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How to Choose A Camera Lens

Updated on February 5, 2015

So, What Camera Lens Should You Get?

A quick all-encompassing guide for beginner or amateur photographers looking to choose their first camera lens. Here, we'll review all of the basics you'll need to understand before you make that final decision on a lens.

Before we begin, this resource is strictly for anyone who has an interchangeable lens camera, such as an SLR. Point and shoot (P&S) cameras have fixed lenses that cannot be removed or swapped with another.

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Deciding On A Beginner Camera Lens

Once you've mastered the basics of using your new camera (hopefully it's a digital SLR or any other interchangeable lens camera), you can now move on to the next level by choosing a great aftermarket lens. While the lens that came with your kit is good enough to fool around with in the beginning, it more than likely will not provide the true results you've been looking for.

What A Lens Will Do For You

There's a wide variety of camera lenses out there that will enable you to expand the limits of your camera with a greater focal length, image stabilization, aftermarket filters and other effects that have graced the photography you see on magazines, in wedding photos and on television.

The opportunities that will open up to you with your new lens won't stop at taking great family and recreational pictures: it may open you up to the possibility of being a freelance photographer (school and wedding photos), taking stock photos for resale, or shooting your own quality images for web or print design.

Before Deciding On A Lens

It is always best to get educated about what camera lens specifications mean and decide which one is right for you, based on the style of photography you'll be doing. Of course, you'll also want to get a camera lens that is capable of being used with your camera. A camera lens should not be an impulse buy -- it should be something that is purchased after you've gotten enough knowledge to understand what you're buying, and exactly how you'll apply its features to your photography exploits.

Understanding the Camera Lens Classification System

Camera lenses are all advertised, marked and referred to by a very specific "classification system." It's basically an abridged line of data that describes the "vitals" of your lens and makes it easily identifiable at first glance. Let's take a look at a typical Canon lens, as it will appear in any catalog or review:

The Example: EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM

  • EF: This identifies the lens mount that the camera lens uses. These lens mounts are shared with certain camera bodies (your camera's manual will tell you which lens mount is compatible with it). If you want to use a lens that has a different mount type than your camera body's, you'll have to buy an adapter in order to connect it.
  • 24-105mm: The focal length. Smaller focal length numbers mean farther looking backgrounds, and larger focal length numbers will mean closer looking backgrounds. Both will depict the front-most subject to appear at the same distance, but larger focal lengths will appear to show "more" of that subject in a portrait view. Focal length is set by rotating the camera lens to zoom in (to access the higher numbers of the range) or out (to access the lower numbers of the range).
  • f/4: The aperture size. It determines the image sensor's degree of exposure to light. The smaller the aperture number, the better your low-light photography will turn out. A narrow aperture like f/16 will mean sharp images, while a wide aperture like f/1.6 will mean a greater depth of field.
  • L: This denotes a "luxury" lens; typically a high end lens with features above and beyond typical commercially-sold lenses. They typically cost a small fortune, and come with advanced motors, are built far more rugged for professional use and have far greater apertures than regular lenses.
  • IS: This tells you that the lens has an "image stabilizer." These lenses use a floating lens element that compensates for any shaking of the camera, stabilizing the image and eliminating any motion blur caused by the camera user.
  • USM: Denotes that the camera has an "ultra sonic motor," which enables high speed autofocus.

Camera & Lens Terminology

The beginners' most intimidating part of buying a new camera lens is that you have to understand all of the many features of a lens - most of which will be extremely confusing when researching on your own. The following list was created to simplify all of these terms to make them more easily understandable.

