Camera lens buying guide - How to choose the right lens
Camera lenses explained
Put simply, lenses are pieces of glass that have been shaped and polished to magnify the light so that they’re useable optical instruments.
They come in a variety of shapes and sizes with a number of different features, which I’ll look at in more detail below. When looking at which lens is best for you, it’s worth looking at these features and considering which are most relevant to you and your needs.
Camera lens types
Whether you’re shooting food or fashion, you really want the right lens for the job, so it’s important to understand the differences between prime and zoom lenses as well as the various focal lengths and what they’re best suited for.
Prime vs Zoom Lenses
Prime lenses are lenses that feature a fixed focal length. Available in a range of focal lengths, prime lenses are known for delivering high quality images. They also generally offer much wider apertures compared to zoom lenses. Size wise, prime lenses tend to be smaller than zoom lenses, which can be a definite advantage if you’re wanting to travel light. With less moving parts, prime lenses are often also cheaper than zoom lenses.
Further advantages of using prime lenses is that it encourages you to explore your scene more. Being restricted to just one focal length means you have to move to find the best composition, rather than just experimenting with different focal lengths.
However, you’re also limited with prime lenses. Having just one focal length means you may need several lenses to cover all your needs, which can quickly add up both in terms of cost and weight.
Zoom lenses are powerful tools that cover a variety of needs. Whether you’re shooting landscapes or sport, zoom lenses offer a convenient solution by providing a variety of focal lengths. Depending on the range, you could use one lens for anything from landscape to portraiture.
Flexibility is the biggest advantage of zoom lenses. Their ability to zoom reduces the need for multiple lenses. Instead, one lens can serve a variety of purposes. However, you may find yourself sacrificing quality and cost for convenience. Zoom lenses generally fall within the higher price brackets, yet fail to deliver the quality associated with prime lenses. They can also be quite big and bulky and don’t always offer the wide apertures that prime lenses do.
I've outlined the different focal lengths below, but you can see the results each one produces in this video here, where I shoot a number of different images using everything from an ultra wide angle to telephoto lens.
NOTE: The focal lengths discussed below are all in relation to 35mm format. You can view the medium format equivalents here.
Ultra wide angle: Ranging anywhere from 8mm to 24mm, ultra wide angle lenses offer a very wide angle of view and are distinguishable by the extreme amount of distortion (especially noticeable in fisheye lenses). Because of this, they are not very well suited to portrait work. However, they are ideal for interiors, wide panoramic landscapes and cityscapes or even more artistic and creative work.
Wide angle: As the name suggests, wide angle lenses still offer a very wide angle of view, but with less distortion than ultra wide angle lenses. Ranging from 24mm to 35mm, they’re suited to many different types of photography, from landscapes to group portraits.
Standard lens: Starting from 35mm, standard lenses offer a more accurate reproduction of what the human eye sees in terms of perspective and angle of view compared to ultra wide and wide angle lenses. Ranging from 35mm to about 85mm, standard lenses are a popular and versatile choice for many photographers.
Short telephoto: Short telephoto lenses, ranging between 85mm and 135mm, are the ideal lens choice for portraiture. They offer the most flattering and accurate perspective and allow you to work at a good distance from your subject too.
Telephoto: Larger telephoto lenses can offer focal lengths anywhere from 100mm upwards to about 800mm. These are a popular choice for sport or wildlife photographers. Their zoom capabilities make them a good all-round lens choice suitable for a variety of subjects.
Super telephoto: Super telephotos are very specialist lenses usually used by professional sports and wildlife photographers. Their focal range, which ranges from 800mm to 2000mm, is also useful for astro photography and surveillance.
Most camera manufacturers will design lenses specifically for crop or full-frame cameras and it’s worth keeping in mind what sensor your camera uses when looking at lenses.
Before buying any lens, you should find out your camera's crop factor and use it to calculate the lens's effective focal length. For example, a 50mm lens will have an effective focal length of 75mm when used on a camera with a 1.5x crop factor. Although the focal length remains the same, the angle of view is reduced by the smaller sensor.
To learn more about the different sensor types, read my ‘Camera buyers guide’.
Aperture is an important feature to consider when buying a lens. The aperture is (in part) what determines how much light the lens lets through to the sensor. If you often find yourself working in low light, a lens with a wider aperture will be your best bet. Having a wider aperture will also allow you to use faster shutter speeds when photographing hand held or fast moving subjects. Lenses with wider apertures also allow you to increase the bokeh, which is the aesthetic quality of the out of focus background blur.
Designed to reduce blur in images, image stabilisation can be a particularly useful feature when working handheld or in low light conditions. While it is a common feature on newer model lenses, it’s worth checking to see if this feature is available on older model lenses. Image stabilisation is indicated using the letters IS (for Canon’s Image Stabilisation), VR (for Nikon’s Vibration Reduction), OS (for Sigma’s Optical Stabilization) or VC (for Tamron’s Vibration Control).
Autofocus is another common feature on lenses nowadays, with most offering the alternative to switch between auto and manual focus. Most DSLR cameras offer different autofocus options too.
How do I choose the right lens?
To choose the best lens for you, it’s worth taking the time to think about the factors mentioned above. What will you be using the lens for? Does your work require a zoom lens with image stabilization or will a prime with a wider aperture be better suited? Think about what you’ll be photographing, what you need and what you don’t need.
Remember, lenses are an important piece of kit, so it’s worth taking the time think about your requirements, read reviews and, if possible, maybe even rent the lens before buying it.
To help give you an idea of what lenses are best for different genres of photography, I’ve outlined the lenses I commonly use below.
- Lenses for portrait photography: Hasselblad 80mm f2.8 (equivalent to 60mm in 35mm format) and Hasselblad 100mm f2.2 (equivalent to 73mm in 35mm format)
- Lenses for fashion photography: Hasselblad 35mm f3.5 (equivalent to 26mm in 35mm format), Hasselblad 80mm f2.8 and Hasselblad 100mm f2.2
- Lenses for product photography: Hasselblad 80mm f2.8 (equivalent to 60mm in 35mm format) and Hasselblad 100mm f2.2
- Lenses for landscape photography: Hasselblad 28mm (manual focus) (equivalent to 21mm in 35mm format) and Hasselblad 35mm (manual focus) (equivalent to 26mm in 35mm format)
Buying second hand lenses
It’s certainly worth investing in the best lens you can afford, but if you’re working with a limited budget, it may be worth looking at buying a second hand lens.
I cover this in much more detail in the video below, but in short, it’s worth checking the condition and appearance of the lens. Scratches and dents may indicate the lens has been mistreated. Check for mould or loose elements in the lens too and also see if the aperture blades are working correctly.
When deciding on which camera lens is best for you, it’s worth taking your time. Take the time to consider the points I’ve mentioned above and, if you’re struggling to find something to fit your budget, take some time to save a little more. Buying a camera is a big investment, but buying a lens is a far more long-term investment because you usually keep your lenses when you upgrade your camera. It’s not worth making sacrifices, because I can assure you you’ll only regret it and it will end up costing you more later down the line.
Lenses are an essential piece of equipment in any photographers bag, so it's worth taking the time to understand the different types. These two classes in particular explain the differences between various focal lengths and shows you the results from each.
Our Equipment section also provides a number of short, informational videos with valuable tips for cleaning and looking after your lenses, which you may find useful.