Photography / Buying Guide

Purchasing Your Next Lens

         

No matter how many lenses a photographer has, there are often lenses that we still wish for and after which we lust. There are so many options out there that choosing your next lens can be a dizzying cavalcade of manufacturers, focal lengths, prime or zoom functionality, auto or manual focusing, and price. Here, we will help you choose the best lens to fit your specific needs, or at the very least, point you in the right direction.

The first question you have to ask yourself is, “What do I need that my current lens doesn’t give me?” Your answer is most likely going to fall into one of two categories: speed (aperture) or zoom. Let’s take a look at the first problem and figure out what lenses can help increase your “speed."        

When it comes to lenses, the term “speed” is used to describe how much light the aperture diaphragm allows into the lens, relative to its size. For more detail, please refer to the B&H Explora article, Understanding Aperture.

Most kit lenses have variable apertures that start at f/3.5 and close up to f/5.6 as you zoom in to a longer reach. This is fine if you’re shooting outdoors on a sunny day, or indoors with a flash or bright lights, but not suitable for low-light situations. For that, you’re going to need a faster lens.

So, what is a “fast” lens? Fast lenses generally have an aperture of f/2.8 or larger. The larger the aperture, the more light the lens allows in, so fast lenses are great for low-light conditions. A prime lens has a fixed focal length, so the lens doesn’t do the zooming—your legs do. Prime lenses often offer larger apertures than zoom lenses, and are ideal for shooting video with a DSLR camera.

One of the most common second-lens choices that photographers make is the 50mm f/1.8. It’s a relatively inexpensive lens that can be wide enough to shoot a group of people in a room, yet also long enough to shoot headshots. The larger aperture means shorter depth of field, which gives your photos nice bokeh (that blurred-out background look that isolates your subject and looks great).

50mm on a crop-sensor camera (with a 1.5x crop factor, such as APS-C; Canon sensors have a crop factor of 1.6x) has the equivalent angle of view to 75mm on a full-frame camera, so if you think 50mm might not be quite wide enough for your camera, a 35mm lens might be a better option. It’s slightly wider, making it better for group portraits in tight spaces without the distortion of even wider fast lenses, such as 28mm and 24mm f/1.8 lenses. 

On the other hand, if you want a fast lens that is longer, for portraits or shooting objects farther away, an 85mm f/1.8 lens might be for you. Longer lenses are great for portraits because they create less distortion and allow you to be at a greater distance from your subject.

Telephoto Zoom Lenses

Telephoto lenses are ideal for photographing birds, sports, theater, or any other subject located at a distance from your camera. If you find that you’re missing out on shots because you can’t zoom in close enough to your subject, you should probably choose a telephoto as your next lens. You might have a kit lens that reaches 200mm, but at f/5.6, your shutter speed will be too slow to freeze the movement of your subject. In this case, you need a faster telephoto lens. The most common “pro” telephoto zoom lenses are the 70-200mm f/2.8 lenses. They are fast enough to stop action and give you nice bokeh, while keeping your subject sharp. If you have a 1.5x APS-C crop-sensor camera, this will provide about a 105-300mm equivalent on a full-frame camera.

If you don’t need the speed that an f/2.8 lens offers, some other great choices would be a 70-200mm f/4, or if you need the extra zoom, an 18-300mm or 70-300mm variable-aperture lens might be your answer.

Another point to consider, especially with telephoto lenses, is whether or not you need a built-in image stabilizing system. Nikon calls this VR (vibration reduction), Canon calls it IS (image stabilization), Tamron has VC (vibration compensation), and Sigma refers to it as OS (optical stabilization). Whatever you call it, the benefit of having a lens with image stabilization is that you can effectively use a longer shutter speed when shooting without a tripod, giving you sharper images, and making the lens more effective in low-light situations.

Wide Zoom Lenses

If your response to the “What do I need that my current lens doesn’t give me?” question is that you need to squeeze more people into your frame, or you need to capture more of a landscape in your photos, then a wide-angle lens should be your next choice. 

