Which camera lens to choose and how?
If you have found yourself here, it is possible that you are new to photography, that you have received your first DSLR for your birthday and that you would like to learn photography? I have already discussed, in an article some time ago, which lenses to choose when traveling? Today, this article focuses on the choice of lenses for DSLR cameras only. So how do you choose a camera lens in general?
This is a difficult question to answer in just a few lines and, if you want to make a thorough choice, there are many parameters to learn about and take into account when choosing your camera lens. All of them, whether Canon and Nikon, or other third-party brands, have their own characteristics and it will be necessary to know them to make the right choice/best choice.
If you are a beginner, you may get lost in the vast choice of lenses, of all ranges and different options. In short, making a decision is not easy but I will try to make it easier for you, even if you only have one lens in mind to start off with! Whether you own a Nikon DSLR, a Canon DSLR or a Sony DSLR, choosing your lens is never easy. You will quickly be overwhelmed by barbaric terms: focal length, distortion, chromatic aberration, minimum focus, wide angle, crop factor, shallow depth of field, white balance, etc. Do you see what I mean?
This article will mainly focus on digital SLR camera (DSLRs) and not mirrorless camera.
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Technical terms to know when choosing a camera lens
As with choosing a digital camera, before starting it is necessary to understand some technical terms, at least to approach them in order to understand them. It will be difficult to choose a camera lens without understanding the elements to consider when making your purchase. But you don’t have to be a professional photographer to know which one to choose. I will guide you in your purchase.
I’ll try to keep it simple. Overall, I would say that there are four main elements to understand in order to know how to choose a camera lens.
The focal length or which focal length to choose for my lens?
This is the first term to understand when you want to choose your camera lens. The focal length corresponds, simply, to the zoom level of the lens (in millimeters). There are fixed focal length lenses – also called “prime lens” (Ex: 14mm, 24mm, 35mm, 35mm, 50mm, 70mm, 100mm, 150mm, 600mm, etc.) and variable focal length lenses (ex: 10-20mm, 24-70mm, 70-200mm, 100-400mm, etc.). In the photo at the beginning of the article, the focal length is 70-300mm. These lenses are often considered to be more versatile.
Simply put, the smaller your focal length (short focal length, close to “zero” mm), the wider your field of vision will be when you take your photo. Basically, if you stand in the same position to take a photo, you will see that at 10 mm you have a very wide field of vision, it will close when at 55 mm, and even more at 200 mm, etc.
Please note that the given focal length is always in comparison with a full-format sensor. An 18mm is therefore an 18mm on a Full Frame sensor camera. On an APS-C sensor, it is the equivalent of a 29mm. There is indeed a conversion factor between the two, we will come back to that one day.
The diagram below summarizes this well, with the angles of vision at different focal lengths.
In terms of focal length, there are generally 3 categories:
- The wide angle / Ultra wide angle / Wide angle lens: We are generally situated below a focal length of 28 mm (Ex: 17-40 mm / 16-35 mm / 14 mm, etc.), depending of course on whether you have a full frame DSLR or an APS-C. In short, you see wider than what you would see with the human eye in the field. The field of view will be very wide and the perspectives will be greater. This type of focal length is mainly used for landscape, architectural and street photography. On a wide angle zoom, the vision often appears a little “elongated” in the viewfinder. Care should be taken to avoid vignetting and deformation with this type of focal length. There are also so-called fisheye lenses that propose distorted visions of reality!
- Standard lenses: This is what you are “given” when you buy a camera, for example the most classic is 18-55 mm. This is more or less similar to what you see with your eye (between 35 and 50 mm depending on the type of DSLR). This type of focal length is used to take “everyday photos” such as basic portraits, street scenes, even landscapes, etc. This is often the first lens provided to start learning photography. Let’s just say that this will be enough at the beginning to get you started in digital photography. No need to spend thousands on a very expensive lens when you first start.
- Telephoto lenses: All lenses above about 100 mm are considered to be in this category (e. g. 100 mm, 70-200 mm, 400 mm, etc.). This type of focal length is generally used to zoom in on a subject for which you want more detail, a magnification of the scene, or a larger image. The most classic example is wildlife photography. Note that a teleconverter allows you to go even further. Depending on where you are, this is the type of photographic accessory that never leaves your photo bag.
Even with a telephoto lens, you can take very beautiful photographs of wildlife or scenery!
