A Concise Guide to Choosing a New Lens

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Sony zoom lens

I think it’s fair to say that most photographers buy a kit lens with their first camera. It’s a good place to start, as despite the limitations, a good one is versatile (an idea I explored in my article Why Your Kit Lens is Better Than You Think).

But, however well a kit lens performs in the right hands, at some point you will ask yourself what lens you want to buy next. Or, you might already own more than one lens and be wondering if a new one may improve your photography. I am going to help you answer these questions by outlining some of the things you need to think about when choosing a new lens.

You may find it helpful to think of lenses in categories rather than specific focal lengths. That’s because the field-of-view of a specific focal length depends on the size of your camera’s sensor (learn why in our article Crop Factor Explained).

The benefit of considering lenses this way is that each type suits certain subjects. If you are into landscape photography, for example, then a wide-angle lens of some sort is essential. If you photograph sports, then it is difficult to do without a telephoto lens.

By the way, if you follow the links in the article you will see plenty of photos taken with these lens types.

Canon 24mm lens

Wide-angle lenses

A good definition of a wide-angle lens is one with a focal length shorter than the diagonal measurement of your camera’s sensor (or negative if you have a film camera).

The idea of measuring the diagonal is a useful one for understanding the relationship between sensor size, focal length and field-of-view.

Let’s look at a specific camera to see how that works: the EOS 70D. The corner to corner distance of the sensor is approximately 27mm:

Canon EOS 70D CMOS sensor

From that figure, you can say that any focal length shorter than around 25mm is a wide-angle lens.

Wide-angle lenses are used for subjects like landscape photography and environmental portraiture. My article 7 Ways to Get More Out of a Wide-Angle Lens explores the use of wide-angle lenses in more detail.

Nikkor 28mm lens

Normal lenses and short telephoto primes

A normal lens is a prime lens with a focal length similar to the diagonal measurement of your camera’s sensor.

In the example of the EOS 70D used above, a 28mm prime lens is a normal lens. A 50mm lens is considered normal for full-frame and 35mm film cameras (despite the diagonal measurement being 42mm – these things are often approximations).

A short telephoto lens is one with a focal length slightly longer than the diagonal measurement of the camera’s sensor.

Normal lenses and short telephoto primes are ideal for portraits, some types of landscape photography, and for close-up photography. Being primes, they have much wider maximum apertures than zoom lenses. This helps limit depth-of-field and create images with lots of beautiful bokeh. It also helps you take photos in low light.

Learn more about the versatility of these lenses by reading these articles Why a 50mm Lens is your new best friend and How A Humble 85mm Lens Became my Favourite.

Canon 70-200mm zoom lens

Telephoto lenses

This category includes focal lengths from around double the diagonal measurement of your camera’s sensor and upwards.

There are two main reasons to use a telephoto lens. The first is for the compressed perspective they provide to pick your subject out of the background. Portrait and fashion photographers often use them for this reason.

The other is that you need a telephoto because you are photographing something that you can’t get physically close to. This includes subjects like wildlife and sports.

Canon 200-400mm zoom lens

Super Telephoto lenses

These are the large telephoto lenses you often see photographers using at major sporting events. With focal lengths of 300mm and upwards, you will probably want to buy one of these if you are serious in any way about sports or wildlife photography. Be warned – many of these lenses are also super expensive. The new Canon 200-400mm zoom (pictured above) retails for over $11,000. Ouch!

Canon 24mm tilt-shift lens

Specialty lenses

The final category includes other types of lens that you would probably only buy if you really wanted to use them, as they are specialty items, and some of them are pricey. They include macro, fisheye and tilt-shift or perspective-control lenses.

Other factors

Once you have decided which category of lens you are interested in, it’s time to consider other factors:

Image quality: You can say a lens has good image quality if it gives you sharp, contrasty images free from chromatic aberrations, colour fringing and barrel distortion from corner to corner at all aperture ranges of the lens.

No lens is perfect. There is no such thing as the lens that I just described. But good quality lenses come close. Generally speaking, the more you pay for a lens the better the image quality.

You may be wondering how to evaluate the image quality of a lens you don’t actually own. One tip is to read plenty of reviews, including the ones on the sellers’ websites, personal blogs and on Digital Photography School. DxO Mark has tested lots of lenses and posted the results on their website. You will soon get a feel for what people think about a particular lens.

Build quality and weatherproofing: These could be important if you subject your lenses to any kind of rough treatment or want to shoot in adverse weather conditions. The higher end lenses in each manufacturers’ range are the ones that have the best build quality and weatherproofing.

Another benefit of weatherproofed lenses is that they let less dust into your camera to get on the sensor.

Budget: Also important, for fairly obvious reasons. If you’re on a tight budget, consider buying prime lenses rather than zooms. You can get great image quality from relatively inexpensive prime lenses, much better than you would from zoom lenses in the same price range.

You could also consider buying second-hand (our article An Introduction to Buying Used Lenses will help).

Bear in mind that good quality glass should last you a long time. The life span of lenses surpasses that of most cameras. In the words of Sir Henry Royce: “The quality is remembered long after the price is forgotten.”

How many lenses do you need? I prefer to take the simple approach to photography and that includes equipment. The more gear you have, the more it weighs if you carry it all around in one go, and the more it costs to insure. I currently own four lenses and, depending on the subject, I take two lenses with me at the most on a shoot.

Your view

That’s my approach, what’s yours? How many lenses do you own? What are your favourite lenses and what are your recommendations for choosing a new lens? Do you buy new or second-hand? Let us know in the comments. It will be interesting to hear what our readers have to say.

