a photograph of canon L series lenses

What You Need To Know Before Buying Your Next Lens

In Tutorial by DustinWong

For photographers just getting started in the world of DSLR photography, picking out which equipment to invest in can be quite daunting and overwhelming. I often get asked by aspiring photographers for recommendations on which lenses to use, so I decided to put my thoughts down here. There will be no one solution, since everybody’s photographic intentions and aspirations are different. Always remember that your vision is your own to create, and that journey starts with your gear selection. 

Look Ahead

Buy the gear for the quality of photography you aspire to create – When selecting gear, remember to think forward at least a couple of years since the equipment will probably last you at least that long. Try to imagine what kind of images you want to produce within that timeframe. When starting off, it’s good to have gear that matches your ambitions; that way you won’t have to reinvest just to get yourself to where you want to be. If you want to be taking high-quality, professional level shots in the next 2 years, buy the good stuff. If this is a hobby and you are using it primarily for documentation of your life and vacations, then you probably don’t need to buy the expensive stuff. In other words, if you don’t see yourself selling large prints of your images, or creating high-resolution, super crisp, noise free imagery, then buy the entry level gear or possibly a more compact, simpler system. 

Research What Professionals are Using

If you are trying to achieve a certain shooting style, research work that you admire in order to learn which focal lengths were used. A seasoned photographer will have selected a lens kit that helps them bring their artist vision forward. This is a great place to start narrowing down which focal lengths are for you. Many photographers publish shooting info on shots indicating which ISO, focal length, and shutter speed were used. If exif data is available for the digital image, it should contain all this good stuff too. Additionally, many photographers, like myself, share their gear info on their website. You can see my full gear list at the bottom of the “Artist Bio” section of my website. 

What is Focal Length?

Focal length, often measured in millimeters (mm), is an optical quality of a lens indicating how light rays will be bent onto the focal plane of the camera sensor. Basically it indicates how much of the scene will appear in the image and how much the scene will be magnified. I like to categorize focal length in 3 areas. Wide-Angle, Standard, and Telephoto. However, the effective focal length is not always just what is marked on the lens, it depends on your camera… 

How to Determine Effective Focal Length

Before entering into a detailed discussion on focal length, let’s begin with crop sensors, crop factors, or crop multipliers (they all refer to the same thing). This is an aspect of DSLR camera systems that can overlooked. Image creation is dependent on the optical qualities of the lens AND the lens distance to the focal plane (film or a camera sensor). The focal length that is listed on a lens is the focal length if it were mounted to a “full-frame” camera. Full-frame refers to a full sized sensor, however every non-professional DSLR camera has a crop sensor which alters the effective focal length. 

Find out the “crop factor” or “crop multiplier” of your camera by looking up the technical specifications. Many cameras will have a crop factor of 1.6x (a Full-Frame camera will have a 1.0x crop factor) so I’ll use that as an example. Multiply any listed lens focal length by 1.6 to determine the effective focal length of the lens with that camera. A 50mm lens, for example, would have an effective focal length of 80mm (50mm x 1.6 = 80mm). The key take away here is that the effective focal length is a function of the lens AND the crop factor of the camera it is mounted to. 

Wide-Angle

Everything is in, sometimes even your feet or tripod legs
Focal lengths of a small number in the range of 24-35mm are considered wide-angle, while even smaller numbers in the range of 14-24mm are considered ultra-wide-angle. As the names suggest, these lenses will capture a wide field of view, bending light from the sides, above, and below onto the camera sensor. Wide-angle lenses are often used in landscape photography for their ability to capture large scenic vistas. I used one of my favorite lenses, Canon’s 16-35mm f/2.8 II lens, to capture this vast scene that unfolded during sunrise at Bryce Canyon

Photograph of Sunrise Point, Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

“Majestic Morning” ISO 100, 17mm, f/16, 4 sec

Ultra-wide-angle lenses bend the light so much that if one tilts the camera down a bit, it is easy to get one’s feet in the frame. When finding a composition, you are in control of what is in the frame and what isn’t. Including elements that are not visually important or appealing can take away the impact of the overall image. From that perspective, ultra-wide lenses increase the need to pay attention to the corners of the frame since so much of the scene is included. One thing to note about wide-angle and ultra-wide lenses is that they add distortion, which is more significant at the outer edges of the frame. For nature scenes the distortion is not that noticeable; generally you don’t want to distort people’s faces so this should be considered when shooting portraits.

