8 Things to Consider Before You Buy Your Next Lens

8 Things to Consider Before You Buy Your Next Lens

How to buy a camera lens

Prime lenses are best for creating portraits like this one, taken with the aperture set to f/1.2 to blur the background.

Are you thinking of buying a new lens for your camera? Stop, and read this article first.

One of the hardest things to achieve when buying new camera gear is clarity. Why do you need a new lens, how much should you spend, and where does it fit into the big picture of your gear acquisition? Once you are clear on these points, it makes the process of deciding which lens (or lenses) to buy next much easier.

Let’s look at eight things to consider before you buy that new lens:

1. Budget – how much do you have to spend?

Everybody’s budget is different, and the amount of money you have to spend determines which lenses come into consideration. But, no matter what your budget, hold that figure in mind while you read this article. You may see things in a different light afterward.

My approach is to own as few, good quality lenses as possible. In other words – don’t over buy. Keep the big picture in mind. What lenses would you eventually like to own for your camera? How does your next purchase fit into this plan? Ideally, you should have a good idea of which lenses you need, and then you can plan accordingly.

This type of thinking can lead to a big shift in what lenses you decide to buy. For example, a few years ago I became frustrated with the size and weight of my Canon system. I was also thinking ahead to some travel plans I had coming up, and realized it was important to keep my kit as lightweight as possible (hand luggage allowances are very low and strictly enforced in New Zealand airports). That led to the decision to switch to the Fujifilm X-Series system. I now have the lightweight kit required for traveling.

2. APS-C or Full-frame?

Most manufacturers offer both APS-C and full-frame cameras in their ranges. But this makes buying lenses even more confusing.

Let’s say you own an APS-C camera. But at the back of your mind you think you might one day buy a full-frame body. That raises the question – do you buy a lens that works on APS-C bodies only (the advantage being that it is probably smaller and lighter than a lens that would fit a full-frame camera) or one that fits a full-frame body as well (which will probably be larger and more expensive)?

Tricky question to answer, isn’t it? And that’s not even taking into account the difference that sensor makes to the lens’s angle of view.

Ideally, you should decide when you buy your first camera body whether it should be APS-C or full-frame, then stick to the same sensor size in the future. It greatly simplifies the lens buying process, and eliminates a lot of confusion.

How to buy a camera lens

What do these two lenses have in common? They are both 35mm f/1.4 lenses. The Canon one (left) is much bigger than the Fujifilm lens (right) because it is made to fit a full-frame camera. This is a good example of how sensor size, affects lens size.

3. Don’t fall into the focal length trap

The focal length trap is the belief that you need zoom lenses that cover every conceivable focal length. For example, if you start off with an 18-55mm kit lens, then buy a telephoto zoom, you might feel that you need one that starts from 55mm so that you don’t miss out on any focal lengths in between.

This simply is not true. The next point explains the way you should be thinking about lenses.

4. What subjects are you going to photograph?

Continuing with the 18-55mm kit lens example, you may find yourself considering the following second lenses: a 50mm prime as a portrait lens (giving you the benefit of high quality imaging and wide apertures), or a macro lens for taking close-up photos of insects and flowers, or wide-angle zoom for landscape photography, or a super-telephoto for wildlife and sports photography.

The key point here is that lens choice is related to subject. The subject always comes first. Once you know what you are going to photograph, you can choose the best lens (or lenses) for the job. Focal length is a secondary consideration.

In other words, don’t buy a lens because you think you should own it, buy it because you actually need it.

How to buy a camera lens

5. Should you buy a zoom or a prime lens?

The benefit of zoom lenses is convenience. If you are a wedding photographer it is much easier to zoom from a wide-angle to a telephoto when you need to, than it is to change lenses. If you are a landscape photographer it is easier to use a wide-angle zoom to frame the scene precisely, than it is to change prime lenses (or it may not be possible to stand where you need to get the shot).