We've briefly mentioned the 28mm and 24mm focal lengths, which are solid prime lenses, but often times you might want more versatility with a second lens, such as that found in wide zoom lenses. There are many different zoom lengths available, not only from the main manufacturers, but from Sigma, Tokina, and Tamron, as well. One thing that most photographers will tell you is that when shooting with a zoom lens, most of their shots are made at one of the extremes, either the widest or the longest end of the zoom. While we think the Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 (available in Nikon, Canon, and Sony mounts) is one of the sharpest super-wide lenses, it doesn’t offer as much of a range as the 12-24mm, 16-35mm, 17-50mm, or 24-70mm zooms. This is where you have to decide exactly why you will need this lens. If you’re not exactly sure, the 24-70mm is a good choice, because it will let you shoot full-length body and headshots. If you don’t need that much range, and just want a very wide lens, then the 11-16mm might be your best option.

Macro Lenses

Perhaps you’ve seen some really close-up photos of insects or flowers, and you’ve tried to take them yourself with your kit lens but found that it couldn’t focus. This is because you need a special type of lens called a macro lens, with a very small minimum focusing distance. These lenses usually focus at a foot or less, all the way to infinity, so you can use them for shooting macro photography, as well as everyday shots of people, landscapes, or other subjects at any distance. The same choices apply here, whether you need a fast lens or not, and whether you need a wider-angle or telephoto lens.

There are a couple of important things to consider when choosing a macro lens. First, the wider your lens, the closer you’ll need to get to your subject. If you’re shooting flowers, and you want to focus on one flower but also want other flowers to be out of focus in the background, then a wider lens like a 40 or 50mm would work best. On the other hand, if you’re trying to shoot moving insects like bumble bees or butterflies, chances are you won’t be able to get close enough to them with a wide lens, so something like an 85mm or longer would be better for you. Also, when you’re shooting with your camera and lens very close to your subject, you often cast a shadow, meaning less light, and requiring a faster lens or special ring lights for your camera. If you don’t want to worry about shadows or purchasing flashes, consider a longer macro lens for your camera.

Pick Our Brains

So, we’ve covered a lot of ground here. We’ve discussed choosing the lens based on what focal length you need, whether you want a prime or a zoom lens, and whether you need a fast lens with a constant aperture, or if you can deal with a slower variable aperture.

Once you figure out exactly what will satisfy your photographic requirements that are as yet unfulfilled, you should be able to make an informed decision confidently, to ensure that your next lens purchase will be the right one for you.

In the meantime, feel free to pick our brains with specific questions for your photographic needs in the Comments section, below.

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Hi Todd,

I’m considering putting together a kit with a Nikon D5500 and three lenses — the 18–300mm f/3.5-6.3G, 35mm f/1.8G, and the 85mm f/3.5G. Among a number of anticipated applications for this kit will be Macro photography at a reproduction ratio near (or better than?) 1:1.

The 85mm is clearly a Macro lens that can go down to 1:1 with a closest focusing distance of 0.9 feet. I understand the 18–300 has a reproduction ratio of 1:3.4 while focusing down to 1.6 feet.

If I wanted to push the close-focusing limits of either lens, would you recommend using:
     A.  A low diopter-strength Close-up Lens,
     B.  A Reversing Ring,
     C.  Extension Tubes, or
     D.  anything else?

I realize each of these options would bring the lens closer to the subject, making it more difficult to illuminate, and probably introducing other issues. Could you possibly outline the trade-offs between these options?

Thank you very much.
Howard

Hi Howard,

Good questions. 

For true macro work, I would focus on using the 85mm and not worry too much about the 18-300 as the reproduction ratio will leave you wanting.

I think the best solution to push either lens is: extension tubes. You can use them on either lens and they do not degrade optical quality. Quick, easy, inexpensive. Done!

Check out these two articles that I penned..but, seriously, extension tubes are all you will need and want.

https://www.bhphotovideo.com/explora/photography/buying-guide/macro-photography-gear-lenses-extension-tubes-and-filters

https://www.bhphotovideo.com/explora/photography/buying-guide/macro-photography-gear-bellows-reversal-rings-macro-couplers-and-focusing

Thanks for reading and thanks for the questions!

