How To Pick The Best Camera Lens For Any Situation

How To Pick The Best Camera Lens For Any Situation

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Photographers love to discuss which is the best camera lens to buy or use. Most discussions of this topic are gear led and concentrate on lens specs. But I think it’s more helpful to answer the question from a creative point of view.

Quite often you need to make a decision about which lens to use ahead of time. For example, if you want to make some landscape photos you need to find the right balance between taking the right lenses for the job, and making sure your camera bag isn’t too heavy to carry. There’s no point in taking a macro lens or a telephoto lens with you if you know you’re not going to need it!

Below are some of the things you need to think about when it comes to picking the best camera lens to use. In practice, your choice is limited by the lenses you own. But these considerations are still useful and will help you decide which lenses to buy in the future.

1. Do you want bokeh?

Who doesn’t love those funky out of focus backgrounds that make portraits and travel photos so evocative? It’s true that you can get good bokeh with telephoto zoom lenses if you use them correctly, or even an 18-55mm kit lens (the key is to get as close to your subject as you can).

But for the best bokeh effects you’ll need a prime lens as the aperture is much wider. Primes are also more versatile. You can use the widest aperture of the lens for an ultra-shallow depth of field. Or a you can pick a more conservative setting such as f2.8 that gets more of the subject in sharp focus.

If bokeh is your thing, then use a prime lens and start experimenting with those wide apertures. Here are a couple of examples, both made with an 85mm prime lens and a wide aperture (f2.8 and f2 respectively).

Photos made with short telephoto lens

2. Do you want everything in focus?

I get it – bokeh is super cool. But there are times when you want the whole scene in focus, such as in landscape photography. Or when you want as much of the scene to be sharp as possible, like street photography, travel photography and environmental portraiture.

The amount of depth of field you want in your image is a creative decision. Once you’ve made it you can think about the type of lens you need to make that happen.

Wide-angle lenses are a natural choice when you need lots of depth of field. They also help you include more of the scene. Some photographers refer to wide-angle lenses as story telling lenses. The phrase describes the way you can use the lens to include enough detail to give your subject context.

This approach is most likely to be used in character portraits and documentary work. Here’s an environmental portrait I made in India with a 14mm lens (on an APS-C camera). Using a wide-angle helped me get close to the man cooking food and include lots of exotic detail from his street side shop.

Street photo made with wide-angle lens

3. How close can you get to your subject with your lens?

If there is something that stops you getting physically close to your subject, then you need a telephoto lens to bridge that distance.

For example, I needed a telephoto lens to photograph this horse and rider taking part in a jousting display. It wasn’t possible to get physically closer to the horse and rider. I also needed a zoom (70-200mm in this case) so I could adjust the framing as the rider got closer or further away.

Action photo made with telephoto zoom lens

On the other hand, if you want to do some macro or close-up photography, then you’ll need either a macro lens, or an accessory to help another lens focus more closely to the subject, such as an extension tube or close-up lens.

For example, I used a 100mm macro lens to create the photo of the flower below, and an 85mm lens with a close-up lens to make the photo of the metal statue.

Close-up photos

Learn more: How To Get Up Close With Close-Up Lenses

4. How much weight do you want to carry?

It may be tempting to take all your lenses on a shoot to cover every conceivable situation. The problem is that carrying lots of weight is tiring. This makes it harder to concentrate, be creative, and make good photos.

It’s something to think hard about when you’re going away. Think carefully about the number of lenses you need to take with you while traveling. The more you have, the heavier your camera bag gets and the more difficult it is to carry everything around. If you’re flying you need to know how much gear you can take on board the plane in your carry-on luggage.

Most of the time you’ll be fine with two or three carefully selected lenses. There may be times when you need more. This applies mainly to pros who need to cover every eventuality on a commercial shoot. You’re unlikely to need a lot of gear for personal work.

For example, on a recent trip to India I made most of my photos with my 35mm (left) and 14mm (right) lenses. I could easily have taken just those two lenses and no others.

Photos made in India with 35mm and 14mm lenses

Learn more: How to Improve Your Photography by Using Only Two Camera Lenses

5. Will you work in low light without a tripod?

If so you need to figure out how you are going to cope with the low light. Luckily, the high ISO performance of many cameras is so good that you can easily push the ISO to 6400 and beyond (depending on your camera). This helps you use shutter speeds fast enough to avoid camera shake.

A prime lens will help a lot, especially if it has an aperture of f1.8 or wider (some telephoto prime lenses only go to f4 or f2.8).

A lens with image stabilization or vibration reduction (if your camera doesn’t have it built into the body) also helps you take sharper images at slower shutter speeds. But remember that image stabilization prevents camera shake, but doesn’t prevent blur caused by subject movement.

You can hand-hold wide-angles at slower shutter speeds than telephoto lenses. For example, when I use my 56mm lens (on an APS-C camera) I prefer to set the shutter speed to at least 1/250 second to guarantee sharpness. But with my 18mm wide-angle I use 1/60 second – a two stop difference.

I made both these photos in low light and needed to use ISO 6400 and a wide aperture (f1.2 and f1.4 respectively) for both.

Photos made at ISO 6400 in low light

6. Will you be making portraits with your lens?

If you have a portrait shoot you need to decide which lenses you’ll need to take with you. If you know ahead of time that you’d like to create some environmental portraits, then you know you’ll need a normal lens or wide-angle lens. But don’t get too close with this type of lens unless you deliberately want to distort your model’s face.

On the other hand, if you’re going to move in close and photograph your model’s face a short telephoto prime or zoom lens is ideal. The perspective flatters your model and helps isolate her from the background. A prime lens is better if you want to make portraits with plenty of bokeh.

You can see the difference in the portraits below. I made one with an 56mm prime lens (left) and the other with a 14mm lens (right).

Portraits made with 56mm and 14mm lenses

7. Do you need a specialty lens?

There are times when you may need a specialty lens such as a fisheye lens, a tilt-shift lens or a Lensbaby. Or you may like to use vintage lenses like the Helios 58mm f2 on a modern camera. If you know that you may need a specialized optic for a shoot then you can plan in advance to buy, borrow, or rent one if you don’t own it already.

The Lensbaby Edge 50 is one of my favorite lenses. It creates a kind of tilt-shift effect that has great creative potential. You can see two photos I made with this lens below.

Photos made with Lensbaby Edge 50 lens

Further reading

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Lenses in photography

About Andrew S. Gibson

Andrew S. Gibson is a writer with a camera. He started writing about photography while traveling in Bolivia, and has been published in many prestigious photography magazines including EOS magazine, where he worked as a Writer and Technical Editor for two years. He lives in south Devon in the UK and is inspired by meeting new people, seeing new places and having new experiences. Check out his photography ebooks here.

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