Choosing the ideal camera lens for your style and type of photography may leave you feeling overwhelmed. How do you choose the right camera lens with so many different lenses available?
Look for lenses that fit your photographic niche, creative vision, and budget. Kit lenses sold with many interchangeable lens cameras are adequate. However, those lenses tend to limit your full potential. So you might consider multiple lenses chosen for what you do and how you want to do it.
In this article, we’ll walk you through the process of lens buying, understanding their designations and formats, and finding the ideal lens type for your camera and your photographic specialty.
Check Camera Lens Mount Compatibility
It would be embarrassing to get this wrong. So make sure the lens mount matches your camera body. When you operate in the world of the interchangeable lens camera, you may want to form a connection to a brand.
Nikon and Canon cameras and lenses are not interchangeable. Although you can buy adaptors to fit a Canon lens to a Nikon body and vice versa, I prefer to stay within the brand. Even within brands, we encounter issues. Nikon’s DSLR lenses, or F-mount, will only work on the company’s mirrorless cameras with an adaptor. Canon lenses present similar issues in DSLR and mirrorless compatibility.
Sensor Size Compatibility in Lens Selection
When you shop for lenses, keep your camera’s sensor size in mind. Lens manufacturers specify crop or full frame cameras in their lens specifications.
On a full frame camera, a 50 mm lens performs like a 50 mm lens. However, on an APS-C format camera, that 50 mm lens creates an effective focal length of 75 mm. The APS-C camera has a crop factor of 1.5. So, while the actual focal length is identical on the full frame sensor or the crop frame, the angle of view is reduced by the smaller sensor.
If you use a lens designed for APS-C cameras on a camera with a full frame sensor, the image projected is smaller than required to cover the entire sensor. You lose megapixels. Some of the full frame Nikon and Sony cameras will detect the APS-C lens and switch to crop mode.
With Canon, be careful. An APS-C lens (EF-S in Canon lingo) mounted on a Canon full frame camera can damage the internal mechanism.
Focal Length of the Lens
We published an article on focal length and angle of view if you want to review the more technical aspects of focal lengths.
- Ultra wide angle lenses: 8-15 mm
- Wide angle lenses: 16-35 mm
- Standard lenses: 35 -85 mm
- Macro lenses: 70-150 mm
- Telephoto lenses: 70-200 mm
- Super telephoto lenses: 300 mm and up
Later in this article, we’ll discuss what focal lengths are preferred for different types of photography.
Prime or Zoom: Camera Lenses Explained
When you begin to learn about lenses, the components you should always consider when choosing a lens are the focal length and the speed of the lens, as determined by its maximum aperture diameter.
Prime lenses come with a fixed focal length, while a zoom lens has a variable focal length. A prime lens offers superior quality. Since it contains fewer optical elements, it’s smaller than zoom lenses and has fewer anomalies like vignetting and chromatic aberration.
A zoom lens brings versatility. Some zoom lenses have a range of focal lengths from wide angle to telephoto. However, with more optical elements and moving parts, the zoom lens is subject to softer focus and the anomalies mentioned above.
Aperture and Lens Speed
The aperture controls the amount of light entering the camera. Like the iris in the human eye, the aperture expands and contracts depending on the available light. Camera lenses are designated by focal length and widest aperture.
We have published an introductory lesson on aperture for you to understand it better.
The lens shown below has a focal length of 50 mm and an aperture of f/1.8 at its widest opening.
The aperture determines the depth of field. At its widest opening or lowest f-stop, the depth of field will be shallow; however, it increases as the f-stop increases and the aperture narrows.
Lens speed refers to the maximum aperture. An f/1.2 lens is considered fast and works well in low light settings. A lens with an aperture of f/5.6 is a slower lens, not as versatile in low light.
The price you’re willing to pay for a camera lens will narrow your choices.
Name-brand lenses, fast lenses, and zoom lenses cost more. You may choose to save some money with third party brands, such as Sigma, Tamron, and Rokinon. But that may mean a compromise on overall quality.
