HOW TO CHOOSE THE RIGHT LENS
By Ian Robert Knight
The whole point of having a camera with interchangeable lenses is the ability to change the lens, right? But with so many choices out there, how do you know which lens to use in a given situation? It’s not always easy to know how to choose the right lens, especially if you are new to the game. In this article, we will explain how we choose lenses for travel photography situations.
As already stated, there are quite a few lenses available for your camera. So let’s break it down into categories first. Regardless of which type of camera you own (full frame, Mirrorless, etc.), lenses all follow a similar naming pattern. To keep things simple, we’ll refer to lenses in their full-frame size names. Look for the conversion chart later in this post.
To begin with, lenses are grouped into focal lengths. These groups are named things like ‘Wide Angle’, ‘Standard’, ‘Telephoto’, and ‘Macro’. There are subsets of these groups too, like ‘Super Wide’ or ‘Super Telephoto’, but you can easily understand the difference there. We often refer to the focal length of the lens as its ‘size’.
Prime vs Zoom
And then there are ‘Zoom Lenses’ as well. It’s important to explain that a Zoom Lens is more a description of the way a lens functions, not the size of the lens. Many people incorrectly assume all Zooms are telephoto lenses, but that really isn’t the case at all. To be clear, you can get a Wide Angle Zoom, a Standard Zoom, and a Telephoto Zoom. A Zoom Lens simply allows you to smoothly adjust the focal length from one range to another, by ‘zooming’ the lens. (Read our post here about zoom lenses.)
When your lens is not a Zoom Lens, then it’s likely referred to as a Prime Lens. A Prime Lens would be described simply as a lens with just one focal length. And just like Zoom Lenses, Prime Lenses can come in any focal length. But unlike Zoom Lenses, it’s just one focal length. Common Prime Lenses are things like Wide Prime (28mm), Standard Prime (50mm) and Telephoto Prime (200mm).
Most photographers, over a period of time, would probably own both Zoom Lenses and Prime Lenses. Both Zooms and Primes could be used in most situations. So let’s get into it.
Breaking it Down
Choosing which lens to use for any given situation doesn’t need to be too complicated. It really just comes down to thinking about the subject matter you’re going to encounter, along with the lighting conditions. Some lenses are ideal in some situations, while other lenses would not typically be used in that same situation. Although in a pinch, you can make do.
Let me give you an example. On our Photo Adventures, regardless of where it is in the world, one of the most common scenes we encounter is the landscape vista. This happens everywhere from Iceland to Vietnam, or Amsterdam to Zagreb. The landscape spreads itself out before us, and it’s amazing – one of the most impressive we’ve ever seen. How do you capture the scene faithfully? The likely answer is a Wide Lens (or a Super Wide, or Wide Zoom). Using a Wide Lens will allow you to get as much of the landscape from side to side as possible. Perhaps this is obvious to most.
Let’s do another one. If you were on a Safari Adventure in Africa with us, you’d be shooting both wide vistas of the plains, along with long distance shots of wild animals. You already know that you’d likely use a Telephoto Lens (or Super Telephoto) to photograph the animals, right? So you see, many shooting situations are pretty obvious, when it comes to knowing how to choose the right lens.
The Middle Ground
But what about those shooting situations that are neither wide landscapes nor telephoto shots of lions? What about street scenes, or portraits, or close ups of flowers? In reality, it’s really not that much more complicated than the examples above.
Once again, what it comes down to, simply, is subject matter and light.
Is your subject matter a single thing, like a portrait? Or is it an interior shot of the room you’re in? Maybe it’s a collection of anonymous people passing by the street you’re on? If it’s a yes to any of these, then the selection process will be pretty simple too.
Portraits generally benefit from lenses in the short telephoto range. The compression that occurs in the Telephoto Lens group gives a pleasing effect on a persons face. And being able to blur out the background is easier with a Telephoto Lens, than it is with a Wide Angle Lens. The blur I refer to is also known as bokeh, or shallow depth of field.
Indoors and Outdoors
Street Photography can encompass a variety of shooting situations. But most scenes can be captured using a small Wide Prime or Wide Zoom. Some people prefer shooting with Prime Lenses in this situation, because they are usually smaller than zooms and less noticeable. This is handy when you’re trying to blend in and not look too obvious. (Be sure to read Laurie Cohen’s post about Street Photography)
Interiors are usually photographed with Wide Lenses as well, or even specialty lenses called Shift Lenses, or Perspective Control Lenses (PC Lens). This allows the photographer to capture the most amount of interior space without having to shoot several photos and stitch them together later.
The majority of typical travel photography situations can be captured with a Standard Zoom. The Standard Zoom generally covers a range of wide angle through short telephoto, like 24-70. If this type of lens is on your camera, you should be able to shoot most scenes pretty well.
The Limitations of a Zoom Lens
OK, so if a Standard Zoom can be a ‘general purpose’ lens, suitable for most shooting situations, why not use it for everything? There are several answers to that question, actually.
As we mentioned in a previous post about Zoom Lenses, there are some drawbacks to using a Zoom Lens for everything. Those drawbacks can be a variety of things, including a slow aperture, or the lens might be too heavy.
Unless you’re paying top dollar for your Zoom Lens, it’s likely that the lens is not fast, and it may require some pretty steady hands in low light conditions. In low light situations, faster Prime Lenses can provide you with a few extra shutter speed stops. That’s pretty handy if you aren’t shooting on a tripod.
And most Zoom Lenses can’t completely replace every other lens. It’s unlikely that you’d be able to get a really good Zoom Lens that covers Super Wide all the way to Super Telephoto. So there is no such thing as one lens being able to do it all. You’re going to need other lenses, no matter how you try to get around it.
The Two-Camera System
One simple way to eliminate making a decision on which lens to use is to carry two cameras. This way, you can have a Standard Zoom on one body, and a Wide Prime on another. Or a Wide Zoom on one body, and a Short Telephoto Prime on the other. The combinations are endless.
Packing Your Bag
When you’re preparing for a shoot, and you’re deciding which gear to bring, you may not want to bring everything. If you’ve got several lenses to choose from, and there are overlaps in coverage, you may be able to leave something behind if it’s not useful.
Some people actually prefer to bring everything, thinking it’s best to carry it and not use it, rather than want it and not have it. That way, you can make the decision when you see the subject. That’s a lot easier than guessing what to bring without knowing for sure what you’ll encounter.
For travel photography, it’s usually wise to carry Wide Angle Lenses, along with Standard Lenses (either Prime or Zoom). Using fast lenses will help with low light situations that are very often encountered on tour.
Do Your Research
While a lot of the decisions are matters of personal preference, knowing how to choose the right lens is something that you’ll develop over time. If you only bring a Telephoto Lens, but you need a Wide Angle Lens, you’ll end up shooting close up details of the scene, rather than the wide vista. The lesson will be learned quickly.
While it’s not always easy to predict what you’ll encounter on your shoot, with some advance research, you can usually guess fairly well. Our guides are always a good source of advice too, so be sure to check with them before you head out on the day’s shoot.
Learn While Traveling
Join us on one of our Photo Adventures and you will be sure to learn more about lens selection and the different effects they can create. You’ll also learn more about how lens choices can help define your own unique photographic style.