Thanks so much Todd!

That was a quick, decisive, response.
You saved me days of experimentation. 

I've already ordered a set of Extension Tubes and, after a careful re-reading of your two articles (linked above), I've decided to also "splurge" on a $7.95 Macro Coupler. With that I can experiment on reversing the 35mm f1.8 on the Micro 85mm. 

From the direction in which you pointed me in your response and articles, I think I can see a Focusing Rail and a license for Zerene Stacker may be in my future. <Smile>  

Thanks, Again.
Howard 

Hey Howard,

No worries at all!

That is quite the splurge! I hope I didn't encourage you to break the bank and that you are not in trouble with the significant other!

Enjoy the macro shooting! I think that macro is one of the most fun things you can do with a camera...I really need to do it more often than I do!

Thanks for stopping by!

Todd,

I have a Nikon D5500 as of now but what to move up. I just want to know your opinions on the D750, D610, and D500. I like the DX format i have on the D5500, but I never tried the FX. With that in mind, I have aimed more towards the D500 but would like more of a professionals opinion. 

Also I am looking for a lense that would be ideal for portraits but also wildlife and landscape since I photograph that more often. I was looking at the 85mm f/1.8G. But I only use this for a hobby and is only intermediate at the whole photography things so a professional view would be appreciated. I am now getting into taking portraits for people in my neighborhood and would like a lens with a great high and low aperature. If you coud just give me your best opinions that would be extremely helpful.

Thank you in advanced!

Kennedy

Hey Kennedy,

First of all, I don't know if my opinion qualifies as "professional," but I will give you recommendations nonetheless!

Let's start with the lens...the 85mm f/1.8G is a great lens for all sorts of photographs, and it is ideal for portraiture. Great choice!

I honestly don't think you will see a huge difference in photos between the D5500 and the D750, D610, and D500. Having said that, the cameras you are considering are faster and, especially in the case of the D500, more robustly built. But, if you are looking for a jump in image quality, you likely wont see it in any significant ways.

Let's talk FX/DX with that 85mm lens. 85mm is a classic portrait-length lens. When you use it on an FX camera, it gives you a traditional 85mm field of view. On a DX camera, like the D500 or your D5500, you will have a field of view equivalent of a 128mm lens...a bit long for the traditional portrait world, but still very viable. One possible advantage is that you will be working further from your subject—preferred by some photographers and "models."

Do you have a 50mm f/1.8 or f/1.4 lens? On DX, those have the same field of view of a 75mm lens — great for portraiture as well. So, if you don't have a 50mm and you are staying in DX, that would be a great lens to have. Honestly, FX or DX...everyone should have a 50mm f/1.8 or f/1.4 lens.

In summary, I would only suggest a new body if you want something more robust or want to move to full-frame. The 85mm will be great for portraits on either format camera, and a 50mm is a great all-purpose lens to have for both formats as well.

I hope this helped! Please let me know if you have more questions. Thanks for stopping by!

Hi Todd,

Thanks for the helpful article.  I'll be getting a D750 this week from BH, moving from a crop sensor and need advice on a recommended first lens - or two.  For landscapes my current go to is the Nikkor 16-85 with most shots at 16-24.  Im looking at the 16-35 VR vs 18-35G and maybe a 20mm prime.  Sharpness with filters and long exposures are key.  And I do find myself in lower light conditions handheld as well.  Feeling like I need 5 different lenses here.  Lol.  Thanks in advance..

Sean

Hey Sean,

Quite the dilemma! It looks like the 16-35 is getting better reviews than the 18-35...and I personally prefer a fixed wide aperture—the 16-35 being f/4 all the way through.

I have also gravitated towards prime lenses over the past few years where I used to rarely use them. The convenience factor isn't there, but the image quality always is, so that is something to consider. Pairing one of those zooms with a wide-aperture prime is probably a great place to start. Also, on the prime front, you might consider getting an older manual focus lens (new or used) to save money and still get excellent glass.

