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How to choose the right lens for your DSLR or mirrorless camera

Create photos that you'll love sharing with friends and family

W

orking at Crutchfield is like being a big kid in an electronics candy store. And for me, cameras and lenses are undeniably my sweet tooth. Thankfully, they don't cause cavities!

My goal with this article is to help you make an informed decision as you shop for a new lens for your DSLR or mirrorless camera. I know it's easy to get overwhelmed by technical details, so we'll start with the basics and expand from there.

Why lens choice matters

We all love when our photos turn out great — that's why we bought a nice camera, right? The truth is that while your camera body is important, the lens you use often determines more about the look and feel of your images than the camera itself.

Are you ready to move beyond your kit lens?

Most of us start off with the basic "kit lens" that came with our camera. Practicing with it is a great way to learn about photography, since it can give you a good understanding of how different camera settings and focal lengths affect your images. And that's the first step toward developing your own unique style.

Kit lenses can produce great images in good lighting, but they do have some limitations. If you've spent some time getting to know your camera and kit lens and find yourself encountering frustrations, it's probably time for a lens upgrade. The good news is that even a basic step-up from your kit lens can seriously improve the quality of your photos. Now, let's dive in to what to look for.

Long-exposure of a waterfall near Ashville, North Carolina

I shot this long-exposure photo with a Canon 24-105mm zoom lens — the first "upgraded" lens I purchased for my camera.

Deciphering lens lingo

The series of letters and numbers in a lens's name might look intimidating at first, but it gives you all the information you need at a glance. Each manufacturer uses slightly different naming conventions to present the same kinds of lens specs. It'll be a lot easier to narrow down your choices if you can read and understand this info. Here are two examples that we've broken down:

Brand Camera series Focal length Maximum aperture Image stabilization
Nikon DX 18-300mm f/3.5-6.3 VR
Canon EF 35mm f/2 IS

While the presentation of specs on the lens barrel may vary, focal length and maximum aperture are always listed — along with any other specialized components or capabilities the lens might have.

Camera compatibility: matching brand, series, and sensor size

Of course, you want to be sure the lens you choose works properly with your camera. Staying within the same brand makes it easier, but you’ll need to understand a few basic things about your camera to find options that fit.

One of the first things you're likely to see in a lens's name is its corresponding camera series. In the top example is a Nikon DX lens, which works with the company's popular line of crop-sensor DSLR cameras. The second example is a Canon EF lens, which is primarily designed for Canon full-frame DSLRs.

Your camera's sensor size affects your choice of lenses

DSLR and mirrorless cameras are available with both full-frame and APS-C (crop-sized) image sensors. Micro Four Thirds is another crop-sensor size found in some mirrorless cameras. 

Full-frame image sensors, found in higher-end DSLR and mirrorless cameras, measure 36mm x 24mm. APS-C (or "crop sensor") cameras have a smaller sensor that's 22.5mm x 15mm. Micro Four Thirds sensors are the smallest of the three at 18mm x 13.5mm. 

The larger the image sensor, the more information that's recorded when you take a photo. This image sensor size chart gives you an idea of how they compare with each other:

DSLR and mirrorless image sensor sizes

Image sensor sizes from smallest to largest: 1. Micro Four Thirds (2x crop factor compared to full-frame), 2. APS-C (1.5x crop factor compared to full-frame), 3. Full-frame.

Crop-sensor cameras are compatible with tons of different lenses. That's great news since most of us start out using this type of camera. But having so many options can lead to a few questions — or even regrets — if you don’t know exactly what to look for. I’ll answer those questions, and explain the “crop factor” in just a moment.

Focal length

Following the lens brand and corresponding camera series, the next thing you'll usually see in the lens name is its focal length. This describes the lens's field of view — or how much it sees — and tells you whether you are looking at a wide-angle lens, a telephoto lens, or something else.

The Canon example illustrated above is a prime lens with a fixed focal length of 35mm (it doesn't zoom in or out). The Nikon is a zoom lens, with a versatile focal range of 18-300mm.