The benefits of prime lenses are image quality and wider apertures. Compare an 18-55mm kit lens (typical maximum aperture f/5.6) with a 50mm prime with maximum aperture of f/1.4. There’s a four stop difference 16 times more light) between f/1.4 and f5.6, which helps you take photos with blurred backgrounds, and also to shoot in low light conditions, without raising the ISO too much. That’s why a 50mm prime is a better portrait lens than the 18-55mm kit lens (taking us back to the point about lens choice being driven by subject, not focal length).

Some photographers prefer primes, others zooms – thinking about your priorities will help you decide which is best for you.

For example, if you are a landscape photographer who always shoots at f/8, f/11, or f/16 then the wider apertures that prime lenses have are of little use to you, and a zoom may be a better choice.

How to buy a camera lens

Action photos require a telephoto lens and a camera with a good autofocus system capable of tracking moving subjects. A zoom will help you frame the subject accurately.

6. Don’t forget about weight and size

Think about the weight and size of your lenses carefully. After all, you are the one who is going to be carrying them around.

But there is another thing you should also think about when it comes to size, and that is filters. You can save a lot of money on filters by buying smaller lenses. If you’re curious to see how much, do a search for circular polarizing filters and compare the prices of the same filter in 58mm and 77mm sizes. If you need to buy a lot of filters (landscape photographers take note) then you can potentially save hundreds of dollars by buying a smaller (the diameter of the lens or filter size is also smaller) lens.

How to buy a camera lens

Wide-angle zooms are ideal for landscape photos and will help you take photos like this. Bear in mind that smaller lenses also require smaller (and less expensive) filters.

7. Build quality, weather proofing and autofocus

Most manufacturers have inexpensive, middle range, and expensive or high end lenses. Inexpensive lenses may seem like a bargain at the time, but they won’t be built as well as more expensive ones, and they may also have inferior (i.e. slower and noisier) autofocus motors.

At the other end of the scale expensive lenses tend to be built well, use good quality autofocus lenses (i.e. faster and quicker) and may also be weatherproofed (important if you take photos in bad weather or dusty conditions).

Bear these points in mind when considering a lens. Don’t forget to ask how well the lens is built, whether it is weatherproofed, and the speed and quality of the autofocus motor.

How to buy a camera lens

Wide-angle lenses are also helpful for taking photos indoors, where you may not have space to move back to use a longer focal length.

8. Brand name or third party?

You can often save money by buying a third-party lens for your camera, but in my opinion it is best to buy a lens made by your camera’s manufacturer whenever possible. Unless you have a specific reason to buy a third-party lens (usually because the type of lens you need isn’t made by your camera’s manufacturer) then stick with OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer) lenses. They hold their value better, and autofocus performance is usually superior.

Editor’s note: for a good discussion on that topic, head to: Brand Name Versus Third-Party Photography Gear: Which is better?

How to buy a camera lens

If street and candid photography is your thing, then consider buying smaller lenses to help you take photos like this, without being noticed.

9. Image Stabilization*

An Image Stabilizer is a motor inside the lens, that moves the elements in a way that compensates for the movement created by camera shake. It is given different names by different manufacturers (Nikon, for example, calls it Vibration Reduction). It helps you take photos in low light, using lower ISO settings or smaller apertures, than would otherwise be possible. Lenses with Image Stabilization cost more than their non-stabilized counterparts, so think carefully about whether or not you need it, before paying the extra money.

* Some manufacturers, like Sony and Pentax, build Image Stabilization into the camera body, not the lenses.

Hopefully these points will help you decide which lens to buy next for your camera. If you have any questions about lenses let us know in the comments and I will do my best to answer.

Mastering Lenses

If you want to know more about buying and using lenses then please check out my ebook Mastering Lenses: A Photographer’s Guide to Creating Beautiful Photos With Any Lens.

Read more from our Cameras & Equipment category

Andrew S. Gibson is a writer, photographer, traveler and workshop leader. He's an experienced teacher who enjoys helping people learn about photography and Lightroom. Join his free Introducing Lightroom course or download his free Composition PhotoTips Cards!

  • Joel

    I’m going to Paris in the fall. I have a Canon APS-C DSLR. If you could pick one lens for that trip, what would it be? I’m thinking about a 24mm prime f2.8, but it has no IS and I don’t want to have blurry pics of a one time trip.

