How to pick a lens – first do your research

(Repost – first posted Aug 2009 – updated to fix some links)

Ok I found this the scariest bit of all (except for actually handing over all that money!) because even tho I have been taking photos for years, I never actually understood what I was doing as far as the lens went.  I just did everything on Auto.

But when you go DSLR and just buy a body, its a whole different ball game, and as I discovered there are TOO MANY CHOICES when it comes to lenses.  Now I am really lucky because the guy who sold me my camera sold me this book:

EF Lens Work III: The Eyes of EOS by Canon Review


And it is AWESOME – taught me everything I needed to know to get started understanding how the lens works and what it means for what kind of photography.  There was one particular diagram that totally made it all make sense , as far as what the numbers actually mean in relation to how far the lens will see  – and try as I might I cannot find it online, but here is one that summarises it

And this is the full article which is quite interesting talking about the differences between different types of lenses and how that affects your shooting.

Also this is a good diagram with the same image being shot and it tells you the focal  length so you have an idea that if you are standing a long way away from a pretty mountain but you want a nice close up shot, you need a big expensive zoom lens to achieve that 🙂

Canon have also got a similar pictorial example (I find in this kind of instance a picture really does tell the story)


So the key things to deciding what lens to purchase, in my opinion are (in order of priority)

– how much you have to spend

– do you want to go brand or 3rd party

– what do you want the lens to do for you

– how big/heavy is it

Here is a breakdown of my thought process:

1 – How much do I have to spend

I live in New Zealand and things are LOTS more expensive than places like the US.  And I have a limited budget as I have a mortgage to pay and two cats to feed. So before I do anything I have to set a spending limit

2 – Brand or 3rd Party

I found this both a hard and an easy question.  Hard because I am still learning about lenses, and easy because I was still struggling to come to terms with what Canon could offer, I just decided to not consider any other options.  I may have closed the door on some good deals, but I really don’t have the time or the energy to spend learning all the possible options – and from my research there are a lot of good Canon lenses out there.  I was only looking at initially getting a general purpose and maybe a zoom if I could afford it.  Later on when I understand things better I may go back and revist the other brands

3 – What do I want the lens to do for me.

This was easy – I knew this already.  I wanted to be able to do *everything* with my camera LOL.  Actually I had this one sorted fairly soon.  I wanted to take 3 kinds of photos:

– macro – this is a particular passion of mine.  I decided on the Canon 100mm macro lens which sells for about NZ $1k.  I chose this lens because my favourite macro subject is my cats, and I have learned that being able to shoot from a bit of a distance is less distracting (and you dont get shadows quite so bad).  This is on my wishlist of eventual lenses to own.

– general purpose/wide angle – I chose the EF-S 17-85mm IS lens after doing reading and research.  I understand the 17-55mm may be a better quality lens, but it was more expensive, and I wanted to have that little bit of extra length in my focus range.  I wanted to also have a bit of scope for wide angle as we have lovely scenery in this country.  I have been really happy with it, its very fast and quiet and sharp. Maybe later on if I find myself with a need, I will consider getting a prime (single focal length that doesn’t zoom) wideangle for landscapes.

– telephoto – I wanted to be able to zoom in and get animal/action shots from a bit of a distance.  I quickly found out that the really good zooms are the 400mm and above.  I also found out that they start around NZ $10k in price!!!  So I had to scale down a bit LOL

Doing research I was constantly hearing the same lens mentioned over and over again for IQ, and quality and sharpness, and also ease of use.  It was the EF 70-200 F4 IS lens.  There is a a 2.8 which is ideal for lowlight use (indoor sports etc) but its $3000+ here in NZ whereas the F4 version is $2k.

I have been a bad bad girl, and I blew some of my next years holiday money on the 70-200 F4 IS.  Its got such a good rep, that I decided it will retain value and I can trade it in against a bigger lens later on.

I am quite keen on the 100-400 – Have seen some lovely bird photos with it (I understand shooting birds in flight is particularly difficult)  I like this lens because its affordable $4k approx NZ – and its also not too big and heavy for me.

Extra Note:

I only found this article tonite while I was doing research, but I wish I had found it earlier when I was trying to find out lens info – it looks really useful for a beginner – its Canon centric but I think the info should be relevant regardless of brand?


About lensaddiction

Mad keen photographer figuring it out as she goes!
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10 Responses to How to pick a lens – first do your research

  1. Greg Brave says:

    Great article, and I liked it a log. Just one thing to remember: the most important in the whole process of photography – is not the equipment (yes, yes! not even the glass) but the photographer him/her self. I have seen it proven in so many occurrences that composition is by faaaaar more important than the quality of the photograph. I am not saying that equipment or quality is not important, but the composition is what takes prizes at the end of the day.
    Or maybe it is just my opinion 🙂

  2. lensaddiction says:

    Hey Greg, you win the prize for my very first comment! woohoo!

    Seriously, I completely agree with you – good gear will still take bad photos – I have a selection of those already 🙂 But its a lot *easier* to take bad photos with good gear LOL

    I really struggled with trying to understand what to buy and why, so this is a record of my thought processes and where I went for research and info to help decide. For me, for whom this is a hobby that I’m still very much learning, its a lot of money to shell out initially, and Im a bit anal retentive about making sure if I am going to spend $2K on a lens, that its the ‘right’ lens, the best lens for the purpose I want it for. I imagine other newbies out there have the same concerns.

    Im doing a Composition course in November and really looking forward to it!

  3. Pingback: So I got Freshly Pressed! | Learning to See Light

  4. Dina says:

    Great article! I use a Nikon, but still find the points helpful. Thanks.
    Greetings from sunny Norfolk

  5. Tuti says:

    I use a Sony but this helped a lot.
    Some links are broken fyi

  6. Sherri Stone says:

    I’m reading this late but I’m bookmarking to read your links in the morning. I also have budget concerns when I spend for camera. My hubby asked what lens I wanted for Christmas and I asked for the 50mm f1/8. It was reasonable at $125 US. I only had the kit lens before that. But I want to mention I had to practice with the lens at first – don’t expect perfection until you get to know it better:) I had some blurry photos at first. It was quite an adjustment to not be able to zoom in too, lol.

    • lensaddiction says:

      Great feedback, yes with any new toy you have to practice to achieve mastery. I am having the same issue with my macro lens, which is complicated by the fact that i suck at handholding it steady!

      I love my nifty fifty, its a lovely lens and very versatile. I like the lack of zoom and how it forces you to think more seriously about your composition 🙂

  7. segmation says:

    You sure know how to photograph awesome colors!

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