*Which lens for which situation?

different tools for different applications

I like to spend time on flickr.  It is an amazingly diverse community of photographers ranging from absolute novices to consummate professionals.  One of the questions that come up in the gear groups there and in conversation with other photographers quite often is, “which lens should I purchase?”  With interchangeable lens system cameras coming down in price by the day it seems, it is becoming much more accessible to acquire high quality photographic tools.  One of the main benefits to an interchangeable lens camera, is just that, lenses!  Which to choose and why?  C’mon in and we shall discuss.  Before the end of this article, you too will know which lenses will provide you with the best bang for you buck, depending on which buck you choose to bang…

I will warn you.  This is a long post.  If you are like me though, you enjoy reading about all things photography.  If I do lose you somewhere in the middle, feel free to skip ahead to the end.  Regardless, I hope that this can help you make a more informed decision.  I sure wish I had figured some of this stuff out before buying my first couple lenses, and not used my ill advised lens purchases to be the “education” so to speak.  Enjoy and please feel free to email me with any questions.  Not sure if you’ve figured it out yet or not, but I do love talking shop!

Let’s start by discussing the main difference between your standard pocket camera and a digital single lens reflex camera, sensor size.  Most point and shoot digital cameras utilize a sensor that is not much bigger than your pinky nail (if even that) coming in at around 5.76mm x 4.29mm in the case of the 1/2.5″ sensor, which is a very common sensor size for compacts (offering just about 25 square millimeters).  Now the average offering from most dSLR  manufacturers come in the APS-C sensors that measure 23.6mm x 15.7mm in Nikon, Pentax and Sony’s case (offering 371 square millimeters), or 22.2mm x 14.8mm in the case of Canon (offering 329 square millimeters) which offer over 10x the area compared to your average compact point and shoot.  Sigma’s 20.7mm x 13.8mm Foveon sensors (286 square millimeters) are slightly smaller and the 4/3’s sensors measuring in at 17.3mm x 13mm (225 square millimeters) for the Olympus (and Oly & Panasonic micro 4/3’s cameras) are currently the smallest of the “large” sensor cameras.  Many manufacturers now offer a “full frame” sensor at 24mm x 36mm (864 square millimeters) which is almost identical in physical size to a frame of 35mm film, hence the term.  This offers over twice the physical area over the APS-C sensor cameras.  This is relevant when it comes to pixels.  While many compact cameras are offering 12+ mega pixels, imagine the size of each of those pixels when you divide that small sensor into 12 million equally sized pieces.  They’re tiny.  It’s not hard to conclude that a larger sensor divided into 12 or 15 million pieces offers a larger pixel which enables the sensor to gather light by way of these individual pixels more efficiently.  More pixels in this case are not necessarily better.  But I digress.  Here is a quick and dirty comparison between sensor sizes (not actual size, but actual relative size comparisons).

How much real estate would you like for your pixels?

One last thing about sensor size and I promise I’ll get back to lenses.  The relevance between sensor size and a lens’ focal length is what is known as the “Effective Focal Length Multiplier” or “Crop Factor” ultimately giving you your equivalent field of view in relation to how a focal length looks when used on a 35mm film camera, or Full Frame digital camera.

Canon APS-C sensors apply a 1.6x effective focal length multiplier, Nikon/Pentax/Sony APS-C sensors apply a 1.5x effective focal length multiplier and in the case of a 4/3’s sensor it’s effective focal length multiplier is 2x.

This means that when you get your new camera and the lens shows it’s focal length as an 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6, it will have the same field of view (in 35mm/full frame terms) as 28.8-88mm and 27-82.5mm with the 1.6x and 1.5x effective focal length multipliers respectively.  Yes, even “digital only/crop” lenses still use their focal length measurements in the same terms regarding focal length while not automatically “adjusting” by way of the effective focal length multiplier, but more of that in a little bit.

The very first question I would ask yourself before buying a lens is, what is my budget?  Directly followed by putting these three criteria in order based on their relevance to your desire: Cost, Convenience and Quality.  I’ll let that stew and we will get back to it at the end.

Lets start off by looking at focal lengths broken down into their traditional ranges.  Again, these are in 35mm/full frame terms, so adjust as necessary using your focal length multiplier to achieve the same FOV (field of view).

