Choosing Lenses: When to Use Which Lens and Why

Choosing Lenses: When to Use Which Lens and Why

All DSLR systems offer a dizzying selection of lenses for their cameras. These range from fisheyes that give a 180° field of view, to telephoto lenses up to 800mm or more. You’ve got zooms, primes, macro, super telephoto, and of course, tilt-shift lenses as well.

In my time as a photographer I’ve often had friends, students, or casual acquaintances ask me “What lens should I get?” There is no one right answer to this question, and it can lead to more confusion unless I ask a few questions myself.

First off, and easiest to figure out is, “What do you want to shoot?” It could be sports, wildlife, birds, landscapes, architecture, portraits, or any number of other subjects. Next is to find out what their budget is. The cost of the lens depends on several things. Less expensive lenses will generally have variable apertures, meaning as you zoom, the maximum aperture gets smaller. More expensive lenses have a fixed aperture. The good news is that all major camera and lens manufacturers offer a variety of focal lengths to satisfy most budgets.

After those two questions are answered it becomes more difficult. I try to lead them to their choice, rather than just tell them “Get this lens.” So let’s take a look at different types of lenses and how they can be used.


We’ll start with the wide angles. In my early days as a photographer, I NEVER used wide angle lenses. I started my career as a sports photographer and rarely used anything shorter than a 70-200, often going for 400mm f2.8 or 600mm f/4 lenses. As I began shooting landscapes as more of a hobby, I began to discover the magic of wide angles. Wide angles give a wide expansive view, and when used correctly, can wrap you in the scene. My favorite lenses for landscape work tend to be in the ranges from 14mm f/2.8, 16-35 f/2.8, and 24mm f/1.4.

Wide angles should be used when prominent foreground objects are present. The primary mistake made by new photographers is to use wide angles incorrectly- by not being close enough, having no interest in the foreground, or by trying to include too much in the scene. Wide angles are also handy in tight areas, like small rooms, cars, caves, etc. They can give volume to the small area. Wide angles have the potential to drastically change your photography.


Standard lenses tend to range from about 35mm up to around 85mm. Lenses in the standard zoom range will cover moderate wide angles- typically 24mm to 35mm, to moderate telephoto lengths- around 70mm and up to about 105mm. Standard zoom lenses are great “walk around” lenses. They are versatile, allowing both for wide angle work such as a landscape, or zooming in to the telephoto end of the lens to take a great portrait.

Standard zooms are generally included in many SLR kits that come with lenses. 18-55mm, 18-135mm, 24-105mm, 24-70mm, and others are popular standard zooms. However, there are also standard prime lenses. Prime lenses are lenses that are just one focal length. Back in the good ol’ days of film, the most popular standard lens was a 50mm. When I was a student, everyone in the class started with a 50mm lens. Whether you choose a zoom or a prime is up to you. Most people tend to feel that zooms offer more bang for the buck these days, while a prime forces you to think more about composition and point of view, simply because it can’t zoom.


More often than not, when I speak to neophyte photographers looking to purchase their next lens, they are looking for something on the telephoto end. The most popular seems to be various flavors of 70-300mm or 70-200mm. These lenses are excellent when used properly. However, too often, telephoto zooms allow the photographer to become lazy.

“If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough,” said famed war photographer Robert Capa. Telephoto zooms allow one to stand back a little when the subject isn’t quite as approachable, or when your subject might be feeling overwhelmed by the presence of the camera. This makes telephoto zooms extremely useful for portraiture, but keep in mind Capa’s words, as it is easy to get lazy and let the lens do the work for you.


Telephoto lenses compress distance, making everything appear closer, as opposed to wide angles which distort perspective and make things look further away. This can be useful for landscapes when you want the sun or moon to appear large in comparison to other objects in the image. In this shot of Shenandoah Valley at sunset, the telephoto lens compresses the distance, making the layers of mountains and mist look almost flat.

Of course, telephoto lenses are also excellent for sports, nature, and wildlife, where it can be difficult to get close. Sports, however, presents its own set of challenges. To be able to stop action without blurring, you need to use a fast shutter speed. Typically, faster telephoto lenses are required. Faster telephoto lenses have larger maximum apertures.

A “fast” lens is usually one that has an aperture of f/4, f/2.8 or larger. If sports is one of your primary subjects, a telephoto zoom such as a 70-200 f/2.8 is an excellent choice. If you really want to shoot like the pros, you’ll want a 300mm f/4, or 300mm f/2.8 or 400mm f/2.8. These lenses are great for getting you closer to the action, but you need to be sure your shutter speed is fast enough. Too slow a shutter speed will result in motion blur. Typically, AT LEAST 1/500 to 1/1000 shutter speed is the minimum. Using these longer lenses can be challenging to track movement, so it becomes much easier if the subject is coming directly at you, rather than trying to track movement parallel to the camera.