  • Aperture: The size of the lens hole or opening, regulating how much light goes through. It is measured in "f-stops" (for instance, f4-5.6 is more "wide" than f10, which is extremely narrow). Bigger (more narrow) aperture numbers = less light going through, and vice versa.
  • Aperture Priority Mode: This is a camera mode that allows you to set the aperture while the camera automatically regulates shutter speed. While this can be a nuisance in some cases (it bars you from being able to set your own shutter speed), it is helpful for macro photography.
  • Automatic Mode: The standard mode that your camera uses to automatically choose the optimal camera settings for whatever environment you're currently in. It greatly limits the output of your images, since a fine-tuned manual image will always show better results.
  • Bokeh: This is an effect that can be described as "background blurring," where the subject (a person, pet, or object) remains crisp and clear in the foreground, while the background is heavily blurred. It creates a beautiful and very desirable contrast, and is achieved with a fast lens taking a picture of a subject that has a decent amount of distance behind it. This distance assures that the background will be more out of focus, enhancing the end result.
  • Color Balancing: This color correction option will allow you to "balance" colors as depicted through your camera. Many cameras will let you set a scene with more "warmth," giving it a more vivid orange tone. A tungsten setting will provide the opposite, with a heavy blue tone.
  • DPI: A graphic design metric that stands for "dots per inch" or pixels per inch. It defines your image's resolution: higher DPI means better image quality. Standard values are 300 DPI for print, and 72 DPI for web.
  • Fisheye lens: A lens that gives takes pictures with a "bloated" effect, where the image appears ball shaped. The actual glass on a fisheye lens is shaped like a dome.
  • Focal Length: The measure of distance between the camera lens and the focal plane of the camera, designated in millimeters. When focal length increases (the image is zoomed in), field of view decreases (less of the viewing area is depicted).
  • IS: Image Stabilization - a technology using gyroscopes to reduce the blurriness typically caused from your shaking hand (or even your pulse!)
  • ISO: A measure of light sensitivity. Higher ISO = greater sensitivity. High ISO makes for better nighttime pictures, as more light is pulled in from the slim amount that's actually available. Low ISO is better for outdoors picture taking, when the sun is out.
  • Macro mode: A digital camera mode that allows you to get an extreme closeup on a subject's detail (skin pores, flower pollen, etc). Macro mode results in the "bokeh" effect, where everything except the immediate subject in your picture is heavily blurred.
  • Manual mode: A camera's manual mode overrides its automatic settings, allowing you to fine-tune all attributes of the camera to provide a custom appearance for your pictures. It requires a mastery level understanding of how ISO, aperture and shutter speed work together to provide an end result.
  • Megapixel: One million pixels. This dictates the quality of an image. A 7 megapixel camera takes much lower quality pictures than an 18 megapixel camera.
  • MM: Millimeters. All lenses are classified by their focal length in millimeters (see "focal length" above).
  • Noise: This describes the "pixellated" effect that is seen on an image when you zoom into it on an image viewing program on your computer. Noise creates a "dirty" and undesirable look, and is the result of poor lighting or exposure. It is very prevalent with low-light photography that used improper settings. Ironically, noise is sometimes purposely added to images to give a certain effect, and is popularly done with black and white photography for a vintage look.
  • Shutter Priority Mode: This camera mode is the exact opposite of aperture priority mode. When enabled, it will let you choose your own shutter speed while the camera automatically selects the aperture. When enabled, you will not be able to modify aperture settings.
  • Shutter Speed: The length of time at which your camera lens' shutter remains open when taking a shot, measured in fractions of a second. When taking a picture of a waterfall, a 1s shutter speed will show blurry water, while a 1/800s shutter speed will show crisp, individual droplets of water. An even slower speed, such as 4s, can show light 'trails' such as long streaks of cars' brake and headlights in traffic. Slow shutter speeds require a tripod and remote, as they are very prone to corruption from shaky hands.
  • SLR: "Single Lens Reflex," a term that means that the camera's viewfinder looks through the same lens that exposes the image sensor. Digital SLRs are superior to non-SLR cameras because they show the effects of the lens settings, and more accurately show what the final image looks like in general.
  • White Balance: This is a color balancing setting will adjust the intensity of colors depicted by the camera. It is basically a white-level correction method that can be applied before making a shot. White balancing a shot will assume the image has white in it, and will adjust the picture appropriately.
  • Wide Angle Lens: Sometimes coming in the form of a "panoramic" lens, these lenses have extremely wide fields of view only otherwise possible by taking multiple pictures with a non-panoramic lens, and stitching them side by side with panorama software.
  • Zoom: Optical zoom is always better than digital zoom. Optical zoom manually extends the view, while digital zoom stretches pixels in an attempt to achieve the same result.

Above: Types of Camera Lenses
Above: Types of Camera Lenses

Lenses for Your Style of Photography

All-Around "Good For Everything" Lenses

Looking for a lens that will be your go-to for a very wide range of shots you'll be taking throughout the year? Choose a standard or medium telephoto lens, such as an 18-55mm/3.5-5.6

Lenses for Wide Angle Shots

Wide shots are favorable for large group portraits or for huge landscape photos. Today, many "full frame" SLRs have huge image sensors that capture a gigantic range of view -- the picture itself is high quality, and portions of it can be cropped out to create additional images. To complement a camera like this or achieve this effect, look toward a lens such as a 10-22mm f/3.5-4.5

Lenses for Low Light Photography

Want to take pictures in low light settings? Go for a fast lens (f/2.8 or below), since faster lenses will yield better results. Slow lenses are known to struggle when focusing in low light, and will undoubtedly fail to do so by taking blurry and un-focused pictures.

