No matter how many lenses a photographer has, there are often added lenses we still wish for, and even more lenses after which we lust.
There are so many options that choosing your next lens can often involve a dizzying cavalcade of choices—manufacturers, focal lengths, prime or zoom functionality, auto or manual focusing, and price. Below, we offer up some thoughts on what your next lens might be based on your shooting preferences and needs.
To keep things simple, our suggestions are based on the use of a full-frame camera—those seeking a lens for use with smaller sensor size cameras will need consider the appropriate crop factor.
Since we don’t get too specific here, feel free to use the Comments section at the bottom of the article for further questions on what lens might work best for you.
The Need for Speed
The first question to ask yourself is, “What do I need that my current lens doesn’t give me?” In terms of functionality, your answer is most likely going to fall into one of two categories: speed (aperture) or versatility (focal length/zoom). Let’s look at the first factor and figure out what lenses can help increase your “speed."
When it comes to optics, the term “speed” is used to describe how much light the aperture diaphragm allows into the lens, relative to its size. And the mention of size invites a distinction between two lens types—primes or zooms. As described in the chart below, prime lenses feature a single, fixed focal length, which is often selected based on the subject one wishes to photograph. While this limited field of view makes a prime lens less inherently versatile than a zoom, primes are generally smaller in size, and often faster and lighter weight. And, as the adage goes, selecting a prime lens does offer the opportunity to “Zoom with your feet.”
General Attributes of Different Focal Length Prime Lenses
Field of View
|Wide-Angle||35mm and wider||Landscapes, street, documentary|
|Normal||~ 50 mm||General purposes, portraiture, street|
|Portrait/Short-Telephoto||85 to 135mm||Portraits, headshots|
|Medium- to Long Telephoto||more than 135mm||Distance shooting / sports|
So, what is a “fast” lens? This desirable and popular category of optics generally has an aperture of f/1.8 or larger if it’s a prime lens, or f/2.8 or larger if it’s a zoom; both of which are relative figures depending on the focal length of the lens. The larger the aperture, the more light the lens allows in, which is an important factor when shooting in low-light conditions. A large aperture setting also corresponds to the ability to produce shallow depth of field, which enhances one’s ability to achieve selective focus and out-of-focus backgrounds for isolating subject matter. For low-light shooting and banging bokeh, you’ll want a “faster” lens.
A Primer on Primes
Getting back to the subject of primes, let’s unpack the various options for fixed focal length lenses below. For further details and links to prime lenses across all manufacturers, check out the article, A Primer on Prime Lenses.
Starting with the widest field of view, if your response to the question, “What do I need that my current lens doesn’t give me?” is that you want to explore broader perspectives or just squeeze more people or scenery into your frame, then a wide-angle should be your next lens choice.
As explained in Allan Weitz’s FAQ: Wide-Angle Lenses, prime lenses in this category generally range from 14mm to 35mm focal lengths. The most extreme wide angles are known as fisheyes, due to the very distorted image they produce. This category of glass is generally thought of as a novelty, but if you’re looking to escape down a rabbit hole and have some fun, check out the optical possibilities in Weitz’s article, Tips & Tidbits: Shooting Landscapes with Fisheye Lenses.
Mid-range wide-angles in the 20mm to 28mm range are solid choices for landscape photography, and also very useful in situations such as wedding or event photography. To learn more about options for these applications, check out Bjorn Petersen’s buying guide, Essential Wide-Angle Lenses for the Wedding Photographer.
The 35mm focal length marks the transition from wide-angle to what’s generally considered a “normal” field of view. While I’d strongly suggest that there’s no such thing as normal when it comes to photography, many people choose the 35mm prime for a slightly wider than “normal” look. As Shawn Steiner explains in The Lens Every Photographer Should Have and Use: The 35mm, this is a great choice for environmental portraiture, offering “more opportunities for capturing part of the background along with your subject, and telling a complete story.”
The first choice for a second lens that most people recommend to novices is the “nifty fifty.” As Todd Vorenkamp opines in The One Lens Every Photographer Should Have and Use: The 50mm, the pairing of a relatively inexpensive 50mm prime with whatever type of camera you own will likely be lighter, smaller, and have a larger apertures than any zoom you can buy.