Understanding the crop factor: how sensor size affects focal length

The focal length measurements you see in a lens's name are based on 35mm film standards. If your camera has a full-frame sensor, it’s pretty straightforward — the field of view is exactly what the focal length says it is.

But if you have a crop-sensor camera, like a Canon Rebel, it’s slightly more complicated. The smaller image sensor has to “crop out” some of the scene that the lens would capture on a full-frame camera, so you’re left with a tighter, closer-up view of your subject.

Here's an example to illustrate how the crop factor works. The sunflower in the images below was shot from the same distance with the same lens. The only difference is that the wider shot on the left was taken with a full-frame camera, while the tighter shot on right was captured with a crop-sensor model. Move the slider back and forth to see the difference in perspective.

Full frame sensor image.

Crop sensor camera image

The 105mm lens used to take these photos has an effective focal length of nearly 160mm on the crop-sensor camera, resulting in a tighter shot with less background detail.

Most crop-sensor cameras have a crop factor of 1.5X (Nikon) or 1.6X (Canon), so a 50mm lens would give you an equivalent field of view of around 75mm or 80mm on an APS-C sensor camera.

This is a great advantage if you shoot sports or wildlife since you can get a tighter shot of the action without moving any closer. But if you prefer shooting expansive landscapes it has the opposite effect, since you can't capture as wide a view with a crop-sensor camera.

Bottom line: if you have an APS-C sensor camera, you'll want to keep the crop factor in mind as you shop for lenses. And be sure to look at the 35mm equivalent focal length for any lens you're considering.

Aperture

A lens's aperture determines how much light comes through it when you take a photo. How wide that opening is — how much light it lets in — is measured in "f-stops."

The f-stop number you see in a lens's name reflects its maximum aperture, or the widest it can open. A low f-stop number, like f/1.8, indicates a large opening that lets in lots of light. A higher f-stop number, like f/5.6, means that less light is coming through the lens when it's opened up all the way.

Aperture examples of a 50mm lens

A lens's aperture, or "f number," refers to the size of the opening in the lens when you take a photo. The smaller the f number, the larger the opening.

A prime lens (non-zoom) has a fixed maximum aperture, like the 50mm Nikon shown above. Some zoom lenses offer a fixed maximum aperture as well, which means the same amount of light can come through whether the lens is zoomed in or out — a handy feature if you shoot in low light.

More affordable zoom lenses have a maximum aperture that changes as you zoom, like the Nikon example from our lens lingo chart above. It has a maximum aperture of f/3.5 at 18mm, and a maximum aperture of f/6.3 at 300mm. As it zooms in closer to a distant subject it lets in less light.

Lenses with large maximum apertures are ideal for photographing events where there isn't much light, like an evening wedding reception or an indoor birthday party.

Using aperture to control your depth of field

Lenses with large maximum apertures (low f-stop numbers) give you more control over depth of field than lenses with smaller apertures. When you want all the attention on your subject, you can blur the background by selecting a lower f-stop number. But if you want everything in focus, it’s easy to adjust to a higher f-stop setting for a smaller aperture.

Depth-of-field examples

The image on the left was shot at f/16, and the one on the right was shot at f/2.8. You can see how aperture affects how much of your photo is in sharp detail, and whether or not background details are blurred out.

Image stabilization

Image stabilization is one of my favorite lens features because it helps keep my images sharp even if my hands aren't completely steady. This feature does add cost to a lens, but most of us think it's worth it.

Image stabilization is especially helpful for handheld shooting with telephoto lenses, or at slower-than-ideal shutter speeds. And if you plan to shoot video with your new lens, image stabilization will make your handheld footage dramatically smoother.

You'll see image stabilization indicated in a lens name as "IS" for Canon, or "VR" (Vibration Reduction) for Nikon. Other brands have different names for this feature, but it basically works the same way in any lens that has it built-in.

image stabilization example

Having a lens with built-in image stabilization lets me get sharp, clear photos at slower shutter speeds when I don't have my tripod handy, like this pre-dawn shot at UVA.

