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Choosing Lenses: When to Use Which Lens and Why

what lens to use and why?

All camera systems offer a dizzying selection of lenses. These range from fisheye lenses that give a 180° field of view to telephoto lenses up to 800mm. You’ve got zooms, primes, macro lenses, super telephotos, tilt-shift lenses, and more.

So it’s not surprising that, 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 – it all depends on you, how you like to shoot, and what you like to shoot.

Which is why I’ve written this article.

In it, I’m going to give you a rundown of each type of lens. I’ll explain what the lens can do and when you’ll want to use it.

By the time you’re done, you’ll know the perfect lens for your needs.

Let’s dive right in.

Start with your subject and your budget

What lens should you use?

To answer this question, I’d like to ask a few questions of my own.

The first question, and the 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, ask yourself:

“What is my budget?”

The cost of a lens depends on several things. Less expensive lenses will generally have variable apertures – so 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 you’ve answered those two questions, it’s time to take a look at the different types of lenses and how they can be used. As you read these next few sections, make sure to focus on what you plan to shoot!

Wide-angle lenses (10mm to 35mm)

20mm f/1.8 lens from Nikon

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 70-200mm (and I often went for 400mm f/2.8 lenses or 600mm f/4 lenses).

But then, as I began shooting landscapes, I discovered the magic of wide angles.

Wide angles give an expansive view, and when used correctly, they can wrap you in the scene. My favorite lenses for landscape work tend to be a 14mm f/2.8, a 16-35mm f/2.8, and a 24mm f/1.4.

what lens to use: seascape with foreground rocks and waves

If you shoot scenes with prominent foreground objects, then a wide-angle lens is the way to go. A major 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, you’ll end up with less impactful photos.

Wide angles are also handy in tight areas, like small rooms, cars, caves, etc. They can create volume and expansiveness in a limited space.

Which is why wide-angle lenses have the potential to drastically change your photography!

Standard lenses (35mm to 85mm)

Standard zoom lenses are great walkaround lenses. They are versatile, allowing you to do wide-angle landscape shooting, before zooming in to the telephoto end to take a great portrait.

what lens to use and why? Nikon 24-70mm lens

In fact, standard zooms tend to cover moderate wide-angle focal lengths all the way down to a medium telephoto – they often start at 24mm to 35mm, then zoom to around 70mm or even 105mm.

which lens to choose girl in a tree

Many kit lenses – lenses that come as part of a camera package – are standard zooms. However, there are also standard prime lenses.

What are standard primes?

Well, prime lenses offer just one focal length, such as 35mm, 50mm, or 85mm. So a standard prime falls somewhere in that 35mm to 85mm standard range.

In fact, back in the good old days of film, the most popular standard lens was a standard prime: the 50mm. When I was a student, everyone in the class started with a 50mm lens.

Nikon 50mm f/1.8 S lens

That said, whether you choose a zoom or a prime is up to you. Most people feel that zooms offer more bang for the buck these days. But a prime does force you to think more about composition and point of view, simply because it can’t zoom. And prime lenses also tend to be cheaper than optically-equivalent zooms.

Telephoto lenses (85mm to 300mm)

Telephoto lenses get you close to a subject without actually approaching them. Working with a telephoto lens is like shooting through binoculars because they magnify distant subjects.

Now, more often than not, when I speak to new photographers looking to purchase their next lens, they want something on the telephoto end. The most popular telephotos seem to be various flavors of 70-300mm or 70-200mm.

Nikon 70-200mm lens

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 you to stand back when the subject isn’t quite as approachable or when your subject might be feeling overwhelmed by the presence of the camera (e.g., candid street portraits). This makes telephoto zooms extremely useful for plenty of situations – but keep in mind Capa’s words, as it is easy to get lazy and let the lens do the work for you.

close up portrait taken with a telephoto lens

Telephoto lenses also compress distance, making everything appear closer together, as opposed to wide-angle lenses, which distort perspective and make things look separate.

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 the Shenandoah Valley at sunset, the telephoto lens compresses the scene, making the layers of mountains and mist look almost flat:

sunset landscape which lens to use

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

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 70-200mm f/2.8 is an excellent choice. If you really want to shoot like the pros, you’ll want a 300mm f/4, a 300mm f/2.8, or a 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!

What lens to use? Nikon 400mm lens

Specialty lenses

Beyond the “conventional” lens types, there are a variety of specialty lenses available.

Do you like shooting tiny things? Try a macro lens.

Want to shoot architecture? A tilt-shift lens might do the trick.

In fact, there is a lens for every purpose; it’s just a matter of putting it to good use.

But always remember that a lens is just another tool on the camera. It’s up to the photographer to make it work!

What lens to use: Conclusion

Now that you’ve finished this article, you know all about the different types of lenses – and you know which lens to use and why.

So the next time you’re out with your camera, ask yourself:

What do I want to shoot?

And then pick the right lens for the job!

What lens is best for you? And what lenses would you like to purchase? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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Rick Berk
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 RickBerk.com and you can follow him on his Facebook page and on Instagram at @rickberkphoto.

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