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Choosing the right camera lens can be a confusing and challenging process. This is because there are so many different types of photography, each with its unique challenges and photographic requirements.
But don't worry!
This post will go over what factors you should consider when choosing a new camera lens for any photography. We will be covering sports, weddings, events, portraits, macro, food products, and landscapes - determining which lens is best for that style or genre!
By the end of this article, you'll have a better idea of how to choose a good camera lens, and most importantly, which one will work best for your needs.
Seeing as you're looking for help with choosing a good photography lens, we're going to include small bits of information (nothing to overwhelm you) of what makes up a camera lens; and why that aspect is essential when making your choice.
So this article will be structure as such:
Main aspects of a lens (to be aware of)
Genre's of photography (and the lenses that are best suited for them)
Our recommendations for 'best of.'
We will include videos within the article to help better explain an aspect when needed.
Let's dive in!
Breakdown Of A Camera Lens
I have included the image above to show you what the inside of a typical lens looks like.
Not all lenses look or are made up the same - I just thought you would find it interesting (or surprised) about how complex a lens is and what goes into making one.
You can save and reference the photo above throughout the article if you'd like.
Aperture And Its Importance
Aperture is one of the many vital components in a lens - it can determine how much light enters your camera and ultimately affect the image's exposure.
The aperture is represented by an 'F-stop' (a ratio that indicates its size) which ranges from F/0.95 to F/32 with most lenses having settings between F/2.8 and 22. A lower stop number means a wider opening for more light; while higher numbers mean less light entering through it (letting less details show).
Aperture Isn't Much Different Than The Pupil In Your Eye
A great way to relate to aperture is the pupils in your eyes. When you go from outside to inside on a bright sunny day - you squint, and sometimes, have to shut your eyes until your eyes adjust. Your pupil, while adjusting, are getting smaller to control and manage the bright sunlight. The same can be applied to aperture.
On the opposite end, if you're inside in a bright lit room and walk into another room that's really dark, you can't see anything. You then have to wait for your eyes to adjust. Your pupils are getting larger to allow in more light, and before you know it, you're able to see (if only a little bit).
Aperture And The Iconic 'Bokeh'
Bokeh is described as soft foreground and background blur found in most professional photos. This effect alone is what sets professional photos apart from something like a cell phone - although cell phones are trying to implement this effect with software (doesn't look nearly as good and natural as a professional camera/lens.
In a nutshell - the lower your aperture number (or larger the opening) - the more bokeh you will have. Distance from you and the subject (and the subject and their background), will determine the intensity of this effect.
Both qualities of glass and aperture plan significant roles in the lens cost. The lower your aperture value (bigger the opening), generally equates to a more expensive lens over one that doesn't open as large.
Example: A 50mm lens with an f stop of 1.8 doesn't open as wide as, say, an f1.4 or f1.2. The f1.8 will be the least expensive, while the f/1.2 will cost the most (and thousands of dollars more in some cases. I will leave a chart below as a comparison.
Focal Length And How It Effects Your Image
We could go super in-depth in the section - but that wouldn't be the point of this article. I'm going to keep this super simple and as easy to absorb as I can.
The focal length will have a direct effect on the way your image looks. Specific focal lengths give particular 'looks' compared to others - and that look can't be achieved with any other focal length.
Wide-angle lenses will 'stretch' your image making everything in the picture seem smaller and much further away than they do in real life. At the same time, telephoto lenses compress the foreground and the background to give a more life-like image (most of the time). Keep in mind; there are extremes to either of these ideas.
Meaning - there are ultra-wide lenses on the market like the 12mm Laowa that go to the extreme of width and produce images that look nothing like real life.
The same can be said for super-telephoto lenses, such as 400 or 600mm. While the subject might not look much different from in real life (like a person), It's a much tighter shot, and their background will be highly compressed and much larger than it is in real life.
You can use either of these to your advantage for stylized shoots with really awesome effects (but nothing natural, if that's what you're going for).
