How to Choose a Camera Lens
(That's Best For You!)
I remember when I started shopping for my first lens. I had a Nikon D60 (this was nearly 8 years ago now!) with a 18-55mm kit lens, which came with the camera. I had been told that I could achieve better (i.e. sharper) results with a faster and more expensive lens.
This made sense to me on some level, but I had no idea why a lens would be considered "fast" and what "fast" even meant. I didn't know why some lenses were larger and heavier than others, why some were way, way more expensive, what the difference was between focal lengths and what in the world do all the numbers, letters and symbols on a lens mean?
In this post, I will explain and clarify some of the most standard attributes of lenses, because choosing the correct lens for YOUR NEEDS will absolutely help you achieve sharper images!
Please Note: While I do believe that lenses are worth the investment, they are also not a substitute for good technique. It does not matter if you are using a $5K or a $80 lens - if you are shaking the camera, using the incorrect ISO, and/or generally making some basic mistakes, your images will still not be sharp.
This post is meant to help you choose a great lens, which should be a supplement to proper technique, not a substitute.
1.The Kit Lens
When you purchased your camera, it may have come with a standard "kit lens" (if you didn't opt for the body only + upgraded lens option).
Kit lenses are not exactly known for their high quality, though I feel like they sometimes get way too much negative attention. Essentially, they are meant to get people using their cameras right away, because they are economical, easy to use, and fairly lightweight in most cases.
Kit lenses are, however, built on machine assembly lines and see very few human hands along the way, whereas higher quality lenses have components that have been crafted and inspected by skilled technicians.
Canon 18-55mm Standard Kit Lens
Overall, the components of kit lenses, including the glass itself, are made out of lower quality materials than professional grade lenses. On some kit lenses, you cannot achieve an f/stop wider than f/3.5, making them less appealing to photographers who love to take photos that have beautiful blurred backgrounds.
Kit lenses are easy to manage, and they do their job! However, if you are looking to take the next step, and create sharper images, you will want to upgrade to a new lens!
2. Zoom and Prime Lenses (What's the Difference?)
When lens shopping, you will see the words "Prime" (or "Fixed") and "Zoom" quite often. Here's the difference:
- Zoom Lenses - If you have the kit lens that came with your camera, it's going to be a zoom lens. These lenses cover a range of focal lengths, for example, 12-24mm, 18-55mm, 55-200mm, etc. These lenses allow you to zoom in close to your subject, or zoom out to include more of the scene in your frame.
- Prime Lenses (often referred to as "Fixed Lens") - These lenses have one focal length, and DO NOT allow you to zoom in or out. Common focal lengths on prime lenses are 28mm (considered wide angle), 35mm, 50mm, and 85mm, to name just a few.
Which is Better - Zoom or Prime?
In the past, prime lenses were generally considered higher quality, sharper, and were typically geared towards professional photographers.
Today, there are some extremely well-built and sharp zoom lenses on the market, so I do not think the "primes are better than zooms" argument really holds up as well as it did in the past.
Whether you purchase a zoom or a prime should have everything to do with your style of photography, and little to do with one being "better" than the other.
Nikon 85mm f/1.4 - an example of a prime (and also fast) lens
Which Type of Lens (Zoom or Prime) is Best for You?
- Prime lenses are popular among portrait photographers, as they are typically fast lenses that will allow you to open up to a wide aperture (such as f/1.4 on the Nikon lens above) to create razor thin depth of field.
- Zoom lenses are popular in sports, nature, children/family and wedding photography. The zoom capability gives you more flexibility in fast moving situations where you would not have time to change lenses.
3. Focal Length
In its most basic terms, focal length is the distance from the optical center of the lens to the camera's sensor. Focal length is not the length of the actual lens! (I'm not sure how that rumor got started, but it is not accurate).
I'll say it again: Focal Length = the distance from the optical center of the lens to the camera's sensor.
Focal length is also affected by whether you are shooting with a full-frame or crop sensor, but that is an entirely separate post all its own. For now, let's look at the absolute basics of focal length:
- With a shorter focal length, more of the scene will appear in your frame. Short focal lengths such as 10mm, 18mm, 28mm, and 35mm are considered wide-angle.
- On the other hand, a longer, telephoto focal length will create a tighter crop within your frame. 85mm and above is considered telephoto. 50mm is considered a medium telephoto.
The image below demonstrates how four different focal lengths will affect the same setup. Keep in mind that the crops below are not exact, but they are close enough to give you an idea of how focal lengths vary:
Which Focal Length is Best for You?
