One of the biggest decisions every photographer has to make is what should their next lens be. There are hundreds of options available and navigating through the vast sea of options can be quite daunting. Nikon currently has over 170 lenses available and Canon has over 80 in their EF Lineup alone. Then add the hundreds of available third-party suppliers and you have hundreds of available lenses to choose from. The choice of lens is a big deal for photographers because we want to make sure we get the best lens available to take our photos to the next level. A lens can also be a large investment and we want to make sure we get it right. For a new photographer buying their first lens, this can be even more of a challenge, and many inexperienced photographers often buy the wrong or a number of reasons. I’m guilty of this myself.
My first non-kit lens was a 50mm f/1.8 lens for a Nikon D7100 (crop sensor) body. I bought the lens because it was the cheapest lens available at the time and I wanted something new, I had no idea what I wanted, or what I wanted it for. I just had a few spare dollars and wanted to “upgrade”. Then my new upgrade sat on my shelf, barely used for over a year because I never used it. The focal length, with the crop factor of the D7100, was just too long to use indoors in small rooms. That’s where I used my camera most so I didn’t get to use the lens often. Finally, I sold it to put the money towards a lens I would use more. Now, don’t take that as a recommendation not to buy a 50mm f/1.8 lens. It is a fantastic lens and I have since bought one again and use it often. But things have changed since those days for me, I now shoot on a full frame camera, and I shoot more family portraits which this lens is great for.
So how do you keep from making the same mistake that I and many other photographers have made? How do you choose the right lens when it comes time to upgrade? My goal for this article is to guide you through the process of making the right decision when it comes time to add a new lens to your collection. I am not going to identify any specific lenses and say Lens A is better than Lens B so you should get Lens A. Or provide a list of lenses that you should or shouldn’t get because every photographer has different lens needs and budgets. I want you to have the ability to determine your own needs and choose the right lens for you.
What lens should I get?
This is probably the most asked question I see on photography forums and Facebook Groups. Then the answers roll in with hundreds of options and opinions from people who are suggesting lenses they either have or really want themselves. All the person is left with then is a long list of available lenses, for a variety of uses, some of which might not even fit their camera. My initial reaction to that question is “If you have to ask what lens to get then you don’t need a new lens.” The reason I say that is because if you don’t know where your current lens(es) are not getting the job done they why do you need a new lens? Or if you do need a new lens what do you want the lens for?
So the first thing you should ask yourself before upgrading is why do you need or want a new lens. The answers to this question will help get you started on narrowing down the decision. A few ways to answer that question include specific things such as I want more reach; my current lens doesn’t zoom out wide enough; I want to create better blurry backgrounds, or I want to shoot in low light. Or it could be related to the type of photography you are interested in: I want to take pictures of the Milky Way; I want to shoot sports; I like to shoot concerts; I want to shoot headshot, or take photos of insects. Asking yourself what you want the new lens to do if the first step to choosing a new lens. There is no such thing as a do everything lens, so when it comes to lenses then you need to decide the features you want in a lens that will allow you to take the photos you want to take.
Lens Options and Features
Once you have figured out why you need a new lens then you can start looking for the different types of lenses available. But first you should have an understanding of the basic lens features. For more experienced photographers this might seem a little too basic but at one point in my photographic career I didn’t understand how going from a 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 to a 70-200mm f2.8 was an “upgrade” because 300mm is better than 200mm. I was buying a 70-300 off a photographer who was “upgrading” and at the time it didn’t make any sense to me because I didn’t understand the basic lens features and difference between a variable aperture lens and a fixed aperture lens. So lets go though the basics first.