I have included pictures and a video example to help explain this further.
Are You A Hobbyist Or An Aspiring Professional?
Suppose you fall in the former - great! If you're in the latter, no worries at all. Take your time, photograph different genres, get your feet wet in all of them if you'd like... the more, the better! Determining what you enjoy photographing or filming the most will ultimately determine what you'll stick with and the type of lens you'll need for that genre.
For instance, a wide-angle lens is great for landscapes and real estate photography, while a telephoto lens (zoom lenses) is excellent for portraits, wildlife, and many more. You'll benefit much more with their focal lengths than someone shooting real estate, for instance.
While a telephoto lens and a wide angles lens can be used in either of those scenarios (even though they aren't the best) - macro photography is in a league of its own. It requires special lenses and shallow aperture (among many other aspects, like powerful lighting and a tripod most of the time...).
I'm sure you can see the importance of determining what you'll be shooting the most. Then, once you've made a choice, you can move forward in choosing the lens that works best in that genre.
Sports Photography And Videography Lens (Telephoto Lenses)
Sports photography is tricky. You're shooting fast-moving subjects from a great distance (most of the time). It's essential to choose a lens that will give you the most versatility regarding aperture and focal length when shooting.
A 100-400mm f/focal range is ideal for sports photography as it'll allow you to shoot from far away without sacrificing too much quality or bokeh (the aesthetic blur, which can be used creatively).
Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM
Nikon AF-S FX NIKKOR 80-400mm f.4.5-5.6G ED
Sony FE 100-400mm F4.5–5.6 GM OSS White
The key to sports photography is knowing your lens before you start shooting. It's also imperative that you know how far away from the subject you want to stand for them, not move too much when they're running or playing their game of choice.
Sports and Wildlife photography/videography is difficult to shoot and takes a significant time to master. So if shooting football, soccer, hockey, etcetera... be patient and enjoy the journey
Event Photography And Videography Lens (Telephoto Lenses)
Events can be tricky. The most important thing about filming or photographing events is - knowing the location/venue. We're talking about the size of the space, how many people will be there, whether it will be indoors or outdoors, or during the day or night... You get the idea.
Once you have all of that information - you can move forward with making a lens choice for that specific event.
Now, we do recommend a few 'event lenses' that can be used during any event... These would be zoom lenses.
A lens with a focal length of about 24-70mm is recommended. The most comprehensive end (24mm) will give you the most amount of background, and zooming in to 70mm gives you an excellent close-up shot for portraits or detail shots.
When shooting indoors... make sure that, if possible - you set your camera to a slow shutter speed. This is because there's not going to be as much light coming in from outside sources. Using a faster lens (low 'f stop') can help combat this problem and allow you higher shutter speeds.
If it's outdoors, then anything around 16-35 would work great! But, again, we're talking about zoom lenses here, so choose accordingly when buying one for events/weddings/etcetera...
Sony - FE 16-35mm F2.8 GM
Canon EF 16–35mm f/2.8L III USM
Nikon AF-S FX NIKKOR 17-35mm f/2.8D
Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM
Nikon AF-S FX NIKKOR 24-70mm f/2.8E
Sony E-Mount 24-70 F2.8 G Master
A Good Camera Lens For Weddings
Weddings are hectic. We (as a photography company) have only done a handful of weddings and found they weren't for us. Maybe we happened to get unlucky with the clients that we had - but we didn't enjoy it - regardless of the photos came out fantastic (which they did).
But, if this is a genre you're thinking about (or are already in) - that's great! You can make a great living, travel, meet great people... the list goes on...
Now, as far as a lens... We used (and tons of other photographers/videographers) 4 lenses for weddings. This included a 16-35mm, a 24-70mm, and a 70-200m. The final was a prime lens, an 85mm (sometimes a 135mm if we knew we could use it.
