A Basic Lens Guide for New Photographers

If you’re starting out, or not sure what to do with the gear you have, I hope this reflection on lenses will help you make sense of where to go next. I spent a lot longer than I needed to figuring this out, and most of a week putting it into language I haven’t seen elsewhere on the internet.

May you make great work (and know how to make more)!

(Really) TL;DR

If you can, buy a camera without a zoom. Get it with a prime lens and use it as exclusively as possible for nine months or a year. Then try something else. Give them each enough time to kick your ass, and enough time to try something ill-advised. Find a YouTube reviewer you like, research to hell and back, and try before you buy.

Let’s define a few terms

I don’t want to assume anyone’s level of comfort yet, so here are a few terms I refer to regularly below:

  • Aperture. The opening at the front end of the lens.
  • Stop. A doubling or halving of light. Photographers measure light in in relative increments: Use your camera’s light meter to determine a baseline, and adjust your settings to your taste. Doubling your light is stopping up; halving is stopping down.
  • F-Stop. The size of the aperture. Expressed as f/x, where x is 1.2, 1.4, 2, 2.8, 4, 5.6, 8, 11, 16, 22, etc.. The smaller the number, the larger the opening (because it’s a fraction).
  • Focal length. How wide or tight your shot will be, measured in millimeters from the sensor (or film). e.g. 50mm, 24–70mm, etc..
  • Zoom lens. A lens that can change focal lengths.
  • Prime lens. A lens with just one focal length.
  • Bokeh. Technically, a Japanese word for the quality of the out-of-focus areas of an image, but it’s frequently used to refer to the blur, itself.
  • Full-frame and APS-C. Full-frame camera sensors are the same size as a 35mm film camera’s film. APS-C is a little smaller. This affects lots of things. A camera which cost less than $1200 is probably cropped, so if that’s your body, you’ll need to multiply the focal length by 1.5 (most manufacturers) and 1.6 (Canon). This means a 50mm lens on a Canon T6i is equivalent to an 80mm lens on a full-frame camera. Confusing, I know, but necessary to commit to memory if you want to have an idea of how your gear works.

My first advice is everyone’s advice

One of my artist-heroes, Mark Hollis, put it this way:

“Before you play two notes, learn how to play one note—and don’t play one note unless you’ve got a reason to play it.”

After about nine months of basics, I felt restrained by my 18-55mm f/3.5–5.6 kit lens. I knew I wanted to shoot in bars and other low-light areas. After saving and researching—stay away from merchants’ reviews; find a few YouTubers you trust—I bought three lenses. Within a year I sold one. I shelved another a year after that.

Dozens of people tried to tell me the gear would not make me a better photographer, and I really believed I was listening to them. (In my defense, no one has described the problem the way I’ve worked hard here to describe it.) But I went ahead and ponied up a lot of money, to learn on very expensive lenses. I have an archive now of hundreds of bad pictures, with low noise and impressively blurred backgrounds, which I thought they were great at the time. I lost a lot of money when I resold the gear I don’t use.

I’ve learned the most about my lenses by using one exclusively for months, then trying something else. Nothing’s stopping you from buying more than one (except maybe your wallet), but you can only learn one at a time, so you may as well keep your money. Before you learn to shoot with two lenses, learn to shoot with one.

I didn’t yet know what I was doing, so I didn’t yet know what I specifically wanted to do

I knew I wanted to make beautiful pictures of performers. That’s a worthy goal, but a lens can only help you so much. A lens doesn’t teach you to recognize a story. A lens won’t teach you timing, or which mouth positions make a person look silly. A lens can only help you execute a vision; the more you practice, the more you’ll learn what you like, and from that, you’ll build your vision. For me, it’s taken three years of learning what I like to start seeing something at all.

That expensive gear did give me confidence. But if I could do it again, I’d learn to spot a great moment on the cheap, and save the cash for the gear I’d learn I really want.

Don’t buy a zoom

A zoom probably came with your camera. Zooms are useful for certain situations, but if you really want to build out your vision, I really, really, really suggest you get a prime. You can buy a zoom later, if it suits your needs.

In general, primes are lighter, a little cheaper, and sharper than zooms. (In general.) And while I enjoy those qualities, I like primes more. They make you learn what that specific focal length does.

Here are the situations where I’ve noticed zooms are handy:

  • Sports or performers. If your subject is quickly changing their distance from you, or you need to change framing fast, a zoom is essential.
  • Portraits (with lots of space). If you have room to put lots of space between you and your subject, such as a large studio or a park, a zoom can be great. Quickly switch your background compression, or from headshots to to full-body, without changing lenses.

That’s it.

Some folks think zooms are useful for street and walking-around-shooting-whatever’s-interesting, but I prefer how primes make me work. I actually prefer primes even in all the situations above (but I shoot bands with two cameras).