This is probably the first thing you learn when it comes to different lenses. The smaller the focal length the wider the angle, the longer the focal length the narrower the angle or the more reach a lens has. So to take a wide photo of an entire room 18mm is better than 200mm. But if you want to take a photo of your kid playing soccer then 200mm is better than 18mm. A good understanding of the various focal lengths and which ones suit different styles of photography will really help you in choosing the next lens. More details on focal length can be found here: https://improvephotography.com/34730/focal-length/
Fixed Focal Length (Prime) Lenses or Zoom Lenses
A common reaction when I hand my camera with a 50mm lens to a non-photographer is “How do I zoom?” We are so used us being able to zoom with our point and shoot cameras or cell phones that we assume all cameras today can now zoom. But of course, not all lenses can zoom. Many are a single focal length. Commonly fixed focal length lenses are 35mm, 50mm, and 85mm. But there are many others for different needs. F or those lenses you need to move closer or further away from the subject to “zoom”. So why would someone choose a fixed focal length lens over a zoom lens? Fixed focal length lenses have some advantages over zoom lenses in that they are often lighter and sharper than zoom lenses. But the biggest reason is they have a wider maximum aperture aka. They are faster.
The maximum aperture of a lens is always included in the lens name and is one of the most important things to consider when choosing a new lens. It indicates how wide the lenses aperture can open. Knowing how aperture affects an image is important but also knowing the maximum aperture of a lens can help in deciding the right lens for you. A lens with a maximum aperture of f/1.8 will open wider and allow you to have a shallower depth of field, allow in more light, and shoot at faster shutter speeds in low light environments when compared to a lens with an f/4 maximum aperture. So if you want to shoot in low light, or take portraits with creamy smooth bokeh (blurry backgrounds) then choosing a lens with a wide maximum aperture will be better for you.
If you want to learn what aperture is and how it affects photos there is a great article here: https://improvephotography.com/photography-basics/aperture-shutter-speed-and-iso/
Variable Aperture or Fixed Aperture Zoom Lenses
If you are new to photography and purchased a DSLR with a lens included then you probably have a variable aperture lens. Most kit lenses that come with cameras are variable aperture lenses. For example the popular 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 lens that comes with most entry-level crop sensor cameras is a variable aperture lens.
This means that as you zoom in, the maximum aperture you can shoot at decreases. At 18mm you can take a photo at f/3.5. But if you zoom in, the maximum aperture you can use is f/5.6. If you have a fixed aperture zoom lens, such as a 24-70 f/2.8 you can take photos at f/2.8 regardless of where you are in the zoom range. So if you are using a fixed f/2.8 lens vs the variable aperture lens at 55mm the fixed aperture lens lets in 2-stops or eight times the amount of light and can give a more blurry background. If you use a 50-mm f/1.4 lens compare to the kit 18-55mm lens at 50mm then you are letting in 4-stops or 32 times the amount of light. Another advantage of fixed aperture lenses is as you zoom in you don’t have to change your settings. If you shoot in Manual Mode then zooming in can mean a forced change in
Another advantage of fixed aperture lenses is as you zoom in you don’t have to change your settings. If you shoot in Manual Mode then zooming in can mean a forced change in the aperture so you will have to increase your ISO or lower your shutter speed to accommodate for the difference. It is important to know whether a fixed or variable aperture lens will make a difference to your photos because fixed aperture lenses are often much more expensive than variable aperture lenses of a similar focal range.
Crop Sensor or Full Frame Lenses
Knowing if your camera is a crop sensor or full frame is important when choosing a lens. Crop sensor lenses almost never work on a full frame camera but full frame lenses work great on a crop sensor cameras. If you plan to upgrade to full frame then I recommend buying full frame lenses over crop sensor lenses. But if you have no intention of ever owning a full frame camera or don;t plan on for a long time then crop sensor lenses are often much cheaper, lighter, and may even be sharper on your camera than the full frame equivalent.
Also on a crop sensor camera, you need to consider the focal length impacts. For example, if the recommended focal length for the type of photography you shoot is 50mm then you need a 35mm lens, not a 50mm lens. You can also take advantage of the crop factor for some types of photography; for wildlife, and sports where you should have a 400-500mm lens on a full frame camera you can use a 300mm lens on a crop body.