I'm sure you see the trend in that recommendation. All three zooms cover every single focal length from 24mm to 200mm. All of which is f/2.8. You can purchase less expensive f/4 versions - but be aware that pictures/video will be a little harder to take indoors and at night.
The versatility of the zoom trio (16-35, 24-70, 70-200mm) is unmatched in the weddings industry - and is a staple for most successful wedding photographers. It isn't much you won't be prepared for with those four lenses.
Choosing A Good Lens For Portrait Photography
I'll tell you right now; portrait work is our bread and butter. It's what we do daily. We love everything from meeting new people and building relationships to editing different styles and looks depending on the client's needs. From a creative perspective, there aren't many other photography genres that allow a client to be whoever they want to be that day... we love what we do!
Now, choosing a good camera lens for portrait photography is a little trickier than some of the other genres we've discussed thus far.
On one hand, you have a zoom lens that can hit multiple focal lengths and adds that versatility. On the flip side, you have prime lenses that, while do not allow you to zoom, the maximum aperture (wide open) is much greater, allowing more light, more bokeh, and subject-to-background separation.
Let's break this down a little more.
Prime Vs. Zoom Lens For Portraits
For starters, we rarely take portraits with a zoom lens. For one, the results from a zoom lens compared to prime lenses is quite noticeable at times.
You'll have softer images from a zoom and sharper images from prime lenses. Your maximum aperture (opening) is also lower on a zoom than a premium (typically zooms only go to f/2.8 - while primes can go as low as f/1.2 or even f/0.95).
On the other hand, a zoom lens gives you multiple focal lengths in the same lens, while a prime is a fixed focal length. From a cost perspective, a zoom lens is more cost-effective (a 24-70mm is three main prime lenses in one: 24mm, 35mm, 50mm)
What You Should Keep In Mind When Deciding Between A Zoom And A Prime
First off, there is nothing wrong with taking portraits, either professionally or as a hobby, with either one of these types of lenses. However, both of them have their pros and cons - much like anything in life.
This decision is obviously up to you. Do you value versatility and multiple focal lengths over bokeh and low light performance? Or would you be ok with a fixed focal length and love that buttery bokeh and background separation you get from, say, a 135mm f/1.8?
As for what we recommend - in terms of primes - a 50mm, 85mm, 135mm, or 200mm (very steep in price). Your f-stop will determine both the cost and quality.
As for zooms - we would recommend the 70-200mm (f/2.8). This will hit all of the focal lengths mentioned above but will ~2 stops less light.
Macro Photography And Lenses
Macro lenses are quite versatile when you look at them from just a lens perspective.
For starters, these are strictly prime lenses. Their focal length ranges from ~24mm all the way up to 100mm. The difference in focal length determines how away from the subject (insect, miniature figure, water droplet, etc.) you can be when photographing them. Generally speaking, the further you are away from the, the better. You don't want to be too close as to scare them when trying to setup your shot.
Aperture values go pretty low with most prime lenses, letting in a more significant deal of light. This is very important, as the further you macro (or magnify) a particular area of an object, the less light you're able to absorb without flash. You may get to a point where flash is the only option to photograph certain subjects in macro.
Macro lenses also make for pretty good portrait lenses too. The distance from you to the subject doesn't affect what the lens can do - So if they're further away than macro (distance of a typical portrait) - you get the same results as you would from a lens of that focal length.
While some consider macro lenses to fall in the 'specialty lenses' space - their reason for use is somewhat specialty - but it can be used for so many things, not just macro.
We've always recommended the Laowa 100mm Macro for its quality and affordability. It's manual focus only - so if you aren't into that - we recommend your lens manufacturer's native auto focusing macro. I'll include those below as well.
Food Photography And Lenses
Food photography (much like any other photography) - can be as complex as you want to make it. Everything from lighting, camera angle, lens choice... all play a role in the final result.
With that being said, we only use one lens for food photography. Yes, one. It's 50mm. Why do we use a 50mm for food photography? Well, it's been perfect for every look and setting we've been in thus far.