These “millimeter numbers” should be adapted if you use an APS-C or Full Frame camera. I will explain in a future article the differences, advantages and disadvantages of each one!
This is a perpetual and recurrent debate among photographers. Everyone has their own opinion on the arguments for and against these types of lenses. Here are the main advantages of the two categories according to my information:
- Advantages of zooms lenses
- You don’t need to move to be able to photograph your subject,
- Depending on the zoom focal length range, you can take many types of photos with a zoom (landscape, portrait, wildlife, etc.),
- You have a good to very good quality over the entire focal length range
- They have better versatility/magnitude for everyday use,
- Advantages of fixed focal lengths:
- The quality of fixed focal lengths in terms of precision and sharpness remains overall superior to zooms,
- They are quite often much lighter than a zoom,
- They are also often cheaper (simpler construction) -> see the excellent Canon 50mm f/1.8 camera lens,
- For the same focal length as a zoom, the maximum aperture of a fixed focal length will be larger,
- As a general rule, the size is relatively smaller than a zoom,
- They require you to move around and think about your positioning when taking the photograph (very interesting for improving its framing and composition).
The focal length used is therefore the first element to understand when choosing your camera lens. It will greatly influence the type of photo you will be able to take in the next step (I talk about that below).
Once the concept of focal length in a photo is understood, many questions will arise: which zoom to choose? Which telephoto zoom lens to choose? Which wide angle to choose etc. I will answer those questions later in separate articles.
The maximum aperture of a camera lens
Once the focal length concept is understood, the second element to consider is the maximum aperture of the lens. To put it simply, it is the lens’ ability to recover light (by opening its diaphragm). This is the number behind the “f/”. The smaller the number (e. g. f/1.4) the larger your aperture is. In concrete terms, you bring in more light and this allows 3 things:
- To take photos of your subjects faster (faster shutter speed),
- To be able to take photos in low-light conditions without having to increase ISOs or risk blurring the image,
- To blur your backgrounds (and thus highlight your subjects). This is what is referred to as ‘bokeh’. This allows you to manage your depth of field, the focus area of the photo.
Lenses with wide apertures are called “bright” or “fast”.
As a rule, it is important to know that the larger the aperture of a lens, the more expensive and heavier the lens will be, but also the better the quality.
The lens aperture can be fixed (e. g. f/1.4) or sliding (f/4 to f/5.6)
- On a fixed focal length (e. g. 50 mm f/1.4), the maximum lens apertures are always fixed,
- On a zoom, two cases arise:
- A fixed maximum aperture: this only means that you will have the same maximum aperture no matter what focal length you have (Ex: 70-200mm f/2.8). Note that fixed aperture zooms are generally of better quality, more expensive, and allow for greater creativity!
- A variable aperture: this is the case, for example, with my Canon 70-300 mm f/4-5.6. For instance, I will have a maximum aperture of f/4 at 70 mm and f/5.6 at 300 mm.
So, if you want to know how to choose a camera lens, the maximum aperture of a lens is the second element to understand.
Image stabilization of a lens
This is another factor to learn about and understand when deciding on your camera lens. Some lenses have an integrated image stabilizer.
To put it simply, it limits the risk of motion blur in 2 conditions:
- Shooting in low light conditions (night photography for example),
- When using a long focal length (telephoto lens) – you may sometimes lack speed due to the focal length.
Note that you can always use a tripod to shoot your photos in low-light conditions and increase your chances of a sharp photo.
That is, a stabilized lens will cost more than a non-stabilized lens. However, the latter generally allows you to gain at least 2 to 3 speed steps (so you can take a slower speed photo without the risk of a blurry image).
Technical terms specific to each brand
Each brand offers its own technical terms on several elements of the lens:
- Its stabilization or not: Canon (IS), Nikon (VR), Tamron (VC), Sigma (OS),
- Its compatibility with Full Frame cameras: EF at Canon and FX at Nikon for example (Nikon DX for APS-C),
- Its range: Pro or not: Example L at Canon, G at Sony
- Its type of autofocus motor: at Canon (USM / STM), at Nikon (AF-S), at Sigma (HSM).
In this example, it is a macro lens of the EF-S type (for APS-C cameras) with a fixed focal length of 60mm and a fixed aperture of f/2.8. Are you interested in macro lenses?
It will therefore be necessary to check carefully before buying a lens to find out what these acronyms correspond to.
I think I have reviewed all the main technical photo elements that you need to take into account and know in order to understand how to choose a camera lens?