Understanding Lenses ebooks

Understanding Lenses ebook bundle

My ebooks Understanding Lenses Part I and Understanding Lenses Part II will help Canon EOS owners decide what lenses to buy for their cameras. They are both filled with lots of tips to getting the most out of your Canon lenses. Click the links to learn more.

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Andrew S. Gibson is a writer, photographer and traveler. He's written over twenty photography ebooks and is the founder of The Creative Photographer, where you can subscribe to the Mastering Photography newsletter and receive three free ebooks!

  • Spoonie

    Nice article. Just as an FYI, 50mm as a normal focal length is a legacy from Leica, their first 35mm camera had a 50mm lens and it just stuck. Olympus make/made a 42mm lens which is possibly the only true normal lens for any 35mm camera.

  • Kathleen Mekailek

    Being a newbie, I only have the two lenses that came with my kit- an 18-55mm and a 75-300mm telephoto. I want to get a 50mm prime and a 28mm fisheye.

  • Lisa1951

    I own numerous lenses but totally like Nikon 18-300. it goes every where and does an excellent job of covering just about anything from landscape, city scape to wildlife. Price is totally realistic, not too heavy a lens and get the job done beautifully.

  • salsaguy

    You didn’t talk about how some lenses are made for crop body cameras only and won’t work if they plan to go full frame eventually. Also not mentioned was how crop factor in consumer level camera affects the perceived focal length of the shot. These are very important as a 24mm lens on a full frame is wide angle but on a cropped sensor camera its a normal lens. Please update article

  • salsaguy

    Another important key if upgrading is to get a lens with a fixed aperture range like f2.8 or f4 that doesn’t change if they zoom, like their kit lens does. You also want a lens that will have a wider max aperture than your current kit lens to get better shots in low light or want better background blur/bokeh. Great 2nd lenses are the 50mm f1.8 or the 85mm f1.8 primes.great portrait lenses and low light for very little cash.

  • Chris

    right now I´m looking for old manual Nikkor lenses for my Canon T2i Body. I really appreciate the look. I have some very old ones Nikkor Q 200mm f4 and Nikkor P 105mm f2.5 and also AiS lenses like the 24mm f2.0 or the 50mm f1.4
    they are sharp and perfect for filming. but also for photography.

  • Good point about the fixed aperture range. It’s one of the features that separates better quality zooms from kit lenses.

  • Yes, you’re right about some lenses only working with crop factor cameras. We did mention the effect of crop factor on field-of-view, and provided a link to an article that explains it in more detail.

  • David

    I’m a newbie just retired and have decided to get into photography as a hobby , bought a bought a Fuji S 1800 but has realized that is way out of the line of cameras i see others using . I’m thinking of upgrading and from what i have read , i think i should get to understand the basics first before upgrading . i am very pleased with what i have read so far .and is really interested in this hobby

  • Michael Alexander

    Geez, another article that does nothing to advance the discussion of what lens to buy. I read 1.2 zillion articles on this topic before buying a DSLR and lenses (not kit lenses). I was well informed by so many other writers, that this article turned out to be a complete waste of time.

  • Cyndi

    I agree! A complete waste of time!

  • walwit

    I’m not a profesional, I have a wide apperture lens Canon 10-22mm, telephoto: Canon 70-300mm and a “normal” lens, the one in the kit: 28-135mm, I hardly need any other.

  • lapasan

    Buyers that are in a tight budget could buy second hand lens. Lenses could outlast camera bodies. However, lenses are delicate photo accessories. When buying second hand, the buyer should see to it that they are free of defect and most importantly the lens should have no fungus. I purchased a second hand 100-300mm telephoto lens, it worked well and the optics were clean. However, during a rainy Halloween day a playful kid hit with a stick a tent that gathered water, and the water poured right into my lens. I thought that it was okay after I wiped my lens dry. But sad to say, fungus grew inside an element of my lens after weeks. Therefore, weather sealed or water resistant lenses make a lot of sense when we should buy a lens. However, these type of lenses are more expensive than the ordinary or not weather-protected ones.

  • MALIK

    Can anyone guide me in buying a new lens for my Nikon d5200. which would be a good one for landscape photography. my budget is upto 750 USD

  • Hi Malik, what lenses do you own already? That will help.

  • MysticPhoenix

    I picked up a 70-300 Macro for my 5100 and use it almost exclusively so far. I shoot mostly landscapes/seascapes, however I like having the ability to use the macro feature of it.

  • MALIK

    I have Nikon 18-55 mm VR lens at the moment.

  • I don’t know much about Nikkor lenses but this article will get you started. Some of the lenses will be outside of your budget but it gives you a good overview. You can do a lot with your 18-55mm lens, but you can probably buy a better quality wide-angle zoom or a prime lens (maybe around 21mm or 24mm) for that budget. You could also consider a short telephoto lens if you want to hone in on details rather than include a sweeping landscape:

    http://photographylife.com/best-nikon-lenses-for-landscape-photography

  • The best way to decide what lens to ‘buy’ is to rent the one’s you’re eyeing first. JMO
    http://acorner.net/blog/2015/2/lens-rentals

    I learned that the hard way, so if you can save yourself from doing the same, your wallet will thank you.

  • Gersh

    How do you used a Nikkor lenses to your Canon Body?

  • ikime comendador

    What lense should I buy for my Nikon D5300? I only have the kit lense and wants to upgrade. I mostly photograph landscapes,cityscapes and seascapes.

    P.S. i work on a ship so most of the time I’m too far from my subj.

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