Choosing the Right Lens

Choosing the right lens can be a confusing process. Some are cheap while others with the same range may be more than double the price. How does that work? And how do you know what to look for anyway?

Let’s break it down and figure out how to choose a lens that suits your needs.

When it comes to lens jargon, you’re going to hear about zooms, primes, f-stops and image stabilization.

Here’s what some of that jargon means:

  • Prime lens – A prime lens usually refers to a fixed focal length lens. For example, 35mm or 50mm.
  • Zoom lens – Zoom lenses allow you to shoot through a range of focal lengths. For example, the 24–70mm allows you to shoot at any focal length between 24mm and 70mm by twisting a zoom ring.
  • Fast lens – When people talk about fast lenses, they’re talking about the lens’s maximum aperture (how much light can pass through the lens). I consider a lens really fast if its max aperture is f/2.8 or wider. (Wider would be 1.8, 1.4 or 1.2—the lower the number, the wider the aperture, the more light can pass through the lens, which allows you to shoot at faster shutter speeds. Thus, faster lens.)
  • Image stabilization – Depending on the brand of lens, some will have a variation of shake reduction, image stabilization or vibration reduction. They all do about the same thing. By using gyroscopes or similar means, the lens is able to compensate for camera shake while shooting handheld. That means fewer blurry images, which means you can drink your triple-shot latte and still get a sharp image. It’s more common on longer lenses and zooms. Makes lenses more expensive, too.

With these terms in mind, let’s talk about choosing a lens.

Before you can choose a lens, you need to know how you’re going to use it.

  • Are you looking for something to keep on your camera all the time, what’s called a walk-around lens?
  • Are you looking for something specifically for shooting portraits, wildlife or action?

The answer to these questions will impact your lens choice.

Out on Walkabout

A good walk-around lens should be wide enough to capture a large subject without having to stand 30 feet away, but should be able to get you close enough without having to be right on top of it. A good suggestion for a walk around lens is something that covers a decent range, like 24–70mm.

Some photographers swear by a 50mm fixed focal length as their walk-around lens. In the case of a fixed focal length you just need to keep in mind that your feet are the zoom. The only way to get closer to your subject is by physically moving closer to it.

In your face

The best lenses for portraits is a subjective discussion, but a good place to start is around 85mm or longer so your subjects aren’t affected by barrel distortion (perspective shifting at the edges). The longer focal length tends to compress image details, so your subject’s nose doesn’t appear extra long, or other features aren’t overly accentuated.

Go long, wide, or short

Longer lenses also allow you to take advantage of maximum f-stops like f/2.8 and still have most of your subject in sharp focus.

If you’re planning to shoot landscapes, wider is better. And sharp focus is a must. Many landscape photographers prefer a fixed focal length lens for their work because they tend to be be a little more sharp than zooms.

If it’s closeups you’re after, you want a macro lens with wide aperture for plenty of light and tight depth of field. Macro lenses allow you to get very close to your subject either physically or through the lens. If you’re going to take macro photography seriously, it’d be smart to invest in lenses meant specifically for macro photography. Some zooms say they are macro at a certain point, but it’s not exactly true macro, and it may not be as sharp as a true macro lens.

What about speed?

Lens speed is all about light passing through the lens and hitting the camera sensor. The lower the f-stop number, the wider the aperture. The wider the aperture, the more light passes through the lens. The more light that passes through the lens, the faster you can shoot.

I consider fast lenses any lens with an aperture of f/2.8 or better.

This makes a difference if you’re shooting sports and action, or in low-lighting situations indoors. For action, you obviously want to shoot faster shutter speeds to freeze the action. In this case, a faster lens is definitely what you should be looking for. If you’re shooting portraits, speed isn’t as much an issue as bokeh. See the next section to learn about bokeh.

Wedding photographers are huge proponents of fast lenses because they shoot in some of the worst lighting conditions known: dimly lit churches and reception halls. It’s imperative they have fast glass so they can shoot at fast enough shutter speeds to keep the bride and groom sharp. 1/60th of a second might be as low as they possibly want to go, and in a dim sanctuary, they may have to dial their ISO up to 1600 and open their aperture up to 2.8 or 1.8 to achieve it.

The name of the game is more light, more light, more light.

If you plan on shooting outside all the time or in well lit areas, you won’t need f/2.8. You might find that f/4.0 or f/5.6 may serve your needs just fine.

What about background blur?

That soft pleasing blur in the background of good portraits is called bokeh. The strength of bokeh depends on the aperture of your lens and distance from your subject. The wider the aperture (the lower the f/ number), the more blur you’ll get. Here’s the same image shot at f/2.2 and f/11 (shot with 85mm prime). Notice in the f/11 images more of the entire scene is in focus. If you want more blur, you want to shoot at wider apertures.

To give you a good idea of what different apertures look like at different focal lengths (and how various lenses, look), here’s the same image shot with three different lenses, but at the same apertures. The model stood in the same position for each shot with all three lenses. The three lenses used were the 35mm 1.4, 85mm 1.8 and the 70-200mm 2.8. Notice that the longer focal lengths compress the subject and background.

All Photos © Ryan Klos

Does brand matter?

Most camera manufacturers make their own lenses, but you can also purchase third-party lenses from brands like Sigma, Tamron or Tokina, to name a few. Many reviewers favor keeping the brand of lens consistent with the body, and I agree. But that doesn’t mean third-party lenses aren’t worth looking into. Many of them get great reviews, and you’re likely to save some green. In many cases, you’d have a hard time seeing a difference in image quality unless you’re pixel peeping. Just be sure to do your research.

