Digital Camera Lenses: Choosing Focal Lengths

How to choose the best DSLR lenses for you

by Rob Sheppard

There are so many great DSLR lenses on the market today. Most people’s budgets are finite, so we can’t buy every lens that looks interesting. Even if we could, we would run into a problem with storage and transport. Yet the ads and the photo magazine lens write-ups make lenses look so inviting. Then a friend or acquaintance shows off a new lens that makes us want it. Lens choice is not a simple option. There are lots of reasons for buying a lens.

However, focal length considerations are important and not only affect what you can capture with your camera, but they also affect the way you photograph. You know the saying that goes something like, if you have a hammer, the whole world looks like it is filled with nails. If you have a wide-angle lens, you may find the whole world is filled with wide-angle landscapes.

On the other hand, you may have a number of digital camera lenses and discover that you are naturally drawn to certain focal lengths. I don’t think that is a bad thing at all. In fact, recognizing how you see the world through photography, your vision, your style can be a very good thing.

Digital Camera Lenses: A Matter of Personal Choice

Some photographers love to have all sorts of focal lengths, some prefer to limit their choices to a few focal lengths. So it truly comes down to how you photograph, your subjects and what is important to you. That is really a key to choosing the right focal length, either buying a new lens or keeping your packing of a camera bag simpler. There is little sense in packing a lens that you will never use. But what do you need? And how do you know what you need?

I like to tell photographers to look at how they shoot and to think about when they feel limited. If they feel they constantly want to get more of a scene in their images, then a wide-angle is important. If they feel they constantly need to get “closer” to a distant subject, then a telephoto is important. If they constantly use one end of a zoom, whether that is wide or tele, that can give an indication that maybe the zoom range is not appropriate and they should look into a different zoom that has a range featuring the focal lengths they do use. If they feel that they need close up images they can’t capture, then they need close up gear.


Lenses for DSLR Cameras: Some Options to Consider

If you want to travel light, a small, lightweight wide-angle zoom plus a small, lightweight telephoto zoom can be perfect. Shorter zoom ranges are easier to manufacture than big range zooms, often have higher image quality and are usually smaller, even if the latter means just one lens. That can mean less weight and better balance for the camera around your neck. In addition, big range zooms tend to be very slow (small maximum f-stops) at the telephoto end of the zoom.

If you want to do wildlife photography, you need a long telephoto, at least 300mm and often more. If you want to do available light photography indoors, you need a fast lens (a lens with a wide max aperture. If you want to do people photography, a moderate telephoto works well. If you like doing landscapes, a wide-angle zoom or wide to moderate telephoto can be important.

Bottom line for choosing focal length is that it all depends on your needs. I know at this point, that probably seems self-evident, but from looking at a lot of student’s backpacks and how they are shooting, I often see that they carry more gear than they really use. Sometimes they really have the wrong lens for the way they like to shoot. I strongly believe that you must like your gear, including your lens choices, if you are really going to enjoy photographing with it.


More on Rob Sheppard...

Outdoor Photographer columnist Rob Sheppard teaches many outstanding online photography courses at BetterPhoto, including Guaranteed Better Photography and The Magic of F-stops: Choosing the Right Aperture. In addition, BetterPhoto.com's digital photography school offers dozens of other Internet photo courses - on all subjects for all skill levels.



About Author / Instructor / Photographer, Rob Sheppard
Photography Instructor: Rob SheppardRob Sheppard has had a long-time and nationally recognized commitment to helping photographers become better photographers, regardless of the equipment and technology. He was the editor of Outdoor Photographer magazine for 12 years and was the original editor of PCPhoto (now Digital Photo). Now he is editor-at-large.

He is also the author/photographer of over thirty photo books, including The Magic of Digital Landscape Photography, The National Geographic Field Guide to Photography - Digital, and Adobe® Photoshop Lightroom for Digital Photographers Only. He writes regularly for Outdoor Photographer and teaches around the country, including workshops for the Palm Beach Photographic Centre and the Light Photographic Workshops. His Web site for workshops, books and photo tips is at www.robshepppardphoto.com, and his blog on nature and photography is at www.natureandphotography.com.

As a photographer, Rob worked for many years in Minnesota (before moving to Los Angeles), including doing work for the Minnesota Department of Transportation, Norwest Banks (now Wells Fargo), Pillsbury, 3M, General Mills, Lutheran Brotherhood, Ciba-Geigy, Anderson Windows, and others. His photography has been published in many magazines, ranging from National Geographic to The Farmer to, of course, Outdoor Photographer and PCPhoto.

He and his wife, Vicky (married 30+ years), live in the Los Angeles area. They have a son working on his Ph.D. in youth sports and education, and a daughter studying communications/journalism.

Also see Rob's Nature and Photography blog.