In any kind of photography, using the right lens—which is the most important part of the camera—is crucial for achieving the perfect shot. And maximizing the use of your camera’s interchangeable lenses can turn your photographs from amateurish to professional. So choose your lens wisely.

With the many options out there, we know how overwhelming it is to find the right lens for you. Here’s a quick guide for buying your first camera lens.

How to choose the right camera lens?

No single lens works for everyone, as each photographer has his own unique needs. What works for one may not work for another. So know your photography requirements first before you look for a lens. To narrow down your choices, consider these five factors:

  1. Focal Length

A focal length is the distance (in millimeters) from the center of the lens to the sensor when the subject is in focus. The lower the number, the wider the shot. The higher the number, the longer the zoom.

If you want to fit more into your frame, you might want to look into wide-angle focal lengths: 14mm, 20mm, 24mm, 28mm, and 35mm.

On the other hand, if you want to get as close as possible to your subject, go for a telephoto lens with focal lengths that usually range from 50 to 100mm. Just make sure that you get one with an f2.8 aperture so that adequate light can still pass through.

  1. Aperture

An aperture is the measure of how much light can enter your camera. It’s represented by the letter f and corresponding numbers, collectively known as an f-stop. A small aperture number like f1.2 means its opening is wider, which allows more light to come into the lens, making it great for shooting in low light.

  1. Prime lens vs. zoom lens

Get a prime lens if you want to incorporate more brightness into your shots and be able to tweak and correct shooting errors easily. But if getting as close as possible to the subject is your main priority, then you should get a zoom lens.

Prime lens and zoom lens comparison:

 PrimeZoom
Size and weightSmaller and lighter than average zoom lensesLarge and bulky
PortabilityA prime lens has a fixed focal length, so you have to bring additional lenses of different focal lengths for various shooting ranges.You need to bring just one zoom lens (instead of two to three prime lenses) that covers the full range of focal lengths.
VersatilityThe focal length is fixed at one number and cannot be changed. To change the angle of view, the camera has to be physically moved.Can handle a variety of shooting situations because of its variable focal length
PriceCheaper because of its simple constructionMore expensive, but the cost of one zoom lens can be quite similar to multiple prime lenses
Image QualitySharp and crisp photos even in low lightStandard quality; best for shooting scenes from afar
SpeedGenerally faster in aperture; ideal for shooting fast-moving subjectsDoesn’t have fast aperture but makes up for it with image stabilization features like Canon’s Image Stabilization, Nikon’s Vibration Reduction, Sigma’s Optical Stabilization, or Tamron’s Vibration Compensation, which allow you to use extremely slow shutter speeds to take sharp photos of still objects.

Prime and zoom lenses are further classified into different lens types, each serving a specific purpose.

Types of prime lens:

StandardCaptures images just as you see it. Comes in 35-80mm focal length. Most experts swear by the Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM AF Lens for starters.
Wide-angleEnables snapping a broader view of a place or scene. Ideal for shooting large groups of people and landscapes.
Fish-eyeA variation of the wide-angle lens. Gives off the effect of a cross between a panoramic and a spherical perspective.
TelephotoBrings distant subjects closer without distorting the image. Usually comes with a lens of 75-300 mm.
Super telephotoAllows reaching more distant subjects with its 200-400 mm range. Bird photographers usually vouch for this lens.

Types of zoom lens:

Digital zoomCrops the image to a smaller size then resizes it to fit the frame for a closer view
Optical zoomChanges the focal length and increases magnification according to your preferred distance

There’s also the macro lens that can either be a prime lens or a zoom lens. Not to be mistaken for the telephoto lens, the macro lens allows taking photos of minute objects and creatures like insects and food, making them appear bigger than they actually are.

  1. Compatibility with your camera’s sensor

In digital cameras, the sensor is the part that records the image when you press on the shutter, as opposed to the film in analog cameras. Sensors in DSLR cameras are bigger than sensors in point-and-shoot cameras, so the images produced by the former are clearer and more realistic.

There are two types of sensors available: the CCD (Charged-Couple Device) and the CMOS (Complementary Metal Oxide Semiconductor). The latter is larger than the former and can capture more light, which allows it to produce higher-quality images than the CCD. But this difference in size can also affect the structure and overall function of your camera, so make sure the lens you’ll get is compatible with your camera’s specs and body.

  1. Price

As with everything, you have to consider how much you’re willing to pay for a lens. This will narrow your choices down to certain brands and models.

What type of lens to use?

It depends on your needs. Keep in mind that lenses control the outcome of your photos, so think of the type of photos you’d like to shoot. For example, if you want to take portraits, invest in a prime lens. If you’re more into landscape photography, then a wide-angle lens is your best bet.

Best lenses for each photography type or specialization:

Photography TypeBest Lens Type to UseLens Recommendation
PortraitPrime lensCanon EF 85mm f/1.2 and Nikon 85mm f/1.4G 
TravelPrime lens (for capturing scenes with people)Voigtlander Nokton 50mm f/1.5
Fish-eye lens (for added variety and achieving a whimsical effect)Sigma 15mm f/2.8 EX DG AutoFocus Diagonal Fish-Eye Lens
StreetPrime lensVoigtlander Nokton 50mm f/1.5
LandscapeWide-angle lensCanon EF-S 10mm-22mm f/3.5-4.5 USM
WeddingPrime lensSigma 50mm f/1.4 DG HSM ART
SportsPrime lensCanon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS II USM
WildlifeSuper telephoto or telephoto lensNikon 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6G VR
Everyday shots that do not require much detailStandardCanon EF-S 17-55mm f/2.8 IS USM
Insect or flowerMacroNikon 85mm f/1.8G AF-S FX Nikkor
FoodMacroCanon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM

Photographers have varying opinions on which lens is the best for which situation, but it all boils down to personal preference. The best way to go about finding the right lens for you is to try them out for yourself. See which works best for your needs and the mood or effect that you’re trying to achieve in your photos. Finding the right digital photography gear is really a series of trial and error. May this quick guide serve as a good starting point in your hunt for the perfect lens.