Despite owning cameras that have been designed specifically to utilise different types of lenses, many photographers only use the kit lenses that came with their camera. But that it is not very surprising considering that choosing the right lens is a challenging task if you don’t know where to start. That is why we are going to try helping with our camera lens buying guide to ensure you get the right lens.

Lenses are unmistakably the most crucial part of your photography set-up. The lens you use can either break or make your photos. They help in controlling the picture that is projected on your imaging sensor, as well as ultimately the kind of pictures you take home.

In fact, that is the reason a majority of photographers prefer shooting with a superb lens and an average camera, rather than an excellent camera with a mediocre lens attached.

Considerations Before Starting

Before you start looking at types of lenses, first decide what type of pictures you would like to capture. Also, find out how your present setup of lenses are not delivering the effect you are after. Perhaps you are struggling with fitting everything in your pictures, whether it is a huge building, large group shot or cramped interior. Maybe you would like to make far-off wildlife or sports players look bigger than what you are getting with your current camera setup.

Alternatively, you might be interested in capturing small objects (macro-photography), but you just cannot focus enough to create a decent photo. Also, you may just be happy with how your current setup and lens works, but you would like something that delivers better focus, greater quality and maybe is more effective in low light environments.

There is always a couple of lenses that can create the effect you want. So, once you have decided what you want to achieve from your lens setup, it is time to work through the available options. Remember that even seasoned photographers have a hard time with the descriptions and names given to lenses. Luckily, it is very easy to make out what a certain lens offers once you understand what the different values mean. Here are some of the main specifications to check out:

1. Focal length

The focal length of your lens determines how wide your photo is. Thus, a short focal length will give you wider images, while a long focal length allows zooming in for closely cropped and narrow shots. If you want to zoom in and take pictures of distant subjects, you will need a longer focal length.

Most DSLR’s nowadays come with a handy 18-55m lens as part of the package. This lens is usually sufficient for general users. However, if you want more zoom capabilities, you will need to upgrade and get a telephoto lens to increase the range to 55-300mm.

However, remember that a standard focal length of 50mm will produce different images when used on full-frame cameras and cropped-sensor cameras. Besides that, cropped-sensor cameras also have a narrow-angle of view. That means when you attach a standard 50mm lens onto a cropped-sensor camera, the lens acts more like an 80mm or 75mm focal length, based on which camera brand you are using.

To calculate the focal length figure for full-frame lenses placed on cropped-sensor cameras, multiply the focal length by 1.5 for a Nikon lens or by 1.6 for a Canon lens.

2. Aperture

The other crucial part of a lens is its aperture. The aperture range, also called f-stop figure, enables you to determine how much scene you want to focus on in your image. Thus, a low f-stop value means that a small part of the scenery is in view, rendering a more stylish look. Let us consider an example to understand better the aperture range:

If you set your aperture at f/32, then most of your scenery is going to be in view. However, if you use a lens that can tone down to an f-stop value of f/2.8, then only a tiny part of the scenery will be focused on while the remaining part of the image is blurred to create a softer effect. The aperture setting is what produces the pretty blurred backgrounds common on many professional portraits.

Considerations when choosing your lens based on the aperture range

Aim for a greater maximum aperture, which is primarily the lowest your f-stop value can go. That will give you more control over your lens. Also, a low f-stop can maintain quicker exposures in conditions with a low amount of light. Thus, you can take clear shots indoors without using a flash as well as capture photos at dusk or dawn. It is also quick enough to freeze fast actions.

For those who are uncertain about selecting the right aperture, consider switching it to automatic mode and let your camera determine the best setting. As you get more familiar and comfortable using your camera, then you can manually change the aperture to create artistic effects.

3. Types of lenses

You should strive to use the correct lens based on the kind of photography you want to engage in. Some lenses work best for landscapes, others for portraits and also others for photographing tiny details. Here are the major categories of lenses to consider:

Prime or Zoom
If your compact camera or DSLR came with an extra lens kit, then it was highly likely the zoom lens. Many photographers like zoom lenses for their versatility as they enable capturing of shots farther away with no need of switching lenses or moving your feet. In contrast, Prime lenses have a fixed focal length and offer a broader aperture range. In most cases, prime lenses give sharper photos as compared to zoom lenses.
Reasons to Use a Zoom Lens
A zoom lens offers a broad variety of focal lengths, and this gives you the capability of shooting subjects at different distances without having to move around. It is the best option for travel or a multi-purpose lens when you do not fancy carrying several lenses around on the move.

Remember that a zoom lens is not the same as a telephoto lens, but sometimes the two overlap in functionality. While you get a broad range of focal lengths with your zoom lens, the telephoto lens is specially designed to have an extended focal length, like 70-200mm.

Reasons to Use a Prime lens
A prime lens is cheaper and lighter compared to the zoom variety and offers similar performance. This lens produces clear, crisp images for studio settings, portraits and other situations where the photographer can get as far away or as close from the subject as necessary. You also get a great maximum aperture, which is perfect for shooting in low light.