Ultra wide angle through wide angle focal lengths traditionally fall at or below 35mm.

“Standard” focal lengths usually fall between 40mm and 50mm or so.  (which focal length that would be “standard” for your sensor size is usually equal in diagonal measurement of the sensor to focal length where the diagonal measurement for “full frame” is 43.3mm so a 45mm lens would be as close to standard as you’d probably get, APS-C is closer to 30mm.)  Standard lenses provide a level of (or lack of) distortion and compression comparable to what many feel to be similar to the way the eye sees.

Traditional portrait focal lengths fall between 70mm and 135mm or so.  These are seen as better for portraiture because of the lack of distortion combined with compression providing a more “flattering” look by minimizing distortion and flattening features.

Telephoto focal lengths start around 85-100mm on the very short side, 135mm or so on the traditional “shorter” tele side and up to 1000mm+ on the long or “supertele” side of the range.

What type of lens do you need?  Well, it depends entirely on what you want to shoot.

Lets make a quick differentiation.  There are two basic classifications, first a zoom lens with varying focal lengths, and a fixed focal length or “prime” lens.  Both offer benefits and limitations.  First, lets look at zooms.

Zoom lenses offer the ease of varying your focal length to frame your picture from your vantage point.  It can be very handy if you can’t get close enough to the subject.  Many times people tend to go for the super zooms which will offer insane zoom ranges, like the 18-250mm, or 50-500mm type zooms.  The problem with many of these lenses is that what you gain in focal range, you normally compromise in optical quality coupled with a slower aperture.  The current rule of thumb, in the professional realm anyway, is to keep your zoom range at or below 3x from the wide end to the longer end of the zoom range (24-70mm or 70-200mm are two very popular zoom ranges at roughly 3x) without ultimately compromising image quality through optical design.  Simply put, quality or quantity?  There are great advancements in optical technology being introduced into consumer super zooms but, really when you can get a super zoom for a fifth of the price of a pro-constant aperture zoom keeping with the 3x or under mantra, well it kind of speaks for itself.  Whether you need the quality the better zoom lenses provide is entirely up to you.  Many very capable photographers use less than “pro” lenses to amazing effect.

There are zoom lenses that provide a constant maximum aperture, and those that offer a varying maximum aperture.  The way to determine that is after the zoom range, traditionally you will see the aperture(s) for the focal range listed as such;  1:2.8-4,  or 1:3.5-5.6 where if you have only one aperture listed, you are able to shoot at that aperture throughout the zoom range where with a varying aperture the first listed is the maximum aperture at the wide end and the second is the maximum aperture at the long end of the focal range.  Most professional, or higher quality zoom lenses offer a constant aperture through the zoom range, but that doesn’t mean that a lens with a varying aperture range is not a good lens.  One other major benefit, aside from higher quality optical elements to some of the more expensive “professional” zooms, is that there are usually better weather seals involved.  Not a huge issue unless you are shooting in a downpour or sand storm although it can help fight issues with condensation inside your lens going from cold to warm in the case of shooting outside and coming into a warm house (but nothing leaving the camera and lens in a ziplok for a half an hour or so doesn’t remedy.)

Prime lenses in the past were the choice if you wanted sharp pictures as it is much easier to engineer optical performance without moving/zooming elements.  Zoom lenses have come a long way to eclipse this belief, but if sharpness is your goal, your money will go much, much further with a prime lens.  One major benefit with a prime lens is the maximum aperture that most primes are built with.  (If you’d like an interlude to better understand aperture, click here)  A larger maximum aperture will give you two very useful tools (and this goes for all lenses, zoom or prime), the larger the maximum aperture the more light the lens will allow through it providing you with faster shutter speeds handy when hand holding in low light, and also, the larger the aperture the shallower the depth of field.  Shallower DOF comes in handy when you want to separate your subject from the background.  Prime lenses are the most cost effective way of getting a large maximum aperture in a lens.  Most manufacturers offer a 50mm f/1.8 lens in the $100-200 range.  Many photographers wouldn’t be caught without a fast normal prime lens as it offers a completely different tool to that of a standard zoom lens.

