One of the best things about DSLR and mirrorless cameras (and their main advantage over your smartphone) is their ability to be specific. While taking photos with a device you carry around in your pocket all day is easy, shooting with a dedicated camera gives you many more options to tweak depending on what you’re shooting. This is exactly why having an all-in-one lens that works perfectly for every photo, in every situation, just isn’t possible.
But lenses are not cheap, so figuring out which one to buy can be a challenge—the amount of choices out there can be overwhelming, and the specs sometimes include concepts that novices don’t fully understand.
Still, it doesn’t need to be hard. It’s only a matter of assessing what you need, working out what you can afford, and making sure that the lens you choose actually fits your camera.
Figure out what you need
The two biggest things you’ll have to consider when looking for a new lens are what you already have and what photos you want to take.
If you have a DSLR or mirrorless camera, you almost certainly also have the kit lens that came with it. For most cameras, this is a zoom lens with a focal length of somewhere between 18 and 50 mm. Because they are on the cheapest end of the spectrum and come bundled with cameras, kit lenses get some flack, but they actually cover a useful focal range. Specifically, they do a great job for holiday snaps, group family photos, landscapes, and street photography.
There are a few areas kit lenses fall down, though. For headshots and solo portraits, the maximum aperture isn’t wide enough to get that nice, shallow depth of field look, and the longest focal length of about 50 mm doesn’t provide much more zoom than your un-enhanced eyes. This means that if you’ve used your kit lens to shoot classic-looking portraits or shots where you want to zoom in close, like wildlife or sports photos, you probably haven’t been happy with the results.
There is no point in buying a lens that’s too similar to what you already own, so unless you shoot a lot of landscapes and want to upgrade to something even wider, your kit lens is already doing a fine job. Instead, you need to work out which of the weaknesses in your current setup you want to patch up.
The best portrait lenses are in the 50 to 100 mm focal range and have a maximum aperture of somewhere between f/1.2 and f/2.0—f/1.8 is a popular option. At those focal lengths and apertures, there isn’t much distortion, and if there is, it’ll most likely flatter your subject. This is why this kind of lens is perfect for getting that classic, blurry background portrait effect. If portraits are your thing, the 50 mm f/1.8—which almost all camera manufacturers make—is a great idea: they’re normally cheap and check all the boxes for this kind of photo.
For sports, wildlife, and, really, any shot that requires seeing far away stuff up close, the higher the focal length, the better. You’ll see a noticeable telephoto effect at around 70 mm and you’ll only get more magnification from there. Most affordable telephoto lenses are zoom lenses that cover a wide focal range, going from somewhere around 70 mm to either 200 or 300 mm.
Consider your budget
Lenses aren’t cheap. Professional photographers spend at least as much money on them as they do on the camera itself. When you’re buying a new lens, you need to carefully consider what you can afford.
All the major manufacturers offer a range of similar lenses at different price points. For example, Canon has three 50 mm DSLR lenses: a 50 mm f/1.8 ($125), a 50 mm f/1.4 ($349), and a 50 mm f/1.2 ($1,200). Most people will be totally fine with the cheapest option—the increased build and image quality, as well as the wider maximum aperture, only really matter to professionals or amateurs for whom price is no object. Similarly, there are dozens of different telephoto lenses available for Canon, Nikon, and Sony cameras, at a wide range of prices.
Now, that’s not to say it’s always a good idea to go with the cheapest lens—there are serious trade-offs when you just shop by price:
- Cheaper lenses have worse build quality and more plastic parts. They just can’t take as much of a beating.
- Expensive lenses often have weather sealing and are more resistant to dust, dirt, and water.
- Cheaper lenses generally have inferior optics and slower focussing, which is why their images are less-sharp than more expensive ones.
- Cheaper lenses have narrower maximum apertures and possibly a maximum aperture that changes through the zoom range. This will make it harder to shoot fast-moving things or anything in low light, at night, or while using a telephoto without a tripod.
- More expensive lenses can have a longer maximum focal length (although this isn’t always the case).
When it comes to buying a new lens, you’ll need to balance what you’re prepared to pay with the trade-offs. In an ideal world, you’d have thousands of dollars to buy the top lens in each category. But if you’re reading this article, you probably don’t.
Buy the right lens for you
Different cameras take different lenses so make sure you buy a lens that’s compatible with your setup. For example, if you have a DSLR, buy a lens specifically made for your DSLR camera. It’s not only about type, but brand too—a Nikon lens just won’t fit your Canon camera.
If you’re buying a lens from a third-party manufacturer, like Sigma or Tamron, you’ll need to be particularly careful when it comes to mount, since they make their lenses in different versions for each of the large brands (Canon, Nikon, and Sony).
Once you’ve decided what kind of lens you’re looking for and how much you’re prepared to spend, you can start digging into the lenses available. For mature systems like Canon and Nikon’s DSLR cameras, there might be 10 or 15 potential alternatives, though not all in your price bracket. For newer systems, like all the mirrorless cameras, you will have fewer choices, and perhaps only one appropriate option. Stick to your buying criteria and you’ll find the one that’s best for your needs.
As long as they’re well-treated, lenses will work for years and hold their value well. This means that if you bought a lens that didn’t turn out like you wanted, you can usually sell it with little loss, or you can save a bit of money buying second-hand. If a lens you want is out of your price range, consider looking at used options in a local camera shop or reputable online store like B&H. If it comes with a warranty, it’s probably a safe bet.