If you use a tripod, you don't need image stabilization — in fact you'll get sharper images with it turned off when your camera is mounted to a tripod. But certain situations make it difficult to carry a tripod, and that's when image stabilization is a real life-saver.

As a landscape photographer, I've found it immensely helpful when hand-holding my 16-35mm lens during sunrise shots. Image stabilization lets me use a slow shutter speed without experiencing image shake or blur.

Choosing the right lens type

Prime lenses vs. zoom lenses

To zoom or not to zoom? Many people have trouble making this choice when deciding on their first lens. Here's a quick breakdown of the main features of each option:

Zoom lenses

  • Offer a range of focal lengths
  • Can capture different looks from a single vantage point
  • Versatility makes them great for travel
  • Not always great in low-light
Focal length ranges of a zoom lens

A zoom lens offers a range of perspectives, like these 24mm wide-angle and 120mm telephoto shots of Juliet.

Prime lenses

  • Have a fixed focal length — no zooming capability
  • Often lighter and faster than zoom lenses
  • Perform well in challenging light thanks to a large maximum aperture
  • Available in a range of options from wide-angle to telephoto
50mm prime lens example

Prime lenses are ideal for low-light situations, like night-sky photography.

Which is best? It all depends on the situation. I think prime lenses are an excellent choice for nearly all types of photography, but I have plenty of uses for zoom lenses, too.

I especially love prime lenses for portraits, event, and nature photography because they encourage creative composition — I'm always moving around to see what unique, interesting views I can capture.

When I shoot sports for my local university, I use a 70-200mm zoom lens because I can easily adjust my focal length when the action moves closer or further away. And taking a single zoom lens with me on vacation lets me pack lightly and still get a wide range of shots.

Popular focal ranges for different types of photography

One way to narrow down your choices is to ask yourself what kind of photography you think you'll be doing the most. The needs of a landscape photographer are generally different from the needs of a portrait photographer, for example.

This chart breaks down typical focal ranges for different types of photography.

Common Focal Ranges
Range View Best Use
Ultra-wide angle 14mm-24mm creates a wide angle of view that can look distorted architecture, events, interiors
Wide angle 24mm-35mm shows a lot of context while still looking natural landscapes, architecture
Standard 35mm-70mm reproduces what your eye can see street scenes, intimate settings, candids, portraits, events
Medium telephoto 70mm-105mm provides a closer, natural-looking perspective portraits, close-ups, details
Telephoto 105mm-300mm lets you capture distant subjects and show them in context landscape details, sports, wildlife
Super telephoto 300mm-800mm lets you get detailed images of distant subjects birding, wildlife, sports

Now, let's take a more in-depth look at the most common types of lenses. And then I'll touch on a few of the more specialized options.

Wide-angle lenses

A wide-angle lens has a focal length of 35mm or less. They're called "wide angle" because they capture a broader view of a scene than what the human eye sees.

Wide-angle lenses are great for showing the vastness of a location, like landscapes or sweeping views of a city. They're also great for getting shots in tight spaces, like group photos in small rooms.

Wide shot of a night sky

Wide-angle lenses are a popular choice for night sky photographers, since they capture expansive views of the stars.

Wide-angle lenses are also great for getting super close to your subject. I shot this photo while holding my camera right beside the Ferrari's wheel. The close proximity helps emphasize the tire while still allowing me to get the entire car in the shot.

Wide-angle car example

Wide-angle lenses let you get close to your subject for unique perspectives and compositions.

It's worth noting that because wide-angle lenses can distort close-up subjects, they aren't the best choice for portraiture or headshots. A longer focal length is almost always preferred in those cases.

I love 85mm, 100mm, and 200mm focal lengths for portraits because of their flattering compression. These longer focal lengths allow me to stay at a relaxed distance from my subject, which means I don't have to have my camera and lens close to their face.