Vibration Reduction / Image Stabilization
Many lenses these days have a way of helping control blurriness caused by shaky hands or movement when shooting. The benefit of vibration reduction in a lens means you can shoot at slower shutter speeds and still get a sharp image. Of course lenses with vibration reduction are usually more expensive than the same or similar version without stabilization.
Different lenses have different levels of water/dust resistance. Water and/or dust inside your lens can damage the lens, promote fungus growth, and affect image quality. So if you plan to shoot outdoors where it could rain or in a sandy area with lots of dust then it is important to know whether a lens is weather sealed or not. If you only plan to shoot inside a studio setting then weather sealing may not be necessary.
Other Lens Aspects
Above are the primary differences and features of lenses that most people consider when deciding on a new lens but then there are also many aspects that you may also want to consider. This information may not always be easy to find but are things to consider when choosing a lens for you.
Sharpness of an image if a major reason people upgrade their lenses. They want to make sure they have the sharpest possible image. As a general rule, most cheaper kit lenses are not as sharp as similar range fixed aperture zooms or prime lenses. So if sharpness is important to you then Primes or fixed aperture lenses would usually be better for you.
Chromatic Aberration (Green/Purple Fringing)
Depending on the lens you will get various levels of fringing or chromatic aberration (CA) in high contrast areas of an image. Knowing whether a lens controls CA well is something many photographers like to consider in a new lens. For more info check out this article: https://improvephotography.com/10227/chromatic-aberration-what-it-is-and-how-to-fix-or-avoid-it/
As lenses bend light towards your cameras sensor there is usually some distortion to an image. Each lens has various levels of distortion and lenses of similar focal lengths can also have varying degrees of distortion. The level of distortion in a given lens might play a factor in the type of photography you want to shoot. For example, an ultra wide lens with a lot of distortion may not be the best choice for product photography where you need the accurate dimension of a product.
A lenses weight may be something to consider if you carry your camera and lenses all day or have have issues with holding heavy objects steady. Zoom lenses tend to weigh more than prime lenses. The weight of a lens can easily be found online in the manufacturer's specifications and may be something to consider when choosing a lens.
The build quality of a lens may also be considered. This is often an argument for people recommending a brand name lens over a third party one because brand name lenses often have a better build quality. Build quality means the materials used in making the lens (metal vs plastic) as well as the ruggedness of a lens. Can it handle being dropped slightly, or bumped into objects? Will the lens last for 10 years or will be likely break in 2-3 years? This aspect of a lens is often subjective and each person has a different preference when it comes to build quality but for many photographers the build quality is quite an important aspect to consider when buying a lens.
Auto-Focus, Focus Speed, and Accuracy
Not all lenses auto-focus. Different lenses focus faster and more accurate than others. If autofocus, focus speed and accuracy are important for the type of photography that you do then you will want a lens that suits those needs.
Does the lens take screw on filters and if so what size? For landscape photographers knowing whether a lens can accept screw on filters and the size of the filters is something to consider. Especially if you already have a collection of filters for a certain size lens. Some ultra-wide lenses you will need a special filter holder in order to use filters as they don’t allow screw on filters. There was a great IP Podcast on filters last year you should check out. https://improvephotography.com/37294/filters-filter-systems-ep-19/
Number and Shape of Aperture Blades.
The number of aperture blades and the shape of aperture bladed inside a lens can create different looks to an image. This can include the number of points in a starburst to the type of Bokeh you get. If you want a certain look/feel to your image then you should know what type/number of blades are in your lens. Here is a good article to help with that https://improvephotography.com/29529/aperture-blades-many-best/
Some newer lenses have lens coatings to prevent fogging and/or flaring that may be beneficial to you and something to look for if you frequently move from hot/cold environment quickly, or have flaring issues with your current lenses.