The best way to know if a lens works for you is to shoot with it. Check out to rent a lens and put it through its paces. It’s a fraction of the cost to rent, and you’re not committing a large sum to something that may not be exactly what you want.

Lenses are an investment. You’ll use them on all your future cameras, so don’t go cheap for the sake of being cheap. Go for quality – good glass on a low-end body can make some great images, but the opposite isn’t always true. Good glass is one case where you truly get what you pay for.

Ryan Klos

Ryan Klos is an author and photographer in Northern Illinois specializing in senior portraits and corporate/business headshots. He also shoots stock photography for Getty Images. He's a runner, rides a motorcycle, and has a habit of putting books down halfway through and never finishing them.

  1. I’m pretty firmly set in my fast prime camp. The lens is flexible enough to shoot a lot of different situations and gives me sharp images consistently. I like having the ability to go wide and blur the background.

    I also like having creative constraints. With zoom lenses you can shoot wide, narrow, close, far, etc. When you’ve got to move your feet around to make the image I think it’s so much more tactile.

  2. @ Steve: Good call, Steve, on the perspective issue. I briefly touched on scene compression, but you’re right, perspective is something that needs to be taken into consideration when choosing a new lens.

    Wider lenses show more of the background and scenery, while longer lenses show very little of the scene around the subject.

    As you can see in the images of the 35mm and 200mm above, the barn in the background appears very different because of the perspective issue.

    @Andrew: I’m in the fixed camp, too. LOVE that 35mm and 85mm. Sharp as sharp can be–I do most of my portrait work with one of those two.

    Keep the comments coming!

  3. Good post, but your discussion of focal length said ‘your feet are the zoom’ and completely left out any discussion of perspective, which is something that needs to be explained to the beginners this article is presumably intended for. In your last sequence of shot illustrating depth of field/bokeh at different focal lengths and apertures, one notices that not only is the background blurred differently across the different lenses, but the different lenses also show a completely different background.

    In this day of superzooms, many fail to understand perspective or how it works. Indeed, a proper understanding of this is one of the main reasons many people are strong proponents of primes as day to day walkabout lenses. All this from a guy who keeps an 18-200 on greater than 90% of the time:)

  4. Steph, that’s a FANTASTIC lens. I had the 28-70mm 2.8 until it took a spill off a tripod and snapped in two. Unfortunately I can’t have it repaired either because a part it needs is no longer made 🙁

  5. I love my 24-70 2.8 because of it’s versatility being both a fast lens and a zoom lens.

  6. good write up, regarding 3rd party lenses, if you are not afraid of manual focus then there are some excellent 3rd party choices out there that are considerably better (optical) than native lenses. Zeiss might be a name that springs to mind but i would like to highlight Voigtlander. The oldest camera brand now owned by Cosina. They make excellent glass for a reasonable price. I find that the, now discontinued, 125mm APO Lanthar Macro lens beats both Canon and Nikon lenses of similar focal length. The lens is very sharp and the bokeh is smooth and creamy, also colour reproduction is excellent.
    Sticking to your body brand only restricts you in budget terms as well as performance terms. The advise given by Steph to rent lenses first before committing the money is very valuable, only through trial one can find out if one is happy with performance and handling.

  7. Hi Micahel, you’re right. There are lots of good 3rd party lens manufacturers, Voigtlander and Zeiss among them. Some people may be turned off by not having autofocus lenses, but for those that aren’t, 3rd party lenses may be something worth looking into…both for your wallet and for the quality.

  8. Excellent primer; I’m going to share it with some folks I know who’ve asked me questions about this before.

    One thing that I would add into the discussion for beginners is that historically, a lot of photographers liked the 50mm length because it’s a fairly close match to the perspective of the naked eye. So it’s not hard to find a used Nikon 50mm faster than 2.8.

    However, with many digital 35mm cameras, the smaller sensor means that a 50mm lens behaves like a 75mm lens, which is a significant difference in perspective. For a camera without a ‘full-frame’ sensor, a 35mm will come closer to the traditional 50mm length.

    I use an 18-200 lens with vibration reduction for the majority of my shooting, because it’s the most cost-effective way to cover the majority of situations I’ll be in. But I love the small depth-of-field look of a 2.8 or lower, plus the ability to shoot in lower light, so I’ll frequently rent one that’s either super-wide (20mm or lower) for candid people shots, or much longer than normal for shooting specific things like sports.

  9. Hi Alex, I’m glad you found the article useful. And you’re right about the crop factor with the 35mm and 50mm. I’m shooting with a full frame sensor so I often forget to mention it.

    Like you, I love the super tight depth-of-field look of 2.8 or lower. Lately I’ve been fancying the 35mm and shooting at f/2 and wider. Love that bokeh!

  10. Ok, so I am a total beginner and I learned a lot from the article about what some of these terms mean but what would you recommend for a first timer on a Canon EOS Rebel T2i. I will be using my camera on a trip to Tanzania to shoot a wide variety of people and animals in various situations and backgrounds and distances and then mostly at home and on vacation with my small, very active children. I don’t want to spend a fortune on a bunch of different lenses to then be confused about which one to use. I would like to purchase as few as possible. Also, I don’t want to spend too much on the entire outfit. That’s why I chose that camera body. Any advice would be nice. I am ok with third party lenses but don’t know anything about manual vs auto focus and don’t know if that would be too much for me to handle being a newbie.
    Thanks, Monica

  11. Hi Monica,

    If I had to choose one lens I’d go with a 50mm. But, if you can afford a zoom, a 24-70mm would be even better. Another option is renting a lens for your trip from

    Best of luck on your trip and getting into photography!


Comments are closed.