Portrait photo example

An ideal focal range for portraits is between 85mm and 200mm.

"Standard" lenses

Standard lenses cover the 35mm to 70mm range, and offer the closest field of view to what you see with your eyes, which is about 50mm. They're terrific for nearly all types of photography, and make great "walk-around" lenses. I use my 24-70mm lens for parties, wandering through the woods, and snapping pictures when I'm on vacation.

Standard 50mm lens example

A standard lens offers a field of view similar to what you see with your eyes. Side note: making nature photos black and white can add a pop of visual interest to your composition.

Telephoto lenses

A telephoto lens can have a focal length of anywhere from 70mm all the way up to a staggering 800mm. These longer lenses let you close in on subjects that are far away.

Long telephoto lenses are ideal for sports and wildlife photography, while shorter telephoto lenses are great for portraits. Telephotos also generally work well for close-up shots at events like concerts, weddings, or graduation ceremonies.

distant telephoto example

A telephoto lens lets you capture action at a distance, like this shot of the moon during the 2017 solar eclipse.

Unless you have a specific focal length in mind, a telephoto zoom lens is a better choice than a telephoto prime lens for most folks, since its range of focal lengths lets you easily choose the right one for your subject or scene.

Telephoto prime lenses are fairly specialized, but offer superb optics. For example, I use a 200mm prime lens when I'm shooting football games and want terrific action shots from the sideline.

telephoto close up example

A telephoto lens compresses the background behind your image to provide extra emphasis on your subject.

Specialty lenses

Macro lenses

A macro lens lets you get really close to a small subject — most of the time mere inches away. They generally have a magnification ratio of 1:1 or higher, and almost always come in fixed focal lengths (prime lenses). These specialty lenses carry a heftier price tag, but they can also pull double duty as exceptional portrait lenses.

Macro shot of a frog.

A macro lens lets you take super-detailed photos of tiny subjects.

If you're interested in capturing more unique views of the world, consider a fisheye lens or tilt shift lens. You likely won't find them practical for day-to-day photography, but they can provide creative opportunities that may not otherwise be available.

Have fun exploring your creativity

I believe that taking great photos — and having fun while doing it — doesn't require having expensive gear or deep technical knowledge. So no matter what new lens you choose, if you have a sense of adventure and curiosity you can have a blast capturing moments that you'll enjoy revisiting and sharing with others.

Every photo featured in this article was taken by a Crutchfield employee. We love exploring the world with our cameras in hand, and highly encourage you to do so as well! The more you challenge yourself to look for something new, the more rewarding your images will be. As a bonus, your technical skills will develop naturally along the way.

choosing a lens

No matter what lens you choose, you'll have a fun new way to view the world.

Jump into the conversation

Have a question about what lens to get, or what settings are best? I love talking about this stuff. Leave me a comment below, and let's get the conversation going! And of course, you can always give us a shout for free expert help choosing your next lens.

Last updated 2/18/2020

Please share your thoughts below.

  • Kaitlin

    Posted on 9/24/2020

    Thanks for this article it's very informative! I bought a canon 6d and am hoping to get your opinion on a lens. I will be doing mostly portraits and like a blurred background.

  • Liz from East Highland

    Posted on 7/13/2020

    Hello, I bought a cheap Nikon D3500 and want to start taking some outdoor portraits as a side job for fun. I'm looking for a good but not very expensive lens...any advice? My budget is up to $1200. Thank you!!!

    Kramer Crane from Crutchfield

    on 7/14/2020

    Hi Liz! Thanks for your question. My recommendation is to go with a nice 50mm prime lens, which will give you crisp, colorful portraits with beautiful blurred backgrounds. It will work well in low-light environments, and will allow you to be close enough to your subject to communicate naturally, but not so close where they may be camera shy.

    The Nikon AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.4G is a fantastic choice for your D3500, and is the way I'd go in your shoes.

