Lenses: What You Want to Know


by melissa

I was originally dead set on making my next post on exposure, since I feel like it’s the most primary thing to learn about using your camera. But as your comments came rolling in from the indoor photos post, there were so many questions on lenses that I had to go there first. I remembered that before we understood exposure very well (or at all for that matter), we had a lovely lens. A lovely lens that made learning exposure a very rewarding thing. And so it seems fair to hope that someone else reading may get the chance to learn on a lovely lens also, like we did.

Warning...This is a lot of information.
Warning 2...I’m not a technology genius.

Let me start with a huge disclaimer that lenses and cameras can get very technical if you get into the math and engineering of the whole thing—and I know next to nothing about all that. If I open a web page on focal lengths for lenses, I start to glaze over and head for the back button at the first sight of a mathematical formula. It’s not my forte (and quite frankly it’s over my head). So if you’re looking for a super technical genius answer to any lens mysteries, I’m not your girl. But I will happily share what I know—which is a combination of what I’ve learned from our own hands-on experience and what I’ve (very gradually) come to grasp about a lens’s technological makeup, in its most basic form.

Below are my answers to questions about lenses that either I have been frequently asked by others, or that we had when we were first getting our own lenses. But...if you want to skip all the talk and head straight for an easy recommendation, feel free to scroll to the bottom for a quick answer.

Is a kit lens (entry-level zoom) sufficient?

Sometimes, depending on what you’re shooting. If you’re always in ideal lighting, then yes (ideal lighting being a well-lit day outdoors). For travel, I imagine a kit lens would be perfect: lightweight, zoom, and great performance outside. But if you are using your camera frequently indoors, in low light, or for action shots (kids running away from you while you’re trying to catch a photo of them would be considered an action shot), and you want to avoid your flash at all costs like me, then you definitely need to get another lens. Kit lenses will usually be too slow and too dark (because of the small aperture) to successfully take photos without a flash in the home. If you haven’t bought a DSLR camera yet, but want to, I would throw my vote out there for buying a camera body alone, and then hand picking the lens you want separately.

What are the other options besides kit lenses?

When we were about to buy our first camera and lenses, Jon and I suspected a kit lens wouldn't satisfy our high hopes for better photos. We knew what we wanted our pictures to look like, and knew we didn’t want to use money on some random lens that wasn’t going to get the results we wanted. So we did some serious homework. We looked at ALL the options. And there were a lot. I actually researched dozens of other photographers (whose work we loved) for weeks, looking through websites, articles, and blogs to find out what lenses they used, and I tallied them all up (clearly there wasn't a single kit lens among them). And that’s exactly how we chose our first lens: whatever had the most tally marks won, and that was the one we bought, with a camera body separately. Your method may be different, roll with it. Hopefully some tips here will help you.

Prime Lenses
A prime lens (or fixed lens) is a lens that has only one focal length, which means there is no zooming capability. Prime lenses are known (especially at the top end) for their image quality and speed (larger aperture, faster shutter speed), but in order to zoom you need to move your feet :) These are ideal portrait lenses if you get them at a focal length of 50mm or longer, and sacrificing the zoom so you can pay less for a larger aperture is well worth it. If you’re like me and primarily shoot indoors chasing kids in low light, this is an essential lens type for you.

50mm, f/1.8, 1/200s, ISO 400

50mm, f/1.4, 1/800s, ISO 100

Telephoto Zoom Lenses
These come in a wide variety. The larger the mm number, the further zoomed in you will be (or further away from your subject you can be). The benefit of a zoom is obvious: you can get a closer crop of your subject without moving. If the lens has a long focal length (200mm or more) then you may want to make sure it has Image Stabilization (IS) (VR on a Nikon, for Vibration Reduction) to keep camera shake from blurring your images. A zoom lens with a large aperture (f/2.8) can be crazy expensive (like $1,000-$3,000 expensive), so unless it’s an investment for a business, a professional zoom lens probably doesn’t need to be on your wishlist. For all other purposes (travel, landscape, outdoor sports), an f/4 aperture should be plenty big enough to do a great job.

(left photo) 70mm, f/2.8, 1/1600s, ISO 100 (right photo) 200mm, f/2.8, 1/1600s, ISO 100
(left photo) 70mm, f/2.8, 1/2000s, ISO 2500 (right photo) 100mm, f/2.8, 1/2000s, ISO 2500

Macro Lenses
These are specifically designed for shooting objects up close (think tiny-bee-on-a-flower kind of close). There are other lenses that come with a ‘macro’ setting, (we lived on that setting in our point and shoot) but true macro lenses magnify your subjects without sacrificing image size, enabling you to get incredibly close to what you’re shooting, in a crystal-clear National Geographic kind of way.

