What to Look for When Choosing a New Camera Lens

With so many lens choices to choose from, how can you possible know what kind of lens to get and if it will do what you want? In this article we will walk you through the different features of standard lenses so that you can learn how to pick out the right lens for the type of shooting you do when choosing a new camera lens.

Types of camera lenses

Let’s first look at the different types of lenses that are available, this will usually be the first decision point in choosing your new lens.

Macro lens

A macro lens is used for close up work, usually when you want the image in your final photograph to be life size or larger, that is the typical definition of macro. A macro lens is great for insects, flowers, and other close up, highly detailed images. Some lenses are both a telephoto and a macro based on their available focal length.

Telephoto / Zoom Lenses

This is the most common type of lens because it allows you to adjust the focal distance of the lens for closer objects and objects that are further away. A zoom lens can be anywhere from a wide angle to what is referred to as a super-telephoto which is for very long distance objects.

The focal length will be listed in millimeters (e.g. 18mm – 35mm).

Wide Angle

A wide angle lens will allow you to take an image of a wider field of view. Often this can result in a distorted image with less expensive lenses and highly distorted images with a lens such as a fish-eye lens. A wide angle lens is often in the 10mm – 17mm range.

Care must be taken when shooting closeups of people to avoid the faces from becoming to distorted, however done right, the effect can be really interesting.

Prime / Fixed Focal Length

A prime lens does not allow you to zoom in and out, if you want to adjust the size of the image in the viewfinder, you have to move closer or further away from the subject. The advantage of these lenses is often a very large aperture range and they are typically known for having extremely sharp images.

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Focal Length

Once you decide on the type of lens you want, the next choice is the focal length as expressed in millimeters. The smaller the focal length the wider the field of view which is good for close objects and landscapes where a higher focal length is good for distance objects such as shooting sports, wildlife, and spying on your ex-girlfriend.

The longer the focal length, the more glass elements are involved and so the price can be very high on a high quality super-telephoto lens. Most people can get by with a short range lens such as an 18-35 and then a longer length like a 40-135. This will cover the vast majority of what most people will typically shoot. A short range lens like an 18-35 is great for general purpose family get-togethers, parties, kids, etc while the longer length is good for objects further away like at the zoo or places of interest on vacation.

Aperture

The final decision factor in choosing a lens is the aperture range. This is also the variable that has the most impact on the cost of the lens. The smaller the aperture number (e.g. f/1.4) the better the lens will do in darker situations, This will also make a big difference in the depth of field. A rule of thumb is to get the smallest aperture number you can afford after you decide on the lens type and focal length.

An example of the affect on the price can be seen with the Canon 50mm prime lenses. The f/1.8 will set you back about $89, while the f/1.6 will ding you for around $250, and the F/1.4 L series lens will make a huge $1,200 dent in your wallet.

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Additional Features

Image Stabilization

Along with aperture, choosing a lens with or without optical image stabilization (also known as vibration reduction) will usually have a large impact on the cost of the lens. For faster lenses (f/2.8 or smaller aperture) you can usually use a very fast shutter speed so image stabilization may not be very important.

However, on a long super-telephoto lens like a 70-300mm f/4.0 – f/5.6, adding image stabilization will result in a much higher number of images that are nice and sharp and are not blurry from camera shake. If you think you have a super steady hand, go into your local camera shop and ask to hold a camera with a 300mm lens and aim it at something as far away as possible and switch the stabilization on and off, you will see a HUGE difference immediately through the viewfinder and it seems to “lock on” to what you are looking at.

Lens Hoods

If there is a lens hood available for your lens, buy it! You should always shoot with a lens hood on for two main reasons.

1) It will avoid nasty glare and lens flare from light sticking the front of the lens, this can totally ruin an otherwise excellent photo.

2) It will protect the front of the lens from inevitable bumps and dings. Many photographers have dropped their lens and/or camera and have had that cheap piece of plastic save a very expensive piece of glass.

Filters

There are so many filters available that it would take a huge article to discuss them all, however we are going to recommend that you do buy a good quality UV filter for every lens and keep it on the front of the lens at all times. This will also protect the actual glass of the lens from getting scratched or even touched.

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I know I much prefer cleaning a $20 filter than actually needed to clean the glass on a very expensive lens. This is another must-have as I can’t tell you how many people I know that have dropped lenses and the inexpensive filter got crushed or mangled however saved a very expensive lens.

Lens Prices

I want to wrap this up with a brief discussion about lens prices. What you will actually find is that most lenses actually hold their price for a long time and the better the lens, the better it will retain its value. An example is the coveted Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 L Series lens, brand new this lens goes for around $1,600. Used, you are lucky to find it for less than $1,400.

Once in a great while you may see one go on craigslist.com or ebay.com for around $1,200. That is a fairly insignificant price drop on a used piece of equipment. A few photographers I know will only buy used lenses because they know they can pretty much sell them at anytime they want for really close to what they paid for them. On the low end, the Canon 50mm f/1.8 sells new for $89 and can rarely be found used for less than $75.

Choosing a new camera lens: Summary

We hope that this has given you the knowledge you need to make an informed decision when buying a new lens. We always recommend that you post in forums, read reviews, and ask your sales rep at your local shop for advice as well.

You can easily spend several times more on lenses than you spend on your camera body so make sure you make the right choices.

Photo by CHUTTERSNAP on Unsplash