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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 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.
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.
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.
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.