Choosing the best camera lenses becomes easier when you've been taking pictures for a while and you know what you're interested in, but if you're just starting out, the sheer number of different lenses, brands and types can be bewildering, so that's where this guide can help!
We reckon choosing the best lens usually boils down to three things:
• Knowing the types of lenses that are out there
• Getting an idea of the things you like to shoot
• Finding out what lenses are available for your camera
This is the approach that makes most sense to us, and we hope it will for you too. We've broken down this guide into these three sections, so you can either jump to the section that you want or read the whole article. We'll keep it brief!
So stick with us as we explain everything you need to know about lenses, and give you links to loads of lens buying guides which will help you find the perfect lens for your next photographic adventure.
Types of lenses explained
When you're choosing a lens, you're faced with a lot of jargon, and very often the first thing you'll encounter is lens types, for example 'telephoto lenses', 'macro lenses', 'ultra-wide lenses' and more.
It's useful to explain two bits of jargon straight away: focal length and maximum aperture.
First, the focal length. This is quoted in millimetres ('mm'). Basically, it tells you the lens’s angle of view or ‘magnification’ (it’s the same thing, really). The shorter the focal length, the wider the angle of view. The longer the focal length, the greater the magnification. Photographers use the focal length to split lenses up into different categories. It gets more complicated when you have cameras with different sensor sizes, so very often we talk about ‘effective’ focal lengths for these, just to keep the comparisons the same.
• Have a look at this: Cheat sheet: Focal lengths
Second, the maximum aperture tells you the lens’s light-gathering power. A smaller number means a wider aperture – the smaller the number the more light you get, which is a big advantage for many kinds of photography. A wide maximum aperture will let you use a faster shutter speed, which is very important for low light and action photography, and give you more pronounced background blur to help your subject stand out for portrait shots, for example.
• More info: What is aperture on a camera?
Zoom lenses vs prime lenses
We all know what a zoom lens is. You turn a ring on the lens to change the magnification and this makes zoom lenses very versatile because you can change the framing of the picture without having to change your position. The flexibity of zoom lenses means they’re the most popular type, and the ‘zoom range’ – the magnification range, in other words, is another selling point.
So called ‘prime’ lenses don’t zoom. They have a fixed focal length and a fixed angle of view. This makes them more restrictive in one sense, but prime lenses have some advantages of their own – and they are actually making a bit of a comeback. Prime lenses are smaller and lighter than zooms, they usually have a wider maximum aperture and hence light-gathering ability, and it’s possible to make more specialized lenses for close up ‘macro’ photography and ‘fast’ (wide aperture) ‘portrait’ lenses. Ultra-wideangle prime lenses typically have less distortion than zooms too.
In most of the lens categories below you can choose between zoom and prime lenses, but some categories are almost exclusively made up of prime lenses.
• Want to know more? See: What is a prime lens?
Standard or ‘kit’ lenses
Every photographer needs a standard zoom lens for everyday all-round photography. Most cameras are sold with an inexpensive ‘kit’ lens, but some can be bought ‘body only’ for people who already have a lens or want to choose a better quality lens separately. Kit lenses typically have a 3-5x zoom range that goes from a wideangle view to a mild telephoto effect, but an even longer zoom range can be useful when you need extra versatility – as in travel photography, for example. Cheaper lenses have a variable maximum aperture (it goes down when you zoom in) but more expensive ones have a fixed maximum aperture that doesn’t change.
• Read more: Best standard zoom lenses
There are a couple of special lens types that could be useful here too, depending on your style of photography. One is a 35mm (or equivalent) prime lens that’s small and inconspicuous and has the classic semi-wide angle of view loved by generations of photojournalists.
• See also: Best 35mm lenses for street photography
The other category is ultra-compact ‘pancake’ lenses designed to be as small and slim as possible to make your camera easy and light to both carry and to pack.
• See: Best pancake lenses
A telephoto is usually the first choice for anyone buying their first extra lens. They let you zoom in on distant subjects and are ideal for sports or wildlife photography. As with standard lenses, cheaper lenses have a variable maximum aperture, and it’s the price you pay for low cost and light weight. Pro or enthusiast photographers might go for a heavier and more expensive 70-200mm lens with a constant f/2.8 aperture.