  • I’m using a Fujifilm X-T1 (which I got recently when I noticed that I wasn’t carrying my Canon DSLR because it was too big) and I currently only own two lenses, the 35mm f/2 WR and the 60mm f/2.4 macro. I was considering getting a standard zoom just for those occasions when I go into a family party and I might need a wider focal length to get the whole family into the frame. The 16-55mm WR looks super tasty, but considering that I’ll probably only use that zoom indoors in relatively low light conditions at its widest focal length, I’m pretty sure I could go with the 18-55mm f/2.8-f/4 no problem, especially since it’s stabilized… decisions are always tough unfortunately when it comes to lenses! I wish the 16-55mm were stabilized, that would help my decision even if it costs more because I could then use it for many other situations 😛

  • Hi Joel, this is a good question. It’s hard to make a recommendation because a lot depends on what subject matter you intend to photograph. But first, why are you worried about IS? You should be able to take sharp photos at 1/60 second with a 24mm lens. You can raise the ISO if you need to. Remember that IS doesn’t guarantee a sharp image. If the camera drops the shutter speed to 1/15 second, for example, then with IS you shouldn’t get blur from camera shake but you will get blur caused by subject movement (for instance, from people walking through the scene).

    If you are planning to walk around taking photos of whatever catches your eye then a 24mm lens will serve you well. You could look at a 50mm prime, a short telephoto on your camera, for capturing details and creating bokeh with the wide aperture settings.

    A zoom would give you more options, if you want to stick to just one lens.

    Alternatively, you could take two primes – the 24mm and a 50mm would probably serve you well.

    But it all depends on what subject matter you intend to shoot, so think about that first.

    Hope that helps.

  • How about the 18mm f2 if all you need is a wide-angle lens for taking photos inside?

  • Actually that would be a great idea! I have no idea why I didn’t think of it (probably because I always used my kit lens with my previous camera!), but I’ll definitely consider it, thanks!

  • Joel

    Thanks, Andrew. My thinking was that I would be shooting a lot of large scale buildings and some wide-field city views, that’s why I thought of the 24mm. Portability is also a factor.

  • The 24mm would be a good choice, although you may find yourself needing a shorter focal length at times. Hard to say until you get there. A wide-angle zoom is worth considering.

  • Mark

    If you were using full frame I’d say the EF 24-105 f4 L IS, a truly great walk about lens. With APS-C the EF-S 17-85mm f/4-5.6 IS USM is pretty good (part of the gold banded range) and a lens I use on my older APS-C body. The EF-S 15-85mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM also looks useful. Both of these give you image stabilisation and a useful zoom range. If I could only choose one lens it would be one of these EF-S zooms as the 85mm end is 136mm equivalent on a full frame. The 17-55 f2.8 is a nice lens but I’d be a bit worried about the lack of length on that. The 15-85 is easily the better lens of the two I’ve stated but the 17-85 is cheaper, can likely be found second-hand and is still superior to a kit lens.

  • Decentralist

    I have this lens – it’s great and a great choice for street/building photography. It makes my APS-C DSLR lightweight and a pleasure to carry around in contrast to my 15-85mm zoom – a lens I very much like for the versatility. No end of great shots available with this lens despite the fixed focal length. Get to know the strengths of a 38mm (full frame equiv) lens to maximize your results when choosing shots. With this lens you can get with a few inches of your subject for nice macro type shots too. A kit 18-55 lens is much lighter and smaller than a 15-85mm and gives you some versatility if the size/weight is not prohibitive for you.

  • Joel

    Thanks, D. I have heard a lot of good things about the 24mm lens and I am looking forward to giving it a try.

  • Decentralist

    Just thought I should clarify – I am referring to the Canon EF-S 24mm (pancake) lens.

  • miker33

    Have not regretted getting the Tamron 16-300. Sure, there’s better lenses with better IQ and wider apertures all along its focal length range, but nothing that matches its 1-lens versatility. If you plan to hand-hold a lot of night shots you might want something else, but in bright daylight, or even OK daylight, it’s a great 1-lens solution.