    I hope that helps. Please let me know if you have any other questions!
  • Kevin from Springfield

    Posted on 7/11/2020

    I love taking pictures of up close things like flowers and off the book things like bricks, old metal and other assortments, i also love black and white photos due to being partially color blind, but on the other hand i like taking night time photography, i am not sure what lenses to look into for my next buy, im ok with multiple andswers, thank you for your time and help if you can

    Kramer Crane from Crutchfield

    on 7/14/2020

    Hey Kevin, thanks for reaching out. I'd look at a nice 35mm, 40mm, or 50mm prime lens that has a fast aperture (f/1.8, or f/1.4). If you don't already have a "nifty fifty" (entry level 50mm lens), I'd start there. These lenses offer better image quality and superior low-light performance compared to the "kit" lens that may have come with your camera.

    If you let me know which make and model camera you have, I'm happy to show you your options. Thanks!
  • Tino from Chicago

    Posted on 6/16/2020

    I have cannon EOS 80D Im doing wedding what lens can use 2.0 2.8

    Kramer Crane from Crutchfield

    on 6/17/2020

    Hi Tino, my go-to focal lengths for weddings are 24-70mm, and 70-200mm on a full-frame camera. This of course depends on where the ceremony and reception are located (outdoor venue, inside a small church, on a beach, etc). Prime lenses (ones that don't zoom) are also a great choice — your focal length will depend on how far away you are from the event participants.

    My best advice is to give us a call to discuss your options. One of our advisors can talk to you about the specifics of your event, and make a recommendation that helps you get the most out of your experience.
  • SailorPat from Detroit

    Posted on 5/24/2020

    Very nice, easy to understand summary covering many issues that new-to-photography folks need guidance on.

    Kramer Crane from Crutchfield

    on 5/26/2020

    Thank you for your kind words. I'm glad you found it helpful!
  • Tina from San Antonio

    Posted on 4/18/2020

    I have a Nikon 3200 DSLR camera. I want to take it very clear crisp family pictures senior pictures and wedding pictures. Wetlands what I need for that?

    Kramer Crane from Crutchfield

    on 4/19/2020

    Hi Tina, a great option is the Nikon AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.8G. This fixed-focal length lens lets in tons of light, and gives you those beautiful blurred backgrounds behind your subject. If you've been shooting with your kit lens and don't own a prime yet, this 50mm is a wonderful choice to add to your kit.
  • Dennis R. Costa from Providence, RI

    Posted on 3/21/2020

    I love photography and have taken some awesome photos. But I want to get more serious and explore more. I would like to purchase a Nikon but I'm having trouble deciding which camera to buy that will allow me ease of use, creative freedom but a camera that I can grow with as I get more experience and expand my horizons so to speak... not really a novice but not an expert either, I am an artist looking to explore my creativity in other media. Your suggestions would be appreciative. I have a different point of view on things and wanted to reflect and experiment with that in photography

    Kramer Crane from Crutchfield

    on 3/26/2020

    Hi Dennis, thanks for your questions. The great thing about a new DSLR or mirrorless camera is that it gives you an opportunity to get more hands-on as your skillset grows, like shooting in manual and in raw.

    I particularly like the Nikon D5600 Kit for what you're looking to do. It's a fantastic camera that's well-suited for the creative enthusiast.

    I love that you want to get out there and explore your creativity. That's what I find most fulfilling about photography myself. Good luck, and happy shooting!
  • Byron from Arthur

    Posted on 11/18/2018

    If you were to choose between a Canon 100-400mm f/4 mk I and a Sigma 150-600mm f/5.6 contemporary which would you go with?

    Deia Z. from Crutchfield

    on 11/21/2018

    Hi Byron, I think the answer would depend on what kind of photography you're into. If you do a lot of sports and wildlife shooting in good light, the Sigma's 600mm maximum focal length would come in very handy. If you're looking for more of an all-purpose telephoto, I'd go with the Canon. I hope that helps. Feel free to get in touch if we can be of further assistance.
  • carol from saugus

    Posted on 9/13/2018

    Great article. The information will be very useful on my National Parks trip!