• Read more: Best telephoto lenses
These have a much longer range than regular telephotos – and are much larger. These are typically in the range 150-600mm and are best for really long-range photography, like bird photography or some field sports where you can't get close to the action.
These are like a combination of a standard zoom and a telephoto, combined into a single lens. A superzoom lens will do the job of both, offering a wideangle view at one end of the zoom range and a powerful telephoto effect at the other. They sound ideal but we don’t recommend them that often because they tend to be big and heavy and sometimes expensive, and the extra zoom range usually means some loss of sharpness at full zoom and a good deal of wide-angle distortion. They are OK if you definitely only have the space (or the time) for a single lens, but as a rule we’d recommend using separate lenses for best results.
If you’re interested in travel and landscape photography, an ultra-wideangle could prove much more useful than a telephoto. They offer a much wider angle of view than a regular standard zoom and they are great for interior shots, wide landscapes and tall buildings. An ultra-wideangle zoom will give you a little more flexibility, but it’s also possible to get ultra-wideangle prime lenses – these may give you a wider maximum aperture, better edge to edge image sharpness and less distortion.
• Find out more: The best wide-angle lenses
These are a special case! Fisheye lenses capture an even wider angle of view than ultra-wideangle lenses, but give up on attempting to render straight lines as straight. As a result, you get a very strong curved distortion effect near the edges of the frame that’s all part of the characteristic ‘fisheye’ effect. Most fisheye lenses are prime lenses, but there are a couple of fisheye zooms.
• See also: Best fisheye lenses
These are prime lenses with a focal length of 85mm or thereabouts which have a maximum aperture of f/1.8, f/1.4 or even f/1.2. The longer focal length means you stand further back and this makes faces looking more natural. The wide maximum aperture produces very shallow depth of field so that you can throw the background completely out of focus.
• Read more: Best lenses for portraits
Macro lenses are made for ultra close up photography. These are invariably prime lenses – you don’t need a zoom here because you change the size of the subject simply by moving closer or further away. A prime lens also gives the best quality for detailed subjects at ultra-close distances. Macro lenses come in different focal lengths – generally, a longer focal length is better because it means you don’t have to get quite so close to your subject and perhaps scare it away or cover it with your own shadow.
• Read more: Best macro lenses
These are a special case! They are used mainly by commercial and architectural photographers. They have complex adjustments which enable you to shift the lens vertically or horizontally relative to the camera and this can be used to capture tall buildings, for example, without having to tilt the camera and introduce converging verticals. The tilt movement is used to control the plane of sharp focus with nearby objects – it’s especially useful where your subject is on an angled plane rather than perpendicular to the camera. Tilt-shift lenses are expensive and complex to use, so they are rather specialized.
Retro & ’art’ lenses
Modern lenses are designed to be as sharp as possible, distortion free and with even brightness across the whole frame. That’s good from a technical standpoint, but it does mean they have lost the ‘character’ of old lenses and the way they render images. Companies like Lomography and Lensbaby are experimenting with the re-introduction of older lens designs to recreate this softer, less perfect but some might say more characterful looks. Lomography has brought back an old Petzval lens design with ‘swirly’ bokeh and Lensbaby makes the excellent Lensbaby Trio – three lenses with three different ‘looks’ on a rotating turret.
• Try this: Best Lensbaby and Lomo lenses
What do you like to shoot?
This is another good starting point for choosing lenses because it helps you work out which types of lenses are going to be most useful.
Lenses for travel photography
When you’re travelling with a camera it’s good to have a setup that’s light and portable but also covers just about every eventuality. We recommend taking two lenses in particular. First, a long-range standard zoom or superzoom lens will let you shoot everything from wide-angle street scenes and scenic views to distant buildings, boats, people and other faraway subjects.
• Try this guide: Best lenses for travel
Very often though you’ll be in a narrow street, in front of a tall building or in an amazing interior that your lens can’t capture because its angle of view isn’t wide enough. For this we recommend an ultra-wideangle zoom or prime lens as a second lens. This will let you get a lot more into the frame and is really useful when visiting cities and monuments.
