How to choose your next lens

Bear in mind I’m here to stop you spending money. I don’t like the gear acquisition mindset that infests most photography forums. If you have money to spare, go for it – just remember I’m writing for the person with a limited budget who wants to spend it efficiently.

Why do you want a new lens?

The worst reason to buy a new lens is because you think you’ll take better photos with a new lens. Use whatever you have already got until you have exhausted everything it can do, and can explain depth of field and aperture to a 7 year old. When you can do this, you’ll know what your next lens should be.

If you want to learn depth of field and aperture, join A Year With My Camera, my complete beginner’s workshop, free by email. Details at the end of the post.

I have students doing my courses with bridge cameras that have a fixed lens with only two apertures, and they persevere and take amazing photographs – so please don’t blame your kit lens for the fact your photos aren’t as good as you want them to be.

But when you realise the lens you have is forcing you to make compromises, and you have the budget to invest in a new lens, then you are ready.

Sharpness

Cheaper lenses (including the kit lens that maybe came with your camera) take softer photographs than more expensive lenses, broadly speaking. The more you pay, the better quality glass is in the lens. And probably there will be fewer elements. Everything you put between the camera’s sensor and the thing you are photographing will degrade the image to some extent.

Different field of view/focal length

If you’ve just been shooting with a kit lens, it was probably something like an 18-55mm. This is a wide-angle to standard zoom lens (read this post if you need some background on what focal lengths are). You might enjoy the different field of view you get with a telephoto lens (eg. a 200mm). Or if you’ve been working with a 50mm and longer, you might want to try shooting with a wide-angle lens (eg. a 24mm).

Zoom or prime?

Because of the fewer elements, a prime lens will be sharper than a zoom lens. Read the post referenced in the previous paragraph for information about zoom vs prime.

Wider maximum aperture

The other thing that more money buys you is a wider maximum aperture. Kit lenses often bottom out at f5.6. But more expensive lenses will go down to f2.8, f1.8 and even f1.2. You don’t always need to shoot wide open at f1.2 (and you have a tiny depth of field when you do), but if you have an 50mm f1.2 lens and you shoot at f2.8, chances are it will be sharper than shooting at f2.8 on a 50mm f2.8.

Specialist lenses

A macro lens is often the first specialist lens to try. “Macro” just means that what you photograph appears at life-size or larger on the final image. Non-macro lenses don’t let you get close enough to be able to focus and shoot at life-size. If you’re interested in shooting close up, consider the much, much cheaper extension tube option first. These are inexpensive (£30 or so) tubes that convert any of your existing lenses to a macro lens.

Lensbaby are probably the most well-known special effect lens manufacturer. I have bought 2 or 3 over the years and be warned: the novelty wears off quickly. I’ll be keeping my Velvet 56, but I’ll probably be trading in the others in the near future.

Tilt-shift lenses are used by architectural photographers to correct converging verticals in-camera, and by landscape photographers to achieve a feet-to-horizon depth of field.

What do you want to photograph?

Travel

Weight will probably be your primary concern. I like to travel with as little gear as possible so generally take just my Fuji XT1 and mini superzoom 18-135mm. Yes, I miss having something in the 200-300mm range, but I enjoy a day sightseeing more without having to carry the extra weight.

Landscape

I’d suggest getting a wide angle first (24mm or wider) and then a telephoto (200mm +). Watch the weight if you’ll be hiking.

Wildlife

The lens you need depends on how big your wildlife is, and how close you will be getting. To shoot small birds from a distance you will want 600mm and upwards (many photographers use teleconverters to increase the focal length even further). But if you are shooting butterflies at arms length you’ll want something that allows you to focus close: a macro lens. Those long telephoto lenses are very expensive and very heavy, so factor in how often you’ll use it and how far you’ll need to carry it. Don’t forget you can rent lenses for a couple of days if you want to try before you buy.

Macro

I would always recommend trying a macro lens before you decide which one to get, even just for 5 minutes in the shop. They usually come in 50mm, 100mm and 180mm focal lengths. The 50mm will be a lot cheaper, but you may be very disappointed in how much magnification you actually get. Equally, the 180mm won’t be able to focus as close as you might have been expecting.

Street

For street photography you usually want to be as unobtrusive as possible. Have a look at “pancake” lenses: these are prime lenses with a very slim profile. They have a reasonably wide field of view (eg. 40mm). They are also useful for travel if you won’t need the telephoto end of a superzoom.

Studio

For indoor photography, weight usually isn’t a consideration. You will need to do some measuring though: work out how big the things are you want to photograph, and how much space you have to step back with the camera. These will determine both the focal length and the closest focussing distance that you need. Don’t forget, if you have plenty of space to step back you don’t need to worry too much about the focussing distance.

