Recently, I taught a Lightroom class for the Jackson Hole Art Association. On the last day, I had one student stay over the lunch break to ask me about lenses.
“What do you have? What are the best lenses?”
I’m no stranger to gear questions. I get texts and DM’s asking for gear recommendations regularly. When I polled to see if people would like to hear about my 2020 haul, 90% of people said yes.
Unfortunately, there’s no right answer to gear questions. It’s always some form of: it depends.
A disappointing answer to deliver, but it’s true. A wedding photographer and a landscape photographer will have vastly different lenses in their bag. Without a starting point, logging onto B&H or Amazon and searching for lenses is really overwhelming. So I’m here to help.
So how do you even get started on finding what lens you want? I’ve compiled a list of questions to ask yourself to help you start on your search for the perfect lens.
Question #1: Do you have a crop sensor or a full frame camera body?
Why do sensors matter? What is the difference?
In short, a full frame camera allows you a wider frame from your lenses. Focal length measurements are based on how they would appear on a 35mm field of view. If you compare a 50mm lens on an old 35mm film camera to a 50mm lens on a full frame camera - they’ll give you the same shot. A 50mm lens will act like a true 50mm.
A crop sensor camera effectively crops your field of view. A common magnifier is 1.5x, which would make your 50mm lens act more like a 70mm. Simply put, crop sensor cameras will make it appear as if you are zoomed in closer to your subject.
Pros: crop sensor cameras are more budget friendly. The extra built-in zoom can be useful for things like wildlife and sports photography.
Cons: crop sensor cameras don’t let you utilize the full frame potential of your lens.
Additionally, some lenses are made specifically for crop sensor cameras, some are versatile and can be used on both sensors. Make sure your lens is right for your camera before buying!
Question #2: Are you generally able to move around to find the right angle while shooting?
When you’re picking out lenses, you’ll often run into the debate of zoom lenses (where you can change your focal length) vs. prime lenses* (where you cannot).
The trade off is this: zoom lenses give you more flexibility, prime lenses are often faster and sharper. While it’s not always true, most prime lenses perform better in low light situations.
With a prime lens, you’re stuck with whatever focal length you have on. If you’re able to move around to find the right angle, this isn’t very limiting. Portrait photographers have the time and flexibility to move around their subjects and tend to select prime lenses.
If you’re an action, wildlife or wedding photographer - you may have less or no flexibility in your ability to move. In that case, you’d likelyselect a zoom lens.
* prime lenses are also referred to as fixed lenses.
Question #3: Do you often shoot in dark situations or situations that require your shutter speed to be fast?
If you’re often shooting in the dark or in situations that require your lens to be fast, you’ll want to look for a lens with a low aperture or “fast glass”.
A low aperture allows you to have a faster shutter speed in action situations and allows you more flexibility shooting in darker situations. Fast lenses are typically sharper lenses, but they are heavier, larger and come with a bigger price tag compared to their slower counterparts.
Question #4: What are you primarily shooting?
It's unusual to exclusively shoot one genre, but I’d recommend picking the top few where 75%+ of your time is spent: landscapes, portraits, weddings, action sports, macro (bugs, flowers, etc) or wildlife.
Some examples of common lenses for different genres:
Landscape: 16-35mm f/2.8 | 70-200mm f/4.
Many landscape photographers find themselves wanting a wide lens to make sure the entire landscape gets into the shot and a longer lens hone in on mountain ranges or other landmarks. Landscape photographers typically use tripods for low-light situations and carry their gear for long distances, so a lighter set-up may be appealing.
Portrait: 50mm f/1.4 | 85mm f/1.2
If you’re mostly shooting portraits, you’ll be able to move to find your angle. Prime lenses are popular among portrait photographers. 50mm and 85mm are common, flattering focal lengths for your subjects.
Weddings: 70-200mm f/2.8 | 24-70mm f/2.8 | 50mm f/1.4
While weddings at their essence are primarily portraits - rapidly changing light situations and movement restrictions make having a mixture of zoom lenses and prime lenses ideal.
Action Sports: 16-35 f/2.8 | 70-200mm f/2.8 | 24-70mm f/2.8 | 100-400mm f/4-5.3
If you’re shooting action sports, odds are your movement is heavily limited. Think about how close you get to the action (how wide do you want your frame to be) or how long of a reach you’d ideally like to have.
Macro: 100mm f/2.8 macro
The 100mm macro is a powerhouse lens. Macro lenses allow you to focus on smaller subjects in frame, such as bugs and flowers.
Wildlife: 150-600mm f/5-6.3
Odds are, if you’re a wildlife photographer - you’re holed up in the bushes waiting for an animal to come out. You don’t have any flexibility in movement and you’re far enough away as to not disturb your subject. A long zoom lens is perfect for you.
*these are some classic kits but they’re not guaranteed to be your perfect kit*
Question #5: Where do you feel like your current set-up fails you?
This is the most important question. Think critically about the limitations of your current set up - do you wish it did better in low light or landscapes could be wider? Do you feel like you struggle to get close enough to the action? This answer will guide you towards what lens you want to buy more than anything .
In the above shot, I missed several great shots. I was shooting with a prime lens and unable to move, so I had to wait for my subject to get close enough to me.
Because we’re all on a budget, here’s some site recommendations*:
LensAuthority - LensAuthority is the sister site of LensRentals.com. They sell used lenses for a deal. Each lens’s cosmetics, glass and performance is rated and is priced accordingly. You can even purchase a warranty on the lenses.
I love LensAuthority. I make sure the glass is rated “excellent” and performance is “excellent or great”. I personally don’t care about cosmetics - I shoot enough that my gear gets beat up. If someone else puts a scratch on the exterior, I don’t care. I’ll put 3 more in by the end of the year.
*I don’t get commissions from any of these sites, though I wish I did.