65mm, f/2.8, 1/640s, ISO 320

Wide Angle Lenses (about 10mm-35mm)
Wide angles enable you to take shots with a very wide perspective. The smaller the mm number, the wider the angle. These come in handy when you want to get much more in a photo than you would normally be able to (like real estate photos inside a house, or large groups of people, or a wide landscape). Wide angles come both as prime lenses and zoom lenses, and sometimes you’ll get a hint of wide angles in some telephoto zoom lenses (i.e., 18-105mm). The wider you get, the more crazy distortion you’ll find in your photos (think Mac PhotoBooth, but in a less wacko, more uniform way). Fisheye is as wide as you can get. Wide angles can be fun, but if you’re not into warping or distortion, you should probably stick with lenses that have focal lengths of 50mm or longer.

(left photo) 24mm, f/2.8, 1/1600s, ISO 100 (right photo) 200mm, f/2.8, 1/1250s, ISO 100
24mm, f/2.8, 1/1600s, ISO 100

Is a more expensive lens always a better quality lens?

Not always. It depends on what you’re comparing. If you’re looking at two very similar lenses, then probably yes (i.e, 50mm f/1.4 for about $400 vs. 50mm f/1.8 for about $150). Even then, it will depend on your taste and what you’re using it for. But comparing a prime lens to a zoom lens and basing your decision on price is comparing apples to oranges. They have two completely different purposes and likewise different price ranges.

High quality lenses are known for being fast, having large apertures, sharp focus, and being heavier/more durable (made of more metals and less plastics). Lenses are considered fast when they have a large aperture (I would personally say apertures somewhere between f/1.4-f/2.8 are large, but others may say as small as f/4.0 could be considered large), because the large aperture allows much more light into your sensor, which means your shutter speed can be faster since more light is entering per fraction of a second. Large apertures also have a much smaller depth of field (bokeh, or foreground/background blur) which can give portraits a more professional feel. Prime lenses will almost always be cheaper than zooms simply because they have less complex technology. And cheaper definitely doesn't make them a lower quality lens. My heart (and wallet) goes first to the lenses with the largest apertures, and those will always be found in prime lenses.

What do all the numbers mean?

If you go onto the Canon/Nikon website and start perusing the rows of every Canon EF/Nikkor lens you’ve [n]ever heard of, you'll find they all look something like this:

EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS II
AF-S DX NIKKOR 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6G VR

And you’re supposed to make sense of that, at least enough to know if you want it or not. What?! If you’re anything like I was when we first jumped on the DSLR bandwagon, then you’re probably a little overwhelmed. We have Canon equipment, so I’m a little lost in the Nikon world, but only the acronyms will mean different things. The numbers are universal. You can find definitions for some Nikon acronyms here.

Let’s break it down for CANON.
  • EF-S: Electronic Focus (with Short-back focus, whatever that means). The important thing, though, is that this is the lens mount designation—mount meaning what camera it will fit on. EF lenses fit all camera bodies, EF-S will fit only lower-end camera bodies. See more info here.
  • 18-55mm: Focal length. You will be able to zoom as wide as 18mm and as narrow as 55mm, including everything in between.
  • f/3.5-5.6: Max aperture (not the ONLY aperture available for the lens). The smaller the number, the bigger the aperture (= more light, more bokeh, more speed). This does not mean you can’t use a smaller aperture than that, most lenses allow you to shoot with an aperture as small as f/22. But here’s something that took us a while to understand. See the hyphen, followed by another aperture? That’s called a “variable aperture.” That means that you can’t keep using the largest aperture when you zoom in. As you zoom in, your aperture will slowly decrease in size (whether you tell it to or not), and when you’re fully zoomed in it can only be as large as the second number listed for the lens: f/5.6.
    If only one aperture was listed, the lens would be a “fixed aperture,” meaning no matter how much you zoom in or out, your aperture has the capability to stay at its largest setting at all times. Fixed aperture lenses are typically heavier, higher quality, and more expensive glass, which makes them more expensive lenses. Variable aperture lenses aren’t necessarily a bad thing though, especially since they’re better for the budget. And it’s worth noting that if you had your aperture set to anything smaller than f/5.6 (say f/6.0), you could zoom in and out all you want and it would never change. But it’s definitely something you should be aware of when taking photos in low light and wanting to stay on your largest aperture...the more you zoom in, the darker your photos will be, and the more you’ll have to compensate (or your camera will do it for you on auto) with other settings.
  • IS II: Image Stabilization, to reduce camera shake.

What is most important to consider before buying a new lens?