As you can see, with a focal length of 105mm, you do not need to move in close to your subject as this lens brings the frame in for you.
With a focal length of 35mm, more of the scene will appear in the frame.
Keep in mind that, with angles wider than 35mm (such as 24mm) moving in close to your subject will create distortions.
For example, you cannot shoot close ups with a wide angle lens without a fisheye distortion effect occurring. Keep that in mind if you are a portrait photographer who loves close-ups (a 200mm telephoto or 105mm macro lens would suit you better than a wide angle lens for closeups).
4. Vibration Reduction & Image Stabilizer Lenses
Manufacturers such as Canon and Nikon offer lenses with built-in sensors and microcomputers to help analyze and then correct movement caused by camera shake. They are denoted by VR (Vibration-Reduction) on Nikon/Nikkor lenses, and IS (Image Stabilizer) on Canon lenses.
These features can help you tremendously when shooting handheld!
Canon 16-35mm IS (Image Stabilizer) Lens
Nikon 16-35mm VR (Vibration Reduction) Lens
Both Vibration Reduction and Image Stabilizer lenses will help you achieve a sharper image if you find yourself shooting handheld regularly. This technology is often found on the zooms and longer prime lenses, as these types of lenses are heavier, and more prone to camera shake.
5. Lens Pricing
As you will quickly learn, the price of a lens can range anywhere from under $100, to several thousand dollars. The price is generally based on a few factors:
- Speed - faster lenses tend to be more expensive.
- Zoom or Prime - Zoom lenses are usually a bit more expensive than prime lenses.
- Brand - some brands are just more pricey than others.
- Materials - the amount of high quality materials used to assemble the lens also affects the price.
6. Third Party Lenses?
There are a number of third party lenses on the market that are compatible with Canon, Nikon, Pentax and Sony cameras.
Often, third party lenses can be very high quality, and are, generally speaking, priced lower than their Nikon/Canon counterparts. Sigma, Tamron, Tokina and Rokinon are some of the companies that make a wide selection of lenses for first-party cameras.
7. Lenses to Consider
If you are anything like I was when I was purchasing my first lens, you'd probably like a few lens options to get you started in your search.
Here is a list of lenses that I have personally used, and also lenses that are very popular among photographers I know.
- EF 50mm f/1.8 STM - $125
- EF 50mm f/1.4 USM - $350
- EF 85mm f/1.2 USM - $1850
- EF 85mm f/1.8 USM - $335
- EF 200mm f /2.8L II USM - $750
- EF 16-35mm f/4L IS USM - $1050
- EF 24-70mm f/2.8 II USM - $1600
Note - STM and USM are different types of motors in Canon lenses for autofocusing. STM tends to be smoother and quieter without any jerkiness, whereas USM lenses are a bit louder, but focus more quickly.
- AF-S Nikkor 35mm f/1.8G ED - $500 (this was the first lens I purchased to upgrade from my kit lens!)
- AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.8G - $175
- AF-S Nikkor 50mm f1.4G - $380
- AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.8G - $425
- AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.4G - $1450
- AF-S Nikkor 200mm f/2G ED VR II - $5700
- AF-S Nikkor 16-35mm f/4G ED VR - $996
- AF-S Nikkor 24-70 f/2.8G ED - $1900
Note - ED is Nikon's abbreviation for Extra-Low Dispersion glass which is high-quality lens glass.
G lenses are meant to be used with cameras that allow you to set the aperture on the camera's body.
To Sum Up:
As I said earlier, having a great lens shouldn't be a substitute for using your camera properly, but upgrading from your kit lens will absolutely help you achieve sharper images!
Be sure to consider your type of photography when purchasing a lens.
- Are you a portrait photographer who needs a lens that will allow you to open up to a wide aperture such as f/1.2 to f/2.8?
- You need a wide-angle to take in as much of the scene as possible (I'm looking at you, landscape photographers)?
- Or, maybe you dabble in all types of photography, so you may benefit from a zoom lens that covers a range of focal lengths.
Do you have any questions or comments about How to Choose a Camera Lens? Leave us a comment below - we would love to hear from you! And PLEASE SHARE this post using the social sharing buttons (we really appreciate it)!
For additional information on how to take sharper photos, click on links below:
- Choosing the Correct ISO Setting for Sharper Images
- Choosing the Correct Shutter Speed & Aperture Settings for Sharper Images
- Back Button Focus 101 (Your Guide to Sharper Images)
- How to Hold Your Camera: Achieving Sharper Hand Held Photos