyMsLizzy! There are adapters available that make it possible to use older film lenses from varying brands on DSLR cameras. I'd talk to your local camera shop or put the question out on a Pentax forum. Best of luck!

    • DzyMsLizzy profile image

      Liz Elias 

      5 years ago from Oakley, CA

      Very well done comprehensive article on the various lenses. I wonder, though; I have an old Pentax 35mm SLR film camera, with a wide assortment of lenses that use a 'bayonet' mount. I wonder if those lenses would work with a DSLR, if I should ever be able to afford the camera?

    • randomcreative profile imageAUTHOR

      Rose Clearfield 

      5 years ago from Milwaukee, Wisconsin

      Thanks so much, Glimmer Twin Fan! It's always nice to get a good deal on camera equipment. What are you shooting with these days?

    • Glimmer Twin Fan profile image

      Claudia Mitchell 

      5 years ago

      I'm enjoying your photography articles Rose. We bought our camera a number of years ago when Circuit City went out of business and got a nice deal. At some point though I'd love to upgrade.

    • randomcreative profile imageAUTHOR

      Rose Clearfield 

      5 years ago from Milwaukee, Wisconsin

      StephSev, I'm so glad to hear that! Best of luck!

    • StephSev108 profile image

      Stephanie Marie Severson 

      5 years ago from Atlanta, GA

      I'm so happy I found this article. I am looking for a new camera and lens. I'm a newbie to photography snd the info helped me a lot. Thank you.

    • randomcreative profile imageAUTHOR

      Rose Clearfield 

      5 years ago from Milwaukee, Wisconsin

      MsDora, a lens quiz would be a great addition! Glad you enjoyed!

    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Weithers 

      5 years ago from The Caribbean

      Ready for the quiz on types of lenses. Thanks for the information. Very helpful!

    • randomcreative profile imageAUTHOR

      Rose Clearfield 

      5 years ago from Milwaukee, Wisconsin

      mary615, renting is a great way to try before you buy so that you can make sure that you're getting exactly what you want. Best of luck!

      bdegiulio, Audrey, and tobusiness, thanks! I appreciate the feedback.

      Dressage Husband, I am a big fan of Canon as well. I use a zoom lens for most of my "walk around" shooting. I don't think that zoom lens will surpass prime lenses any time soon, but the high end zooms are fantiastic.

      You're right that it's definitely nice to be able to take lenses from one camera body to the next. I'd be surprised if I ever had a Canon motor fail, but I do plan to use some of my lenses longer than I'll use my current camera body.

    • Dressage Husband profile image

      Stephen J Parkin 

      5 years ago from Pine Grove, Nova Scotia, Canada

      I am a big fan of everything Canon and the combination zoom lenses make it much easier to carry what you want with you at all times.

      It is true that the prime lenses were better, but their zoom lenses have improved a lot and I like that the motor drives are on each lens and that it does not rely on one on the camera.

      That really helps when a motor fails as you can shoot with a different lens still. Mind I have never had a motor fail in over 40 years of shooting with Canon.

    • tobusiness profile image

      Jo Alexis-Hagues 

      5 years ago from Lincolnshire, U.K

      This is right up my street. Printing for reference. Excellent Hub, voted awesome, useful and sharing.

    • vocalcoach profile image

      Audrey Hunt 

      5 years ago from Idyllwild Ca.

      Thanks Rose for this informative-packed hub about DSLR camera lenses. I must admit I know nothing about camera lenses. After reading this, I may take a course in photography.

      Voted up and UAI and sharing.

    • bdegiulio profile image

      Bill De Giulio 

      5 years ago from Massachusetts

      Hi Rose. Excellent advice and tips on selecting DSLR lenses. Love the Disney photos. Great job.

    • mary615 profile image

      Mary Hyatt 

      5 years ago from Florida

      Thank for all this wonderful info. I am in the market right now! I did not know these could be rented. That may be a good way to go instead of purchasing.

      Voted this UP etc. and will share.


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