Standing by for follow-ups! Thanks for reading!

I Have a Tameron 70-300mm Lens for my Cannon D470 and Cannon 600 Ex-RT Flash  BUT The Flash Only goes up to 200 mm ? any way i can change that on flash? 

Hey Jeff,

You'll just have to fire the flash at 200mm and hope for the best! Sorry, mate!

Thanks for reading!

Hold the phone, Jeff! A B&H colleague just sent me this:

https://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/product/427602-REG/Visual_Echoes_FX3_FX3_Better_Beamer_for.html

Good luck!

The APS-C sensor has a crop factor of 1.6. All the adjusted focal lengths in the article pertaining to the APS-C are incorrect. 

Hello The Truth,

Only Canon has the 1.6x crop factor with their APS-C cameras. Nikon, Fujifilm, and others have 1.5x crops. I will tweak the article to avoid confusion moving forward, but the majority of APS-C sensors are 1.5x.

Thanks for reading!

Indeed they are, but with the Canon lens pictured it adds precision to the article. Thanks for editing. 

We love precision! Thanks again, The Truth! We appreciate the feedback!

Hey! I have a Canon 5D Markii & I'm a portrait photographer. I've started shooting weddings & was wanting either the 24-70mm f2.8L or 70-200 f4L - but cannot decide which would be better for me.  I'm wanting to be able to get in closer during ceremonies.  I only have prime lenses.  

thanks!

Hey Carie,

I am curious to know what primes you are shooting with.

The 70-200 f/4 (or f/2.8) is going to allow you to shoot around traditional portrait focal lengths (85mm, 105mm) and then give you some extra reach. Wedding pro Jerry Ghionis is a big fan of the 70-200. That is his go-to lens. Check out this interview I did with him here.

Also, check out this article: https://www.bhphotovideo.com/explora/photography/buying-guide/fisheye-telephoto-variety-lenses-wedding-photographer

Standing by for follow-ups! Thanks for reading, Carie!

Thank you, so helpful!! I will read the interview, thanks!  I have a 35mm 1.4, 50mm 1.2, & 135mm 2.0 & I'm in love with my collection.  Next portrait lens I would love is 85mm - but think I need to invest in something as I mentioned earlier.  Thanks much!

You are very welcome, Carie!

Getting in close? Well the 70-200 is where it's at. I have the f/2.8 so I can't personally attest to the quality of the f/4...but because of the lens compression I'm sure it's just dandy. For a season in my career, the 70-200 was my go to for portraits. The bokeh is incredible. I highly suggest renting, tho. I do have thr 24-70 but only use it at receptions on the dance floor or for when I need a wide shot of the ceremony.

Thanks for helping a fellow Explora reader, Christina! Great advice!

I like your input!

Hi Todd,

What is a suitable beginner lense for shooting night sky (Milkyway, moon, etc.)?

Thanks,

Robert

Hi RTL,

What kind of camera are you using?

Virtually any lens will work for night sky shots...you just have to decide how much of the sky you want in one frame.

Thanks!

What is "virtually lens"?

Was thinking faster than I was typing, Rod. Thanks for keeping me straight! 

[Yay edit button!] 

That's not quite a complete advice from Todd. 

Robert, you will prefereably want a f/2.8 lens if possible. Wide angle zooms will be preferred as it gives you the flexibility of composing your shots. But wide angle f/2.8 lenses are not cheap.

You can shoot with the cheaper f/4 lenses. But your exposure time will be a lot longer. An alternative is to shoot at a much higher ISO, which will create more noise in your images.

Good advice, David. Thanks!

Without knowing what kind of camera RTL was shooting, I didn't want to get too specific. 

Thanks for helping out a fellow B&H Explora reader!

Hi, I have a Nikon D3300 and have the following lens. Nikon 35mm 1.8G, Tamron 18-270mm , Tamron 28-75mm 2.8, and a Nikon 55-200mm. I am going to Japan on holidays and wondered which len's I should take. I want to shoot scenery ,cityscapes, landscapes and points of interest. I do not shoot portraits,Can you recommend which len's I should take. As you can tell from my questions I am just a novice. Hope you can advise. Also thanks for the fast shipping of my tripod.

