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Which camera lens should you buy next?

A friend reached out to me this week to ask about recommendations for camera lenses. The conversation reminded me that so much of the information available is really in "photographer speak" and hard for most of us to interpret. So I am going to try to simplify the info a little. I'm going to lay out some common photography occasions and then the lens types I'd recommend for them.

And then I'll make some suggestions on what to buy. I have used some of the lenses and read many professional reviews on the others. If you have a local camera store, I HIGHLY recommend using them. I love Procam - they have locations in Aurora IL (outside the Fox Valley Mall, Livonia MI and Cincinnati OH. If you'd prefer shopping online, I'll provide links to the lens on Amazon. If you use these links you won't pay any additional, but I will earn a small percentage. (Better to me than Mr. Bezos! LOL)

You probably got a kit lens with your camera. That's a great way to get started, but the manufacturers include those to give you a taste and wanting more (they make a lot of money on the "more" after all!). Let me tell you first about the general categories of "more" lenses, then we'll explore which ones you need. I'll give you some examples of the different types of lenses and focal lengths taking the same shot.

What's the difference between a lens with one number (50mm) vs one with a range (18-55mm)?

  • Prime lenses have one focal length (i.e. 50mm). If you want a pic that’s zoomed in more or less, YOU need to move.

  • Zoom lenses are lenses you can turn and see things appear closer or farther. You'll see a term like "18-35mm" and there are all kinds of ranges. I love zoom lenses because they're so practical. They are a little more expensive and heavy than prime lenses, but you'll carry fewer pieces and get more out of them.

What do the different terms like wide-angle, zoom, and telephoto all mean?

  • Wide angle lenses allow you to take pics very similar to what you see with your eyes - they capture a lot of what's in your peripheral vision. They're typically used for broad landscapes and indoor real estate. They're not an everyday, walk around lens. Chances are that the person standing nearby will end up in your shot. ;-)

  • Macro lenses allow you to focus on something very close to the lens. They usually have the ability to use a large aperture (small number – like f.2.8). Not all have image stabilization or auto focus, but I'd highly recommend springing for a lens with these features.

  • Telephoto lenses let you stand far away from something and see it as if it's close up (like 300mm). They often have really advanced features, like a very large aperture, and cost a lot.

  • Zoom Telephoto lenses allow you to zoom way in (i.e. 100-400mm). These are also available in a range of prices. They tend to be a bit large, but in certain cases are invaluable.

Here are some of the same setting (excuse the poor composition, I was just trying to make a quick comparison for you all.) I am visual and this might help understand the differences.

Now let's look at how we typically use our cameras and what types of lenses you'll want.

Family Life photos (kids playing indoors or outdoors, pets, parties, babies, etc)

  • Zoom lenses are great for this. They'll allow you to shoot close in or farther away, get the whole scene or one person.

  • "Nifty Fifty" - these are good for portraits and you can get a good lens with a large aperture (f/1.8) which will allow you to blur out the background. It's not a practical lens that you'll use often though, so it's definitely a lower priority for most people.

Sporting events (kids or pros)

  • Zoom telephoto - these will allow you to get shots of the event, or zoom in on the action.

Travel photos (street scenes, family, etc)

  • Zoom lenses - get a lens with a wide enough range that you don't have to carry multiple lenses.

Wildlife, including birds

  • Zoom telephoto - chances are you are not going to be able to get close enough for a standard zoom. And it's important not to disturb the animals in their natural habitat.

Broad Landscapes - mountains, large vistas

  • Wide Angle - at the widest views, there may be some distortion (bending at the edges) that you'll want to correct in post-processing).

  • Zoom - For most people, if you get a zoom lens with a wide enough angle, that will work wonderfully. And it's not an extra lens you need to cart around!

Super close ups - flowers, insects, etc

  • Macro lenses - I actually find myself reaching for my macro on other occasions, but this is my most typical use.

Next, let's get into the specific lenses. I'll make some recommendations for Canon and Nikon DSLR compatible lenses. If you have another type of camera, feel free to reach out and we can talk about the options available. I'm only going to address budget and medium priced options here. Even medium options are pretty pricey. If you want "really good glass", feel free to reach out and I'll be happy to send some recommendations. But for most of us, it's just too much to spend and we'll never get the advantages.

I'm also going to recommend some lenses that only work on crop sensor cameras since that's what most of us have. If you're planning on making the jump to a professional camera, these won't be compatible. But that's a BIG jump. You can get lots of great features and fantastic pics with an upgraded crop sensor camera! Lenses indicated with an asterisk (*) work on crop or full frame.

The prices were effective on the day I collected them (Oct 25), but I will remove those in an update since they're subject to change. Early readers get that info!




Zoom Telephoto






Wide Angle



Nifty Fifty



Awesome Canon Bundle

One last piece of advice. PLEASE buy a UV filter for your new lens. You can find them at very inexpensive prices (you can also pay a ton!. They are the first line of defense for your new lens. If something hits it, or it gets dropped, there's a decent chance your filter will protect the lens. Trust me on this one - I've had damaged lenses and damaged filters. The filters are SO much cheaper to replace. Just look for a filter with the same diameter as the lens -the description will tell you what that is (49mm, 72mm 67mm, etc).

Please let me know if you have any questions about the lenses I've listed here, or want any other recommendations. Happy Shopping!


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