You might also consider a previously owned lens. As long as it hasn’t been damaged, you may find great value.
As lens quality increases, the price rises even more. Nikon produces a 35 mm f/1.8 lens for about $500 (US). I’ve used that lens, and it’s excellent. The company also sells a 35 mm f/1.4 lens for $1,700 (US). So a slightly faster lens and superior optics result in a substantial price bump.
How to Pick the Right Camera Lens for Your Photography
Take some time to consider the factors outlined above. What will you be photographing? Does it call for a prime lens or a zoom? What do you need, and how much are you willing to spend?
A camera lens is a critical part of your work, so find out what lenses fit your type of photography. Read reviews and talk to other photographers.
You might want to rent a lens before making a buying decision, and you can find many lenses here. I have rented a 400 mm lens for my Nikon Z camera for less than $200 a week. That’s a $3,000 lens that I’m not ready to own.
For portrait photography, I recommended a prime lens, something in the range of 50 mm to 100 mm. For me, the definitive portrait lens is 85 mm f/1.4 or f/1.2. Faces will be natural looking, and you’ll have a nice blurry background.
Compared to a zoom lens, the prime lens is faster and produces higher quality images. The focus is sharper. The colors are more vivid. If you shoot in black-and-white, you’ll get better contrast and depth of shade with a prime lens.
In addition, you should consider your preference and photography style. Are you shooting fashion, family, documentary, or passport portraits?
Street photographers tend to favor lenses that capture the entire frame in sharp detail. 35 mm and 50 mm are popular among street photographers.
The 35 mm lens can capture a scene with multiple subjects. Or it can capture a closeup of a main subject and still show plenty of background.
The 50 mm, a normal lens, allows you to get in a little closer. You can concentrate more on the main subject. And if you’re self-conscious about street photography, you can work from a greater distance.
Zoom lenses bring versatility to street photography. An 18-55 mm lens covers a nice range, and you can react quickly to changing situations.
Find more information and options in our detailed guide on selecting a lens for street photography.
The two recommend lenses for weddings are 24-70 mm and 70-200 mm.
The 24-70 mm lens is wide enough to capture the overall ceremony. You can get the couple at the altar with seated guests in the foreground. It also has the reach for some closeups. This could be your primary wedding lens.
A lens with a zoom range of 70-200 mm is for the more intimate moments when the couple exchanges ring or the first kiss. You’ll be able to remain in the shadows and stay out of the way of guests.
After those two lenses, a third choice might be a fast portrait lens for the group photos. And a fourth choice would be a macro lens for closeups of the rings and other details.
For landscape photography, the right lens is one that covers the scene, frames it properly, and delivers a quality image. So, while almost any lens is suitable for landscape photography, some force you to be a little more creative.
A zoom or a prime lens is usable, although primes are common among landscape photographers.
A 24-70 zoom lens allows plenty of range for landscapes.
Also, the ultra-wide angle lens is a favorite among many landscape photographers. A 16 mm or 24 mm lens captures a wide field of view.
Still Life: Food and Product Photography
The right camera lens for this category should be versatile and easy to use. More importantly, it should be able to deliver sharp, vibrant images under varied lighting conditions.
That translates into prime lenses, which capture clear photos and are less susceptible to chromatic aberration and vignetting. A 50 mm lens, called the “nifty fifty,” is considered a wide angle lens for still-life photography. If you’re on a tight budget, this lens delivers excellent results for a low price. Canon offers several 50 mm f/1.4 lenses for under $400 (US).
Macro lenses are another good choice for product and food photography. With a 105 mm macro, you can get close up shots, or by putting a little more distance between the camera and the subject, you capture portrait-style photos with a shallow depth of field and a nice bokeh.
The price may be prohibitive for many, but a tilt shift lens functions very well for still life photos. It’s popular among food photographers in advertising. The tilt shift lens gives the photographer precise control of the focus plane. The subject is tack sharp, while the background has a nice blur.
