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There are so many different lenses out there with different focal lengths and price points, it can be extremely difficult for the casual shooter to know which lenses they should have in their kit. Where does one even begin!? Here’s the thing, though- once you know which types of lenses are used for the type of shooting that you do, the options become narrowed down significantly, and everything becomes much less overwhelming, I promise. So, in this article, I want to break down the different types of photography and which lenses lend themselves to the various genres. That way, you can take a quick look and see which 1-3 lenses you should decide between, as opposed to which 50 lenses! I’ll include some links to the lenses, but just know that if I link to a Nikon lens and you have a Canon camera, that lens almost certainly exists within the Canon or Sony ecosystem etc. For the sake of this article, I will be referring only to “full frame” lenses, however if your camera has a smaller sensor, the same information will apply, you will just have to make the conversion for the correct focal length. If you're not sure what that means, I just wrote an article that covers some of that stuff here, otherwise, you are welcome to call into our store where one of our staff photographers would be happy to break everything down for you.
So let’s begin with the most casual photographer that we see coming into our Montréal photo store and work our way from there.
The parent who just wants to take nice pictures of their kids
My heart really goes out to all the parents out there who are trying to figure this out. They are busy, VERY BUSY, and don’t have the time or energy to figure this stuff out, and quite frankly, nor do they really care to! What do they care about? They care about their kids, and they want beautiful pictures of them to put in their albums and frames. Ok, so how can we make that happen?
Well, you’re going to want a nice “normal” lens that is “fast”. What does that mean? A normal lens means something that’s not too wide angle or too telephoto. Basically, you want something that is more or less what the human eye sees, or maybe a little more telephoto. A great focal length for this kind of photography is a 50mm lens. In fact, if you are only going to buy one lens, forget the kit lens (the one that comes with the camera), pick up a nice quality 50mm lens and you can pretty much do everything with it. I could also recommend an 85mm lens, though it will be quite a bit more zoomed in than the 50mm lens. The problem with the 85mm lens is if you are taking pictures inside, it may be a bit too zoomed in, and so a 50mm lens gives you the flexibility to easily take pictures of your kids both indoors and outdoors. As well, you will want a lens that is relatively fast. What does that mean? It means that the aperture in the lens opens up to f2 or f1.8. This will allow you to take portraits of your kids with the background nice and blurry, giving the photo a great, professional look. Not sure what aperture is, I explain that over in this article.
Here are some great 50mm lenses!
Sony 50mm f 1.8 FE
Nikon Nikkor Z 50mm f 1.8
Nikon Nikkor Z 50mm f 1.2 S
Sigma 50mm f 1.4 Art for Canon EF
Panasonic Lumix 50mm f 1.4 S PRO
The portrait photographer
Maybe you’re the parent from the previous section, and the pictures that you’ve been taking of your kids are so nice, other parents have started to notice and they’re asking you to take pictures of their kids now! Well, now might be the time to “up your game” a bit and pick up that 85mm lens that I mentioned earlier. I know, I said it might be too zoomed in for indoor pictures, BUT, if your getting paid for portrait sessions, that means that there is some planning going on for these pictures, so if they are indoors, you will be able to plan for the required space, and if they are outdoors, well, you won’t be able to beat a jaw dropping portrait from an 85mm lens. Just like for the 50mm lens, you will want a fast lens, maybe even one with an aperture of f 1.4. What difference will the 85mm lens have over the 50mm lens that you already own? Well, the more telephoto the lens, the more compression occurs, which is a very pleasing effect for a portrait. As well, that 85mm f1.4 will give you an even blurrier, creamier background, and who doesn’t want that!?
Here are some awesome 85mm lenses!
Sony 85mm f 1.4 GM
Sony 85mm f 1.8
Canon 85mm f 1.8 EF
Canon 85mm f 1.2 RF
Sigma 85mm f 1.4 Art for Nikon
Nikon Nikkor Z 85mm f 1.8 S
The landscape photographer
Landscape photography is often what gets a lot of people interested in photography, and I totally understand why! Beautiful landscapes are striking and call out to be photographed even by people who have never picked up a camera. But now that you have picked up a camera, which lens should you choose to take your next great landscape photograph? I have always recommended lenses on the wider end for landscapes. Why? Because landscapes are vast and we often want that vastness to translate into the photograph. That’s not to say that you can’t use a telephoto lens for landscape photography; in fact, I would encourage you bring one with you. But, if you were just going to take one lens, I would recommend a nice quality wide angle zoom lens. This will give you options for your composition, but still be wide enough on either end of the zoom range to capture the view. For landscapes, unlike for portraits, the speed of the lens isn’t so important, since you want the image to be nice, sharp, and in focus from the center to the corners. While there are some fantastic f 2.8 wide angle zoom lenses out there, I just don’t think they are necessary for the landscape photographer, so I would recommend a super high quality f/4 lens.
Here are some fantastic f 4 wide angle zoom lenses!
