Tips & Tricks: Selecting the Right Lens

Our Tips & Tricks series aims to give beginners, amateurs and professionals alike more ways to approach different aspects of photography and videography. For each installment, we’ve enlisted the expertise of our MPEX staff and have received their feedback on method and equipment.

The most important thing in determining the image you can take, let alone how good that image looks once its taken, is your lens. Selecting a lens is a serious venture: not only are lenses expensive, which means you’ll want to make sure you really have the right one before you make a purchase, but you’re also selecting a lens based on what it can’t do as much as what it can do.

Casey and Sonnie from our sales staff gave us the basic rundown of what makes a good lens, and then they gave us some recommendations for landscape, sports, and wedding photography lenses, among others.

Before you even put a lens on your camera, you want to make sure that its build quality is of a high standard. For the lens casing, Sonnie said, you really want to make sure that it is not constructed out of a cheap plastic. A lens body made from high-grade polycarbonate or metal is the way to go. You also want to make sure that the coupler, or piece that connects the lens to the camera body, is metal, as opposed to plastic.

You also want to pay attention to the sharpness of the glass. Different companies make a different grade of glass, and they’re priced accordingly, but a good lens coating is necessary to reduce reflection, which increases sharpness. However, different kinds of light bend and reflect differently, meaning the least reflective lenses use multilayer coatings. Diffracting different kinds of light, which all have different color values, reduces the risk of chromatic aberration. This is especially important in wide angle lenses, which by their construction bend light to a great degree, meaning they are more vulnerable to bending light in a way that causes chromatic aberration.

Once you’ve gauged the quality of construction in a lens, the next step to selecting your glass is knowing how the lens fits your need. Every lens has a different focal range and a different minimum F-stop number, or maximum aperture diameter, and it’s crucial to know how these elements will affect the kind of image your trying to capture.

Let’s start with landscape and wildlife photography. Sonnie is an avid landscape and wildlife photographer. According to Sonnie, the most important elements in landscape photographer, in regards to selecting a lens, is a long and variable focal length. In other words, you’re going to want a telephoto zoom lens. The catch with telephoto zoom lenses is that, thanks to all the parts that go into making a zoom lens, specifically one with a wide focal range, is that it’s very expensive to buy a “fast” telephoto zoom lens, i.e. lenses with a maximum aperture diameter of F2.8 or less. However, Sonnie says that lens speed is not necessary in landscape photography, considering that most of the work you will be doing will a) be on a tripod, and therefore shutter speed (and camera shake) are less of an issue, and b) be long-exposure shots. Therefore, Sonnie (our Canon expert) recommends the Canon 100-400mm L IS F4.5-5.6, the Sigma 150-500mm OS F5-6.3, and the Tamron 70-300mm F4-5.6 VC (which is, as of this post’s pub date, only $349.99 after rebate, fyi). Likewise, Casey (our Nikon expert) recommends the Nikon NIKKOR 80-400mm F4.5-5.6D VR, Sigma 150-500mm OS F5-6.3, or the Nikon NIKKOR 200-400mm F4G,

Sigma 150-500mm F5-6.3
Sigma 150-500mm F5-6.3

Many of our customers come into the store because they want to photograph their kids playing sports. The first question you have to ask yourself if you’re purchasing a lens to photograph sports is whether it’s an indoor sport like basketball or an outdoor sport like soccer. Outdoor sports have more options, since lens speed is not as much of a factor and because you can create a larger distance between yourself and your subjects (i.e. the players). For outdoor sports, Sonnie recommends the Canon 70-200mm F2.8L IS II or the Tamron 70-200mm F2.8, and Casey recommends the Tamron 70-200mm F2.8 or the Sigma 150-500mm OS F5-6.3.

Canon 70-200mm F2.8 IS II
Canon 70-200mm F2.8 IS II

Photographing indoor sports require different capabilities, namely a fast lens speed. Additionally, you don’t necessarily need a long focal length, as the inside of a high school gymnasium limits the distance you can get from your subjects anyway. In that case, Sonnie recommends a Canon 50mm F1.4, which is perfect for, say, basketball floor shots (not to mention that basically everyone should have a solid prime lens in their arsenal anyway). Likewise, Nikon shooters should consider the Nikon NIKKOR 50mm F1.4G for their indoor sports photography needs.

Nikon NIKKOR 50mm F1.4G
Nikon NIKKOR 50mm F1.4G

Wedding photographers have a lot to consider when it comes to selecting a lens. Outdoor portraits, shots of the ceremony inside, plus the usually abysmal lighting at night during the reception, makes lens selection a difficult process if you’re a wedding photographer. In that sense, you want lenses that are versatile, transportable, and fast. Sonnie recommends the Canon 50mm F1.4, the Canon 24-70mm F2.8L II or the Tamron 24-70mm F2.8 IS, the Canon 85mm F1.8, or the Sigma 35mm F1.4. Casey recommends the Nikon 85mm F1.4, Nikon 24-70mm F2.8, or Nikon 70-200mm F2.8 VR II.

Tamron 24-70mm F2.8 VC
Tamron 24-70mm F2.8 VC

Maybe you want a lens that suits a variety of different needs, what’s known as a lifestyle lens by some and by others as a backpacker lens (because it’s always in your backpack), then Sonnie recommends the Tamron 18-270mm F3.5-6.3, the Sigma 18-250mm F3.5-6.3, or the Canon 18-200 F3.5-5.6. All three have valuable focal ranges and workable aperture diameters, plus they’re all relatively inexpensive. Additionally, Casey recommends the Nikon 18-300 F3.5-5.6G, with its additional focal reach.

Of course you should always try your lens before you buy it. Luckily, our rentals department is well-stocked in all types of lenses, including macro and tilt-shift lenses, for our macro and architectural photographers respectively. Call us at 866-940-3686 and reserve your lens today!

Midwest Photo

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