Choosing the right lens: which do I need?

Choosing a lens: you are about to add a new lens to your photography kit. The question is: which lens do you choose? This has everything to do with when you want to use the lens, and especially why?

All camera systems and major camera brands offer a dizzying collection of lenses, ranging from fisheye lenses with a 180° field of view to telephoto lenses with an impressive 800mm focal length. Zoom lenses, primes, macro lenses,, super tele lenses, tilt-shift lenses and so on. It is therefore not surprising that photographers, novice or advanced, are often asked the question by friends and acquaintances in their environment: “Which lens should I buy?”

Although there is no exact – let alone a single correct – answer to this question, we still wrote this article. Which lens you need all depends on you, how you like to photograph and what you like to photograph. In this blog you will get an overview of the main categories in photo lenses (and where you read photo lenses, you can of course also read video lenses – after all: these days DSLR and mirrorless camera’s are equally well equipped to shoot video content). You can read what you can do with the various types of lenses and when you want to use them.

Lets dive right into it.

Begin with your subject and your budget

Which lens should you use? To answer this question, ask yourself a few questions first.

The first question, and the easiest to figure out, is “What do you want to photograph?” Is this sports, wildlife, birds, landscapes, architecture, portraits or a myriad of other subjects.

Then ask yourself, “What’s my budget?”

What a lens costs depends on several aspects. Cheaper lenses generally have an aperture with variable values. As you zoom in with a lens, the maximum aperture (and with it the amount of light you get in to your camera sensor) becomes smaller. More expensive lenses have a fixed aperture value, which means that it does not matter how much you are zoomed in. The lens sheds the same amount of light on the sensor.

The good news is that all the major camera manufacturers are responding to this by offering a wide variety of lenses with variable and fixed focal lengths. They offer ‘something for everyone’ and you can find a suitable lens for every budget.

Now that you’ve answered the first two questions, it’s time to look at the different types of lenses and how to use them in your photographic explorations!

Wide angle lenses (10 mm to 35 mm)

Many beginner photographers don’t start with wide angle lenses. But when you start photographing certain specific subjects, such as landscapes, for many photographers the magic of the wide angle becomes visible.

Wide-angle lenses provide a wider picture and when used correctly they can really ‘draw the viewer into the frame’. For many photographers, the lenses of choice for landscape photography are usually a 14mm f / 2.8, a 16-35mm f / 2.8 and a 24mm f / 1.4.

If you’re shooting scenes with the subject prominently in the foreground, a wide-angle lens can also be a good choice. However, a common mistake of starting photographers is that they use the wide angle lens incorrectly. Not being close enough to the subject being photographed, taking no interest in the foreground, or trying to capture too much in your frame will make your photo much less impressive.

Sony wide angle lens

You probably know the interior photos of real estate websites like Funda or the real estate broker’s shopping window. It is not without reason that a ‘wide angle’ lens is often chosen in interior photography and by brokers. Wide-angle lenses are useful in tight spaces, such as smaller spaces, in vehicles such as cars or boats, or in narrow areas such as caves. They can create depth and expanse in a limited space. A special application of wide-angle lenses is astro photography.

While first-time photographers aren’t usually the first to think about buying a wide-angle lens, these types of lenses can drastically change your photography!

Standard lenses (28 mm to 85 mm)

Standard zoom lenses – Many kit lenses – lenses that come as part of a (starter) camera package – are standard zoom lenses. Standard zoom lenses are great as a ‘walkaround’ lens. They are versatile, so you can capture landscapes from a wide angle perspective and zoom in to the telephoto range for an awesome portrait.

Standard prime lenses – There are also standard prime lenses. Primes only offer one focal length, such as 28mm, 35mm, 50mm or 85mm. So a standard prime usually falls somewhere in that standard range of 28mm to 85mm..

A few decades ago, the most popular standard lens was even a standard prime lens: the 50mm. Many students at a photo academy and photography school started with a 50mm lens. That said, it is of course your choice whether you choose a zoom lens or a prime. Most people believe that zoom lenses offer more bang for their buck these days. Zoom lenses used to be technically and optically often the lesser brother of a prime lens, but with modern zoom lenses this difference has virtually disappeared or is no longer visible to the naked eye.

From an artistic and photographic point of view, there is a big difference: a prime forces you to think more about your composition and point of view. Simply because you cannot easily zoom in or get close to your subject (unless you walk towards it, of course). An advantage of prime lenses: they are usually a lot cheaper than optically equivalent zoom lenses.

“If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough”.

Robert Capa

Telephoto lenses (70 mm to 300 mm)

Telephoto lenses bring you close to a subject without actually being near it. Working with a telephoto lens is like shooting with binoculars: they get distant subjects close and magnify them.

Many starting photographers who want to do their first expansion in lenses think of a telephoto lens. The most popular telephoto lenses often have a range of 70-300 mm or 70-200 mm.

Leica telephoto zoom lens 100-400 mm

These types of lenses are fine when used correctly. But: in many cases, telephoto zoom lenses make you lazy as a photographer. Robert Capa – the famous war photographer – once said, “If your photos aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough”.

With telephoto zoom lenses, you can stay a little further away if the subject is not easily approachable up close or if you do not want to disturb your subject because it feels overwhelmed by the presence of the camera (for example with spontaneous street portraits). This makes telephoto zoom lenses extremely useful for many situations. But, remember Robert Capa’s words, because it’s all too easy to get lazy and let the lens do the work for you.

In the optical sense, telephoto lenses compress the distance in the photo. This makes foreground and background appear very close to each other. This is in contrast to wide-angle lenses, which distort perspective. Using a telephoto lens can therefore be useful for landscapes where you want the sun or moon to appear large compared to other objects in the photo..

Of course, telephoto lenses are also excellent for sports, nature and wildlife photography, where it can be difficult to get close to your subject. However, sport with fast movements presents its own challenges. To capture the fast action without motion blur, you have to work with a fast shutter speed. Usually ‘fast’ telephoto lenses are needed for this. Fast in this respect means a telephoto lens with a small F-value (e.g. 2.8 or lower) and therefore a large maximum aperture opening.

If sport is one of your main photographic subjects, a telephoto zoom like a 70-200mm f / 2.8 is a good choice. If you really want to shoot like a pro, you’ll want a 300mm f / 4, a 300mm f / 2.8 or a 400mm f / 2.8. These lenses – although costly – are great for getting you closer to the action, but you need to make sure your shutter speed is fast enough!

Specialty lenses

In addition to the “conventional” lens types, there are a number of more special lenses available. For example:

  • Do you like to photograph small things? Try a macro lens.
  • Are you into architecture photography? A tilt shift lens can help correct your perspectives..

In fact, there is a lens for every purpose and context; it’s just a matter of making good use of it. But always remember that a lens is just a tool on your camera. It’s up to you as a photographer to make it work!

Which lens do you need? In conclusion.

Now that you have read this article, you will have more knowledge about the different types of lenses – and you will know better which lens to use and why.

So the next time you go out with your camera, ask yourself the following question: what do I want to photograph? And then choose the right lens for the job! Do you only need a lens once for a temporary assignment? Then also consider renting the right lens!

Which lens do you need?


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