Know your purpose. What will you be using the lens for? Portraits? (Prime or Telephoto). Indoor photos? (Prime or Wide). Travel? (Telephoto Zoom). Landscapes? (Telephoto Zoom or Wide). Close ups of details? (Macro). Once you nail down your purpose, then you know what type of lens to look into. Nikon has a great site that breaks down their lenses into groups based on your purpose. You can check it out here. Canon’s website groups their lenses by type, not purpose, but you can check them out here.
Consider your budget. Know how much you’re okay with spending, and then look into the type you know you want, and see which lenses in that group you can afford. I would say a larger aperture always indicates a higher quality, but if your purpose is landscape photos, a large aperture may not be your priority, in which case, you could go with a smaller aperture telephoto for a cheaper price. If budget is a concern, there are other brands of lenses you could look into. I have read that Sigma, Tamron, Tokina perform comparably to Canon and Nikon lenses, they are compatible, and they are less expensive. We have never used anything except the Canon lenses, so I can’t personally recommend any lesser-known lenses, but it is definitely something to consider.

Read online reviews. This one is huge. We read review after review after review to make sure what we’re about to buy has a good track record. There are lots of forums online comparing lenses and those are helpful too. Try googling lenses you are considering and several things will likely come up.

What would I recommend?

We (Jon and I) always recommend...starting with one killer prime lens that you’ll love. Prime lenses are much cheaper and higher quality than zoom lenses, and they’ll give you more light, more speed, and better bokeh with less complication. We don’t mind zooming on our feet, and starting with the simplicity of a prime lens allowed us to really get to know our camera before we threw extra lenses into our bags (and even now, our prime lenses are STILL our favorites). Somewhere to start: our personal favorite is the 50mm f/1.4, or you could go for its less expensive version, the 50mm f/1.8. But if you have a cropped sensor, you may want to consider looking into the 35mm f/2 to get the equivalent of the 50mm on a full-frame sensor (read more about cropped sensors and knowing what to buy when you have one in my crop factor post. Tip: most DSLRs have cropped sensors!) And as a shopping tip, we love getting our lenses through B&H Photo. Great deals, great service, and one of the most credible shops in the industry.

I know this is a complete overload of information (and I feel like I didn't even say what I wanted to say), but it's nice to get it over with so we can move on to something more fun :) I'll share everything that's in our camera bags soon, but I can't handle any more info in this post, seriously...is anyone still reading this?! I need a nap. And a bowl of ice cream.

What things have you learned about lenses that have helped you? What are your favorite lenses? Let me know if you have any questions! I'll respond in the comment thread.

And look for a cliff notes version later, I'm thinking this needs one.


Here are some additional resources (if you aren’t gagging over too much lens info already):
Most Popular DSLR Lenses—Digital Photography School
Should You Buy a Better Lens or Camera—Beyond Megapixels
Factors to Consider When Shopping for a DSLR Lens—Digital Photography School

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  1. You are amazing Melissa! I still refer to your 'handbook" ALL THE TIME. I just wish you were here to take my pictures for me:)!

    1. Lindi!! I just saw a post of yours on facebook about how you did a ladybug party over a year ago, and all the sudden I missed shooting lovely little parties for you! Your butterfly party, your cherry party...oh how I love your details! I wish I were there to take pictures too! But you do a beautiful job without me, lady!

  2. Great post. What about filters? I mostly like to use one on my telephoto just to protect the lens. Are they useful to improve indoor photography, and what type would you recommend?

    1. Hi Tanis! Thanks for stopping by! We use filters on all our lenses (UV filters) primarily for protection, just like you. Mostly because we have kids, and because we're pretty liberal with where we take our camera...the beach, the pool, the snow...so we feel like protecting it anyway we can is worth it. I can't tell you if they improve indoor photography or not, I've actually never shot without one. But I did recently read that you get what you pay for with filters (shocker, I know), and that if you get a cheap filter it could really take away the clarity and crispness from your shot, not to mention add haze, give a strange color hue, or increase the amount of lens flare. High quality UV filters are meant to reduce haze and protect the lens, and should be completely clear. We get Hoya brand UV filters, and we do have a couple Hoya Circular Polarizing filters, but rarely use them since they're mostly beneficial for landscape photography, to keep the skies blue and the landscape bright.

      You can learn more about filters here: http://www.cambridgeincolour.com/tutorials/camera-lens-filters.htm

      I hope that helps!!

    2. I use Hoya as well, but am considering buying prime or macro lens to photograph greeting cards for my blog, so was debating whether I really need a third filter when this lens will likely be living in my craft room and not taking much abuse!

