Kymberly is a professional photographer with many years of experience. Macro, landscape, plant and animal photography are her favourites.
How to Choose the Right Lens?
There are so many lenses to choose from, so how do you pick the right ones?
When upgrading to a DSLR (digital single-lens reflex) camera from a point-and-shoot, you are forced to make an incredible number of decisions, most of which cost a lot of money.
First, you need to choose the right DSLR camera body, and then decide which lens or lenses to buy. Without choosing carefully, you can end up spending hundreds to thousands and find your lenses are not useful.
The tips below will help you find the right lenses for your photography style.
I used these tips when I recently upgraded from my old Canon Powershot S3 IS to a Canon D650 DSLR (Rebel T4i). I'm really happy with the choices I have made.
What Kind of Photography Do You Do?
The lenses you need greatly depend on the style of photography you will be using them for. As I knew my own preferred styles, I knew which two main lens types I would need: macro and strong zoom for wildlife.
Image Stabilization and Lens Quality
I knew I needed image stabilization on all of my lenses as I shake quite a lot, and wanted to get the pro-level lenses (Canon L series) for their image quality, lens durability and weather sealing, even though the cheaper camera body that I have is not weather sealed.
When I upgrade from a semi-professional to a professional camera body in the future, I will have a fully weather-sealed setup. Lenses typically outlast the camera bodies, so it's best to choose good-quality ones that you will keep using.
Full-Frame or Crop-Sensor
Lenses typically last photographers through several upgrades of their camera bodies. So it's important to keep in mind how you will use the lens in the future.
- Full-frame lenses work on crop-sensor camera bodies, but not vice versa.
Careful! You can actually damage or destroy the the mirror and the back of the lens if you try to put a short crop-sensor lens on a full-frame body. Crop-sensor lenses go further back into the camera bodies than full-frame lenses.
- Full-frame lenses on a crop-sensor body will have a longer focal distance - good for extending the zoom range, but not so good if you want to take wide angle photos.
To be prepared for a future upgrade to a full-frame camera body, I knew I wanted full-frame lenses (Canon EF) and not crop lenses (Canon EF-S).
|Lens on a FF camera||On a crop-sensor (APS-C) camera, it looks like this lens on a FF camera|
Crop Factor Explained
Zoom or Fixed Focal Length (Prime) Lenses?
Zoom lenses are versatile—you can stay in one position and zoom in or out from your subject.
Fixed focal length lenses, or prime lenses, require the photographer to move—you are the zoom!
Many professional photographers swear the image quality is much better from prime lenses: less distortion and sharper photos.
My experience with my four lenses as listed below support this.
Although, image processing and editing software, such as Adobe's Lightroom, can compensate for some of the more common distortion problems of popular lenses.
Contrary to common opinion, I was surprised to find that my prime lens was easier for me to use—I would have guessed from my old photography habits that a zoom lens would be easiest! Most people have said that primes have a steep learning curve, but I love them.
What Is Your Photography Style?
As the type of lens you use depends on the situation and your photography style, it's important to know clearly what type of photography you love or are interested in developing.
You can buy a dedicated macro lens, or use one of the many zoom lenses that have macro functions.
Macro lenses are commonly used to shoot great close-up photos insects and spiders, flowers, jewellery, or other subjects.
Most specialised macro lenses don't have image stabilisation built in, and are fixed focal length—you have to move in order to zoom in or out, you can't zoom with the lens.
They typically allow you to blur the backgrounds in your photos beautifully.
Indoor macro photography needs a fast lens, with a smaller f/value. f/1.8 - f/2.8 are the standards for dedicated macro lenses.
Wildlife or Sport Photography
A fast and strong zoom lens, with good auto-focus is a must when photographing sports or birds and other wildlife. Bird photographers consider even 300mm on the zoom end a little short for taking good bird photographs, preferring 400-600mm.
Strong zoom lenses often have a changeable f/value—they are fast when zoomed out, but slower when zoomed in, which can result in more image blurriness. The more expensive lenses have a fixed, fast f/value.
A wide lens is a must for great landscape photos, as you want both the foreground and background in focus, with as wide a field of view as possible.
- Anything below a 35mm is considered wide-angle on a full-frame body.
- With a 1.6x crop sensor, a 17-20mm full-frame lens or below is an equivalent wide angle.
