The Essential Guide to Choosing the Lens That's Right for You

Introduction: The Essential Guide to Choosing the Lens That's Right for You

Having trouble choosing what kind of lens to buy for that new slr?
Confused by the numbers and focal lengths?
Well no more! You've come to the right place.

This instructable is necessary especially for beginners, but also has tips for even experienced photographers in search of a new lens.

If you liked this instructable, or if it helped you make your decision, then please vote for me in the photojojo contest! thank you

ITS MY BIRTHDAY!!!! 4/9/92!!!
is there some sort of instructables birthday package? ahah just kidding
happy instructabling!

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Step 1: Overview:

In this instructable, you'll learn

  • about lenses
  • what focal lengths mean
  • about the different kinds of lenses and their relation to focal length
  • how to narrow down your choices and buy the lens of your dreams!

Step 2: Lenses

The photographic lens, as defined by wikipedia, is "an optical lens or assembly of lenses used in conjunction with a camera body and mechanism to make images of objects either on photographic film or on other media capable of storing an image chemically or electronically."

Basically, it's either one lense or a series of lenses that'll focus the desired image onto a sensor (for digital cameras) or onto film.

When it comes to P&S and Advanced P&S cameras, the lenses are not removable. So if you buy one of these, you don't even have to worry about making the tough decision!

On the other hand, DSLR cameras DO have removable lenses and at times cost much more than the body itself. There are different kinds of lenses for D-SLR's, the main types being:

  • Standard
  • Wide Angle
  • Telephoto
  • Macro
  • Fisheye
  • Teleconverter

Each will be explained later in the following steps.
Each one is different from the other and will fit your lifestyle and artistic style better than others.

Step 3: Focal Lengths

Wikipedia gives a very in-depth explanation of focal length, and I will try to refine it for you so that even the novice-est photographer can understand!

Focal Length is basically a measure of how strongly light is focused onto a given point. Generally, shorter focal lengths have stronger optical power than longer focal lengths.

Focal length affects pictures by "adjusting the camera's distance from the main subject while changing focal length. the main subject can remain the same size, while the other at a different distance changes size." It also determines the angle of view (how much area is covered in the image).
(see first picture)

Focal length is expressed in millimeters (mm)

Step 4: The Kinds of Lenses

Standard Lenses (35-70 mm)
Standard (Normal) lenses are lenses with a focal length similar to that of the naked eye.
A lens with a focal length about equal to the diagonal size of the film or sensor format is known as a normal lens.
Lifestyle: This lens can be used for more general use for simply taking everyday pictures. If you plan on using your camera for this reason, you should have this sort of lens in mind.

Wide Angle (21-35 mm)
Wide angle lenses allow you to have a greater field of vision in your images. Basically if you used a standard lens from five feet away from a tree and your picture came out as just the tree trunk and leaves, and you stood at the same distance and used a wide angle lens to take a picture of the same thing, you'd get the tree trunk, leaves and people on the side of it that were cut off by the standard lens.
Lifestyle: Wide angle lenses are popular with landscape photographers. They are great for highlighting foreground objects with the background almost fading into the distance. The depth of the picture is therefore accentuated. The most common focal length for a wide angled lens are 24mm and 28mm.

Telephoto (135-300+ mm)
Telephoto lenses are simply zoom lenses. It is great for bringing far away objects right up into the meat of the picture. Think of a scope on a sniper rifle. :-)
Lifestyle: These lenses are great if you plan on taking photos at sporting events. If you're a parent of an athletic child, you could use this lens to take photos of your son who plays outfielder and likes to stand really far away.

Great info on telephoto lenses from gmoon and everything2.como:
telephoto = long focal length is technically
incorrect. Telephoto actually means that the theoretical nodal point of the
lens falls somewhere physically outside of the optics (either in
front of or behind the glass.) With multiple compound optical elements,
it's pretty commonplace. Almost all wide angle lenses are also telephotos

The nodal point is that theoretical point where the light / image
begins being inverted by the lens.

These lenses are used to take close up shots of things. They are great for making instructables on things that are small, like when you're showing a picture of where to solder something. Macro lenses can be tricky to master, but if you know how to use it, they can be quite artsy!
Lifestyle: If you're an avid instructabler with out of focus pictures, this one's for you! (If you have a P&S, look up other instructables on how to use the macro setting!)

These are lenses that actually look like fisheyes. They are commonly used in action sports photography or videos. They give that bulged-in-the-center look and give you a full 180% angle of view. Pictures look like you're looking through throuhg the lens in your door.
Lifestyle: These lenses are good if you're a skater or do other action sports that you want to give an edgy look to in your photos.