A basic lens guide

Here are some general things to consider:

  • Different focal lengths produce different results.
    • When you magnify an image, everything appears to get closer. Backgrounds actually appear closer to your subject when you use a longer focal length. With a shorter focal length, backgrounds appear farther away. This is called lens compression. You can use it in all kinds of ways.
      • The mind-blowing consequence of lens compression is that the background blur also gets magnified (or made smaller). So a long lens stopped down (400mm at f/5.6) can create a comparable amount of blur (but not an identical shot) to a shorter lens with a large maximum aperture (50mm f/1.4). The implications of this are vast and complex.
    • The closer or further you get from your subject will determine how much blur you get around them. You can use this in creative ways, too.
    • If you want everything in focus on a longer lens, you’ll have to stop down (because the background blur is being magnified, so you’ll want to sharpen it). If you want to keep everything in focus on a shorter lens, you won’t have to stop down as much, because the background’s being pushed back. If you want the background pushed back and blurred, you’ll need a short, fast lens, like a 24mm f/1.4.
  • Weight. Zooms have more glass in them, so they tend to be heavier. You’d be shocked what a difference ¼ lb. makes over a few hours.
  • Protection. Put a ~$20 UV filter on the front of your lens for environmental protection. It doesn’t substantially degrade image quality, and you’ll thank me.

Use Instagram to help you figure out what you like

The sheer possibility tapped by learning the basics of technique (and your gear) can be overwhelming. It can be helpful to find other photographers whose work inspires you, and study what they’re doing. Some folks will tell you in their comments or hashtags what their settings were. Some who don’t will be happy to tell you if you message them privately.

Aaron Thompson shoots in-their-faces, super-wide (24mm) portraits of his kids with a very shallow depth of field (f/1.4). Alex Ogelton makes full-length portraits with backgrounds that melt away from his subjects, by standing far back with an 85mm (at f/1.4). Heather Perry includes a lot of backgrounds in her project “Kids in the Hood,” with very articulated framing. She uses a camera with a built-in, un-changeable 35mm prime lens, typically at f/4–f/8. (Her underwater work is also breathtaking, if you’ll pardon the pun.)

Imitating them, then taking what I like from the results, has helped me figure out better how I want to make pictures, and what gear I’ll need to do it.

What do I use now?

Sigma 50mm f/1.4 ART

What I bought it for: All-purpose.

What I learned to use it for: Studio portraits. With minimal distortion, and incredible sharpness even at f/1.4, this lens is really versatile in a living room studio. It’s tight enough I get only my subject and a little background (for headshots), and short enough I can frame them well in this small space. Plus, I can quickly open the aperture to go from from standard headshot to dreamy portrait. It’s heavy for a 50mm prime, but since I’m now working with it almost exclusively on a tripod, that’s no issue.

What it’s probably also good for: On-location portraits, art digitizing.

Canon 135mm f/2 L

What I bought it for: Performers: poets/bands/speakers.

What I learned to use it for: Performers, on-location portraits, and abstract architecture. This lens’s combination of low weight, sharpness, medium-telephoto reach, and incredible sharpness at f/5.6 and bokeh at f/2 makes it perfect for three genres.

In low light, it’s amazing to frame a face or upper-body, from off-stage, and blur what’s usually an ugly background into oblivion. In a field or green area, blow out the background and make the subject stand sharp against a wall of colors—or back up and make an uncommonly soft transition from subject to background. In abstract architectural work (looking up), there’s nothing I’d rather use. It puts me close, and it’s not a pain to hoist.

What it’s probably also good for: Who knows?! Try everything!

Sigma 24–35mm f/2 ART

What I bought it for: Storytelling. (A recent, informed purchase.)

What I learned to use it for: Storytelling and architecture. Anyone who’s used a 35mm for more than 20 minutes agrees, it’s an ideal storytelling lens. Just wide enough to place your subject in a story. Likewise, sometimes, 24mm is necessary to get in all the story I need, and it’s right there. This lens also makes a perfect balance between a zoom and a prime, since it can’t really zoom much at all. (Sigma markets it as the equivalent of three primes in one—a 24mm, a 28mm, and a 35mm.) To challenge myself lately, I’ve been using it to combine storytelling with architecture; to tell stories with buildings, or parts of buildings. And the fast f/2 aperture means I can always take it into low light.

What it’s also probably good for: Environmental portraits, Platon-style somewhat distorted portraits, and real estate.

Tamron 70-200mm f/2.8

I haven’t used this poor thing in months. Its resale value is so low now (with a Mark II just released) it’s worth more as a backup.

Try before you buy

Read reviews, go to your local camera shop and try something on your camera, and see if it suits you. Don’t have a local camera shop? Try lensrentals.com. If you live in NYC, go upstairs at B&H Photo, and ask to try literally anything you’ve seen on the internet. If you live in Columbus, try MPEX.

I hope this saves you a few years of puttering, and a few thousand dollars none of us has to spare!

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The author

I bring 11 years as a professional writer and designer, as well as my feminism, ecological philosophies, and editorial aesthetic to photography. When no one's looking, I bring my sense of humor, too.

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