Beyond the usual types of lenses, there are a variety of specialty lenses available. Like shooting tiny things? Try a macro lens. Architecture? A tilt-shift or perspective correction lens might be your choice. There is a lens for every purpose, it’s just a matter of putting it to good use. As always, remember that a lens is just another tool on the camera; it’s up to the photographer to make it work.

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Rick Berk is a photographer based in Freeport, Maine, shooting a variety of subjects including landscapes, sports, weddings, and portraits. Rick leads photo tours for World Wide Photo Tours and his work can be seen at and you can follow him on his Facebook page and on Instagram at @rickberkphoto.

Some Older Comments

  • JacksonG October 4, 2012 07:22 am

    I've been shooting with my kit lenses and recently purchased my first prime. I've been using a 50m 1.8 for portraits, mostly pets, and the results have been fantastic. I went with this lens because it was affordable and it was an easy step up.

  • ryan September 29, 2012 04:10 pm

    Hey! Great article! I'm experiencing trouble with my new 50mm f1.8G lens. I can't seem to get nice crisp low light shots like I've heard you can get. I have it mounted on a D7000. I'm new to DSLR photography so it could just be something I'm missing. All my shots are blurry and I have to shoot ISO up to around 1600 to get even a half decent shot. Maybe since I'm using f1.8 my DOF or focus plane is very small? Any tips tricks?

  • marius2die4 September 28, 2012 04:54 pm

    This article describe different type of lenses and is very good. If someone ask what lens too buy,he not realy need it .He just spend the money. The best thing too do is to wait and take photo. He will now when he need a lens.
    I prefer prime and macro lenses.

  • Rick Berk September 27, 2012 06:41 am

    Oh, for the record, the headshot in this post was taken with a 70-200 f2.8L IS II. The shot of the girl in the tree was with a 24-70.

  • Rick Berk September 27, 2012 06:40 am

    @robyn- I never mentioned taking a headshot with a wide angle. I was speaking generally of working with wide angles. I will typically use the 85mm f/1.2, or the 135mm f/2 for headshots, occasionally using a 70-200 for certain things. Bottom line is a telephoto will tend to flatter the subject more while the wide angle will widen the subject and make them appear heavier.

  • Corry heinricks September 27, 2012 01:06 am

    I loved my 50 m on my rebel until I started working in my small studio, with The crop it was just too tight so I got the 28 1.8, much better.

  • robyn September 25, 2012 11:27 am

    I agree with Jai on the portraits-- I'm surprised the note about "not getting close enough" with a wide angle lens didn't also mention the unflattering effect it has on your subject's nose. The only headshots I shoot with a wide angle lens are of toddlers because they're so perfect that they can handle the funny effect.

  • Rick Berk September 25, 2012 10:57 am

    I avoided the crop factor discussion for the simple fact that crop factor in and of itself can be it's own blog post. It can sometimes muddy the issue and I wanted the focus here to be on the lenses themselves. If I'm asked to write another post, maybe crop factor will be a good topic to tackle! Thanks for the comments everyone.

  • Beetwo77 September 25, 2012 10:21 am

    Yacko raises a point about crop factor, I think that can confuse the issue and the author has done well mentioning all the general lenses classes, but a crop factor discussion is probably useful.

    Yacko though, you can get 10-22mm 'ish zooms for Canon and Nikon which are both pretty good lenses for going wide and are equivalent to the 16-35mm 'ish zooms for full frame. Not much need to go wider in my view as you start to get into fisheye type distortion.

    Also these days with the ease of panoramic stitching, I don't rarely go wider than 17-55mm on my 1.6 crop actor 7D and certainly never need anything wider than 10-22mm

  • Bernard Knight September 25, 2012 10:15 am

    As a beginner, I'll rightfully refrain from commenting on the text, but I have to say that the last pic is a stunner. Perfectly composed, wonderfully rich tones - there is a Tangerine Dream album cover in there. I only hope that when/if I do master my new camera I can get just slightly close to that.

  • Jai Catalano September 25, 2012 10:06 am

    Headshots are always best between 50 and 100mm. I prefer 85 but sometimes go with 50.

  • Marcus Schommler September 24, 2012 07:25 pm

    You might want to correct the phrasing of 'More expensive lenses have a fixed aperture' to something like 'More expensive tele-lenses have the same maximum aperture over the full range of their focal length'. Very few lenses actually have only one aperture setting :-)

  • Yacko September 24, 2012 12:24 am

    It's harder to go wide using APS-C or similar sensors with the approx 1.5 or higher crop factor/focal length multiplier.

  • Filip September 23, 2012 08:43 pm

    Nicely written!

    it is true that there is no right naswer for which lens is the best, it depends on what you need.

    For my part I love primes. i current own a 50mm 1.8d and it is glued to my camera. I also have an 18-105mm zoom but am looking to sell it and replace it with a 24mm prime. I just love the way primes make you think about composition and make you move into the scene :)