Cameras and lenses – in fact, anything to do with gear – often spark heated debates amongst photographers. People love to discuss which lenses you should buy or use in certain situations. So I thought it would be interesting to look at a few common scenarios and ask what lenses you might want to use in each of them.
This article presents a slightly different perspective on the debate as the answers are led by creative considerations rather than the subject. Lens choice is often subjective – what might be right for one photographer may be the wrong choice for another.
Here, then, are some of the things you need to think about when it comes to using lenses. Of course, in practice, your choice is limited by the lenses you actually own. But these considerations are still useful and will help you decide which lenses to buy in the future.
Question 1: Do you want to get the entire scene in focus?
The depth of field, and how much of it you want in your image, is a creative decision. Once you’ve made that decision you can think about the type of lens you need to use to make that happen.
Wide-angle lenses are the natural choice when you need a wide (lots of it) depth of field. There are exceptions – for instance, you could focus on something distant with a telephoto lens and use a small aperture to make sure everything included in the frame is sharp.
But generally speaking, wide-angles are the best choice. They also help you include more of the scene. Some photographers refer to wide-angle lenses as story telling lenses. The phrase describes the way you can use the lens to include enough detail to give your subject context. This approach is most likely to be used in character portraits and documentary work.
Question 2: Do you want bokeh?
If you don’t want to get the entire scene in focus then perhaps you intend to go the other way and use bokeh in the composition. You can do this with zoom lenses, but you really need a telephoto lens with a maximum aperture of f/2.8 or f/4.
It’s easier to create bokeh with a prime lens as the aperture is much wider. You also have more choice. You can use the widest aperture of the lens for an ultra-shallow depth of field, or a more conservative setting such as f/2.8 that still blurs the background but gets more of the subject in sharp focus.
If bokeh is your thing, then use a prime lens.
Question 3: How close can you get to your subject?
Telephotos are essential for most types of wildlife and sports photography. They even have their uses in street photography. If there is something that stops you getting physically close to your subject, then you need a telephoto lens to bridge that distance.
Question 4: How much weight do you want to carry?
Sometimes it’s tempting to take an array of lenses on a shoot to cover every conceivable situation. The problem is that carrying too much weight can tire you out. This makes it harder to concentrate, be creative, and make good photos.
It’s something to think about whether you’re taking photos on the street for a few hours, or going away for a month. Think carefully about the number of lenses you need to take with you while traveling. The more you have, the heavier your camera bag gets and the more difficult it is to carry everything around. Two or three lenses is often all you need.
Of course, there are times when you do need a lot of lenses. This applies to pros in particular who take lots of gear on commercial shoots to cover every eventuality. That’s part of the job and has to be done. But you’re unlikely to need a lot of gear for personal work.
Question 5: Will you be shooting in low light without a tripod?
If you are, then you need to consider how you are going to cope with the low light levels. Luckily, the high ISO performance of many cameras is so good that you can probably push ISO to 6400 or beyond (depending on your camera). This will help greatly when it comes to achieving shutter speeds fast enough to take sharp photos.
But there are a couple of other things you should think about. A prime lens will also help by letting you shoot at wide apertures if you need to.
A lens with some sort of image stabilizer (if your camera doesn’t have it built into the body) will also help you take sharper images at slower shutter speeds. But remember that while the background will be sharp at slower shutter speeds, anything that moves (such as people) won’t be.
Wide-angle lenses also help as they require slower shutter speeds for safe hand-holding (using the one of the focal length rule). For example, when I used my 56mm lens (on an APS-C camera) I prefer to set the shutter speed to at least 1/250 second to guarantee sharpness. But with my 18mm wide-angle I can comfortably use 1/60 second – a two stop difference.
Question 6: Will you be shooting portraits?
If so, then you need to decide what approach to take. One option is to use a telephoto lens. The flatter perspective flatters your model and helps isolate her from the background.
Another is to use a wide-angle lens for a documentary style. But don’t get too close with this type of lens unless you deliberately want to distort your model’s face.
Question 7: Do you need a specialty lens?
There are times when you may need a specialty lens such as a macro, a fisheye lens, a tilt-shift lens or a Lensbaby. If you know that you may need a specialized optic for a shoot (or an accessory like extension tubes), then you can plan in advance to buy, borrow, or rent one if you don’t own it already.
Rather than tell you that a certain lens is required for a specific situation, I prefer to take a different approach and get you to think about what you want to achieve before the shoot, so you can select the most appropriate lens. It’s a different, less prescriptive approach to lens selection that puts creative considerations in front of technical ones.
What lenses do you like to use and why? Please let us know in the comments – I’m curious to see your answers.
Andrew is the author of the ebook Mastering Lenses: A Photographer’s Guide to Creating Beautiful Photos With Any Lens.