  • These zoom lenses are good recommendations. Definitely worth considering for the Paris trip.

  • miker33

    Kind of misleading, that graphic in #2, no? Yes, they’re spec’d the same, but because of the Fuji’s crop factor they don’t take the same pictures. Assuming the Fuji has a 1.6x crop factor (56mm f2.2 full frame equivalent), a better comparison would be to the Canon 50mm f1.8. Similar shots, similar size.

  • Ended up getting the 18mm, it’s great! I’m usually more of a close-up-with-telephoto kind of person, this lens makes me see in a different way and I love it.

    I can still get some nice close-ups though! Like this one, taken this morning with my new sweetheart.

  • Guilherme Palazzo

    I’m again struggling to decide which lens get now. I already own a 17-85, a 50mm 1.8 and a 55-250 for my Canon T3i, but the two zoom lenses just stopped working! The 17-85 (which was my workhorse) broked totally (diaphragm doesn’t work anymore) and the 55-250 only works wide open. Does every zoom lenses have this kind of fragility? On my trip to Italy all I was left with was the 50mm, which in a crop sensor is just too close for walk around situations.
    On the other hand, I’m also considering moving to Fuji mirrorless, like X-T10. Are Fuji zoom lenses strong and reliable?

  • I have the X-T1 but no weather resistant lenses. I haven’t taken it out in the rain so I have no first-hand experience. But our editor Darlene was hit by a wave when using the X-T1 (I’m not sure what lens she had on the camera at the time) and the camera was fine afterwards.

  • It sounds like you’ve been unlucky with your lenses. I did throw away an 18-55mm zoom once after the diaphragm blades started to stick but I’ve never experienced this problem with another lens and I’ve owned quite a few zooms over the years.

    Fuji lenses are definitely strong and reliable. I don’t think you’ll have any problems with them.

  • Sam Siador

    Yes totally agree with you on this lens! I’ve had mine on my Nikon D5200 for 2 yrs now and its the only lens I use very versatile!

  • Ron

    You mention APS-C or Full Frame, but what about micro four thirds. Olympus and Panasonic produce a number of exceptional cameras and marvelous lenses. I became tired of schlepping my heavy, bulky Nikon gear around and replaced it with micro four thirds gear with which I have experienced virtually no degradation in IQ and a lot less hassle getting through customs at Auckland Airport. The micro four thirds equipment, incidentally, is generally also smaller and lighter than Fuji equipment, especially the lenses.

  • Hi Ron, you’re right, I should have mentioned Micro Four-thirds as well. The system has some great cameras and lenses and is worth looking at for any photographer interested in a lightweight kit.

  • Not really, because they are both 35mm f1.4 lenses. The point is that the Fujinon lens is smaller because it is made for a crop sensor not a full-frame one. Canon’s 50mm f1.4 lens is also bigger than the Fujinon 35mm f1.4, although the difference in size is not so great.

  • miker33

    True, they both have similar numbers written on them. But I’d argue photographers are more interested in the pictures they take than what various lenses have written on them. Comparing the Fujinon 35mm f1.4 to Canon’s 35mm f1.4 is an apples to oranges comparison, because the writing on them is literally the only thing that’s the same; they take vastly different photos at the same settings and the same distance. If you want to get the same shot the Fuji will get, you should use a different lens on the Canon. Check out Tony Northrup’s video for actual proof:

  • Yes, I understand the effect that crop factor has on field of view, thanks. Bear in mind that the 35mm f1.4 lens can still be used on an APS-C Canon camera as well as a full-frame one. Canon’s 50mm f1.4 lens is not as big as the 35mm f1.4 but still much bigger than the Fujinon 35mm f1.4.

  • Hi Amaryllis – I have the same camera too and I have taken it out in the rain and been hit full blast with an ocean wave in the face/camera. It handled them both fine. Rain not an issue BUT you need to make sure your lens is WR as well!! Ocean cause a bit of the on/off button stickiness for a while but it seems to have worked out the salt water. Nothing a good cleaning won’t fix.