Even though every lens on the market is either a prime or zoom lens, there are other ways to classify lenses. Here is a brief explanation of the common lens types:

  • Wide Angle Lens

    The wide or ultra-wide angle lens is used for capturing a panoramic scene. It usually emphasises subjects in the foreground, thus making the background seem distant and far off.

    Focal length: 28mm or lower for a full frame camera; 18mm or lower for a cropped-sensor camera

    Recommended for: Buildings, landscapes, group photos, interiors

    Benefit: It fits the entire subject within one frame

  • Standard Lens

    The standard lens is used to capture natural-looking photos that closely resemble what you see with your eyes and without adding any distortion.

    Focal length: The standard length is 50mm (28-35mm for a cropped-sensor camera; 35-75mm is also considered to be in this standard range

    Recommended for: General use, beginning photographers, portraits

    Benefit: It performs well when used as an ordinary lens for photographing subjects and people without adding any distortion.
  • Telephoto lens

    The telephoto lens helps to focus on distant objects.

    Focal length: Medium telephoto is 85-100mm; telephoto is 135-300mm; super telephoto is 400-800mm

    Recommended for: Wildlife, landscapes, sporting events
  • Macro lens

    The macro lens is used for taking extreme up close images from a few inches away. It also doubles as a great prime lens.

    Recommended for: Fine details, small objects, insects, flowers

    Benefit: It takes very detailed images even at life-size
  • Fisheye Lens

    The fisheye lens is designed to curve a photo purposely for extremely circular or wide panoramic shots.

    Recommended for: Unique landscapes, interior architecture, artistic shots

    Benefit: It easily captures great panoramic views with very little professional expertise.
  • Pancake lens

    It might be named after a pancake – such a weird/strange name – but that’s only because it is a thin and short lens. It is designed to offer the same performance as a regular lens, but it has a more compact design.

    Recommended for: Travelling, light and pocket-size cameras

    Benefit: It makes your camera compact and lightweight

4. Advanced Lens Technology

If you have started looking around for lenses to add to your kit, you have probably noticed how huge the price differences are between lenses that seem to be relatively similar at first glance.

Why are certain lenses more expensive? Even though two lenses can have the same values with regards to maximum aperture and focal length, what differentiates a more costly lenses are several features such as glass quality, engineering standards, durability, image stabilisation and lens coatings.

If you are looking to get the most from your new lens that simply the basics, here are several features to consider:

Autofocus

Many lenses work together with the internal autofocus feature of your DSLR. Some lenses even have an inbuilt focusing motor that is intended to quickly and quietly focus on the subject. A lens without the convenient silent focusing motor tends to be noisy during operation.

The benefit of using a lens to focus is that they can focus very quickly as compared to the internal autofocus of your DSLR. That allows you to shoot better fast-action and sports images.

For those who intend to capture video, ensure you get a lens that has an autofocus that is video-specific, like STM drive from Canon. The continuous and steady autofocus that you will get from such a lens helps in keeping your subject in clear focus even while zooming, panning and shooting things in action.

Image Stabilisation

A lens with image stabilisation ensures crisp and clear shooting in a low light setting. The benefit of having this feature is that a slight shake when capturing images will not affect the output. This feature is very important when taking handheld shots using a super telephoto or telephoto lens when it is hard to stabilise the camera to avoid blurring.

Different manufacturers use unique names for image stabilisation, including Nikon’s Vibration Reduction, Canon’s Image Stabilisation, and Sony’s Optical SteadyShot.

Manual Focus Override

Nearly all lenses have a manual focus ring that enables you to modify the focus manually rather than relying on the autofocus feature. The advantage of this feature is that it offers more accurate control when taking your photos. Thus, you can manually choose which part of the scenery you want to focus on in your image.

Lens Coating and Quality

In general, the more expensive a lens is, the more likely it will be of better quality. Professional lenses use high-quality glass along with lens elements and coatings designed to enhance sharpness, reduce distortion, minimise reflections and also ensure that every shot is consistent.

Clarity and colour are among the most crucial features of high-quality lenses. Various features like Ultra-low Dispersion and Fluorite on Canon lens and Nikon’s Extra-low Dispersion ensure that colour reproduction is more accurate and images appear sharper. Aspherical elements used in lenses help in preventing blurred photos and special coatings help in keeping fingerprints from smearing your photos while making it easier to clean the lens.

Durability and Weather-Sealing

Many lenses created for the broad consumer market are usually produced to be inexpensive. Thus, they are placed in a plastic housing along with a cheap plastic lens mount. In contrast, professional lenses feature more resilient housing, which, even though not as light as plastic, will outlast the housing used in consumer lenses. Besides that, lenses created for the professional market usually include a weather-sealing feature to protect the lens in tough conditions, like rain, extreme temperatures, rain and blowing dust.

Final Note

To wrap it up, we believe we’ve covered over 99% of what you need to know about camera lenses and how to choose one when the time for that crucial upgrade comes. The remaining 1% is taken up by the months or years of working with different lenses until you find your optimal gem. There’s simply no shortcut for that.