From a camera operator’s perspective, lenses are broadly grouped into four categories – wide-angle, standard, telephoto and macro – according to their focal lengths. It is often assumed that wide-angle lenses are for landscape photography and telephoto lenses for objects in the distance. This is a myth. Any lens can be used for any subject and the choice of a lens’s focal length, and hence the perspective that it offers has to do with exactly what you want to communicate through your image.
When you are assessing a lens you will find a wide range of opinion online and, below is yet another, my opinion. Ultimately it is your decision and it is always wide to seek out a range of opinions.
When choosing lenses there are a number of issues that need to be considered. Most important are the field (or angle) of view and perspective that it affords, which relates to the focal length; the range of f-stops (apertures) it offers (which directly affects depth of field, and which is referred to as the speed of the lens); and the resolution (sharpness), which will dictate how much the image can be magnified and how much detail there will be at any given enlargement.
Lens resolution varies between brands and higher quality lenses are understandably more expensive than lower quality ones. Lens speed (the maximum available aperture) also affects the cost of a lens. Then there are issues of weight, or perhaps autofocus mode is a choice you would like to have available.
It might sound overwhelming but lens manufacturers do not set out to deceive. They clearly indicate what each lens is best suited for, and so the choice is yours. If two lenses seem identical in terms of their specifications and one is considerably more expensive than the other then it is most likely that the costlier lens will have a far higher optical quality. A rule of thumb is to buy a lens at a price you can afford, remembering that you can always trade up at a later date.
Here are four zoom lenses that I constantly use… These are the three focal length lenses that you will find in the bag of many photographers. Canon and Nikon brands can be a lot more expensive than some of the third party options. I suggest that you do your research and better still, do a trial before investing in a third party lens. I have all three permanently attached to camera bodies in one bag, giving me instant access to whichever focal length I need.
14-24mm zoom lens
There is lots of drama attached to the angle of view range of this lens. As above, this lens is also available for many brands. Although some may vary in zoom range slightly in terms of mm, this is a lens that is great when you wish to include foreground drama in the composition of your images. For beginners, however, I think that the 24-70mm will have more applications.
24-70mm zoom lens
This is my most used focal length. Even when using the longer lenses on a tripod I would carry a camera with this lens attached over my shoulder, especially if I was walking far from the base camp or roadside stop. This focal range is available in many brands. I have used both Canon and Nikon 24-70mm and both are superb.
70-200mm and 80-400mm zoom lenses
Although both are ideal lens zoom ranges, the 80-400mm has a wider application for both landscape and wildlife work. I have used both these focal length lenses in combination with a 1.4 teleconverter and am very pleased with the results. If investing from scratch I would probably buy the 80-400mm lens first. Both zoom ranges are available as third party lenses. As seen above, they are ideal for landscape panoramic work.
Between 150 to 600mm zoom lenses
I used a prime 500mm Nikon lens for over thirty years. When I needed additional focal length I used a 2x converter, which meant effectively I was using a 1,000mm lens. These days we are blessed in having severe competition for price and quality among the zoom lenses which range between 150mm and 600mm. Another additional benefit is that depending on the camera make and model the focus speed and focus tracking systems are simply quite excellent, although some better than others.
I have used Tamron’s 150-600, Sigma’s 150-600mm and Nikon’s 200-500 and compared them all with the results I achieve with my Canon EF200-400EXT1.4L lens and I must say that I am pleased with their overall quality. Tamron was first in the affordable big zoom market and the sales exploded to such an extent Sigma and Nikon soon followed. I went for the Canon because of the very fast focus system and also the incredible resolution with both the built in converter and the largely minimal loss when an additional 1.4 telephoto converter is added; downside cost and weight. All in all, these are amazing lenses, opening up for everyone the world of wildlife photography of shy and difficult to approach subjects. I now find workshop participants enjoying the world that was historically only available to the few with the funds to match.
Even though many modern lenses have the ability to focus close up, you will never get the magnification or the optical quality of a macro lens that has been specifically designed for close‑up photography. If you are interested in nature, with a passion for photographing flowers, frogs, reptiles or insects, you have choices: 40, 60, 105 or 200 mm lenses. The focal lengths may vary slightly depending on the brand. I was fortunate to purchase one of the few Nikon 70–180 mm microlenses released. (Note: Nikon uses the term “micro” to describe “macro” lenses.).
Auto extension rings/tubes
A set of extension rings, or tubes, is a good way to start close‑up photography. They are light and therefore portable for field work.
Benefits: The primary benefit of extension rings/tubes is that they provide a low‑cost alternative to buying a macro lens for close‑up work. They offer another advantage when you wish to magnify even further than your macro lens will allow.
Close‑up attachment lenses
Close‑up attachment, or accessory lenses, used mostly for macro photography, can be purchased for most lenses because they are little more than a filter with a magnifying glass. Do not expect the results to be as crisp as those images shot with lenses designed specifically for close‑ups. The attachment lenses are better used with longer focal length lenses to enable even greater magnification. Lenses between 80 mm and 150 mm would be perfect. Lenses can be used in combination.