Experienced photographers and novices alike are keen on capturing portraits with nice blurry backgrounds. A nifty fifty can fill the bill for that need, but a fast prime lens with a slightly longer focal length is often a better choice for flattering portraits or objects that are a bit farther away. Short telephotos with focal lengths from 85mm to 135mm are often considered classics for portraitists, since they have little perceivable distortion and allow you to be at a greater distance from your subject. For more on the best lenses to pick your next portrait session, check out Josh Taylor’s advice in Top Ten Lenses for Shooting Pro-Caliber Portraits.
If you need more reach than a short telephoto can provide, or perhaps you’re looking to tackle challenging photo subjects such as wildlife or sports, you’ll want to consider longer medium- and super-telephoto lenses. Common focal lengths for prime telephotos range from 135mm or 180mm to 300mm, or even longer, up to 800mm, but these big boys come at a price. You can study up on the options in Shawn Steiner’s Introduction to Super-Telephoto Lenses buying guide, or else consider the somewhat more economical and versatile option of picking up a telephoto zoom.
Exploring Beyond Your Kit Lens
If your initial camera purchase might have included a “kit” lens, it is most likely an entry-level zoom with a variable aperture that gets slower as you extend to a longer focal length.
As Todd Vorenkamp notes in the article, Why You Should Go Beyond the Kit Lens, “Camera kits, in general come with either one- or two-lens options. Single-lens versions usually have a wide-angle to short telephoto zoom lens. A second lens is most likely a farther-reaching telephoto zoom. These kits are designed to give you maximum versatility along with minimal cost and weight.”
If you’re shooting outdoors on a sunny day, or indoors with a flash, or have a tripod for support, these lenses will do the trick, but using a slow lens in low-light situations can otherwise cause blur from camera shake.
Telephoto Zoom Lenses
Turning back to our question of an added need that your current lens doesn’t satisfy, if you’re missing out on shots due to camera shake, or because you can’t zoom in close enough to your subject, you might consider getting a more powerful telephoto zoom. Even if you have a kit lens that reaches 200mm, if the maximum aperture at that reach is only f/5.6, your shutter speed might 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, which are fast enough to stop action and give you nice depth-of-field control, while keeping your subject sharp. If you don’t need the speed that an f/2.8 lens offers, a more economical option would be a 70-200mm f/4, or if you need the extra reach, a 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. To learn more about this subject, check out Allan Weitz’s FAQ: Image Stabilization.
Wide-Angle Zoom Lenses
If you just can’t get enough of the world around you and want to pack every last detail of your surroundings into your pictures, you probably need a wide-angle zoom, which offers a broader field of view than we're able to see with the human eye. As described earlier under wide-angle primes, 28mm and 24mm focal lengths are great options for a wide angle, but often times you might want more versatility with a second lens. 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 and Canon mounts) is one of the sharpest super-wide lenses, it doesn’t offer as much range as the 12-24mm, 16-35mm, 17-50mm, or 24-70mm zooms. This is when you have to decide exactly why you need this lens and how you plan to use it. 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. For full details about both zooms and primes within this popular category, organized by manufacturer, jump to Alan Weitz’s article, The Wide Bunch: A Guide to Wide and Ultra-Wide-Angle Lenses.
Perhaps you’ve admired really close-up photos of insects or flowers, but when you tried it yourself with your kit lens you discovered the lens wouldn’t focus close enough. This type of picture calls for a special type of glass 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, with high magnification, so you can use them for macro photography, as well as everyday photos 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 with the other flowers still appearing recognizable 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. For more details about wide-angle and telephoto macro lenses, read Bjorn Petersen’s buying guide The Long and the Short of It: Wide-Angle and Telephoto Macro Lenses.
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.
What is your experience in adding a second lens to your existing photo arsenal? Is there a specific focal length you lust after, or do you have a preference between primes and zooms? Whatever your fancy, please tell us about it in the Comments section, below.