Lenses for Close-Up & Detailed Photography

Want to get a near microscopic picture or something, like pollen dust on a flower petal or a view of the individual hairs on a honeybee? It looks like you want to enter the world of 'macro' photography, and will need a macro lens to achieve these results. Go for a fast 60mm f/2.8 lens, and shoot in aperture priority mode. Don't even bother with this style of photography if you don't have a tripod! A remote will also be your best friend, as it will ensure that your macro shots are never ruined by your breathing or pulse.

Lenses for Distance Photos

If you love zooming in to a subject with great detail at a far distance, the bad news is that you'll be paying a lot of money for your lens (but, that's to be expected for any super telephoto lens). Look into a 55-250mm f/4-5.6 lens, or an 800mm f/5.6 luxury lens if you can afford it.

Lenses for Photographing Motion

Want to photograph objects in motion -- perhaps, sports players running or animals in their natural habitat? Once again, you'll want a faster lens for this. Your lens should also be a medium or super telephoto lens, since motion objects are almost always photographed from a distance (since you won't be on the football field yourself, or in front of that running deer). Lastly, the lens should have image stabilization. Lenses that have all of these features are immensely expensive! This style of photography requires your camera to be shooting in burst mode, so that you can pick the best of several consecutive pictures in a set.

Using Camera Lenses from Other Brand Names

The best part about a digital SLR camera is that its lenses can be removed and interchanged with others. If you don't have an SLR, you'll eventually want one for this capability, as other cameras will hit that "glass ceiling" of productivity as you become more familiar and eager to grow in the world of photography.

"Can I use an X lens on my Y camera?"

Say you have a Nikon and are looking to use a Canon lens: you absolutely can do this, but you'll need to use a lens adapter so that the lens will fit on your camera body. They can range up to around $200 on average.

Use What's Recommended

All cameras are made with a specific mount type, which coincides with that of a range of lenses. It's always recommended to simply use a lens that was built to be mounted on your exact camera body model. With the large range of lenses out there, there will undoubtedly be a same-brand lens that will work best for your camera.

About Lens Filters

Filters are typically a set of glass lenses and a ring adapter that can be fitted on to your camera, allowing it to take polarized images (saturated images with minimized haze and glare), apply fisheye (bloat) effects, correct fluorescent lighting issues by removing yellow/green cast, and a number of other handy effects. These are typically inexpensive kits that can provide interesting effects to your repertoire.

RAW image processing in Photoshop
RAW image processing in Photoshop

Post-Producing Your Photos

Taking the picture is half the battle -- producing and "prettyfying" them is the remainder of it. If you don't have Photoshop skills, you'll need them if you want to be known as a legitimate photographer. Photoshop's handling of RAW image files is simply awe inspiring, and far beyond anything you'll ever accomplish with a JPG.

What's A "RAW" File?

RAW file types (for instance, .CR2 extension files) are huge, un-processed images. Unlike JPGs, which are the standard image format for basic point-and-shoot cameras, you'll be able to implement amazing changes to a RAW file: pull or draw in shadows and light, professionally saturate or single out colors, achieve nearly indistinguishable results of a true black-and-white camera and so much more. The difference between a RAW file and a JPG is very comparable to the difference between un-compiled and compiled computer code.

When you double-click a RAW image on your computer if it has Photoshop installed, it will not open in Photoshop, but in a special portion of the program called Camera Raw. This program has a staggering amount of options that will let you optimize and heavily tweak your image that simply does not exist for a JPG, PNG or any other regular file.

Touching Up Photos As An Amateur

Not a Photoshop pro? Photoshop Elements is an affordable alternative that lets you achieve a variety of different photo effects with nowhere near as steep of a learning curve. If you're newly freelancing, claim it as a business expense, along with your new camera lens.

Creating Stock Images

Stock images, such as those seen on sites like iStockPhoto, were taken by photographers using extremely expensive, professional-level cameras. If you purchase one of these photos and zoom fully inward, you'll notice that they have absolutely no "noise." This is actually a requirement of many of these stock image sites. Unless you own a $3,000 camera with an equally expensive lens, don't even think of going the "stock photographer" route. You can, however, create your own stock images for print and web -- it's the bonus of owning a great camera and lens!

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