2 - Which camera do you use?
Another point to consider quickly. Depending on the type of camera you are going to buy or already have, some lenses will not be compatible with your camera.
Generally, if you are a beginner, you will often buy an APS-C type DSLR (cheaper to start with). So make sure that the lens you are going to buy will be compatible with a possible transition to a Full Frame camera one day.
For example, at Canon, the acronym EF-S is reserved in APS-C format. At Nikon, the DX format is a reminder of Full-Frame compatibility.
3 - The type of photos you want to take?
This is usually, as well as the budget, the main concern when choosing a camera lens. Indeed, after having understood all the technical photographic terms, mentioned in the first (long) paragraph, you must ask yourself the question, what do I want to take a photo of?
This will be the main element that will determine the choice of your lens.
- Would you like to take portrait photos?
- Do you want to specialize in landscape photography?
- Would you rather focus on macro photography? Wildlife photography? Close-ups? Sporting images?
- Do you want to know how to photograph a waterfall in long exposure?
- Simply take beautiful photos? Souvenir photos?
You can further reduce your search by asking yourself in which general conditions you will use your lens (night time, in the undergrowth, in daylight).
This is the key point and where you need to ask yourself the most questions. Knowing what you want to photograph will help you focus on the right lens.
4 - Which brand of lens to buy then?
This is a less important point, but it deserves a few sentences for clarity.
Be aware that there are very good lenses available from third-party brands (Sigma, Tamron, Zeiss, etc.) and bad lenses from more well-known brands (Canon, Nikon, Sony, Pentax, etc.). Out of habit, I have always preferred to stick to the same brand as my camera (Canon). If I couldn’t find the right one, or the price was simply too high, I turned to a third-party brand. Lenses supplied by well-known brands (Canon or Nikon for example) will always be more expensive than lenses sold by third-party brands. So, think about how you want (or can) equip yourself.
Interested in landscape photography?
Most of the time, third-party brands provide mounts for the bigger brands. So be careful if you buy a lens from a brand other than your camera, check that the mount is well adapted for your camera!
Last but not least, it is up to you to see, from the online tests, whether the difference between the proposed price of the named brand and the third-party brand is justified or not. It’s sometimes difficult to be sure!
5 - Choose your camera lens according to several criteria
The purpose of this article was not really to give you a list of useful photo lenses to use in such and such situations, but I will try in this last paragraph to present you with the choice of lenses available according to two main criteria: needs and budget. I am only talking about DSLR lenses here. Hybrid camera optical lenses should really be dissociated from these lenses and will be the subject of their own article at a later date.
The choice of your camera lens according to your needs
When you start in photography, you don’t at first know what type of photographs you’re going to want to take. It may take you a while to find your marks. However, some of you may already have specific ideas about the settings or situations that may be of interest to you. You may be interested in night photography, low-light photography, landscapes, portraits, etc.
That’s why, it seemed relevant to me, at the end of this article, to guide you on your choice of camera lenses. The choice of lens is just as important as the choice of cameras and both are equally important to consider.
A camera lens for landscape photography
Let’s face it, it is quite possible to take landscape photos with an entry-level lens as found in all the kits, the classic 18-55mm. The focal range given allows you to zoom in on the angle of coverage (at 18mm) and this will allow you to zoom as necessary. The quality/price ratio remains correct but the optical quality of its kit lens remains overall very average.
For landscape photography, it is often advisable to use a wide angle (GA) or Ultra-Wide Angle (UGA) lens, the purpose being to open its angle of view and give an effect of immensity to the scene in front of you. Except in special cases (sunrise and sunset or night photography), the amount of light will be sufficient to take instant photos by handheld camera, without the use of a tripod. The necessity of bright optics for a wide-angle lens, if used only under simple conditions, it is therefore questionable. Here are three examples of ideal lenses for landscape photography!
Canon EF-S 10-22 mm f/3,5-4,5 USM, Everyone says it, the best wide-angle lens for APS-C – Click to see in details on Amazon
Nikon AF-S DX 12-24mm/f4.0 G IF ED, A reference at Nikon for a very long time! – Click to learn more on Amazon
Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 AT-X PRO DX-II, My first wide angle APS-C lens, a fabulous lens! – Click to learn more on Amazon
From my point of view, if you have the budget, I would advise you to invest in a wide-angle lens for this type of photo. The camera sensor size should be taken into account when choosing the lens, although it should be noted that some lenses are only compatible with certain cameras. Here are some very good references within this area.
|Brand||Model||Body||Max. aperture||Filter||Stab.||Weight||Price||Latest price|
|Canon||16-35mm f/4 L IS||FF/APS-C||f/4||77mm||YES||616g||999€||Amazon|
What lens for portrait photography?