Nikon Nikkor Z 14-30mm f 4 S
Sony Vario-Tessar T* FE 16-35mm f 4
Panasonic Lumix S PRO 16-35 f 4
The Wildlife photographer
For the photographers branching out and taking wildlife pictures, which lens should they use? The answer to this question is actually quite simple and intuitive - a telephoto lens, of course! Wildlife photographers need to pull the wildlife into the frame, and the only way to do that is with a lens that has a far reach. Now, I know you’re probably thinking that these big wildlife lenses must be very expensive, and yes, some of them are, but not all of them! The price of these lenses, as with others, largely depends upon the aperture. Fortunately, with a telephoto lens, an ultra large aperture isn’t required for background separation since a telephoto lens will naturally lend itself to more “bokeh” or separation. Another thing to consider is how and where you will be lugging these massive lenses. If you will be going on long extended hikes through the mountains, maybe you don’t need that larger aperture which in turn makes the lens larger, MUCH LARGER. Maybe you sacrifice the aperture for portability, and of course, price! On the other hand, if you are setting up in a blind and letting the wildlife come to you, then maybe you can have that big, beautiful, wide apertured hunk of glass and really take advantage of its crazy ability to separate the wildlife from a potentially busy woodland background. These are just a few things to consider before purchasing a lens for wildlife photography.
Ok, now let’s take a look at some really great wildlife lenses!
Nikon Nikkor 200-500mm f 5.6E ED
Sigma 150-600mm f 5-6.3 for Canon EF
Sony FE 400mm f 2.8 GM OSS
Canon RF 600mm f 11 IS STM
Canon RF 800mm f 11 IS STM
The Street photographer
Street photography is all about keeping things small. Long hours walking the streets looking for that “decisive moment” require a small lens that doesn’t draw attention to itself or the photographer. You will want something wide enough to properly compose on a busy sidewalk, but not so wide that the corners of the image become distorted. The most popular street photography lenses today are the 28mm and 35mm lens. If you have never shot street before, I would recommend a 35mm as it is wide enough in tight situations, but not so wide that you will have to get in your subject’s space to grab the shot. In my eyes, the 35mm lens is the classic street lens.
Let’s take a look at some really great 35mm lenses!
Canon RF 35mm f 1.8 Macro IS STM
Sigma 30mm f 1.4 for Sony E
Nikon Nikkor Z 35mm f 1.8 S
The Wedding photographer
Wedding photography is all about not missing “the shot”. Wedding photography used to be quite simple, consisting of a few portraits here and there as well as the obvious pictures of the newlyweds. Today, however, they expect a healthy mixture of photojournalism and glamor/model photography, which is no easy task! So, which lens could possibly allow a photographer to cover both of these genres? Well, we know from our street photography section above that a good street/photojournalism lens is around 28-35mm, and we know from our portrait photographer section that a good portrait lens is around 50-85mm, so where does that leave the wedding photographer? There is only one choice- the famous 24-70mm f 2.8 lens! This lens can truly do it all, covering everything that a wedding photographer, even most photographers, would ever need!
So let’s look at some truly awesome 24-70mm lenses!
Nikon Nikkor Z 24-70mm f 2.8 S
Sigma 24-70mm f 2.8 Art for Sony E
Sony 24-70mm f 2.8 GM
Canon EF 24-70mm f 2.8L II
Canon RF 24-70mm f 2.8 L IS USM
Panasonic Lumix 24-70mm f 2.8 S PRO
The Astro photographer
In photography we always hear about the “golden hour” and capturing photos in the best possible light, but what on earth do we do if we want to take pictures of the night sky? Of course for this type of photography, a full frame camera with a sensor that can gather loads of light is best. You may also want a camera that will allow you to zoom into your image while still retaining good image detail, or make impressively sized prints of the night sky - in other words you may want a camera with a relatively high megapixel count - like this one!
Nikon used to have a camera specialized in astro photography, the Nikon D810a, however it is now unfortunately discontinued. Of course this article is about lenses and not cameras, but I couldn’t help myself, I had to mention the D810a.
So, what kinds of lenses would be useful for an astro photographer? Both zoom lenses and fixed “prime” lenses are useful. If you are just getting into astro, you will probably want to start with a nice wide angle lens so that you can maximize your coverage of the night sky and certain focal points within it such as the milky way.
You will also want a fast lens that can gather tons of light to make up for the fact that, you know, it’s night! Now there are tons of lenses that might fit this description, but I am going to recommend a few that have fantastic image quality even when shot wide open, because shooting a fast lens wide open will do you no good if the final image looks soft.
The Product photographer
Product photographers have a deceivingly difficult job. They have to make a stationary object interesting and beautiful! A tough hand to be dealt for sure. If you are just getting into product photography, you will want a lens that does not have any obvious distortion. You will want the item to appear as it is, without being pushed and pulled in different directions due to the lens. You will also want a relatively fast lens, not because you need the speed, but because you may need its ability to blur and soften backgrounds. We have a few choices for lenses here, but I would suggest looking at lenses with a “macro” designation. What does macro mean? Well, it means that the lens was designed so that the image would retain a 1:1 magnification ratio, meaning you can take extremely close up pictures of the item and it will project onto the camera sensor the same size without introducing visual distortion.
Well, I think that just about covers everyone! Of course, there is going to be some overlap between the categories, and none of these take into consideration different shooting styles, but, if you are just starting out and only looking to purchase one lens for your camera, you can feel confident in these recommendations. I would also suggest to anyone that is shopping for a second or third lens to take a look at their current pictures and see what is the most common genre of photographs they are taking and at what millimeter lens. For example, maybe you have been shooting the kit lens that came with your camera, and you now want to get a nicer lens for pictures of your family members. Well, go take a look at the pictures that you have already taken of your family members and check to see what the lens settings were in the metadata of the photos. I recommended a 50mm lens, but maybe most of your pictures are at 85mm, or 35mm even. In that case, I would recommend purchasing a lens that fits with how you have been naturally “seeing” pictures.
Ok, that’s all from me! And don’t forget, if you have any questions, feel free to call up one of our staff photographers or come on by to our photo store in Montreal!