  • Bob Macey from Turnersville

    Posted on 9/3/2018

    I'm a 66 yo man, who has been reading as much as I can on how to start my photography avocation, and this article is one of the best I've read.

  • Ree from Denham springs

    Posted on 7/24/2018

    Excellent article for the beginner photographer! But I am still needing suggestions for what type of lens to use on my Canon 300 DSLR for indoor sports photos that has a range of distances.

    Deia Z. from Crutchfield

    on 7/25/2018

    Hi Ree. For indoor sports shooting with a Canon DSLR, I recommend one of Canon's 70-200mm f/2.8 telephoto zoom lenses. The wide f/2.8 aperture is great for indoor shooting and low light. I hope that helps. Feel free to get back in touch if we can be of further assistance.
  • Peter M from Seattle, WA

    Posted on 1/15/2018

    I like the concept of this article overall but want to suggest one useful addition: a discussion of consumer grade versus professional glass. There is a huge jump in price between those and while I love my L-series lenses, not everybody needs to spend all that money to be very happy. Most beginners would not be happy with pro glass mostly because of its weight. Moreover, most pro zooms have a smaller zoom range than consumer lenses, which usually adds another heavy lens in my travel bag. I bet a beginner would appreciate the price vs quality vs weight comparison in addition to this pretty nice discussion.

  • G. Rutkowski from Fairmont, MN

    Posted on 12/18/2017

    Excellent introduction to DSLR lenses. However, be wise to ignore Shaun, above. There's a troll in every group these days!!

  • Manish Rajan from IndiaPunjab,Faridkot

    Posted on 10/5/2017

    That's fabulously defined topic on dslr lenses. I have read many articles on dslr and their lenses types but this one is outstanding. Good job done Tara.

  • Shaun from New Brunswick

    Posted on 8/6/2017

    So sad....I thought this would be an article describing zoom lenses et al in general. But, as usual the article panders to Canon, Nikon, and.....Sony? Geez what about Pentax?

  • Trish from Marion, AR

    Posted on 12/7/2016

    So very informative. I have pinned it for future reference again and again. Thank you for sharing!

  • Kelly from Asheville

    Posted on 5/5/2016

    Absolutely a great Guide! Thank you so much! You have made this an easy and very informative piece.

  • Caira from batesville

    Posted on 4/2/2016

    This was a great article! Thanks so much!

  • D U Amarasinghe from colombo

    Posted on 3/3/2016

    Very compact and impressed article. Thanks

  • Kristi Scottaline from Charleston

    Posted on 2/11/2016

    Amazing. Thank you for clarifying so much! Very well explained.

  • marybeth from pittsburgh

    Posted on 1/27/2016

    thank you very much, most helpful

  • Shayla from indiana, pa

    Posted on 1/20/2016

    One of the best that I've read so far that is easy to learn from. Lots of information I will be taking from this :) thank you!!

  • Maggie

    Posted on 12/8/2015

    Fantastic read! I have my heart set on a prime lens as my next purchase. I needed validation that I was making the right choice. This post cleared it up for me. Thank you so very much!

  • Vicky from Belgium

    Posted on 9/18/2015

    This was very clear information, thank you. Do you have any tips on troubleshooting lens issues? I have a 18-55 AF zoom lens, but the manual zooming isn't smooth anymore (after my boyfriend dropped it, ouch!). The lens turns one way (from 18 -> 55) without issue, but turning back from 55 -> 18 is very rigid, as if something is blocking it.

  • David Delgado from San Juan,PR

    Posted on 8/29/2015

    Exelent article. Help me so much.

  • Rich from Valencia

    Posted on 5/6/2015

    An excellent masterclass. Thank you for the time it took to write and post this. I feel I am learning more eachntime I take out my canon70d and it is partly because posts like the above. Beats trial and error all the time. I look forward to reading more on cokin and third party lens for canon... Regards.