You may find it better to get a crop-format wide angle lens (Nikon DX or Canon EF-S), if you have a crop format camera. You can't get as wide with full-frame lenses on a crop-sensor camera body.
You don't want to get too close to people to photograph them, portrait style, both to keep the right perspective and no distortion, and to make them feel comfortable. Too far away and it's hard to communicate.
You want a fast lens for shooting indoors without flash, and one with great bokeh, to blur the background in your shot. Look for lenses with low f/values (f/1.2 - f/4 are good).
- On a full-frame body, 70-85mm is a good focal length, plus a bit more zoom for flexibility (up to around 130mm).
- However, you may want to go shorter on a crop-sensor body (perhaps beginning around 50mm).
- If you want to keep both the background and foreground in focus, perhaps when shooting weddings, then you'll need a wider angle lens—around the 30-50mm mark.
For food photography, you want a fast lens.
- A fast lens is best because most food photography is done in low light without flash, especially if photographing in restaurants. (Look for low f/values such as f/1.2 - f/2.8)
- A wide angle lens means you don't have to photograph your food from the other side of the room, and it keeps both foreground and background details in focus.
- On the other hand, a macro lens blurs both the foreground and background details nicely, resulting in great shots, as often seen in magazines and cookbooks.
Prime macro lenses and 50mm lenses are very popular with food photographers, possibly because they are fast, allow you to be reasonably close to your subject, and have good bokeh and background blur capabilities.
Your best choice is a light, portable zoom lens that is not too large.
Many of the pro-level, weather-sealed zoom lenses are extremely heavy and long.
This is one area where kit lenses sold with DSLR camera bodies are often better, especially on crop-sensor cameras.
- A 70-200mm range is flexible enough for most travel photos.
- If you prefer taking wider landscape shots, a 24-105mm may be more appropriate.
Narrow Down Your Choices
- If you think you may want to upgrade your camera body from a crop to a full-frame sensor, you may want to get full-frame lenses from the beginning.
- If you need weather sealing (rain, dust, sand), then consider only the professional lenses (Canon L series, or Nikon Gold-standard)
- If you shake or have unstable hands, and don't have image stabilization in the camera body, only get lenses with image stabilization (Canon IS, Nikon VR).
- If you want to produce poster-sized prints and canvases, consider the higher quality lenses—the glass and barrels produce images of a higher quality with less distortion.
- If you want to travel, watch out for the weight and size of the lens. A heavy and large lens is a pain to carry around all day, literally.
Read lots of lens reviews and look at sample photos, but always take them with a grain of salt, even if they are written by professional photographers - everyone has their bias.
Good Camera Review Sites
- DPReview: The best site for in-depth reviews with sample photos, although they are slow to review newer gear.
- Ken Rockwell: In-depth reviews of both cameras and lenses, both pro-level and consumer level. He focuses more on Nikon.
- Digital Photography School: Lens reviews from both enthusiasts and professional photographers. They also have an easy-to-follow, detailed guide to becoming a professional photographer, covering lenses, cameras, other gear and publishing.
- The Digital Picture: With a strong focus on Canon lenses, their buying guides are great when you know what style of photography you enjoy.
Tip: Rent Before Buying
Many photo and camera stores have camera bodies and lenses available for rent. If you aren't sure, you can always rent the ones you are interested in for a couple of days to see if they are the right for you.
- Before buying specialty lenses, such as fish-eye wide-angles, tilt-shift or super telephoto (400mm+) lenses, rent one.
- If you are used to using zoom, consider renting a fixed-focal length lens before buying. It's a very different feeling when you have to move your body to zoom in and out.
Kit lenses, zoom lenses that are sold with the camera body, are usually good general purpose medium quality lenses, and well priced.
I decided against buying the camera with a kit lens, because I wanted to spend the money on full-frame lenses in case I upgraded the camera body in the future—crop-sensor cameras are typically only sold with crop-lenses which can't be used on full-frame cameras.
100mm f/2.8L IS USM Macro Lens
This is the first Canon macro lens with image stabilization. Although it was a lot longer than I expected, it's reasonably light and unobtrusive for an L series lens.
70-300mm f/4-5.6L IS USM Telephoto Zoom Lens
As I like taking wildlife and bird photos, I wanted a strong zoom. It was a difficult decision between the older 70-200mm f/4 lens and this one, but the extra 100mm of zoom tipped the balance. The faster lenses (f/2.8) were bigger, heavier and had less zoom.