  • aha your 35mm f/2 is WR – whereas the f/1.4 one I have is not! I used the 18-135 kit lens for these cases and the 16-55 f/2.8 would be killer, is on my shopping list!

  • The ocean isn’t a problem (I live very far from the sea!) but I got used to worry about my baby in the rain, it’s nice to know that I don’t need to! The only lens I’d dare take out in the rain would be my WR one, I’m too scared to use a non-resistant one in such a situation. I considered the 16-55mm for a while, but I tried it out where I work and I found it too heavy for my liking. Gorgeous image quality though!

  • Beautiful shot, Darlene! I can almost hear the waves just looking at it!

  • Yeah I considered that one too but opted for the 18-135 for size for travel, which I do a lot. Have you not seen the videos of people pouring a glass of water over the camera?

  • Thanks, was fun trying to get the shot

  • Actually I hadn’t seen it! However, even if the camera is really drenched at that moment, it’s only for a short while. How would it hold up in the rain for longer than that? For example, if I go on a shooting day, it starts raining and it takes me an hour to find a shelter.

  • Not sure. Where would you ever be that there is NO shelter an hour in any direction? Even in the woods you can get under a big tree.

  • At the botanical garden near where I live, most of it is open terrain with only a few little trees here and there. If it’s even just a bit windy, the rain will get underneath any tree. This said, it won’t take me an hour, I guess, I did exaggerate it a little, but it could take a while and, at that point, I may not have anything to dry my camera with.

  • It sounds like what you need is a camera bag with a waterproof cover. Or you can wear a good raincoat and hide your camera underneath it if it rains. Or use an umbrella…there are lots of options.

  • It’s awkward to juggle an umbrella with a camera and I don’t actually own a raincoat, but a waterproof cover would probably be the best idea, although I’m mostly wondering if it would be possible for the X-T1 to survive such a situation.

  • Then take something to protect it a rain cover.

  • Amarendra Karyampudi

    I have a Nikon APS-C (D5300) and I would like to buy the first lens (other than the 18-55 kit lens). The key feature I’m looking at is obtaining sharp portraits with shallow depth of field (both in broad day light and low light). I am confused between Nikon 35mm f/1.8G AF-S DX and Nikon 50mm f/1.8G AF-S NIKKOR FX. Could someone help me in understanding the pros and cons of both these lenses and suggest which one to buy.

  • Raj

    If the two lenses are designed for FF cameras you’ll need to consider the crop factor. For Nikon it’s 1.5x. In this case, the 35mm on your APS-C will be roughly equivalent to the 50mm on a FF. As for the lens specific features, etc. Being a Canon user, I’m not too vested in Nikon lenses and can’t help you there, mate.

  • Same as here, previously was a canon 5D shooter, now sold all my canon gears and exclusively using Fujifilm XT-2 with XF 18-55mm f/2.8-4 R LM OIS, XF 35mm f/2 R WR, XF 16mm f/1.4 R WR

    The kit lens is awesome and versatile for using in program party etc. 35mm is my favorite focal length for portrait and 16mm is for landscape. I had 24-70 lens for my canon, but I noticed most of the time either I used to shoot 24mm or 50mm, so 35mm and 16mm fills my need. I will not buy any more lens because I no need. In fact you can only use 16mm for environmental portrait also without distorting. XT-2 is awesome.

  • Michael Turk

    Thank you for your informative article. I found that my choice to move from my long-beloved Pentax DSLR K-mount to a Sony A6000 enabled me to choose lenses for the new system with similar principles in mind … up to a point. What has become an increasing point of frustration for me is the apparent abandonment of development of e-mount prosumer aps-c lenses by Sony. So … I have a mixture of their crop and full frame prosumer lenses and have resorted to several 3rd party and adapted vintage lenses for special needs. I still have to use my Pentax for telephoto focal lengths beyond 200mm. I love Sony’s prosumer lenses such as the 55mm and 85mm f/1.8 primes and their terrific 16-70mm and 70-200mm f/4 zooms. However I still feel that Sony MUST support their aps-c clients with a full range of light, compact, quality crop sensor lenses.

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