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Lens Choices in Photography

If you ever visit a photography forum or any group in Flickr there are hundreds of questions from beginning photogs about what lens they should get.  It is really hard to choose a lens when you only have a certain amount of money to spend.  Not very many people can go out and buy all the lenses and gear they want, so they have to choose from a whole line of lenses.  It is hard not to go online and toss the question around to random people to get some opinions on which lens you should buy when you have no idea.  I have decided to write a post to hopefully make it easier when you want to either buy your first lens or add to your existing lens collection.  I shoot with Canon products so I will be using Canon products as examples in this post, I am not implying that Canon is better than any other brand.  Most other camera companies will have the same type of lenses, including Nikon.  Please read the following and let me know if this helps with your purchase decision or leave a comment if you have further questions.

Photo credit to: http://www.flickr.com/photos/crsan/5011052457/sizes/l/in/photostream/.

Type of Photography You Are Interested In

The first question you should ask yourself is what type of photography you want to do.  This is by far the most important question to answer before investing your money in some new glass (another term used for lenses).

If you want to do sports photography you are going to need some faster lenses – meaning that the lens has a large maximum aperture such as a f2.8, especially if you are going to want to shoot events indoors or at night under the lights.  The reasoning behind this is that you want to keep the shutter speed high so that you can freeze action.  The only way to do this is to raise the ISO and open up the lens’s aperture.   A lens with a longer focal length would also be helpful for some extra reach when you need it.  A good lens for this would be an EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM.  You can get the one with or without image stabilization (more on this later).

If you want to do something like wedding photography then just like with sports you will need fast lenses.  You will need fast lenses so that you will be able to keep a fast enough shutter speed when the lights are low by using the maximum aperture available.  Most people that shoot events like weddings prefer zoom lenses because of the flexibility that they provide with different focal lengths.  I will explain zoom vs. prime lenses later in this post.  Two lenses that would be very useful with weddings would be the EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM and EF 24-20mm f/2.8L USM.  These focal lengths will cover almost everything you need.

A wide aperture lens would also be very useful for portrait photography so that you can get a beautiful out of focus background.  All the lenses I have suggested so far would work but you can also take a look at some prime lenses.  They have wider apertures to get that wonderfully shallow depth of field.  Prime lenses are also usually sharper than zoom lenses.  A good lens for portraits would include any of the following:  EF 50mm f/1.8II, EF 85mm f1.8 USM or EF 135mm f/2L USM (currently on my wish list).  There are many versions of the 50mm and 85 mm to choose from based on how much you are willing to spend.

If you want to shoot landscapes the aperture is not as important because you will usually be using a smaller aperture to get more depth of field, meaning more of the picture will be in focus.  By using a smaller aperture such as f/8 the photo will also be sharper.  I won’t explain this now but most lenses are sharpest in the middle of the aperture range, so like f/5.6 to f/9.  You will also be using lenses that have a wider focal length so you can get more of the scene in the picture.  This isn’t to say that you can’t use lenses with longer focal lengths (which can compress a landscape and make it look great).  I use my EF 70-200mm f/4 is USM all the time for landscape pictures.  A good lens for landscapes would be something like the EF 17-40mm f/4L USM lens.  You may need something wider like the EF-S 10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 USM if you are not using a full frame camera.

I have covered numerous types of photography here but not all.  If you have other questions you need answer please drop me a comment.

How Much You Want to Spend

After finding out what lenses you may want you will have to figure out how much money you want to spend.  It is easy to spend thousands of dollars on lenses.  The good thing about buying quality lenses is that you can use them for many years, unlike camera bodies that you will most likely be replacing every 3 years or so.  Lens technology isn’t so rapid that yours will be outdated any time soon.  The more expensive lenses, particularly the L lenses actually keep their value better than the cheaper lenses, which is also something to think about before you buy.  More on L lenses later in this post.  A lot of people ask if they should buy a new body or new lens.  You should always buy good lenses before you buy a better camera body.  Good glass will make more of an improvement in your photography then a new camera will.  Also if you ever decide to move up to a full frame camera you will need nicer lenses anyway to be able to take advantage of the higher resolution that they provide.

A lot of camera bodies come with what they call kit lenses which are bundled with the bodies in one price.  You usually don’t want to get the kit lenses, even though they look like a good deal in the bundle.  You would be much better off buying some prime lenses or an L zoom.  Some camera bodies do come with a good lens though, such as the 5D Mark II being bundled with the EF 24-105 f/4L IS USM lens.