When shooting with a 'longer or no wide-angle lens, your biggest enemy (especially when indoors, is space). The longer your focal length, the more room you're going to need between yourself and the subject.
Since shooting food for various local businesses, we haven't had a single issue needing more room to photograph their products. If you find yourself needing more space, see it...
Because 50mm is a great focal length for capturing images very close to what they look like to your eye. We don't recommend focal lengths below 50mm (the further away, the more you lose the natural look) - and not many focal lengths above, again, because of space requirements.
We have included both entry and pro-level 50mm prime lenses below.
Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 STM
Nikon AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 G
Sony - FE 50mm F1.8
Canon EF 50mm f/1.2 L USM
NIKON NIKKOR Z 50mm f/1.2 S
Sony FE 50mm F1.2 GM
Product Photography And Videography (B-Roll)
I used to recommend a macro lens for product photography. For the ability to capture all of the details about a product. But honestly, people don't care to see super close or the small minute textures of a product.
For the last 3+ years, we have been using a 24-70mm. This is for the versatility and ability to change focal lengths without changing the lens - or move the tripod when reframing.
Generally speaking, we stay between 50 and 70mm when shooting all products. Rarely do we go below that (possibly in portrait mode when shooting something tall in a lightbox).
Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM
Sony FE 24-70mm F2.8 GM
NIKON NIKKOR Z 24-70mm f/2.8 S (Z mount)
Sigma 24-70mm F2.8 DG DN Art for Sony E
Sigma 24-70mm f/2.8 DG OS HSM Art Lens for Nikon F (NOT-Z mount)
Sigma 24-70mm f/2.8 DG OS HSM Art for Canon
This allows for a smoother and faster workflow and very similar images in terms of quality.
It's also a great focal range for taking shots/B-roll of products in a 'lifestyle' situation. Lifestyle product sessions are more and more common these days (because of social media advertising) - and a 24-70mm is outstanding in this aspect.
Landscape Photography Lens (Wide Angle Lens)
There are many options when it comes to landscapes and the lens of choice. But, there's one that trumps them all - the 16-35mm.
This is a wide-angle lens with a 19mm focal difference from end to end. That's the difference between ultra-wide-angle lenses and somewhat 'normal.' This is packed in a single lens.
This lens is perfect for landscapes because it offers a wide field of view. Not only can you capture expansive vistas, but also the foreground details that would otherwise be missed with shorter lenses. The downside to this is distortion - straight lines will appear curved when they converge on the horizon line and vice versa. This should not discourage anyone from using this lens as landscape photography gear though!
Regarded as one of the most versatile lenses on the planet... there's a reason for that. It's a fantastic focal range, and the aperture range is respectable. This is the reason lens manufacturers have made their versions. They know it's a great focal range and create what the market demands!
So, Let's Wrap This Up!
To conclude - choosing a good camera lens comes down to a couple of things. These include:
What do you plan on shooting
Once you have chosen both aspects, you can move forward and apply the recommendations you read above. By the end of it all - you'll have selected the best camera lens that works for you!
There are a few ways. You can find reviews online and choose to trust their judgement. You can also find various site owners that upload images taken with that lens, and look at them from there. You can also rent the lenses/gear that you're curious of, and test those out yourself!
What lens should I buy as a beginner?
If you bought a camera new - it should have come with a kit lens. Use that for a good bit until you get used to the basics/fundamentals of photography. From there I would recommend a 50mm prime lens. They're inexpensive and offer a much different 'flow' to photography/video. That, and, it's a prime lens!
What does 50mm lens mean?
50mm lens means, technically, that the convergence point (where all light meets) within your lens is 50mm away from the sensor itself. It's that simple. This is referred to focal length. Other focal lengths will change the look of your photos.
What are 18 55mm lenses good for?
Getting used to photo/video and practicing. That's it. You can take great video and photos with it... but you shouldn't expect to get 'professional level' photos out of something of its quality.