I’m not what you might call a portrait specialist, but I do practice a minimum to give you some advice. Generally speaking, lenses between the “small telephoto lens” and the telephoto lens should be chosen, i.e. between 50mm and 200mm. The range of lenses here is quite wide. It will all depend once again on the size of the sensor of your DSLR. In APS-C, optics between 50mm (wide portrait) and 100mm (tight portrait) are preferred. On a Full Frame sensor (24×36), an 85mm or even a 100mm is often used. Everyone will choose a fixed focal length or a zoom, often considered more versatile depending on the situation. One can clearly find a good lens dedicated to portraiture without too much expense, very often with a large aperture. To name only 2 very well-known models:
- The Canon 50mm f/1.4 USM: perfect in APS-C for a large portrait and a very wide aperture, at an unbeatable price,
- The excellent Sigma 85mm F1.4 DG HSM Art: a very nice lens with 14 lens elements in 12 groups for a splendid bokeh.
In fact, I have written a full guide for choosing your lenses for portrait photography.
I suggest you take a closer look at the four known references at Canon, Nikon and Sigma. These four lenses are renowned for their quality, brightness and blurred background quality. The Sigma f/1.4 remains a superb lens capable of delivering impressive bokeh!
|Brand||Model||Body||Max. aperture||Filter||Stab.||Weight||Price||More details|
|Canon||50mm f/1.8 STM||APS-C||f/1,8||49mm||NO||160g||160€||Amazon|
|Canon||85mm f/1.8 USM||APS-C||f/1.8||58mm||NO||425g||360€||Amazon|
|Sigma||85mm f/1.4 DG Art||FF||f/1,4||86mm||NO||770g||1040€||Amazon|
|Sigma||105mm f/1.4 Art||FF/APS-C||f/1.4||105mm||NO||1600g||1459€||Amazon|
Camera lens for wildlife and sports
I have deliberately grouped these two styles of photography together, although they are very different. The two domains have something very important in common: the focal length. Indeed, in these situations, you are most likely far away from your subject (wildlife, player running by, bird in the sky, car in the distance, etc.) and you will need a long focal length to be able to zoom. In order to isolate your subject, you will often use a large aperture of the diaphragm (the number f/). A stabilized lens can help with a long focal length. Finding appropriate lenses will not necessarily be simple because the possibilities are so great. There are telephoto lenses at all prices (or almost) and depending on the maximum aperture and focal range desired, prices rise very quickly.
Below is a selection of 6 lenses from Canon, Nikon, Sigma and Tamron. I have summarized the main characteristics to guide you in your choice. Some are made for beginners in photography (with sliding aperture) and others will be included in the higher range! See some additional explanations below the table too!
|Brand||Model||Body||Max. aperture||Filter||Stab.||Weight||Price||More details|
|Tamron||70-200mm f/2.8 Di LD IF||APS-C||f/2.8||77mm||NO||1,47g||650€||Amazon|
|Tamron||70-300mm f/4-5.6 Di LD||APS-C||f/4-5,6||62mm||NO||450g||130€||Amazon|
|Canon||70-200mm f/4 L USM||FF/APS-C||f/4||67mm||NO||710g||600€||Amazon|
|Canon||55-250mm f/4-5.6 IS||APS-C||f/4-5,6||58mm||NO||375g||245€||Amazon|
|Nikon||70-300mm f/4.5-6.3 VR||APS-C||f/4-5,6||58mm||NO||415g||380€||Amazon|
|Sigma||70-200mm f/2.8 DG OS||FF/APS-C||f/2.8||82mm||YES||1400g||1200€||Amazon|
In general, entry-level telephoto lenses have relatively small, often sliding apertures, such as 70-300 f/4-5.6, or 55-250 f/4-5.6. I myself started with the latter at Canon, and I must admit that to begin with, that’s more than enough to give you time to get used to it. You will already be able to zoom beautifully with this type of focal length and your vision of photography will change! When you feel the need to move up the range (you will need to understand why a maximum aperture of f/5.6 to 200mm is not enough in many cases), it will then be time to switch to higher ranges, either for classic well-known brands (Canon, Nikon), or even for third-party brands (Sigma, Tamron), which seem to be more and more equal in quality to classic brands, while remaining less expensive… In other words, in almost all cases, these lenses will often have a constant aperture of f/2.8 or f/4, whether stabilized or not. In the end, it will be a question of budget you have for your purchase.