• See: The best wide-angle lenses
Finally, some travel photographers enjoy street photography, or casual candid shots of city life and characters. The best type of lens for this is a compact 35mm (or equivalent) prime lens.
• Read more: Best 35mm lenses for street photography
Landscapes are one of the most popular subjects for photography, and for this we’d recommend a similar set of lenses to those you’d use for travel. An ultra-wideangle lens is especially useful for capturing big, scenic vistas.
Very often, however, the details of a scene can be just as fascinating, and zooming in with a standard zoom lens can be very effective.
• See: Best standard zoom lenses
You can even use a telephoto zoom for more distant subject, and what works really well here is that this has the effect of compressing perspective and making the background much bigger and more imposing. This works especially well with mountains!
• Take a look at: Best telephoto lenses
Lenses for sports and wildlife
For both sports and wildlife, what you need is a telephoto lens, because you’ll usually be some way away from your subjects. We normally split these into two groups: regular telephoto zooms that pick up where your regular standard zoom leaves off and offer 3-4x more magnification, and what we call ‘supertelephotos’ which are twice the size and offer up to twice the magnification.
• See: Best telephoto lenses
A regular telephoto will be fine for pets, domestic animals, motorsports and many other kinds of sport, but for wildlife, bird and aviation photography it’s likely you’ll need the extra magnification of a supertelephoto lens.
Lenses for portraits
If you like taking pictures of people, you’ll probably have heard about ‘portrait’ lenses. These have two properties that make them ideal for people shots. First, they have a slightly longer focal length for a modest telephoto effect. This means you stand a little further away, and this avoids any unflattering wideangle distortion from standing too close. Second, ‘portrait’ lenses have a wide maximum aperture which can be used to create very shallow depth of field – so that your subject’s fact is sharp but the background is blurred.
• More info: Best portrait lenses
Capturing the night sky in all its beauty can be a challenge, but it becomes a lot easier with the right lens. If you want to photograph the moon, planets or celestial objects like nebulae, then you’re into more specialized territory with telescope adaptors, equatorial mounts and more – what we’re talking about here is wide-angle views of the night sky capturing whole constellations, perhaps even the Milky Way and elusive phenomenae like the aurora borealis. For this you need an ultra-wideangle lens to get a wide enough angle of view and, ideally, a fast maximum aperture so that you can use short exposure times – the sky is constantly turning, and if the exposure is more than a few seconds, stars no longer appear as pinpoints of light but as short ‘trails’ instead.
• More info: Best lenses for astrophotography
Lenses for close-ups and nature
If you are fascinated by details, tiny objects like insects or microscopic textures and patterns, you need a lens that can focus much closer than normal – a ‘macro’ lens. The definition of a macro lens is one that can reproduce a tiny object at life size on the camera sensor, so an insect might almost fill the whole frame. Regular lenses just don’t focus close enough to do this.
• Find out more: Best macro lenses
Lenses for filmmaking and vlogging
Of course, you may well be shorting video rather than stills – and although the same lenses can be used to suit your subject, filmmaking has its specific needs. If you are vlogging, for instance, you are usually filming yourself close to the camera so there are some specific things to watch out when picking the best lens for vlogging.
What camera do you have?
When you know what you want to shoot and you’ve worked out which lenses you need, there is one more hurdle – you need to make sure you can get this lens in a version that fits your camera. In other words, you have to know about lens mounts and lens compatibility.
Every camera maker uses its own bespoke lens mount (with a couple of exceptions). Even here there may be complications, because camera makers often have more than one range of cameras, and these may have different mounts and sensor sizes to consider.
Things are simpler if you only ever buy lenses from your camera’s maker, but there are lots of really good independent lens makers out there now, including Tamron, Sigma, Samyang and Laowa, and if you want to use one of these lenses you have to make sure first that it’s available in a mount to fit your camera and, second, that you order the right one!
So here’s a run-down on the lens mounts and brands on the market right now and the things you need to know about each one.