Cheers Keith.

Hey Keith,

Good question. Are you only going to pack one lens? If that were the case, I would probably take the Tamron 28-75 unless you think you will need the telephoto reach of the 18-270mm. 

Thanks for shopping at B&H!

Hi, Thanks for the quick reply. I am quite prepared to take whatever len's I need as lomg as I can get some really great photos. Would the 35mm be better than the 18-270 for walking the streets as it is nice and light but if the results are the same I will just take the two you recommend.

Thanks Keiith

Hey Keith,

No worries! 

The 35mm f/1.8 is going to give you the top image quality and be the best lens for low and lower-light shooting. But, many traveling photographers prefer zooms. If you want to travel light and "zoom with your feet" you can use the 35mm and get some great images—you just have to adjust to not having a crutch (zoom).

If you are up for a challenge...go with the 35mm and force yourself to make great photos without a zoom....all while being footloose and not weighed down by gear.

Coin toss?

Hi, I have Nikon D7000 DX camera with Sigma 18-35 f1.8 and kit lens(18-140 Nikon).  I plan to get a zoom lens 24-70 mm f 2.8 looked into few options Nikon, Sigma and Tamron all these varies with a big price difference. Could you suggest me one ?

Hello Sai,

I personally tested the Tokina 24-70 f/2.8 lens and really liked it in this article, but it is heavy. The others are all great as well. 

Which one you choose is all dependent on your budget, but all will be good.

Thanks for your question!

Sorry to hear you don't have Micro 4/3 or Fuji anymore.

No need to be sorry, george brown...we still have them and there are equivalent lenses on the market that line up with the lenses mentioned above. Also, we will have guides to the 2016 releases of Fujifilm and Micro Four Thirds lenses in upcoming articles.

If you have specific questions for other formats, I am happy to help!

Thanks for reading!

To me there are workhorse lens and those that you use for special occasions.  Zoom lens (24mm to 70mm range) are great for most of the photography that one does.  Then there are the macro and telephoto lens that while they are great on certain occasions you have to be sure that you can justify the high dollar price against the amount of time they will be used.  And then there are lower price macro/tele lens and then the best you can get which can get into thousands of dollars but they are worth it.  So be sure you can justify something other than a normal lens.  With today's camera resolutions you can do a lot with a normal range lens and then post process the rest on your PC.

Hi BobK!

I agree with most of what you said, but, man, is it a lot of fun to shoot with a dedicated macro lens or a tilt-shift...and having cool gear is always in fashion!

Thanks for reading!

I am looking for a lens specifically for the night sky and northern lights for a Canon camera.  If it would be a good lens to use for other things, then that's even better!  Any suggestions? 

Hey Debi,

You will likely want a wide angle lens for the night sky...something around a 21mm or 24mm lens. Or, you would want a zoom that covers those focal lengths. 

What lenses do you have right now? What Canon camera are you shooting?

For aurora shooting tips, see this article: https://www.bhphotovideo.com/explora/photography/tips-and-solutions/8-questions-about-photographing-aurora-gabe-biderman

Thanks!

I got into photography in 1967 with a 3 lens outfit.  They were a 35, an 50 and a 135mm lens.  Oh my, what to do! I never new there was more than one lens. !st I statrted with the normal lens. Then I went to the 135, because I got too lazy to walk a few steps closer to my subject. Finally I gravitted to the 35 mm lens because I liked shooting landscapes and environmental portraits and I didin't mind taking the etra steps to get closer to my subject.  Of course, it goes without saying that I didn't know what clssifiaction my pictures fell into. I was just aking really nice pictures. For the last 30 yrs. or so I have opted for zoom lenses because of their versatility and I don't have to spend a lot of time changing lenses.I recently went with a mirrorless system to reduce the weight of my gear and am thrilled with both the gear and the results.  I only have three prime lenses in the system. A super wide angle a normal lens and a macro lens. Neither one has been on a camera yet. My next lens fo this system is in all probabbility, going to be a f 2.8 wide to short tele zoom. I may stop at that point and just give my wallet and my wife a rest. Besides, by then it will be time for new golf clubs. Food for thought. I once heard it said, that the normal lens represents the everage persons visual range. Consequently, we shouldn't expect anything other than average pictures from it.