Getting up close to this tree with an ultra-wide-angle lens, I was able to create this perspective and get everything in the frame.

Photograph of Hoh Rainforest, Olympic National Park, Washington

“Enchanted Dimension” ISO 100, 16mm, f/11, 5.0 sec

The inside of a wave is a small and dynamic space, and a wide angle lens can be used to capture everything that is going on. Using a wide-angle lens in a small confined space has the effect of actually making the space look bigger than it is (this is not to say that I’m magnifying the wave because technically I’m doing the opposite). For this reason, interior architecture photography is often shot with wide angle lenses, not only to capture the full room, but also to make the space look roomier and more expansive.

Photograph of the inside of a wave

“Greenroom” ISO 640, 24mm, f/14, 1/1000 sec

Standard

What the eye sees – The classic way to learn photography is with a fully manual camera and a 50mm lens. You will often find this advice for a beginner. I did not learn this way and I don’t think it’s important, yet in most photography classes it’s how people are taught. It is said that the natural lens of the human eye has an approximate focal length of 50mm. So if you use a 50mm lens it’s what your eye sees without distortion or magnification. In my opinion the “standard” focal range includes anything from 40-65mm. Occasionally I will shoot video with a 50mm lens just to mix things up creatively for me, and to give the feel that the viewer is right there. In general, these focal ranges are not priorities in landscape photography and are better suited for portrait, wedding, street photography, and of course videography.

Telephoto

Think telescope – Telescopes are used for looking at objects in the distance, magnifying them so one can see the detail as if one were closer. Telephoto lenses work the same way. Any focal length larger than 70mm, will magnify the subject and exclude the wide angle objects. At high focal lengths, say 300mm, one is taking a photo of a scene far away, or isolating a very small area of a scene. There are a couple of notable affects that using a telephoto lens will have. One is that it will allow you to be far away from your subject while isolating a particular area of detail. For this shot I was standing on the river bank and isolating a section of the water running over the rocks.

Photograph of River, Glacier National Park, Montana

“Whispering River” ISO 50, 70mm, f/22, 2.5 sec

These buttes on the far side of the Grand Canyon were pretty far away so I used a telephoto lens to get this composition.

Photograph of Grand View, Grand Canyon, Arizona

“Monuments and Valleys” ISO 100, 70mm, f/10, 1/80 sec

Another effect of a telephoto lens is that the light isn’t being bent like in wide angle lenses, so distortion is minimized. Minimizing distortion is actually preferred for portrait photography, so focal lengths of 70mm, 85mm, or greater are often used. When it comes to landscape photography, a large telephoto focal length, say 300mm, has the effect of compressing the space between distant objects. What this means is that objects appear to be closer to each other than they actually are. In this shot, the effect is illustrated by the perceived closeness of the mountain ranges to one another.

Photograph of Death Valley, California

“Deep Horizons” ISO 400, 300mm, f/6.5, 1/15 sec

Different Focal Lengths

I get it, so what? – Given that there are different effects created with lenses with different focal lengths, how does one decide on a focal length or focal range? In the world of photography there is definitely value to the old “KISS” adage, “Keep It Simple, Stupid”. In order to have all of the focal ranges covered, you will need multiple lenses. Because carrying around multiple lenses can be cumbersome and complicating to your creative process, I recommend beginning with no more than two lenses. This means you should be determining which lens will be your primary lens and which will be a solid secondary lens. Your primary lens–the work horse–will be on your camera most of the time. Because of this, it should perform well in the shooting situations you want to do your best work in. By concentrating on your primary focal range, you can develop a feel for the lens and bring out it’s potential. The secondary lens should allow for a different type of shot than captured with the primary lens, functioning well in situations that you often find yourself in. For landscape shooters, an ultra-wide angle would be a good primary lens and a telephoto a solid secondary lens. 

