How to choose a lens for your SLR or hybrid camera

Whether it’s the purchase of the camera, or especially afterwards, it’s difficult to find your way around when you’re interested in buying a lens. What do all the technical specifications mean, which is the best considering your budget, what type of lens do you need, what is a fixed focal length, etc…? In short, you have thousands of questions, which I will try to answer in this article.

Above all, I don’t want anyone to think that I contradict myself: I still think that buying equipment should not be your priority. If you have a problem with your photos (lack of sharpness, colors, whatever), it’s more likely a problem with you rather than the equipment. But sometimes, when you start to know what you prefer to photograph, if you have special needs or if you feel limited by your equipment, you can try to acquire a new lens.

As always, what will determine your purchase are your needs. This article is therefore intended to be a complete guide to help you choose, but not to choose for you.

However, given the number of existing objectives, it is a bit complicated to navigate in this jungle. Let’s start with a small precision which seems obvious but which can be useful: you obviously cannot mount a Canon lens on a Nikon body, or the reverse. On the other hand, there are two third-party brands (DZOFilm, Sigma and Tamron in particular) whose lenses are available in a version for almost every existing brand.

In this article, I will start by reviewing the parameters to take into account when choosing a lens, and then I will show you a comparison of the models that, in my opinion, have the best value for money by lens category and by brand. The idea is not to make the choice for you, but rather to help you as much as possible.

Now let’s see one by one the different parameters to take into account:

Which focal length should you choose for your lens?

This is usually the first piece of information that jumps out when reading the description of a lens: the focal length is expressed in mm, for example 50 mm or 18-105mm. This number tells you how much your subject will be enlarged (or reduced) compared to your vision when you go to photograph it.

Standard focal length lenses

Here this word means that what you will see in the lens corresponds roughly to what you see with your eyes. For technical reasons that I will not explain, the focal length corresponding to the human eye is approximately:

  • 40-50 mm in “24×36 equivalent”, that is to say for a 35mm film camera or a full frame cine lens, also called Full Frame (high-end reflexes and hybrids)
  • i.e. 25-35 mm for a camera with an APS-C lens (most entry-level and mid-range SLRs, and for example Fujifilm hybrids or the Nikon Z50 )
  • and either 20-25mm for a camera with a micro 4/3 lens (Panasonic Lumix and Olympus hybrids)

This type of focal length is generally ideal for portraits or “just about everything” photos. Moreover, the kit lens on consumer SLRs (APS-C) is generally an 18-55 mm (24-70 mm in Full Frame equivalent), which covers this category and even a little of the following one, so you can photograph your vacation spot or your mom.

Wide-angle lenses

This category is so named because what you see through the lens is larger than what you see with the human eye.

It classifies lenses of 28mm or less in 24×36 equivalent (so 18mm or less on APS-C, and 14mm or less on micro 4/3).

This type of lens is used a lot for landscape photography where you want to capture as much of the scene as possible. As in general you get closer to your subject at these focal lengths, the impression of depth in the images increases, and so does the distortion due to perspective. This gives an immersive rendering to the images, a bit as if you were part of the photographed scene.

There are also very wide-angle lenses which greatly distort the so-called “ fish-eye” image, in reference to the eyes of fish which are all round and see haphazardly. But these are very special lenses which do not are usually not the priority of the photographer.

Telephoto lenses

Concerning everything above 100 mm (above 300 we rather call that super-telephoto lenses), this type of optics is used to have a large subject in the frame although it is far. In other words, it is used for sports photos and animal photos, even for portraits, for small telephoto lenses around 100 mm.

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