Classic Questions on Photography: Which Lens?

Every photographer, whenever they start or dip their toes in the proverbial waters, starts wondering about their gear, their work, and how to do things.  And, in search of answers to questions – we start asking them.  One of the classic questions is “What camera should I buy?”  Another similar one is “What lens to get?”  There are more (of course), but these are two of the most commonly asked questions I’ve had proposed to me (and that I’ve proposed myself in the past.  The answer though, is a bit more problematic, because there are qualifiers to everything.  More often than not, the answers start with the inevitable “It depends…”  The reason is – it does!

For lenses, the “depends” factor relates to what you want to shoot because your subject matter will define the focal range that is best suited to your purposes.  Here are some general rules of thumb to follow:

  • Wide Angle Lenses

Wide angle lenses (in my opinion), are best suited to a few specific styles and subject matter.  I’ve found that the wide angle of view is best suited to subjects like landscapes and architecture.  Wide angles allow you to capture a greater sense of scale, where clouds, skylines, building lines, and other scenes like this.  In general, the focal lengths that I would put in this category range from the low end of 10mm up to around 35mm.

  • Portrait Lenses

These are the lenses that are really best suited for portrait work.  Take someone’s picture with a wide angle lens, and the proportions can be very unflattering.  Alternatively, taking portrait pictures with a zoom lens requires to to be pretty far away, which makes for less interaction.  I like to really catch the details of people’s eyes, and be able to interact, so certain lenses work better for this.  The ones that I like for portrait work range in focal length anywhere from 50-200mm.  The 50mm (or nifty fifty) is the classic portrait lens, and when you shoot portraiture with one of these on a low aperture (f2.8 or lower), the results can be very appealing with some nice bokeh yet your subject is tack sharp.  You can probably go up to about a 200mm lens, before you are just too far away (for my taste).  Ironically, as you go up to the higher range of zooms, the higher focal range will compress things which can be more flattering, but you do so at the expense of being able to interact

  • Zoom Lenses

The zoom lens is probably the most obvious lens type and function.  Zooms are intended to take photos from further away than you normally would be able.  This makes them ideal for things like wildlife, sporting events, and things of that nature.  While preferences may vary, for me I would define zooms as anything above the 300mm level.

So, those are my general categories for lenses.  So, when you ask me what lens you should buy, I’ll ask what you want to shoot.  From that, these guidelines can help answer the lens question in better detail.  So, there’s my answer to the question of “Which Lens?”…what do you think?  Like it?  Make sense?  What are your categories?  Got any favorites?  Sound off in the comments, and share your own thoughts on the question of “Which lens”.  Until tomorrow, keep those lenses open and Happy Shooting!


P.S.  Tomorrow, the Guest Blogger series is back and we’re going across the pond – literally!  So, be sure to tune in to Kevin Mullins, a wedding photographer from the UK.  He’s got some great stuff to share so be sure to tune in then.

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7 comments for “Classic Questions on Photography: Which Lens?

  1. October 1, 2009 at 2:19 am

    Great summary Jason. You’ve got a nice overview there. I think one of the best lenses I ever had in terms of focal coverage was the 18-55. Great wide angle coverage and great portrait and medium zoom.
    .-= Kevin Mullins´s last blog ..I remember it well…. =-.

  2. October 1, 2009 at 7:58 am

    Good one Jason. I’ll add a little more to this, as I’ve learned a few fun facts myself. I run around with 3 standard lenses in my pack. I own more lenses than that, but my magic 3 really work out.

    My 17-40mm is great for landscapes (wide angle). My 24-70mm is also great on landscape work, people shots, portraits, and close range work with fire dancers (it’s a 2.8). Finally, my 70-200 is multi-purpose. It’s great for compressing landscapes, and it’s an amazing portrait lens. Actually, I prefer portrait work with the 70-200mm.

    One last thought. People always ask about what camera, what lenses, and how to be a great photographer. I recently met one of the most amazing portrait photographers who is undiscovered but I’m hoping to help get found. He shoots with a Rebel XT and a 70-200mm. That’s his entire gear list, and his portrait work is the best I’ve seen in a long time! Not just the gear……it’s the person on that shutter!
    .-= Rich C´s last blog ..White Pocket: Day three of the adventure =-.

  3. October 2, 2009 at 7:23 am

    Here is some advice on lenses from H.P. Robinson, an accomplished photographer from the days before film. Although this was written about 120 years ago it’s amazing how it’s still accurate. 🙂

    “The lens is always considered the most important of all the tools the photographer employs. So it is, but I should like to say boldly that, within limits, I do not care what make of lens I use. It is as well to have the best your means will allow, but there has always been too much made of particular variations in the make of lenses. It has been the fashion to think too much of the tools and too little of the use made of them. I have one friend who did nothing last year because he had made up his mind to buy a new lens, and could not determine whose make it should be, and he was tired of his old apparatus. His was of the order of particular and minute minds that try to whittle nothing to a point. I have another friend who takes delight in preparing for photography, and spends a small fortune in doing so, but never takes a picture.” -H.P. Robinson

  4. GT
    October 22, 2009 at 1:22 am


    Zoom lenses are lenses that allow the change of focal length. You can have wide zooms such as the 17-55mm, or any other non-prime (fixed focal length) lens.

    I think that when you said “zoom” in this article you really meant “telephoto”. Please correct the article as not to confuse people who are new to this – because it may lead them in awkward conversations on various forums.

    Ideally, to make this list complete, you may want to mention what’s the difference between zoom lenses and primes.

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