These are basically lens-extenders. They add focal length to your lenses. The reason people don't just buy these instead of buying an actual telephoto lens is quality. Teleconverters tend to reduce the amount of light hitting the sensor, make focusing harder, but these are very useful and a good one is always great to have around.
Lifestyle: This is a good lens for you if you're a on-the-go photographer. They're good if you're on vacation and don't want to carry around a long telephoto lens. You can easily use it to convert your standard lens to a telephoto in a jiffy to take pictures of that alligator eating your sister's purse 20 feet away

There are lots of kinds of lenses out there, but generally for first-time buyers, these are the kinds to consider.

Step 5: Choosing Your Lens

Now that you understand the different lenses and how they relate to your lifestyle. Now's the time to decide. has some great tips for narrowing down your le

1. First of all, you have to look around and find what kind of lens. This is broad, so narrow it down!
Find out what kind of lens you think you need maybe it's two! Let's say its telephoto and macro.
Go out and find lenses that'll be right for you: find lenses that'll fit your camera, are within your budget, and maybe even look good to you.

Ask yourself what you would do most with your camera and from there, which lens would fit your needs.

  • "My lenses are not fast enough - I miss great shots in dark places.
  • My lenses take too long to focus - I miss all those great action shots
  • My lenses don't have enough focal length / are not wide enough - I wish I could shoot from further away or I wish I could squeeze more into the frame."

2. This is important: Research your lens. Find out if it fits. See how much it costs. Find the best prices. Ask your photographer friends if they'd recommend it. Look up reviews on it online. See if it looks sounds and is all around great for you.

3. Finally, decide on your lens. Go out and buy it! After all this work, you're bound to love that new lens even more.

Step 6: Final Words

So according to, you should:

1. Explore your needs
2. Research
3. Consult
4. Decide

Sounds pretty easy to me!

So if you liked this instructable and felt it was edifying and useful, please vote for it in the Photojojo contest! Thanks! I did a lot of research on this, especially because I'm about to go out and get a new lens for a Canon Xti I'm getting! wwoooot!

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    9 Discussions


    6 years ago on Introduction

    as an amature photographer for my school, I personally prefer a set of the stock canon EFS 18-55 standard , the 60mm USM fixed macro and the 70-200 USM II Telephoto lens with the canon 600D (T3i) base.... think this will be enough for any hobbyists out there as well as beginner photographers... although i really want the new 18-55 Stock that has the focus upgraded to a USM..... USM's are so quiet but very quick in focusing.... it also gives you the ability to use the two -three step focusing for sports and other "motion" activities


    10 years ago on Introduction

    helped heaps iv am going to by a Nikon D90 and i needed to workout what lenses to get.

    10/10 A++++ on your instructable


    11 years ago on Introduction

    you didn't mention lenses with changeable focal length. other than that, this instructable is very nice! 4.5/5!


    12 years ago on Step 3

    I think your wording is misleading "Focal Length is basically a measure of how strongly light is focused onto a given point" -- focal length does not change the lighting on your subject - but yes, longer lenses tend to be slower...


    When you don't have money for a variety of lenses, it is instinctive to buy a lens with a wide range. Once you've used the lens for a while, you should go back and poll the meta data from your images to see what focal length you use the most and invest in a lens that is excellent at that. Lenses, like people, are best at doing one thing when they don't try to do a bunch of others. When you spread your effort too thin, you suck at everything.


    12 years ago on Introduction

    Nice job. One small point, really more an academic one:

    It's common usage: telephoto = long focal length is technically incorrect.

    Telephoto actually means that the theoretical nodal point of the lens falls somewhere physically outside of the optics (either in front of or behind the glass.) With multiple compound optical elements, it's pretty commonplace. Almost all wide angle lenses are also "telephotos."

    The nodal point is that theoretical point where the light / image begins being inverted by the lens.

    (anyway, I'm gonna plus ya and vote for it, too.)


    Reply 12 years ago on Introduction

    hahah thanks, i did not know that! ahah I'll update my instructable soon, but right now i gotta go ;-). but thanks for the input and the vote :-)


    Reply 12 years ago on Introduction

    Sure. It might be more correct to categorize the wide angle as "retro focus," although my photo teachers in college used "retro" and "telephoto" interchangeably, as both have nodal points outside of the optics.

    But you get the idea--a long focal length lens isn't necessarily a "telephoto." Like I said originally, this is more academic than practical--people will continue to call the long lenses "telephotos," no matter what...

    See this source, the second entry.