Okay, zooms or primes?  Well, lens purchasing is a balancing act and I highly suggest considering what you would like to shoot and listing pros and cons of what a particular lens would offer you.  For instance, I would usually use a very different lens for taking pictures of a wide landscape scene in nice morning light, than I would if I wanted to bring a lens out with friends to dinner at a lowly lit restaurant.  Where I would use a wide angle zoom lens most of the time for landscape, I might need a much faster (larger maximum aperture) lens to bring with me to the restaurant unless I wanted to nuke folks with my flash, or crank my ISO beyond the limit I am comfortable with, ultimately creating too much noise.  I think that for most folks, a couple zooms and a prime or two would be more than ample.  Resist the urge to find the “all around/everything” lens.  It doesn’t exist, and if it does, it probably sucks.  Another way to approach that type of desire might be to try and shoot everything with one prime lens for instance.  Remember when every camera came with one fixed prime lens?  I remember in high school photo class, we all took turns using beat up Pentax 35mm cameras with a 50mm prime lens on it.  At that point, I didn’t even know that I could have taken the lens off!  It forced me to think more about composition which I appreciate now (then I could really have cared less.)  The beauty of an interchangeable lens system is getting to use different lenses to different effect.  I think that as opposed to buying a super zoom lens, I’d rather drop a few hundred dollars on a super zoom point and shoot and keep the DSLR around for my more “specialized” lens purchases.  That may just be me though.

Speaking of specialized lenses, lets talk really quickly about macro lenses.  Many lenses will claim to have “macro” capabilities.  It’s printed on many a zoom lens, but most of these lenses do not offer true macro capability.  To get true macro capability, you need either a macro lens (which are all fixed focal lengths as far as I’m aware) that will give you true 1:1 magnification (or greater, ie 2:1, 3:1, etc), or enough extension tubes (equal to your focal length) to achieve the proper magnification ratio.  The stack of tubes in the image at the top of the post (the thing all the way to the right) are my extension tubes.  1:1 magnification means that the subject you are shooting is being captured in life size in relationship to the sensor.  If that bug you wanted to shoot were to land on your sensor, it would occupy the same amount of physical space as it takes up in the image captured.  Many lenses claim to be “macro” lenses, but they are really just providing a magnification ratio able to offer good “close up” photography.  Now, extension tubes are different than a tele-converter which is an effective focal length multiplier in lens form.  Extension tubes are cheaper as they don’t include any glass elements in them, and are merely tubes which will pull the actual lens far enough away from the sensor to provide a certain magnification while a tele-converter does nothing for the magnification, but extends a lens’ effective focal length.  Extension tubes can be used on any lens that fits the mount (and assuming you buy the right lenses and tubes for your camera mount, should work with any of your lenses).  So, why would someone buy a macro lens as opposed to a set of extension tubes?  Well, with extension tubes, you are extremely limited in your focusing distance.  You lose infinity focus and then some, which basically means you need to have your subject close to the camera to enable the lens to focus on it.  Your lens, with the extension tubes become a close up lens and nothing else.  A dedicated macro lens, with the exception of a few very specialized macro lenses, can function as normal functioning lenses in all other ways, you just get the benefit of being able to take extreme close ups.

Image stabilization (IS)/Vibration reduction (VR)/Vibration compensation (VC), etc can be handy and seems to be the current trend for many lenses.  It doesn’t hurt to have it.  If you have sensor based stabilization (in camera), then you’re set.  If not, your system probably utilizes a lens based stabilization and you’ll need to buy special lenses if you want the stabilized benefits.  Now, there are many debates on aperture vs stabilization when it comes to hand holding a shot.  I will only add this.  Stabilization does absolutely nothing for subject movement, only for camera/hand shake.  That means, if you’re getting blurry images of people, or anything breathing or moving, the only way to get a sharper image and effectively “freeze” your subjects is to increase the shutter speed.  To do that you’ll either need to open up your aperture, increase your ISO, or both to adjust your exposure.  Stabilization is a great tool to have, but it isn’t a direct replacement for a larger aperture.  Simple rule of thumb, if it’s breathing, a larger aperture will be more useful.  If you’ve had too much coffee, stabilization may be a better remedy.  Stabilization comes in handy when you are hand holding the camera for static subjects, ie: landscape, architecture, etc.  Now if you can find a lens with both a large maximum aperture AND stabilization then you get the best of both worlds.  Many current lenses are being updated to include a form of optical stabilization so we shouldn’t have to worry about this debate much longer.

