Free Photography Tutorials, Beginners to Advanced

Choosing Lenses for your DSLR

A selection of DSLR Lenses

The next big decision, if you have chosen a DSLR camera, is which lenses to choose. There are loads to choose from, they literally come in all shapes an sizes, and indeed prices. So what do you need to know before you choose?

Prime Lens or Zoom?

A prime lens has a fixed focal length, and a zoom lens lets you . . . err . . . zoom in and out, in other words it has a variable focal length. This makes the zoom lens more useful as one lens may do the job of two or three prime lenses. There is always a trade off of course and, in this case, it is that the prime lenses are normally better quality. Although, having said that, modern zoom lenses are certainly good enough for most purposes and are the weapon of choice for most photographers. I have only one prime lens in my collection, which is a rather specialist macro lens, the other three are all zooms.

Focal Length of the LensTelephoto Zoom 70-200mm

Focal length determines the angle of view of the lens, a wide angle lens will include more of the scene giving the illusion that you are further away from the subject, whereas a telephoto lens will pick out a smaller area and make you seem closer to the subject than you really are, like a telescope. The focal length that matches what we normally see is called the ‘standard lens’. The exact number of the focal length of this lens varies according to the size of sensor or film you are using. On the old 35mm film cameras the number was easy - 50mm - but, as most amateur and ‘prosumer’ cameras use an APS-C size sensor, which is smaller, the standard lens has a focal length of 31mm. So, if you have an APS-C size sensor (and most DSLRs on the market, except the very expensive ones, do), then any lens with a focal length below 31mm is a wide angle lens and any lens longer than 31mm is a telephoto.

What focal lengths do you need?

Normally the camera is sold with an 18-55mm lens, which is called a mid range zoom. A mid range zoom is the most useful lens you’ll ever buy for general photography. I find it’s the lens I use for 80 to 90% of all my shots. There are times, however, when you just can’t get close enough to the action and you need a telephoto zoom to bring the action closer to you. These come in all sizes but I would advise going for something around 55-200mm. A 200mm zoom brings most subjects in nice and close, going longer than this, as you would need to for, say, bird photography, means either accepting a drop in image quality or shelling out big bucks for a very specialist piece of kit. I used to have a 70-300mm lens which was pretty good but I could never really get a sharp result over 200mm, so when I replaced it, I went for a 70-200mm lens.

There are also times when you are in a confined space and need a wider angle than you can get with your mid range zoom, then you need a wide angle lens. I have a wide angle zoom in my bag that goes from 10mm to 22mm but I have to be very careful with it, the distortion, especially at the edges of the frame can be dreadful at full wide angle. So to be quite honest it doesn’t get a lot of use. One thing it is very good for is shooting interiors of appartments or houses, it makes the rooms look very big.

Aperture of the Lens

400mm Telephoto Lens
A 400mm f2.8 telephoto lens,
ideal for bird photography but very expensive

When you look at the specifications of a lens, after the focal length, you will see a number like f4 or f2.8. This is the maximum aperture of the lens and is very important. In the case of a zoom lens there may be a range of apertures, f4 - f5.6 for instance, this is because with some zooms, especially the cheaper ones, the maximum aperture is different at different focal lengths.

The larger the maximum aperture of the lens, which means the smaller the f-number (see apertures for an explanation), the more expensive the lens will be. This is because the lens will need a lot more precision ground glass and is more difficult to make.

The advantage to the photographer of a larger maximum aperture is that the lens will let in more light when the aperture is fully open, enabling you to shoot pictures in more demanding circumstances, in a low light situation or when using faster shutter speeds to capture action. Also, and just as important, the large maximum aperture allows you to limit the depth of field and throw the background of your photo out of focus. All of which you can learn about in other tutorials. So when you look at a price list of lenses and see that a 70-200mm f2.8 is considerably more expensive than a 70-200mm f4 lens, there is a good reason for it and a good reason to buy the more expensive one if your budget allows.

Sensor Coverage

One thing that can be a bit confusing is the issue of coverage of the sensor. In the old film days all SLR cameras were 35mm, that is the picture size was 36mm x 24mm, and all the lenses were made to cover this area. The large or ‘full size’ sensors on digital cameras are still this size but the APS-C cameras, which includes most of the cameras that us mere mortals can afford are, as discussed earlier, smaller. So the lenses that are specifically made for the smaller cameras can also be smaller and therefore cheaper. The problem is that all the top quality lenses are made to cover the full frame sensors, so the difference in price is even more than it might be otherwise. However, unlike camera bodies which need to be updated or replaced every now and then, a good lens will last a lifetime (at least I’m hoping they will). So, if you have aspirations of owning a full frame camera one day, it’s worth forking out for a lens that will cover the format.

Personally I am always living in hope that the price of the full frame camera bodies will drop to a more affordable level, they have done in the past few years but not quite enough to tempt me yet. When they do I am ready with two extremely good zoom lenses that will fit right on the front.

Image Stablizer

The latest must have extra on lenses is an imager stablizer. Lots of lenses now offer this option for extra money. I’m afraid, when I bought my lenses, I couldn’t bring myself to pay all that extra money; sometimes double the price. If I need an image stablizer, I get out my tripod.

What Lenses to Buy

So, buy the best quality lenses you can afford, get a large aperture if you can and try to get a zoom that has the same aperture all the way through the zoom range.

Personally I would steer clear of the all-in-one mega zooms that have focal lengths from 18mm to 300mm or so. There is something to be said for not having to keep changing lenses especially when you are out and about on a windy day, but the trade off for such convenience is usually a drop in quality and a smaller maximum aperture, you would be better off with two zooms to cover the same range. Having said that, others will tell you that they are very happy with such a lens.

A good lens should last you a lifetime if you treat it well, so they are a good investment. With so many millions of pixels on the sensors of modern cameras, that end of the camera is no longer a real issue as far as quality is concerned. What makes the difference between a so-so shot and a really crisp rendition of the subject, apart from your technique of course, is a really good piece of glass on the front of the camera.

Lastly I must say that, if you can’t run to the super lenses just yet, you will still get pretty good results from the ‘kit lenses’ that are included with the camera, so don’t despair if you can’t shell out thousands to start with, just get started with whatever you can afford.

Other tutorials in this section


A short introduction to the types of cameras available and a discussion on what you need to look out for when buying a camera.

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What you need to know when choosing a new lens.

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Lens Conversion Factor

Confused comparing 35mm lens focal lengths to the new DSLRs? This will make it all clear.

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What you need to know before you go shopping.

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More of a 'why you need a tripod' than a buyers guide, but it does include some tips on buying and using a tripod.

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