Choose your photo lens for low light conditions
When I talk about low brightness, I mean all situations where you will lack light and clearly, choosing the right photo lenses will be really important. The DSLR camera will also be decisive because it will ensure the rise in ISO and the management of noise on the images. Concerning the lenses, everything will depend on the type of photo you want to take.
For those who are passionate about landscapes at sunset and sunrise, for example, you can refer to the few references mentioned above. The only difference will be that when you are in difficult conditions, you will have two options to avoid blurring from camera shake: use a bright photo lens (the smallest “f/” possible) or take your photos using a tripod.
For those who are interested in night photography or street photography and want to isolate the subjects and play with the blurred ones, I would often advise that you use either:
- A classic transtandard bright lens, such as the beautiful Canon 17-55 mm f/2.8 IS USM or Sigma 17-50mm f/2.8 DC OS HSM EX,
- Bright optics, either conventional telephoto lenses (Canon 70-200 L IS USM f/2.8) or fixed focal lengths such as Tamron SP 45mm F/1.8 Di VC USD or the classic Nikon AF-S 50mm f/1.8G.
In any case, keep in mind that with the exception of using a tripod, owning a bright lens will always be very interesting as soon as the light drops and you can open your diaphragm, so you don’t have to go up too high in ISO and degrade your images.
Camera lens, choose it according to your budget?
This is the last point of the article and probably the most important for many people. How to choose a camera lens? Many will say that it depends on the price too!
Overall, everyone agrees that in photography, you generally get what you pay for. I’m not saying that there are no cheap photo lenses that are of high quality, but overall, the more you pay for a lens, the better it will be. Only you can determine whether it is acceptable to pay this or that sum for a camera lens.
Keep in mind that there are, for example, very good camera lenses at a lower cost. To name just two for portrait photography, by Canon:
- The 50 mm f/1.8 II, perfect for portraits on an APS-C camera. I have owned one for a few years now, and it is perfect for taking pictures of my little one with a beautiful blurred background. Compact and lightweight, I love it for its compactness!
- The 85 mm f/1.8, which has extraordinary characteristics in terms of stitching. It is perfect for all owners of a Full Frame camera who want to start taking portraits without too much expense.
For Canonists, I suggest you take a serious look at the two lenses below if you are looking for quality photo lenses with large aperture, and at very affordable prices!
Canon EF 50mm F/1,8 STM : my favourite lens as soon as the light goes down. Perfect and very cheap !
Canon EF 85 mm f/1.8 USM : a perfect APS-C lens for doing portrait photography without breaking the bank!
Choosing your photo lens: my conclusion
To summarize how to choose a camera lens, here are 5 steps:
- Understand the technical terms first,
- Know which sensor type camera you will be using (APS-C / Full Frame)
- What you will mainly use it for
- Determine your preferred focal length (length and Zoom/fix)
- Do you need a large aperture?
- Look at the choice of lenses (well-known or third-party brand)
- Evaluate the maximum budget for your lens
At the end of these five steps, you should be able to narrow down the selection of lenses according to your needs, current and future use and your budget. The key is to acquire photographic equipment that suits you and makes you feel at ease when capturing beautiful images.
Once you have chosen your lens, all you have to do is read detailed tests on the quality, defects, advantages, use in the field, etc. For example, you can go to the Dxo Mark website, which offers excellent quality tests of digital cameras. The latter are tested with several lenses, which are themselves independently verified. It is the main reference in this field. See their Lens Review section for full details on the lenses.
Well there you are. I hope that this article has given you more information (despite its length) and that it has helped you to understand how to choose a camera lens. If you have any specific or technical questions about choosing your camera lens, please feel free to leave me a comment at the bottom of the article. If you want some help in choosing your lens, I am here to help!
If you are interested in photography, I invite you to come and look at how to choose your camera equipment for a safari photography and especially how to choose your DSLR (and which model to choose)?
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This article provides details about the which camera lens choose. I enjoyed reading this article and would suggest others it as well. Thank you for this article! This is really very informative for us and look forward to more such in the future for all of us.