Okay, now that we’ve laid out the basics, lets look at the reality of different lens mounts.  Most digital SLR cameras utilize a “cropped” sensor (smaller than full frame) which has created a market for “digital only” lenses.  Simply put, the digital only lenses can’t be used on full frame cameras, or function with a severe handicap.  Manufacturers that offer 35mm film bodies, or full frame digital cameras usually have to differentiate between their lens line ups in one way or another.  For instance a few examples:


EF-S = digital / cropped sensor cameras only, for use with APS-C Canon cameras.

EF = will mount to any Canon EOS camera cropped or full frame.  You will need these for any Canon full frame or 35mm film bodies.


Dx = digital only or “digital crop” cameras.

Fx = full frame or 35mm film cameras.  (Nikon full frame digital cameras, all of them I belive, can use the Dx lenses, but use only a very small portion of the center of the sensor.)


DT = digital only


DiII = digital only / cropped sensor

Di = full frame and cropped sensor compatible


DC = digital crop / digital only

DG = full frame and digital


Any lens labeled as “DX” are built to fit cropped sensor cameras / APS-C

*check your manufacturers specifications to make sure that a lens will be compatible with your camera before purchasing.

If you have any plan to “upgrade” to a full frame model in the future, stick with the full frame compatible lens options for any of the given manufacturers.  You can use the full frame lenses on cropped bodies in most all cases, but you can’t always use the digital only/cropped lenses on a full frame bodies and normally, they won’t work, or even mount to the full frame bodies.

As we spoke about above regarding the effective focal length multiplier, an APS-C camera will effectively multiply the effective focal length of any lens.  Lenses, regardless of their specification are listed in their actual focal lengths based on the physical construction and measurement.  An 18mm lens is an 18mm lens regardless of which camera you have it on, it will have a differing field of view on cameras with different sensor sizes though as a cropped sensor camera will effectively “crop” the image circle.  This can be a confusing topic, so just think of the differences in terms of “field of view” and “effective focal length” varied by the size of the sensor and referenced in relation to full frame/35mm film standards.  An 18mm focal length on an APS-C camera will have the same field of view as a 27 or 28mm lens would look on a full frame or 35mm film camera, but it is still an 18mm lens.  (Here is a newer article further explaining Focal Length, Crop Factor, and Field of View.)

Okay, you have this amazingly capable camera that more than likely came with a lens or two.  You probably ended up with an 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 lens if you purchased the entry level models, or perhaps a 24-120mm, or 28-135mm f/3.5-5.6 type lens.  You may be finding that you are lacking focal range, or are limited in the situations you can shoot.  First determine what you’re missing.  Do you need a wide angle lens to get more of the scene in, or do you want something to get you closer to the action for sports or birds?  Are you frustrated with slow shutter speeds when you shoot friends and family, sports or activities indoors?  All of the above?  My suggestion is to build yourself a roadmap or realistic wishlist of future lenses.  Another suggestion is to budget more for lenses than you do for camera bodies.  That may seem insane, but think about it this way, your camera will be technologically obsolete in a decade if it is still even working (if not in 3 or 4 years), where a well taken care of lens may last a lifetime.  I don’t mean to suggest that your camera 10 years from now will be incapable of capturing an image, but with technology leapfrogging itself every year or two, well, you may be ready for an upgrade by then anyway.  A quality lens is the quickest way to higher quality images when coupled with finely tuned technique.  A high tech camera is only as good as the glass it’s lookin’ through so to speak.  So prioritize according to your short term needs balanced with your long term photographic plans.  Simply put, I’d say buy the best lens your budget can afford you and if it is a choice between money invested in a new camera, or invested in a new lens, I tend to default to a new lens, unless of course your camera is severely hampering your ability to grow as a photographer.