Interesting stuff, Jim!

I started with a 50mm f/1.8 and then a bunch of zooms. Over the years, I have gravitated towards primes and a "normal" lens always rides on my camera. I feel that primes force me to see more carefully and compose more carefully. Zooms are certainly great for convenience, and I still use them, but, for me, normal primes are where my art is at currently.

Thanks for reading and taking the time to share!

I am trying to decide on a fixed 50mm Canon lens. I need to find justification to consider the $1300 option. Otherwise, I may purchase the $350 version. I will be shooting portraits of a 4.5 year old girl in a mediumly lit indoor environment or outdoors. Please advise. 

Hey Ellie,

You will likely be delighted with the performance of the 50mm f/1.4 lens. That lens is standard in the bags of many professional photographers. It is much smaller and lighter than the stellar f/1.2 version, and as you have seen, much easier on your bank account!

4.5 stars on our website with 3500+ reviews...I think you'll be ok!

Also, for portraiture, take a look at the 85mm f/1.8 options from Canon and other manufacturers.

Good luck! Let me know if you have any follow-ups!

  • I am glad to hear your answer! Do you know of any comparison images between the 50mm f/1.4 and the f/1.2?
  • Lasty, how would the 50mm f/1.4 compare to my portrait 100mm f/2.0 USM Canon (NON Macro) lens (it is an older lens that doesn't sell anymore), in practical terms (other than the obvious depth of field and field of view differences)? 

Thank you

Hi Ellie,

I'm sure there are a few websites with a head-to-head of the f/1.4 and the f/1.2. Off hand, I don't know them. Google will be your friend. My guess is that, unless you are doing some serious pixel-peeping, you won't ever see a difference.

The 100mm will be good for portraits as well. If you are shooting full-frame, it will be a bit better as with APS-C, the 160mm equivalent field of view might be a bit long for lower-light portraits due to the increase in camera shake.

There are few things more useful in photography than a good 50mm lens. I shoot APS-C and leave my 35mm on the camera all the time.

You are welcome!

I have the Olympus EM-10 Mark II and currently have the 25mm f/1.8 and 40-150 f/4.0-5.6 lenses.  I travel a great deal so a lot of my photography are landscape shots/travel pictures but also do a lot of nature shots (flowers, etc.).  What would you recommend for my next lens.  I would consider myself a mid-high level amateur.  

Hey Kimberly,

Depending on your budget, you might consider the impressive Olympus M. Zuiko 12-40mm f/2.8 PRO lens. I have used that lens and it is really excellent. It is a great all-around performer for travel and would likely be the lens that lives on your camera the most, unless you are traveling super light with your 25mm.

There are some less expensive options, like the Olympus 14-150mm, but that 12-40mm is top-shelf. Also, in the same price bracket, is the new 12-100mm f/4 PRO lens.

For my review with the 12-40mm, click here. The 14-150mm, click here. And, we just published a review with the new 12-100mm here.

Standing by for follow-ups!

Thanks Todd for the recommendations!  In case "Santa" doesn't have the 12-40mm f/2.8 in the budget would you recommend considering the Travel Lens bundle from Olympus which is $200 more than the 14-150mm alone?  Seems to be a better deal.

Thanks!

"Santa" really needs a better financial manager so that "they" might have such things in the budget!

That bundle looks great...quite a savings over buying both of those lenses. The 14-150 is a solid lens, and I am sure the 17mm is as well.

Don't forget, all Micro Four Thirds lenses work on your Olympus, so check out the offerings from Panasonic and other manufactures, too. But, it looks like Olympus has the deals right now with those kits.

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