    3. You would probably be okay without getting a third filter, not if you never plan on taking your lens out of your craft room. It sounds safe to me! I doubt it would improve your photos by having a filter on, so I'm guessing you might even be better off without it!

    4. That's what I was thinking. Thanks for your input!

  3. Another great post! In your "What would I recommend?" paragraph you say: "But if you’ve got a cropped sensor, you may want to consider looking into the 35mm f/2 to get the equivalent of the 50mm on a full-frame sensor." What is a cropped sensor? I don't understand that sentence! But I want to :)
    I have a Nikon D3100 and I just ordered a 35mm lens. I can't wait to get it! I was at my kids' school program last night and had a kit lens and a 50-200mm zoom lens and, as we were sitting in the front row, the 50 was way too close. So I guess I'm glad I decided on the 35mm one for things like that.
    Thanks for all of your help!

    1. Hi Laney! You were spot on with your second paragraph, if you have a cropped sensor (which I believe a D3100 does, I may be wrong, but I think it has a 1.5x crop factor), then a 50mm would be too zoomed in (it's actually just cropped in) for close-up situations. It actually creates an image closer to what an 85mm lens would create on a full-frame sensor camera.

      I'm going to do a post just on cropped sensors in the future, but know for now whatever lens you get will be cropped in at a 1.5 factor, so shoot for the next wider lens to get closer to what you were hoping for. If you want specific recommendations, shoot me an email and I'll send you a chart that will be part of the post. I'm excited to hear how you like your 35mm lens! I think you'll love it!

  4. Hey Melissa - LOVE your posts!!! I was wondering if I could put in a request. Would you maybe be willing to put your camera settings (ISO F-stop shutter speed) under your example photos? For example - I love the shots you took of Jon in the stadium where you were talking about zoom lenses and would love to know your settings. THANKS! Can't wait for your next post. ;)

    1. Courtney! Thanks so much for your comment! It's so fun seeing you here. I thought about including my settings originally, and decided against it because it was 2am and I was tired :) I sometimes hesitate sharing settings because they totally depend on everything in that moment...the time of day, the cloud cover, the capabilities of your camera/lens, so I know they won't just translate over to someone else's photo in some other moment/place. But I can see how they're interesting just to hear and get an idea of the exposure balance, and you're so excited about them, I can't resist sharing them with you! :) I'll try to add them now as captions. Let me know if you have any other questions! (and I love that you are following my posts, that makes me happy!)

  5. Thank you for taking the time to put this post together! It is one of the best that I have found on the subject. All the technical information in the photography world, can be quite daunting. You do a great job of breaking it down and making it less intimidating. It is very much appreciated!

    1. Bentley, thank you so much for your comment! I'm so happy to hear you found it helpful and not intimidating...that's definitely what I was hoping for. I know what you mean about all the information being daunting, this really is a technical skill that involves a lot of learning, and I've always appreciated when someone would help break it down to me. Good luck, and be sure to come back in the future for more posts (much shorter ones at that).

  6. Thank you. I really want a Macro lens. I appreciate your thoughtful and comprehensive post. Olive

    1. Thanks for stopping by Olive, I'm so glad you found it helpful. Macro lenses are so fun to catch small details, and I LOVE small details! Best of luck!

  7. I appreciate your writing about this so much. Even if you think it is too much info, I am reading the whole thing....and thank you for spending the time to share with us what you know....

    1. I'm glad to hear it's helpful (and that you're reading the whole thing!!). I'm still having poster's remorse with leaving that much info, but it's nice to have it over with and leave myself with more fun things to write about :) Let me know if you have any questions I didn't touch on!

  8. Hi! I am just getting into photography more and I am stuck on what telephoto lens to get. I mostly photograph my two kids but have some family sessions and weddings coming up this summer. I have a 50 mm prime but feel I need something else. My budget isnt large either so I cant afford and L lens right now. Is there a lens you really love that you can use for a wide range of things? Thanks so much, I LOVE your posts :)

    1. Hi Nicole! I've heard good things about the 18-135mm and the 24-105mm for lower-budget telephotos, but I haven't personally tried either of them, so it's hard for me to personally recommend any. The best suggestion I can give is to go to B&H Photo online, compare their lenses there, and read many many customer reviews. It will be worth it! Good luck!

  9. What a fantastic breakdown on lenses! I can't tell you how much I appreciate this as I am never quite sure which lens to settle on. I have a zoom lens and the Canon 50mm 1.4 (which I LOVE)but now I know that because of my crop sensor, I might want to pick up the 35mm. Thank you so much for writing this up. I just pinned this so I can refer back the next time I go lens shopping.