A quick and relatively cheap way to immediately diversify your lens quiver is to purchase a fast prime lens.  Fast meaning a large maximum aperture.  A good way to anticipate how a prime lens will “look” is to set your zoom to, or as close to that particular focal length and try to shoot for a period without zooming.  This will give you an idea as to how much image you can gather in a frame at a given focal length.  Now, where the prime lens will differ from your zoom lens at the same focal length, is the aperture.  You can always stop down (set a smaller physical aperture) to a fast lens, but you can only open up a slower lens so far.  With a fast prime lens on your camera, set your camera to aperture priority and open that puppy up as wide as it will go.  Focus on someone or something relatively close to the camera and watch the background elements fade and blur into obscurity (see: bokeh.)  Then, keeping the lens opened up to it’s maximum aperture, bring it out the next time you’re in a lowly lit room or restaurant.  Each aperture stop will allow an equal shutter speed stop faster setting achieving the same exposure.  The one trick with a large aperture is a decreased depth of field.  With really wide apertures like f/1.2, f/1.4  or f/1.8 for instance, your depth of field (area in acceptable focus) may be less than an inch deep parallel to the sensor depending on how close you are to your subject in focus!  Many folks think that they’ve got a “soft” copy of a lens in these types of situations, when it very well may be that the DOF is so shallow, just the motion of breathing can throw your focus off.

One more decision you may come across, especially if you buy a lens in store, will be to buy or not to buy a UV filter.  The most effective thing UV filters provide are commissions for the salespeople.  There are a few scenarios where a UV filter can come in handy, but usually they’re sold as “cheap insurance.”  Sure, if someone throws a rock directly at your lens, it may take the brunt of the impact, or if you are trying to get a close up shot of your child finger painting with chloric acid and are worried about getting corrosive finger prints on the front of the lens, then go for it.  For me, the only real benefit to utilizing a UV filter is to finalize an otherwise weather proofed lens (or maybe smearing vasolene on one or something for a fun effect.)  Many “weather proof” lenses require a filter to be fitted to finish the deal.  The front element on most any lens is very strong and capable of bumps.  I’m not saying that you should shoot without any caution, by all means try not to crush your lens, but I find a hood to be much better at “protecting” my lens.  If you live in a particularly dusty environment subject to sand storms, etc, it may be a good idea to avoid sandblasting your lens’ front element by way of a filter.  I do have a UV filter, but I ponied up and purchased a B&W slim filter which ran me almost $100.  I rarely ever use it, but if I am going to use one, I want to make sure the glass is of the highest quality.  The real big concern and one you should make sure you protect is the rear element of your lens.  If the rear element becomes scratched or damaged, you will notice it’s effects immediately on your images.  With a few scratches on the front element you’ll rarely notice them in pictures.  I will say this, if you are convinced that you need to place a piece of clear glass in front of your already calibrated and finely tuned glass, don’t go cheap, get the best glass you can afford.  Your lens is only as good as the last piece of glass it looks through and a cheap UV filter is the quickest and easiest way to decrease your image quality.  Also, if you use UV filters, take them off at night.  The reflections between it and the lens can create very frustrating ghosting and reflections.  That said, there are other very useful filters out there.  A circular polarizer can be very handy when you want to cut down reflections from polarized light, or deepen the saturation in a scene by eliminating it.  A neutral density filter can enable you to shoot at a wider aperture in brighter light, or a graduated or split density filter can help balance a bright sky with darker foreground.  There are many cool and useful colored and specialized filters out there, just make sure you spend the extra to get quality if you are going to put one on your lens if image quality is of any concern.

Now, finally you’ve gone through the gauntlet and hopefully asked yourself a few key questions.  What do you want to shoot?  What are you willing to give up?  What is your budget?

Remember the Cost, Convenience and Quality from the top of the post?  Okay, I’m not aware of a cheap, high quality super zoom with a fast maximum aperture and optical stabilization included that will enable you to shoot macro images in the dark as well as sweeping landscapes and your child’s dance recital and cousin’s football game all at the highest quality.  It doesn’t exist.  There are however, many cheap lenses, many convenient lenses and, many quality lenses out there.  Depending on how you’ve decided to rank these three criteria, I would offer a couple suggestions.

If you’ve rated Cost (assuming we’re talking about saving money here) as the most important factor, lets say a budget under $200 for instance, I would be prepared to compromise image quality and overall versatility.  If you are okay with a prime lens, I think that a cheep 30mm – 50mm fixed focal length lens may be the best bang for the buck.  Most manufacturers offer a sub $200 50mm prime lens.  You can go for a cheap zoom, but unless you’re willing to bump up the budget, I think you’d be best served saving your money and utilizing the kit zoom lens that came with the camera.