Canon lens mounts
Canon makes DSLRs and mirrorless cameras and they use different lens mounts. Canon full frame DSLRs use the Canon EF mount, while the amateur-orientated APS-C Canon DSLRs use the slightly different Canon EF-S mount. You can use full frame EF lenses on the smaller EF-S cameras, but not the other way round. EF-S lenses are designed solely for the smaller format cameras.
There’s less crossover with the mirrorless Canons. The amateur-oriented Canon EOS M cameras use a Canon EF-M mount that’s different to the Canon RF mount used on Canon’s EOS R full frame cameras. There’s little or no crossover here, though both cameras can use Canon DSLR lenses via an adapter.
Nikon lens mounts
Like Canon, Nikon makes both DSLR and mirrorless cameras and in both APS-C and full frame sizes, though the situation is a little less complicated. Nikon DSLRs use the well established Nikon F mount and you can use the same lenses on both APS-C (DX format) Nikon cameras and full frame (FX format) models. The only restriction is that smaller format DX lenses can only be used in a lower resolution ‘crop’ mode on full frame Nikon DSLRs.
For its mirrorless cameras Nikon has introduced a new Nikon Z mount, but it’s the same on both its APS-C format models (the Nikon Z50 and Nikon Z fc) and its two full frame mirrorless cameras (the Nikon Z5, Nikon Z6 II and Nikon Z7 II). As with Nikon DSLRs, you can use the same lenses on both, but smaller format DX Nikon Z lenses will be in ‘crop’ mode on the full frame bodies. You can get a Nikon FTZ adapter to use regular Nikon DSLR lenses on these cameras.
Sony lens mounts
Sony is in the same position as Canon and Nikon, but its DSLR cameras (actually, ‘SLT’ cameras) are now largely retired, so we’ll focus on its mirrorless cameras now.
Sony’s mirrorless cameras split into APS-C and full frame models. These use a lens mount that’s physically the same, but referred to as ‘E-mount’ on the APS-C cameras and ‘FE’ on the full frame models. You can use the same lenses on both cameras, but E-mount lenses will be used in ‘crop’ mode when fitted to a full frame camera.
Fujifilm lens mounts
The Fujifilm camera system is a lot simpler. It makes mirrorless cameras only, not DSLRs, and its X-mount mirrorless cameras come in just one size: APS-C. This means all its X-mount lenses fit all its X-mount cameras.
Fujfilm does also make much larger medium format cameras. These are mirrorless too but have their own, larger lens range which uses the Fujifilm G-mount. There’s no crossover between the X-mount lenses and medium format lenses.
Olympus lens mount
Olympus cameras use a smaller Micro Four Thirds (MFT) sensor size and lens mount across its range of interchangeable lens mirrorless cameras. All the Micro Four Thirds (MFT) lenses fit all the cameras. What’s more, it’s the same mount and system as Panasonic G-series cameras, so you can use Panasonic MFT lenses on Olympus cameras and vice versa, albeit with some occasional autofocus or image stabilization limitations.
Panasonic lens mounts
Up until recently, Panasonic exclusively used the same MFT system as Olympus for its Lumix G mirrorless cameras. More recently, however, it has introduced a new Lumix S full frame mirrorless camera system which has adopted the L-mount lens mount originally developed by Leica but now supported jointly by the L-mount Alliance (Panasonic, Leica, Sigma). Panasonic still makes its smaller G-series cameras, but these and the new Lumix S cameras are now two separate systems.
Pentax lens mounts
Pentax makes DSLRs with both APS-C and full frame sensors. These use a modern adaptation of Pentax’s long-running Pentax K mount and while you can use the same lenses on both APS-C and full frame cameras, some are designed solely for the smaller APS-C format and are not really suitable for the full frame cameras.
Pentax also makes the 645Z medium format camera. This has a larger Pentax 645-mount that’s specific to this camera.
Obviously there’s a lot to know about lenses, but we hope our guide has been able to steer you successfully through all the different lens types available, what they do and which will suit the subjects you like to shoot.
Building a lens system is exciting because it progressively unlocks your camera’s capabilities and your own creative ideas. You don’t have to buy every type of lens on our list, and you might find that two or three lenses are all you need. At the very least, though, we hope we’ve shown you what’s possible, what’s available and where to go to find out more.