Do you Need Image Stabilization (IS)

I would recommend getting a lens with image stabilization.  Even though this won’t help stop motion it will help you capture images handheld at slower shutter speeds.  This is very helpful for subjects that don’t move.  The longer the lens the more useful image stabilization is as well.  When you don’t have IS you have to rely on fast shutter speeds to avoid blur in your picture.  When you get up to longer focal lengths, such as 200mm, every little movement by you translates into more shake in the picture.  A good rule of thumb (not an exact science but good) without IS is to double the shutter speed according to the focal length you are using.  For example if you were using a 50mm lens you would want a shutter speed of 100 to avoid motion blur.  With IS you can use much slower shutter speeds and still get sharp pictures.  Sometimes I get away with holding my EF 70-200mm f/4 IS USM lens at long focal lengths using very slow shutter speeds like 1/20s because of the image stabilization.

Zoom vs. Prime Lenses

A prime lens has a fixed focal length that you cannot change and a zoom lens has many focal lengths built into one lens. Many people like prime lenses because they are sharper and have higher maximum apertures, meaning they let more light in.  You can also get some nice prime lenses for cheaper than you can get one really good zoom lens.  Zoom lenses are closing the gap quickly on sharpness though and for many people an aperture of 2.8 is good enough.  A lot of people like prime lenses because it makes them move around to find a better composition instead of just standing in one spot and zooming.  With prim lenses you have to zoom with your feet, meaning you have to walk toward or away from your subject to change the composition.  If you want to see if a prime lens is right for you then just leave your zoom lens at one focal length for a day and see if you enjoy staying at one focal length.  The only reason to get zoom lenses over prime is that they offer more flexibility, especially for shooting events because you don’t have to change lenses as often and can get more of a variety of pictures quickly.  Personally I prefer to have both for different situations.

L Lenses

If you are just beginning in photography and don’t know if you will fall in love with it then you will probably be fine buying a lens without an L in the name and a nice red ring around the barrel.  If you want the best and know you will keep taking photographs then you should just spring for the L lenses to begin with to save yourself money in the long run.  L stands for “luxury” in the canon lineup.  They are sharper and the colors rendered in each photo is better.  They also have a constant aperture throughout the zoom range unlike a lens like the EF-S 55-250mm f/4-5.6 IS.  At 55mm this lens has an aperture of 4 and at 250mm it has an aperture of 5.6, which really limits your ability to shoot with it in low light.  L lenses are also built with USM, which stands for ultra sonic motor which provides fast and accurate auto focus.  Once you use your first L lens you will never go back for this reason alone.  It just feels smooth when it is focusing.  The last reason to by an L lens is that they are better built then the regular lenses in the lineup.  They usually have better seals to keep out weather and are encased with metal barrels.  L lenses usually keep their price after you buy them so they are a better investment in the long run if you love photography and have the funds to buy them.

There are some lenses that can almost match the optical quality of an L lens that do not have that designation.  You can try them out to see if they work for you.  A zoom lens that comes to mind is the EF-S 17-55mm f/2.8 IS USM, which has great optics but is not very well built.  This lens is still pricey but it may be worth it to you.  Many of the prime lenses will have great optical quality as well without paying more for the L build quality.

EF vs. EF-S Lenses

EF-S lenses were introduced when camera makers started making consumer priced cameras for the masses that were not full frame.  EF-S camera bodies have a smaller mirror box – meaning the sensor is smaller than the standard 35mm frame size of a film camera which is the same as a full frame digital camera.  I don’t want to get too far into camera bodies in this post but I will explain a little bit to understand the lens.  EF-S cameras usually have a crop factor of 1.6X, which results in your lenses not really being at the focal length that is marked on them.  For instance, a 50mm focal length on a full frame camera would be about 80mm on an EF-S camera.  For a visual on this take a look at this page: http://philipbloom.net/2010/08/20/which-lenses-to-buy/.

EF-S lenses have a shorter back focus distance which means the back part of the lens gets closer to the image sensor since the mirror is smaller (http://photonotes.org/articles/beginner-faq/lenses.html).  EF-S lenses are cheaper to build then the EF lenses because of this.  If you want to get a full frame camera now or in the future you will have to buy the EF lenses.


I know I have not covered every facet of what goes into buying a lens but hopefully this helps answer some commonly asked questions that most photographers have.  Ultimately you will probably end up trying numerous lenses before you come to own a set of lenses that you really love.  Like I said before, please leave a comment if you have any other questions that you think I may be able to answer.

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