If you’ve rated Convenience as your top priority, I assume you’re looking for a decent zoom lens that will provide you with a fairly versatile zoom range.  I would fight the urge to go the super zoom route in exchange for finding a zoom with a larger maximum, or constant aperture throughout the zoom range.  There are many wide to portrait/short tele zooms that offer f/2.8 to f/4 ranges, even many that offer stabilization for less than $600.  Most of the constant f/2.8 zoom lenses are going to run a pretty penny, but many 3rd party manufacturers offer much more affordable versions.  Look at some of the Sigma and Tamron zoom lenses for instance.  There are always the cheaper 70/75-300mm range f/4-5.6 zooms that offer so-so optical performance for relatively little financial investment as well.

If Quality is king, then hopefully you’ve prepared to budget a decent amount.  Not all quality lenses are super expensive, but in most cases regarding lenses and quality, the term you get what you pay for usually applies.  The best way to get the highest quality for a smaller amount of money, in my opinion at least, is to go with a good prime lens.  Your money will certainly go further where image quality, sharpness and saturation are concerned compared to zoom lenses in the same price brackets.  If price is not an object, and you are needing the convenience of a zoom lens, look to your manufacturer’s f/2.8 and f/4 constant zoom lenses.  (there is only one lens currently that I am aware of with a faster maximum aperture which is the Olympus 35-100mm f/2 lens.)  So that said, f/2.8 is about as fast a zoom as you’re going to get unless you shoot with Oly cameras.  f/2.8 is a fast aperture, but in my experience is not fast enough for most of my low light, hand held shooting.  This is another reason that having a fast prime or two can offer you versatility in these shooting situations and I think of them as complimentary tools to the zooms.

If I were asked to be a personal shopper for the average photographer who had expressed wanting a good, realistic, versitile range allowing some room on the wide end and reaching to 200mm or so on the long end, and they had budgeted say $2000 or a little more over the next couple years, based on their style, or desired direction, I might offer guidance like this (of course prices can and will vary depending on the manufacturer):

For a more general “all around” kit:

Assuming they have the kit zoom lens, the first thing I’d do is get a fast prime lens (f/2 or faster).  Maybe a 30-35mm on a crop camera, or a 50mm on a full frame.  Instant diversification for relatively little investment.  They would now have a lens that would allow them to shoot in lower light as well as have a pleasing focal length for full body portraits or just walking around and working on composition.  (As an example, I use a 35mm lens as my “everything” lens on a full frame, so your mileage may vary.)  $150-350+

Next, I’d suggest looking to get a good zoom lens going in one of two directions depending on where they felt they wanted to expand.  Wide, or long.  If wide, look to the lenses starting off on the wide end at 10-14mm, (17-20mm on full frame or so at the wide end.)  If preferring the long end, look at a 70-200mm f/4 (or f/2.8 if you can justify the budget), or the 70/75-300 if you wanted to save a few bucks. $500-1000+

Maybe if they felt the need to gain the zoom range on the opposite side of the range, they could drop another $500-1000+ here.

If they wanted to go a bit further, I might suggest looking at a faster “standard” zoom (moving through the standard 40-50mm range) to replace the slow kit zoom.  See the 24-70mm or 28-75mm (wide to portrait/short tele) range zooms as I mentioned above.  Depending on the amount spent on the first zoom, I may adjust this one. $500-1000+

Then, if they still wanted more diversity, I might suggest looking at primes of different focal lengths.  Maybe a good portrait length like an 85mm, or a wide prime perhaps somewhere in the neighborhood of a 24mm, or even a long prime like a 300mm if they were wanting to shoot animals or sports. $200 – sky’s the limit

If they were more into fast lenses, wanted to focus more on portraiture or studio shooting, or just enjoyed fixed focal lengths, I may put more focus on quality primes first followed by a good zoom or two.