Landscape Ultra-Wide Recommendations

Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM Lens
Nikon AF-S 14-24mm f/2.8G ED AF Lens (one of the best lenses available for any camera system on the market)
 

Landscape Telephoto Recommendations

Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6L IS USM Lens (This lens is super sharp and the poor f-stop numbers don’t factor in much since most shooting is done between f/10 and f/16)
Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM Lens (aka the safari lens, this is the go-to lens for wildlife enthusiast–a new edition of this lens is being released by Canon soon)
Nikon AF-S 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR (wide range and decent sharpness makes this lens a great secondary lens to have)
 

If the ultra-wide focal range is too specific then middle range zoom lenses should be considered

Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM Lens
Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM Lens
Canon EF 24-70mm f/4L IS USM Lens
Nikon AF-S 24-70mm f/2.8G ED
Nikon AF-S DX18-200mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR II
 

More Key Lens Features to Consider:

f-stop

(f/2.8, f/4, f/3.5-5.6 etc) – The f-stop number in the lens description indicates the largest aperture that lens supports. The smaller the number, the larger the aperture, the more light comes in. An f-stop range only appears on zoom lenses. The first number refers to the maximum aperture at the wide side of the zoom and the second number indicates the maximum aperture when the lens is zoomed in. Some high end zoom lenses will have only a single f-stop number indicating that the aperture is available throughout all focal lengths. 

Lenses that are capable of letting in a lot of light (f/1.4, f/1.8, f/2, f/2.8) are commonly referred to as “fast lenses”. This quality is technically harder to achieve and therefore these lenses are usually heavier and more expensive. However, this can also be an indication of quality. Fast lenses are typically higher quality than slower ones. Night sky photography is generally shot at f/2.8 to let in a lot of light. So if you are interested in shooting under these conditions, you will certainly want a lens that has the f/2.8 aperture. 

There are other considerations to f-stop value. The lower the f-stop value the better the lens is at producing background blur or “bokeh”. This creative effect is used often in portrait, street, and product photography but rarely in landscape images. 

Reducing Camera Hand Shake

Modern lenses are often equipped with a system that helps mitigate camera shake that’s introduced when holding the camera in your hands. Since getting the shot in focus is so important, this system can be a great feature to have on your lens. 

IS = Image Stabilization
VR = Vibration Reduction
 

These terms are equivalent and either system allows you to shoot slower shutter speeds while maintaining focus. However, this should not be treated as a crutch–learning solid exposure guidelines to keep images sharp should be practiced and given a lot of attention. Remember to turn this feature off when mounting to a tripod, as it will actually add blur if left on. 

Weight

A heavy lens can really be uncomfortable to use without a tripod. Your primary lens should be a weight you are capable of carrying anywhere and often. In my experience anything around 1.5 lbs is just fine, and anything over 2 lbs can get uncomfortable after prolonged use. 

Why Not Prime Lenses?

Even though prime lenses are almost always sharper, have better image quality, and let in more light than zoom lenses, they don’t perform well in the conditions a landscape photographer encounters. For landscapes, you want a zoom lens because you are often unable to get to just the right spot due to natural obstacles or you’re already at the edge of the cliff. You compensate by adjusting the focal length. Prime lenses are best used when you can more fully control the distance to your subject. The best prime lenses are usually of the 24mm, 35mm, 85mm, and 135mm variety and these focal lengths are generally suited better for portrait and street photography. The one exception here is Canon’s EF 14mm f/2.8 L II USM Lens which is the best way for Canon users to get an ultra-wide focal length. A cheaper alternative, Rokinon’s 14mm Ultra Wide-Angle f/2.8 IF ED UMC Lens for Canon has good image quality but doesn’t have autofocus. The Zeiss 15mm f/2.8 Distagon T* ZE Lens, I hear, is quite spectacular. 

Looking for Prime Lenses for Portrait or Street Photography? Here Are Some of the Best

Canon EF 35mm f/1.4 L USM Lens
Canon EF 35mm f/2 IS USM Lens (image stabilization makes this better for video)
Canon EF 85mm f/1.2 L II USM Lens
Canon EF 135mm f/2 L USM Lens
Nikon AF-S 35mm f/1.4G
Nikon 135mm f/2 DC
 

Yikes, These Lenses Are Expensive!

