How To Pick A Lens

In making your choice, there are three factors to consider:

  • Angle of View: What do you like to shoot most often?
  • Aperture: What lighting situations will you be shooting in most often?
  • Cost: How much do you want to spend?

With these three in mind, you can make a more informed decision. We’ll begin with lens terminology and then break the three big factors down.

Anatomy of a Lens

Let’s take a look around a lens for some of the important things to notice.

Your lens may not look exactly like the examples, but the basic parts will be similar.

Notice the tripod mount on the zoom lens. It is provided on heavier lenses that would be off balance if a tripod was connected to the camera. Also, the zoom example uses a “focal length ring” that is twisted to change the distance. Some zoom lenses are called “push and pulls” because you literally push and pull the lens to adjust the distance.

If you are shooting with a prime or fixed lens, you will have one focus distance and no focal distance ring.

Focal Length & Angle of View

Focal length determines your angle of view when shooting.  The angle of view is essential to telling your story. Do you tell more sweeping stories (wide angle) or do you want to zoom in for details (telephoto)?

Focal lengths are grouped into three categories:

  • Wide angle 10mm to 35mm
  • Normal 35mm to 100mm
  • Telephoto 100mm or more

Wide Angle Lenses


Wide angle lenses are great for landscape photography, architecture, and large groups. They have a large angle of view and a shorter minimum focus distance.

Wide angle lenses are often sold with a lens hood. The lens hood is helpful to avoid the potential of sun flare, more commonly a problem with the larger glass area of a wide angle lens.

Popular wide angle lenses include:

  • Canon 17-40mm f/4.0 L
  • Sigma 10-20mm f/4-5.6 EX DC HSM

Normal Lenses

35 to 100mm

Normal or “standard” lenses get their names because their focal lengths most closely captures our eye’s angle of view. They tend to be light weight and have a focal length easy to use in indoor, closer situations.

Normal lenses are popular for portraits and everyday photography.

Popular normal lenses include:

  • Canon 50mm f/1.4 or f/1.8
  • Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 D AF
  • Canon or Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8 (this lens is a little wider than normal)

Telephoto Lenses

100mm or more

Telephoto lenses refer to lenses with a focal length longer than 100mm. They are commonly used for wildlife and sports photos. They can be a great alternative for snapping photos of young children from a distance without them noticing.

Many photographers use telephoto lenses for shooting portraits as they compress the background. They also allow space between your model and the lens, which can be more comfortable for your subject.

Popular telephoto lenses include:

  • Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 L or f/4
  • Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8


A prime lens has a fixed focal length limiting your angle of view to a specific view. The advantage of a prime lens is its superior quality of glass. You will hear people refer to “zooming with your feet” when they are using a prime lens. For some photographers, prime lenses can seem limiting.

Popular prime lenses include:

  • Canon 50mm f/1.4 or f/1.8
  • Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 D AF
  • Canon 85mm f/1.8

Crop factor

The crop factor of your camera effects your focal length.  Most consumer level digital cameras have a sensor larger than 35mm. What does this mean for you? Dependent upon your camera’s brand, you can multiply your lenses’ focal length by the crop factor to get your effective focal length.

This means your wide angle isn’t as wide as with a full frame camera, but it also means your telephoto distances are longer!


After focal length, aperture is your next important consideration. Aperture refers to the size of the “hole” your lens uses to let light into the camera. The larger the hole, the more light the lens lets in and the “faster” the lens is considered.

Keep in mind that aperture appears to work backwards. f/1.4 is wider than f/5.6.

Many photographers select a wide aperture for indoor shots and natural light photography. They provide diverse uses and can create beautiful background blur, also known as bokeh.

Cost Considerations

The faster the lens, typically the more costly the lens. F/1.0 is the widest aperture you can purchase. The price of a 50mm f/1.0 is about $3,800, making it impractical and out of reach for most of us. The fastest (widest) aperture you can purchase for a zoom lens is f/2.8, price will vary widely dependent upon focal lengths and quality of the glass.

The 50mm lens is popular because for roughly $100.00 you get an aperture of f/1.8.

F/3.5-5.6 is a common variable aperture provided on kit lenses. It is not considered a fast aperture, but is an affordable price.

Wider aperture, “fast” lenses, will always cost more than other lenses. The difference between a fixed aperture and a variable aperture lens will differ greatly as well. As you see prices increase with lenses, keep in mind, you are also getting improved optics.

Consider the weight and feel of a lens when you are purchasing it. The 70-200mm f/2.8 is a popular lens with quality optics, but is heavy. It may not be practical for you to throw in your purse and take out and about with you.

The popular 50mm f/1.8 lens, “the nifty fifty,” has a plastic body and may feel “cheap” in your hands, although it has beautiful image results.

Many people prefer the versatility of a zoom lens to get their shots, while others like the superior optics prime lenses offer. It is a very personal decision.

Consider renting a lens or visiting your local camera store to feel and see lenses you are considering.

You may be wondering, “couldn’t you just buy one lens to do it all?” Yes, you could purchase a 28-300 millimeter lens at relatively low cost. You could then get wide angle, regular, and telephoto shots with one lens. The drawback is quality of the optics. You simply aren’t going to get photos as sharp as a wide angle or a telephoto lens will provide. It is a trade off worth considering.

Have fun as you search out exactly which lens is right for you!

Katrina is a team member here at The Daily Digi, be sure to also check out Katrina’s CaptureYour365 for more great photography tips!  Join her for Capture Your Holidays, a two week class that begins December 6th.