Do consider distortions. It might be tempting to buy a wide-angle lens to make it easier to “fit everything in”. But, especially at closer range, you will start to see the image ballooning in the middle. It’s usually best to stick to a standard focal range (50mm on a full frame) if possible.

Portraits

A typical portrait lens is about 80mm on a full frame camera. This avoids the huge-nose effect you get with a wide angle lens, and you also get a slight perceived compression of features which can be very flattering. The focussing distance is close enough so that the photographer and subject can talk and maintain eye contact.

If you are photographing children, you might consider a 70-200mm zoom lens. This means you don’t have to run around after them as they move.

Night sky

You’ll want a wider angle lens with as large a maximum aperture as you can afford.

Sports

A focal length of 200mm and longer will be needed to get close to the action from the side lines. You may be shooting indoors, and you will probably want to use faster shutter speeds, so you’ll also need a large maximum aperture.

Events

For weddings and parties versatility is the best option. When I trained as a wedding photographer I used a 24-70mm on one camera and 70-210mm on another, giving me every option I could have needed.

What’s your budget?

The most expensive lenses are the ones with the best quality glass, made by the same manufacturer as your camera, with the widest maximum aperture, the fanciest image stabilisation and the closest focussing distance.

If you can compromise on any of those, then do your research and see if you can find something cheaper. In particular, third-party manufacturers are worth looking at (mainly Sigma and Tamron).

Don’t discount second-hand lenses. The main risks you run are that the lens has been dropped, scratched or exposed to a lot of dust or water. Reputable shops like London Camera Exchange may service the lenses before they offer them for resale. I haven’t used them, but a lot of AYWMC students recommend MBP.com for second hand sales.

I’ve started doing a “one-in, one-out” lens policy, trading in older lenses to part-finance a new purchase. If you’re upgrading, is there something you could part exchange to bring the cost down?

How much can you carry?

I strongly recommend trying out a lens before you buy it. If you can get to a camera shop it is well worth it. For example you might be surprised at how much heavier a 50mm f1.2 is than the f1.8: with Canon the f1.8 is 159g (5.6 oz) but the f1.2 is more than three times heavier (580g or 1.28lb).

Other things to consider

1. Check whether the lens you want is compatible with your camera. For example, some Nikon bodies won’t operate the auto focus on some Nikon lenses.

2. Bear in mind the crop factor. A standard lens (one closest to the human eye’s field of view) on a full frame camera is 50mm. On a cropped frame camera it might be 35mm (read this post again for more information about crop factors).

3. Image stabilisation is an option with many newer and more expensive lenses. It differs between manufacturers but enables you to hand-hold at slower shutter speeds. If you don’t need it (eg. you always shoot on a tripod), don’t pay for it.

Where to get advice

Finding impartial, trustworthy advice online is a minefield. People reviewing lenses may have been gifted them, or may have been paid to do the review. They may not know what they are talking about. They may have seen other photographers with big followings raving about something, and just jumped on the bandwagon.

Take advice from more than one source.

Ask your friends and people you have met in person.

If something is suddenly popular, question whether the manufacturers have paid for a lot of influencer publicity.

Get to know your local camera shop and support them whereever possible. In the UK I love the London Camera Exchange – they won’t let you leave with something inappropriate, and they are very helpful with after sales care. I have not been paid to say this. They don’t even know I’ve written it. (If you’re new to AYWMC you may not know that I am virtually the only photography site that takes no sponsorship. I do no third-party advertising, no sponsored posts, and pay full price for everything I use. I want you to be able to trust that what I’m saying is what I think. Anyone who is paid for reviews in cash or kind cannot claim this.)

If I was researching a new lens, I’d do the following:

1. Read the reviews on DP Review. They have been around a long time, their reviews are comprehensive, and if they make a mistake the people in the comments will soon correct it.

2. Watch a couple of reviews on YouTube.

3. Ask a couple of photographer friends what they know about it, or what alternatives they might suggest.

4. If it is an expensive lens I might rent one for a weekend first.

If someone “just loves” a lens - ask why. Is it the weight, the price, the zoom, the sharpness? The reason they love it might not align with what you’re looking for.

What’s in my bag?

Canon 5DIV with the lenses I use most often in this order:

100-400mm f4.5-5.6 II

24mm TS f3.5 L II

100mm macro f2.8 L

50mm f1.2 L

11-24mm f4 L

(I could work very happily outdoors with just the first two. In the studio I use the macro and 50mm.)

Fuji XT1 with:

50-140mm f2.8

14mm f2.8

18-135mm f3.5-5.6 (this is my travel lens)

What’s my next lens?

I don’t need any more. I might add the 180mm macro to my Canon kit, but I’m not in any rush.


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Header image Claudio Schwarz, with permission

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