If you’ve looked up prices of the lenses I recommended above, you will find that they are all fairly expensive. That is what it takes to get “good glass”– lenses with great image quality, are weather sealed, and durable. Overall sharpness and image quality are the most compelling reasons why one should go with the pricier option. Many believe that if you are going to spend the money, spend it on the lens rather than the camera. Once you experience a high quality lens it can be frustrating to use a lens that has mediocre image quality. If you are on a budget, I would recommend getting one high-quality primary lens and rocking it out. 

Using the Second Hand Market

As long as high-end lenses are taken care of, the second hand market price will only depreciate 20% or so per year (save the original packaging for shipping purposes). Many people are afraid of using the second hand market when it comes to cameras and lenses. However, I believe that there is good gear available at reasonable prices. There are many others out there who take care of their lenses as well as you do (or rarely use them). These are the pieces you are looking for on eBay. Durability testing on camera bodies have proven that they can take a beating and keep on ticking. With lenses, on the other hand, you need to be a bit more careful. You want scratch-free front and rear elements, smooth operation of the focus and zoom rings, functioning autofocus and electronics, and no moisture present inside the lens. Always engage the seller on eBay with a question (even if they’ve explained everything in the description) in order to get a sense of who you are buying from (it doesn’t hurt to clarify the things I listed previously). Check past reviews and only buy when it “feels right.” If you don’t have a good feeling about it, pass on it because there are always multiple options on eBay at any given time. I recently purchased two lenses off eBay with good results. 

Do I Need Filters?

You don’t need filters to take good pictures. However, if you have a very expensive lens, at a minimum, I suggest a filter to protect the front element. UV-Haze filters are good for this. You don’t want to by a cheap filter because it would defeat the purpose of buying a nice lens in the first place! Get a decent brand, Hoya and B+W are excellent choices. 

Polarizing Filter
If you are shooting landscapes, a polarizing filter will undoubtedly be useful. A polarizing filter, or “polarizer”, reduces light being reflected off shiny surfaces such as water, vegetation, skin, glass, and the sky. It allows more natural color and detail to come through in the image. It does reduce the amount of light hitting the sensor, so your exposures will need to be longer than if shot without a polarizer. In low light conditions, a tripod will be needed. The other benefit of having a polarizer is that you can begin to play with long exposures taken on a tripod which can smooth out waterfalls and water surfaces. 

Neutral Density Filter
Neutral Density (ND) filters, reduce the amount of light coming through without affecting color. This is used primarily to slow down shutter speeds. Some practical applications of an ND filter are to get that silky look in a waterfall, water surface, or sky, as well as shoot a place with people moving around but not have the people appear in the image. A 3-stop (0.9 optical density) ND filter is a good place to start. If you know long exposure technique is going to be a big factor in your photographic work, then you may want to get a 10-stop ND filter as well. 

Lens Compatibility

The mounting systems used to connect lenses to camera bodies are specific to the camera design. In general mounting systems differ between brands, for example, Canon & Nikon lenses are not compatible with the other company’s camera bodies. This means that you cannot use your Nikon lens with your Canon body without an adaptor. If you want to use a Sigma, Tamron, Sony, Zeiss, or Rokinon lens, make sure the mount is compatible with your camera body. Additionally, even within the same camera brand, lenses are not necessarily compatible. For example Canon’s EF-S lenses are only compatible with certain Canon cameras while Canon’s EF lenses are compatible with all Canon camera bodies. Nikon DX and FX lenses can be used by any modern Nikon camera body. However, DX lenses, if used on an FX camera, experience a 1.5x crop factor. Be aware that lens compatibility is an issue and should be verified before purchasing your lens. 

Here are great resources for specific, technical lens reviews:

For Canon Gear – The Digital Picture
For Nikon Gear – Ken Rockwell 

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As always, feel free to leave a comment or send me an email at dustin.t.wong@gmail.com.  if you have any questions!
Cheers, Dustin