The focal lengths for a set of prime lenses I would suggest would be either a combo consisting of a 24mm, 50mm and a 100mm, OR a 35mm, 85mm and 135mm.  Mix and match as they’d see fit based on their preferences, but I think these would be a really well rounded, fast set of lenses.  Many folks like having both a 35mm and 50mm.  To me, I can get by with one of the two (not to say I wouldn’t mind having both focal lengths available to me), but I think that adding a little space adds not only a different look, but also a different approach.  Add to that maybe a 24-70 zoom and a 70-200 zoom and you have lenses to cover most any project baring situations where you need either ultra wide, or super tele lenses, but then if you need em’ rent em’.

Again, if your main focus in photography is to shoot birds, nix what I’ve said here and look to fast long tele lenses.  If architecture is your bread and butter, look to nice rectilinear wide angle or tilt shift lenses.  One thing I like to think about, is if I had all my gear stolen, and I could only have one lens that I was fortunate enough to hold onto, which would it be?  It is a good exercise and sometimes too many choices offer too many distractions.  Use any given single lens to it’s potential and you can shoot your entire life with it.  It’s just fun to have choices.

Of course, you could buy a $300 18-300mm super zoom and have it all taken care of while compromising image quality and speed.  It may be a more realistic investment depending on what you needed and wanted from your camera.  From my point of view, I’d suggest planning to purchase a few quality lenses over a time period as opposed to trying for a hail marry with an all in one type model.  It’s not a race, pace yourself.  My perfect situation is a three zoom set up, wide, standard, tele (17-40mm, 24-70mm and 70-200mm) complemented by a smattering of fast prime lenses ranging from 35mm to 135mm, extension tubes and a 1.4x teleconverter.  I’d love to own a fast 300mm or 400mm prime lens, but I don’t do enough shooting utilizing that focal length that would justify that type of a purchase.  In the cases where I feel I’ll need a lens like that, I rent it.  This fits me and what I like to shoot and may very well not be the same story for anyone else.

It entirely depends on your personal need, but I would really determine yours and build a roadmap for yourself.  You may be fully happy with the kit lens.  They’re plenty capable and I’ve seen pictures that blow me away taken with them.  Maybe you develop gear-itus (like me) and love to have finely tuned tools at your disposal for different shooting situations.  Plus, it’s fun to dream about acquiring a quiver of lenses isn’t it?  Remember that as long as you take care of your lenses, you should be able to sell them if and when you felt you could better use that money elsewhere (and don’t forget to look to the used market to save a few bucks as well.)  Quality lenses hold their value.  I’ve sold a couple “pro” lenses for about 85-90% of what I paid for them new.  The cheaper lenses should still command 50-70% of their original value as long as they’re well taken care of.  (If buying used, make sure to test it out to your satisfaction before forking over the cash.)  I’ve also bought used lenses at about that same depreciated value saving myself a hundred or so bucks here or there.  One thing to take into consideration is that your needs very well may change as you become more attuned to your craft and buying and selling lenses may very well fit your bill.  For me, I started off wanting zooms and now shoot 95% of the time with primes.  One of the beauties of this hobby is that you don’t have to rush into anything, and if you do you can normally recoup some of that cost as long as you take care of your gear.  If you really want, you can build yourself a pinhole camera out of a shoebox, or, you can spend $50,000+ on a medium format digital system.  I’d guess most of our photographic realities fall somewhere in between, but one important thing to remember is that it isn’t a competition.  Shoot with, and utilize what you have as it will better prepare you when you are ready to spend more hard earned cash on your next purchase.  Photography is more about the eye behind the camera than the gear in front of it.  The gear won’t make you a better photographer, but it certainly can enable you in different ways by offering different tools and abilities.  Enjoy your shooting and most importantly, have fun!

10 thoughts on “*Which lens for which situation?

  1. Pingback: Which lens for which situation? « Tyson Robichaud Photo-blography | Prime Lenses

  2. Pingback: Your Micro 4/3’s camera + your existing lenses = limitless fun. « Tyson Robichaud Photo-blography

  3. WOW Tyson .. that’s an AMAZING review. Thanks a lot of taking the time to share it. You obviously put a lot of time and effort into it and I am sure it’s appreciated by a lot of people.