Third Party Lenses
Third party lenses are lenses that are made for your camera by a manufacturer or than the brand of camera you are using. Popular Third Party Lens Manufacturers include Tamron, Sigma, Tokina, and Rokinin(Samyang/Bower). Third Party lenses are often much cheaper than the brand name version of similar lenses. Some third party lenses may be almost as good as the brand name counterpart but they often lack in some areas. For example, they may or may not be as sharp (there are exceptions), they may not have the same build quality, they could be manual focus only. Many photographers only use the brand name version of a particular type of lens. But many others take advantage of the lower prices of third party lenses because the difference in image quality or build quality is so small it is not worth the extra cost. I personally use Third Party lenses from a number of companies and love the results I get.
What lens should I get for X?
By now you should have some understanding of the different aspects of a lens and how it will impact an image. But that still doesn’t answer the question what lens should you get? But we are getting closer.
Once you understand the different features of a lens and the reason you want a new lens you can start to choose the type of lens you need. This might take some work and research because of the variety of available options. Fortunately there are a number of resources available online to help you with this. Google, online forums, training websites, Facebook groups, and photography blogs are bountiful with information on recommended types of lenses for all types of photography. I read and search through all of the above when trying to decide on a new lens. There are way too many types of photography and personal styles to give you a list of what lens to use for every type but a few examples are:
If you want to shoot portraits then the most common recommended lenses have a focal length between 35mm and 150mm with the most popular being 85mm or 50mm. Portrait lenses should also have a wide maximum aperture, the wider the better to create a shallow depth of field that will separate the subject from the background. Ideally f/2.8 or wider works best, but most people prefer f/1.8 or f/1.4 lenses for portraits.
For most outdoor sports you want a longer focal length, over 200mm, probably 300-400mm, weather sealed in case it rains, a faster autofocus system, and with vibration reduction if you are going to be hand holding the camera. Also a wide aperture will allow you to separate the person from the background and allow you to shoot evening games or indoor sports at lower ISO/faster shutter speeds.
Most landscape photos are shot at wider focal lengths, 15mm-35mm is most common, though you can get some nice results with 50mm+. You don't need a f1.4 lens for landscapes because you will usually be shooting between f/8 and f/16. Sharpness is key for landscapes though. The sharper the lens the better. VR isn't that important because you are usually using a tripod. The ability to attach filters is also important for a lot of landscape work.
Researching a Recommended Lens Type
To find out the recommended lens type for your type of photography, it is helpful to search online. Google is your friend here. Some of the common things to search for are the best focal lengths or apertures for the type of photography you shoot or want to shoot. Should you have a lens with VR for what you shoot? Or just google “recommended lenses for ….. “ and enter they type of photography you shoot. If you do a search like this you will likely get a long list of specific lenses based on the writer's opinion. But if you scan the list of lenses you can see themes emerge on the focal length, aperture, and other features listed above that most of those lenses have. For example if you do a search for “Recommended Lenses for Shooting the Milky Way” Almost every lens will be a wide angle lens, wider than 24mm and have a fast aperture of f/2.8 or wider.
Identifying specific lenses
Once you know the type of lens you need, next is narrowing it down to the a few specific lenses of that type. You could do as we did above and use google or other online forums to ask for suggestions/recommendations. I like to search google and read multiple blogs/sites and lists to see which lenses are showing up most often. Usually each of those lists will identify 5-10 lenses but they are not always the same 5-10. So looking for common lenses might help narrow down the list a little. One tool that might really help is the Improve Photography lens Finder Tool https://improvephotography.com/lensfinder/ This tool will walk you through some of the basic questions we discussed above and then recommend a few lenses that will liklely meet your needs.
I like to get my list down to under-five lenses because the next part can take some time.