Benefits: Highly portable, easy to use and have a low entry cost.
50mm f1.4 / f1.8mm lens
Not wide and not telephoto, the standard lens is the length I recommend for anyone starting out as a first lens. Stick with 50mm until the angle of view is mastered and then move on. I worked with a standard lens for the first decade of my career. 50mm are also ideal as a prime lens for stitching panoramic work. Note the beautiful soft background on the cassowary photograph above, is is due to the aperture of f1.4. These lenses are a must for the camera bag and can be purchased for a mere $250.
16mm fisheye lens for landscape
I am in love with this small, light and inexpensive pin sharp lens! Now that Lightroom has the capacity to quickly correct distortion—that is IF you want to; at times the distorted images looks fabulous—it makes using this lens a breeze. When held at an angle of 90% the horizons distortions are either minimal or nonexistent – as seen above where no correction was required. The full-frame fisheye lens has a180-degree angle of view
Lens hoods, which are usually supplied with all lenses, and are particularly useful when using a wide angle lens, should always be attached. Hoods eliminate light that causes lens flare from the front lens element. Long hoods also enable camera angles to be used almost directly to the sun, which can produce outstanding results. It is also wise to attach a UV (ultraviolet) filter to protect the valuable front element of your lens
When you use lenses of different focal length, or change the focal length on a zoom lens by zooming it back and forth, the field of view and perspective change. In short, focal length, distance, and the resulting perspective alter the apparent size and depth of subjects within a picture, i.e., the distance by which the background and foreground appear to be separated from each other. The most obvious effect seen is when a wide-angle lens is attached. The background objects will appear distant and quite small against objects in the foreground, and the wider the lens the more exaggerated this becomes. Conversely, if a telephoto lens is attached, the viewing distance is then altered, and, for a picture composed of the same elements, the background will appear closer and therefore larger than seen by the human eye. This is called a compressed perspective. You can see the effect (above) in the image above from Lake Dove Cradle Mountain in Tasmania, then below it the wide angle perspective.
Focal length and field of view
Focal length is defined as the distance between the image sensor (or film plane) and the optical centre of a lens, when focused at infinity. The shorter the focal length, the wider the field of view. The longer the focal length, the narrower the view.
Changing lenses—and therefore the field, or angle of view—during a photographic session can dramatically affect the picture’s composition by the choice of magnification and decision of which elements and portions of the scene to include within the frame. In combination with changing the viewpoint, we can further change the perspective and create images that differ surprisingly—and often spectacularly—from the human eye’s perception.
These four photographs illustrate how using wide-angle, standard and telephoto lenses can result in very different shots of the same landscape. While each photograph is of the same range—the Western MacDonnell Ranges in Central Australia—there is a considerable difference between each of the photographs in terms of the elements in the landscape that are accentuated. While there are circumstances in which cropping can produce similar results, two primary issues must be considered. First, the size of the enlargement you wish to make. Second, the visual effects of foreshortening—the visual compression, or lack of compression—as seen when using wide-angle as opposed to telephoto lenses. While prime, fixed focal length lenses may produce a better result in terms of clarity, there are fine quality zoom lenses that can provide you with many opportunities for variable effects. In short, I would recommend a zoom lens that can range from a wide-angle to a moderate telephoto effect, ideally from around 35 mm to 200 mm.
The two lenses shown here are of the same make and focal length. The lens above right has a maximum aperture of f5.6, and the lens to the left a maximum of f2.8. Immediately you can see the front element diameter on the faster lens (f2.8) is larger. The faster lens is also three times the weight, however, it offers a higher resolution (sharpness), a brighter view for focusing and one extra aperture (f-stop) in speed. The f2.8 also gives less depth of field when it is used on maximum aperture, which can have considerable aesthetic with regards to background softness in particular. Unfortunately, it is twice the price! Nonetheless, choice of lens will depend on your type of work and more importantly the visual effect you are seeking. These are high-end lenses, for beginners and or those working on lower budgets, you can explore lenses in the Sigma and Tamron ranges. Don’t be fooled, though, an in-store snapshot test is no way to test a lens. You need some time in the field with a lens to fully test it. I recommend, and always will, if you are committed, buy the best there is. I have ‘lust lists’ like most photographers.
Some quick final tips for choosing a lens
- I would recommend starting with a zoom lens that can range from a wide-angle to a moderate telephoto effect. This means from around 35 mm to 200 mm. 24- 70mm is also a good zoom range.
- If you are a beginner I suggest mastering one lens at a time.
- Remember the higher priced lenses are likely to be of a higher quality.
- I would also read the post on this site that deals with choosing a DSLR camera. This post will help you with goal setting and the exploration of the direction you would like to take with your photography.
Photography Seminars, Tours & Workshops
Lenses for Nature Photography
Choosing a DSLR camera for nature photography
Lenses for Botanical Photography
Bird Photography – lenses and essential kit
Steve Parish Books on photography
The Creative You