    1. Awesome Leena! I'm so glad you found the post helpful! It's so nice to have things broken down into language that makes sense, and that's what we didn't have when we were learning, so I love hearing that somehow things I'm explaining are making sense!! Good luck!

  10. It's important to know that Zoom lenses don't actually "zoom in". All it's doing is changing the direction light is received into your camera. It creates the effect that we think is moving closer to the subject, which can really only be done by physically walking closer. This doesn't change the value of using a zoom lens. They're great! It's just good to know everything.

    And I disagree with one of the uses of a wide angle you suggested; groups of people. If you're in a tight space and can't move farther than the wall will let you, then of course you use what works. But a wide angle will distort body shapes and not many clients like that, so if you have the ability to walk farther away, then WALK. Do what it takes to get the best photo possible. A longer lens will always be the better choice for group photos if you want them to look normal.

    1. Great points Amy. It's always helpful to understand the true technicality of a camera, thanks for adding to the information here.

      Wide angles are tricky because I feel like they have a lot to do with personal style and taste, which is why I mentioned if you’re not into warping or distortion, you should probably stick with lenses that have focal lengths of 50mm or longer. They are fantastic for large group shots if that's your style, especially if, as I mentioned in the post, you want to get much more in a photo than you would normally be able to, like fitting a group in a small room where you couldn't get everyone in otherwise. If it's not your style, then you're exactly right, stepping back and using a longer lens is much more ideal. Especially if your clients are not coming to you expecting photos like that. I hope to not come across as authoritative on this blog, just an open source of sharing things I've learned to a very general audience. So I'm glad you felt comfortable sharing what you've learned too! Thanks for sharing!


  11. Hi! I've been learning and trying to get into photography for the past couple years and I think your information and tips/tricks have helped me more in the past 2 weeks than any other book or website has in the past 2 years!! Your blog posts are beyond awesome for someone starting out.

    I really like how you chose your first lens, and I'd really like to try the same. At the moment I have the kit lens and a pretty good telephoto lens, but I'm looking at buying a wide angle or a Prime (I really want both and I will get one eventually... but for now, just one haha). I'd really like to see how each one is used and the variety of results one can get from them, so I'd really like to take a look at some other photographers websites to do my own research as well! If possible, could you recomment some of your favorite photographers and maybe your favorite Canon model lenses as well??

    Your posts and recommendations are amazing and I really appreciate them!! Thank you so much!


  12. Hi Melissa! I am brand spanking new to this loverly little blog and I have to tell you that I love the way that you explain photography. I love all the information that I've read, but i just have a couple of quick questions. I have a Cannon Power Shot SX130IS. Its great for beginners and Ive had it for about 2 1/2 years. Id like to get more out of my photos and I wanted to know what the next step up in a DSLR might rationally be? Any and all suggestions are greatly appreciated!

    Thanks for posting such helpful information!


  13. Aloha-
    I just wanted to add my appreciation for all of the information you've put into your blogs. This last year has been my first year as a stay at home mother, and it's really pushed me to combine my passion for photography with my need to make a little money on the side. I am a long way from a professional, but blogs like yours have really helped me move in the right direction, so Thank You!

  14. Just an FYI on shopping tips- both Canon and Nikon have price set their products, meaning every dealer has to legally sell their wares at their set prices (within a couple dollars). So for those looking to buy equipment, shop local! You'll be supporting your community, paying the same as online, and getting good customer service and input!

  15. Hey! I love all of your posts and I was curious to whether or not the 50mm f/1.4 would be good with my Nikon D5100, I have a baby boy and you're posts have taught me so much on how to take wonderful photos of him, so while reading this I decided to look for a new lense. Was just looking for your input since you know much more than I do!!!!

  16. My hubs surprised me with a Canon rebel last Christmas. I immediately went back to one of your posts I pinned about indoor light. Now, I'm getting in deeper reading more posts knowing I will eventually need another lens. Thanks for simplifying the hunt...it's so so overwhelming. Most photos are of the kids and inside. I never use the flash (a tip that all of my photographer friends have shared), but with my starter lens I really have to crank the ISO up which, of course, causes lots of grainy pictures. You've helped me realize I am probably headed in the direction of a prime lens. (when budget permits) :-)

  17. I also like the 50mm 1.4. Have you tried the 35mm f.2? Thank you for this lovely post.

  18. Love your blog!!!! Thanks for explaining things so a simpilton like myself can understand :)

  19. Question. I have a Nikon D5200 (Newbie but excited to learn!) and I am looking for a good portrait lens that I can use mainly in hospital type lighting. What would you recommend? Everything that keeps coming up is not compatible with the Nikon body that I have. Help the new kid?


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