It's an extremely heavy lens (1.2kg), and awfully expensive. I'm not sure it would be the best lens to take on long hikes, unless you were specifically going to photograph wildlife. Luckily I usually have someone with me who doesn't mind carrying it.
You don't get a tripod mount with it, but like all L series lenses, you do get a lens hood and soft case.
I really dislike the cream/white barrels of Canon's L series telephotos - it screams "look at me", when I'd prefer to be discreet.
Canon 24-70mm f/4L IS USM Zoom Lens
I purchased Canon's 24-70mm f/4L IS USM standard zoom lens, which covered my gaps (better for portrait and landscapes). Although it is a lovely lens, I'm not so happy with the quality—it's nowhere near as sharp as my 100mm macro.
This is my least-used lens in my collection, but it still is brought out for landscapes or some travel/street photography.
35mm f/2 IS USM Lens
A few months ago, I purchased a 35mm f/2 IS USM lens—the reviews were overwhelmingly positive. It feels like a baby lens next to my other, larger ones!
This is where a lot of the budget can 'disappear' to if you aren't careful.
I'm being cautious in selecting accessories, buying the must-haves first, then getting used to the lenses before buying additional things like creative filters or other camera accessories.
There are different shapes of lens hoods, designed to prevent light shining directly on the lens and creating flares in your photo, or washing out the colors.
Many lenses are sold with their hoods, but you may need to buy them as accessories if you purchase the cheaper consumer models.
I certainly use the lens hood that came with the 100mm macro, but the others only get attached if I'm outside and it's sunny.
Photographers have two opinions about UV filters.
Cheaper filters get in the way and distort photos, but more expensive ones can protect a lens from regular cleaning, inevitable scratches and bumps. They can even protect a lens if it is accidentally dropped.
I bought good quality circular polarizers for the two zoom lenses, to make the colors in autumn photos pop, reduce reflections when taking photos through glass, and to take better sunset photos, plus UV filters for lens protection.
The UV filters live on the lenses, and get swapped for the polarizer when necessary. As the other two lenses use the same filter size, I didn't need to buy extra polarizing filters.
You can stack these filters, but I've found you can't easily separate them again.
Lens Cleaning Kits
Lens cleaning kits, including an air-blower and microfiber cloths, are a must. Some kits also come with a soft brush, and wet lens cleaning wipes or a spray solution.
Lens cleaning pens are ultra-portable—perfect for quick cleaning on the go—one of my favorites, especially when I have two very furry cats in my household.
The soft, non-padded bags I got with my lenses are not enough protection.
If you haven't gone for a special purpose camera bag, with compartments for lenses, you'll need to safely store your lens in a padded lens bag.
Some companies, such as Lowepro, have weather-protected lens bags that can be strapped to a backpack or smaller camera bag—useful for traveling, or when you don't have one bag solely for your camera gear.
Questions for You!
- How did you decide on your DSLR lenses?
- Have you ever made a purchase you regretted?
- What are your favorite lenses?
Let me know in the comments below!
K.A.E Grove from Australia on March 04, 2013:
Having only just gotten a new camera with an assortment of lens I have been a bit overwhelmed at where to start, so this was a great read that I am sure to come back to again and again as my understanding of photography grows.
thanks for sharing this information
Kymberly Fergusson (author) from Germany on February 06, 2013:
I'm finding my 24-70 f/4L IS lens wonderful - more useful than the 70-300 zoom for indoor photography, although the zoom can't be beaten for wildlife shots! Am still waiting for Lightroom to release a lens-correction update for new wide angle.
The EF-S lenses are longer - they go further back into the camera than the EF lenses. But you are right, they won't damage the sensor, but they can (are likely to) hit the mirror, damaging both it and the lens (I'll update the article to be clearer - thanks!) There are adapter mounts, letting you use EF-S lenses on EF bodies.
JanMaklak from Canada on February 06, 2013:
Hi Kimberly: Some nice photography and good information. I love the Canon 70-300 L lens. I probably use it more than my 24-70 as well. One thing you mentioned in your article was sensor damage from using a crop lens on a full frame camera. My question is will an EF-s lens fit and EF mount? I didn't think it would. And how does it damage the sensor? I thought maybe the full frame mirror might hit the back of some EF-s lenses but I have not heard of sensor damage.