Every photographer has preferences. You might experiment with rental lenses to find what works best for you.
The Challenges of Night and Low Light Photography
Night photography will test you and your equipment. It can take on a variety of approaches, including evening portraits, cityscapes, and astrophotography. But you’re working in low light.
My recommendation would be a fast prime lens to capture more light. A wide angle or standard lens of f/1.4 or f/1.2 is a good starting point. These lenses will make the most of how much light you’re working with. Read our full article on the best lenses for night photos.
Sports and Wildlife Photography
I’m combining two photography genres because you need about the same lenses for sports and wildlife. You want long focal lengths, and telephoto lenses of 200 mm at a minimum. In addition, you’ll be shooting at faster shutter speeds.
And again, you get to choose between a zoom lens and a prime lens. Zoom lenses create more shooting flexibility and are lower in price than primes. Prime lenses capture sharper images and are faster, so you shoot at higher shutter speeds.
A 70-300 mm lens is a good all-around choice. A number of excellent lenses of 100-500 mm are available. And if you have the budget and the need, a long lens of 600 mm or more puts you right in action.
Consider size and weight since you have to carry a telephoto lens to locations. Also, a seal against weather and dust is important since these are mostly outdoor pursuits.
Capturing the Essentials of Real Estate
Presenting a home in the best possible light is the priority for real estate photographers. And since most people search online, the photographs should serve as a virtual walkthrough. A wide angle lens is essential, and ultra wide angle lenses are useful for smaller rooms; however, fisheye lenses bring too much distortion.
All the major camera and lens makers produce excellent wide angle lenses. Nikon sells 14-24 mm lenses for both their DSLR and mirrorless camera models. Canon, Sony, and Fuji also make high-performance lenses in wide angle focal lengths.
Another consideration is drone photography, which is moving from a novelty to a necessity in real estate marketing. Aerial views create context, showing the surroundings, neighboring buildings, streets, and walkways.
As in other types of photography, the best camera lenses help you deliver great results and have happy clients.
Getting Close in Macro Photography
Macro lenses take us into the miniature world. These specialist lenses have optical construction that delivers magnification. They must have a 1:1 reproduction ratio to be considered true macro. That means the subject on the camera’s image sensor is the same size or greater than in real life.
A short focusing distance is required of a macro lens. You need to get close. Look for “macro” in the lens designation. In addition, you want image stabilization if you plan to hand-hold the camera for macro shots.
Canon excels in macro optics, with tack sharp prime lenses of 85 mm, 100 mm, and 105 mm. These lenses are also very good for portrait and still life photography.
This is a difficult issue since it depends on your preference, style, and budget. If the budget allows it, I recommend prime lenses. Lenses of 50 mm, 85 mm, and 100 mm deliver impeccable image quality, full tonal range, and low distortion.
Fashion photographers tend to favor a fast lens that captures plenty of light and creates a soft bokeh that makes the model stand out. So a prime lens with an aperture of f/1.8 or faster gets you in the game.
However, a 24-70 mm telephoto lens gives the photographer more flexibility. It covers the majority of focal lengths that you need for fashion photography, allowing you to stay in one spot and take a series of shots of the same setting.
For travel photography, you want to get great photos and travel light. Just one lens that combines quality and versatility in a compact package is ideal.
A 50 mm prime lens is small and light, with good detail and low distortion; however, the single focal length may be frustrating.
An excellent option is choosing a zoom lens for travel photography, with a focal length range of 24-70 mm, often called a “walk-around lens.” This lens is wide enough for landscapes but also has the reach to get portraits and close-ups. Therefore, this is a good choice if you want to carry just one lens.
Also, you don’t want to be toting a tripod, so consider optical image stabilization to deal with the camera shake.
I hope this article points you in the right direction for choosing a camera lens for your type of photography.
Understanding focal length and lens speed, the pros and cons of prime and zoom lenses, and getting the most for your money helps you create a system that serves your current purposes and builds for the future.
If you have any questions or observations, please add them to the comments section below.