Photography 101: Determining Which Lens is Best

The first decision new photographers have to make after choosing a camera model is which lens or lenses to get. While camera kits usually come with an adjustable multipurpose lens, often in the 20-50mm range, in most cases you will want to get one or two more so you can adapt to different environments. Which lens is best for you should be determined by the types of photos you plan to take most. Having a multifunction lens can handle most situations, but if you plan to take pictures of wildlife, sporting events, or pursue your passion for landscape photography, you will soon want a lens more appropriate for those types of photography.

Understanding Magnification and Brightness

Before purchasing a lens, the two most important considerations are magnification and brightness. Magnification is determined by the lens' focal length, measured in millimeters, which is the distance from the lens to the camera's sensor. The larger the focal length, the more magnified images are in the photo. For example, a 70 mm lens magnifies your subject more than a 20 mm lens. So if you want a picture of a friend's face while standing 20 feet away, the 70 mm lens will be better. If you want to take a photograph of a bridge, the 20 mm lens will be better unless you are standing far away.

How much light a lens lets into the camera is determined by its f-value or f-stop rating. A small f-value like f1.8 lets in more light than a larger f-value like f11. The f-value printed on a lens represents its lowest possible value, or the maximum light it will allow. The camera's sensor size is also a factor. A full frame sensor is more sensitive to light, giving you more vibrance and clarity, especially at wide angles, compared to the same lens on a camera with a smaller, cropped sensor.

Lens Kit Lenses

The multifunction lenses that come with most camera kits are good all-purpose lenses useful for most shoots. For example, you can use the same 20-50 mm lens for taking a landscape photo as well as a portrait shot, provided you are at a medium distance from your subjects. These are ideal for family photos because you can zoom in or out without a lot of movement. However, the closer or farther away you get from your subject, the more you will see the limitations of multifunction lens. The quality of most multifunction lenses is also something to consider. If you subtract the cost of a camera body from the cost of a camera kit, this gives you an indication of how much the lens itself costs.

Landscape Lenses

A wide angle lens is essential for landscape photography, which often features the sky as much as the land, sea or urban structures. Serge Ramelli, a professional photographer based in Paris renowned for his landscapes, recommends a wide-angle lens for landscapes. For his own use, if Remelli is using a camera with a full-frame sensor, he uses a 17 to 40 mm lens and usually stays within the 18 to 25 mm range. For cameras with a smaller sensor, he uses an even wider 10 to 20 mm lens and usually shoots in the 11 mm to 15 mm range. "I usually go pretty wide on landscapes," he explains. "I like to have clouds and sky in my landscapes and that is why I shoot large."

Portrait Lenses

Ramelli says if you plan to take portraits, using a portrait lens is very important. "A portrait lens is usually between 50 to 200 mm and opens wide, like f2.8," he explains. "A wide aperture gives you a shallow depth of field, which is good as it makes your portrait stand out. The person is in focus, and the rest is blurry." For photographers on a budget, Ramelli says you can use a good 50 mm lens with a low f-value, which is good for middle or wider shots. With such a lens, however, you should stand back from your subject since the lens won't gracefully accommodate positioning yourself close to the subject.

Telephoto Lenses

Anytime you can't get close to a subject but wish you could, a telephoto lens is your best choice. If you ever look at the sidelines at a major sporting event you will see some incredibly large telephoto lenses. Even though these photographers are closer to the action than any fan could imagine, a telephoto lets them get close and personal. The highest quality telephoto lenses can be extremely expensive. This is because magnifying your subject to extreme levels also magnifies any imperfections in the glass, so the glass needs to be of exceptional quality.

Because of their length, telephoto lenses also magnify the effects of vibrations. As a result, shutter speeds become important with a long telephoto lens. It's important to look at the maximum aperture, measured by a low f-value, before buying a telephoto lens. A lens with a higher f-value will require a longer shutter speed on an overcast day, which means the photo can become blurred with the slightest movement of the lens.

Macro Lenses

While you can get closeups of small objects using a telephoto lens, if you plan to do a lot of macro photography, a macro lens will serve you best. The difference between a telephoto lens and a macro lens is equivalent to the difference between a telescope and a microscope. Small objects will appear larger if you stand an appropriate distance from your subject using a telephoto lens, but it won't give you the fine details of a macro lens poised just a few inches away.

Photo Credits: Anne Dale/Demand Media

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