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

With dozens of DSLR camera lenses available, it's often hard to know where to start.

With dozens of DSLR camera lenses available, it's often hard to know where to start.

A Significant Investment

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.

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 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 lenses 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 nature.

Key Questions to Consider

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.
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.

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.

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.


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.

Personal Recommendations

Do you know other DSLR photographers? They 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 insights.

The photo gallery below includes photos taken with the Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8 from Borrow Lenses on a trip to Orlando.

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.

Flickr search for the 50mm 1.8.

Flickr search for the 50mm 1.8.


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 of 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.

More Photography Tips

© 2015 Rose Clearfield


Rose Clearfield (author) from Milwaukee, Wisconsin on December 15, 2016:

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

Eugene Brennan from Ireland on December 15, 2016:

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

Joef4 on December 14, 2016:

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!

Rose Clearfield (author) from Milwaukee, Wisconsin on February 16, 2015:

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!

Liz Elias from Oakley, CA on February 16, 2015:

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?

Rose Clearfield (author) from Milwaukee, Wisconsin on February 16, 2015:

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?

Claudia Porter on February 16, 2015:

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.

Rose Clearfield (author) from Milwaukee, Wisconsin on February 05, 2015:

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

Stephanie Marie Severson from Atlanta, GA on February 05, 2015:

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.

Rose Clearfield (author) from Milwaukee, Wisconsin on February 04, 2015:

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

Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on February 04, 2015:

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

Rose Clearfield (author) from Milwaukee, Wisconsin on February 03, 2015:

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.

Stephen J Parkin from Pine Grove, Nova Scotia, Canada on February 03, 2015:

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.

Jo Alexis-Hagues from Lincolnshire, U.K on February 03, 2015:

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

Audrey Hunt from Pahrump NV on February 03, 2015:

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.

Bill De Giulio from Massachusetts on February 03, 2015:

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

Mary Hyatt from Florida on February 03, 2015:

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.