    I personally highly recommend the EF 24-70mm f/2.8L USM lens from Canon. In my opinion this is THE absolute and most superior all-around lens for your Canon DSLR on the market today, bar none. If you are interested you can read more about my review here


    • Thanks Trevor! I agree with you about the 24-70. It is my workhorse. Any time I do any work shooting, I’d say 90% of the time, my 24-70 is on the camera. As for personal shooting, I wouldn’t be caught without my 35/1.4 or 135/2 though. A fast prime is hard to beat for low light and shallow dof.

      I will read through your review as well!




  4. Tyson,
    My Panasonic GH1 arrived two days ago and I took my first timid shots yesterday morning. I thought I needed a suitably “important” first shot so I drove up to Grants Pass (40 miles) and took pictures of a very interesting exhibit: The Moving Wall, a scale replica of the Viet Nam war memorial that sits on the mall in DC – been there, too and “moving” is an apt descriptor. http://www.themovingwall.org/

    My GH1 came with the f2 20mm “kit” lens and I think it was perfect for the long shot along the wall from one end over the tops of the plaques/monoliths/whatever in bright sunshine. Super compact, fast and an interesting focal length – should be very good for the nature panoramas I wind up shooting.

    The other lens is the f4 45-200mm cheapo (under $300 on Amazon) for the “bird shots”. Think I’m going to get a 1.4x multiplier to stretch that out just a bit.

    Also invested $50 or so in a well-reviewed closeup lens I can add onto the zoom – don’t think it’ll fit on pancake 20. This lens will be for (what is to me) the important insect/arthropod shots.

    I’m not sure what I’d add to this since as an aging nature photographer, I have to lug this stuff up hill and down, thru rain forest and to the ends of the earth (when we scrape up enough money to travel).

    So, now I’m reading the 190 page GH1 manual and am a bit intimidated by all the bells and whistles – burst mode, video, 10 different tones or color variations, etc. Whew! Gonna take a while to absorb this. Thank goodness for IA!

    BTW – if you want a slightly more exclusive photo group for submissions than the fan-boy Flickr sites, try National Geographic’s Your Shot – one per month and I put up my most popular Flickr shot this morning. Top two per month make it into the mag. Wish me luck!



    • Congrats Terry!

      You know, I think being a nature photographer you might want to look into some legacy glass plus an adapter. I think, for the money, it is a great way to diversify your optical quiver. I came across a bunch of old Canon FD lenses and couldn’t be happier (I’m actually putting a blog post together currently). Two that I am very happy with as far as outdoor shooting is concerned are a 100mm f/4 macro and a 400mm f/4.5 tele (which gives me the cropped reach of an 800mm lens’ FOV). I’ve also heard many micro 4/3 shooters getting hold of old Olympus OM glass for really cheap. I bought my FD>m4/3 adapter for about $60-70 (I think) and I’ve been finding tons of deals on old FD lenses around, craigslist, ebay, etc. It might be a worth while venture. Of course the lenses have to operate manually, but I have to say, I have been enjoying the manual shooting. Brings me back. It might be worth the price for a good dedicated macro lens + adapter just for the close up need. My 100mm is remarkably sharp and the focus dampening is sublime. The focusing rings on old lenses built for manual focus feel soooo nice!

      One other place locally that I have been perusing is Blue Moon Camera up here in Portland. They have a TON of older glass (Oly, Nikon, Canon, you name it) and have a pretty comprehensive list on their website. They might not be the cheapest option (the cheaper being someone on craigslist getting rid of a box of camera equipment from their attic for $100 or whatever) but they are fair and can vouch for the condition and quality of the lenses, and cameras that they have. I’m in there at least every couple of weeks now as I’m starting to shoot some film on an old Hasselblad 500cm and they are my film lab of choice, so let me know if you need me to check anything out for you.

      Anyway, sorry for the tangent. Enjoy the cam and manual! Grab a cup of coffee, kick your feet up and enjoy learning about your awesome new camera. Thanks for the heads up on NG, I’ll have to check it out! Good luck on the ‘your shot’ submissions! I subscribe to NatGeo, so I’ll be looking for you!!!




  5. Pingback: *The Exposure Trifecta. Or, how to shoot on Manual. «

  6. Pingback: *Everything you need to know about digital photography. Two years of tips, tricks and various freebies, revisited. «

  7. Pingback: *One man’s opinion, or Holiday Shopping guide 2013! | Tyson Robichaud Photo-blography

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