Researching and Comparing Lenses
Once you have a list of possible lenses that will meet your needs you need to compare the pros and cons of each lens. Reading reviews of each lens is a good place to start with this. I also like to do a google search of “Lens A vs Lens B” to see if anything useful comes up. There are a number of sites that have already done much of this legwork that will give good opinions of the options, including the already mentioned Improve Photography Lens Finder Tool. Youtube is also a great resource for hands on real world reviews of lenses. You could also check out the DXOMark scores and ranking of each lens to see how they compare on sharpness, Distortion, etc. https://www.dxomark.com/lenses/
I also like to scope out sites like 500px and Flickr to find sample images from the various lenses so that I can see first-hand how sharp they are, or how the bokeh or starbursts look. The more information on the image quality you can find for a particular lens the better decision you can make. This is also an area you can ask for opinions in online forums for their input.
The other part of comparing a lens is the cost of the lens and your budget. Extra features, improved performance, wide aperture, fixed aperture, and better build quality all increase the cost of a lens. You have to decide how much you are willing or able to spend for those added benefits, or if you need those benefits at all for what you shoot.
During the comparison stage and all the pros and cons of each lens, you will start to see that different lenses have advantages of others. Lens A might be sharper, but lens B has VR. Lens A might be a fixed aperture zoom lens while Lens B is half the price but a variable aperture lens. Or X lens has better build quality, or is heavier etc. This is where you need to decide your own priorities in a given lens. Are you willing to have a slightly less sharp lens if it means you can zoom with it or is cheaper? Are you ok with a manual autofocus lens that extremely sharp with no distortion or do you need autofocus.
These are questions only you can answer for yourself and your own photographic needs as we each have our own preference for these areas. But asking opinions online can help you understand why others chose one over the other.
A note about asking questions online
I have mentioned a few times about asking questions online to get people input, opinions, and feedback on lenses. Online communities are fullof experienced photographers who can offer valuable advice to help make your decision. But I will ask if you are going to ask the online community for advice then please do two things:
- use the search feature to see if the questions has been asked before. For most lenses there is already a thread full of information.
- Be detailed in your question. Instead of asking “what lens should I get” or “what is the best portrait lens” give as much information about your wants and situation as possible, include what camera you have, what you want to shoot, your budget etc. For example: I shoot with a Nikon D7100 and I am looking for recommendation on a sports lens under $1000.
This will help you get more accurate information quickly and will better help you in finding the right lens for you.
After comparing the lenses and weighed the pros and cons of each you should now have a good idea of what lens or lenses will suit your needs and fit within your budget. If there is just one lens remaining then great, get that lens. Go shoot, be happy. But often there is more than one still to choose from. For example, you may have decided on an 85mm prime lens for portraits but there are at least 10 different 85mm prime lenses on the market.
Regardless of the type of lens you have chosen, you are likely still left with a choice of more than one option for that lens. It could be two different brands or the same brand but there is a newer version available. This often happens as well when a used brand name lens is available for about the same price of a new third party lens.
Making a decision at this stage can be tough. Especially if the lenses are very close in many of the important areas or if they cost about the same. If you find yourself in this situation try to visit a local camera store, rent the lens, or borrow it off another photographer to try it out and see if it meets your needs. Usually after I have held a lens and taken a few test images I can tell if it will be a good lens for my work. If you are interested in renting a lens then check out https://brentrentslenses.com/
For me the final decision when it is this close it the price of the lens. If a lens is sharp enough, and meets my other needs I will buy the cheapest one I can. If it is a used lens or a third party lens then I go with that over a new expensive version of the same lens, assuming it is close in sharpness and other performance. You have to decide what is important for you and decide.
Choosing your next lens can be a big decision, especially if it is an expensive lens. I remember how much I stressed when trying to decide on which 70-200mm f/2.8 to get. But by understanding all the different aspects and features a lens can have you can determine which ones you need to have and why you might need them. This will help you when comparing all the available lenses to help you make the right decision for you. There is also no harm in asking others for their opinion and their experience with a particular lens could help you in making your decision. Hopefully, this article helps you when you decide to purchase a new lens and makes that decision easier. If there is anything I missed or if you want some input on a particular lens to lens type then please leave a comment below.