digital photography tips with Digital Photo Mentor Darlene Hildebrandt

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How to Choose the Right Lens

In this article we're going to look at what different lenses do, as well as when and why you'd choose one over another to get the image you desire. You will find this really helpful if you are considering buying another lens, and may help you decide what to get. You'll also gain some insight into using the ones you already own more to your advantage.

Can you relate to this?

Have you ever been at a great location, taken some images you are really excited about, only to get home to be disappointed once you've taken a closer look. Have you ever said to yourself (or out loud):

That's just NOT how it looked to me, when I was there!

If you've ever said that, then it's possible that lens selection could be the culprit. Choosing the right lens is NOT as simple as: put on a wide angle to fit in more crap especially if you're in a small room, and use a long lens if the thing you're photographing is far away. Granted sometimes those are the correct choices, however there is a lot more to choosing the right lens than how much space you've got and how far away the subject is.

What do different lenses do

Wide angle lenses have an inclusive effect and enhance perspective. Let me repeat that:

Wide angle lenses have an inclusive effect and enhance perspective

They expand lines and make objects appear farther away. They add a feeling of depth because they “include” everything. So when you want someone to view your image and feel like they were actually there, a wide angle lens will give you that more so than a long lens. Often you feel you can step right in to an image created with a wide lens. Here's a few examples.

Notice how the wide perspective lends to the humorous aspect of this image
The wide lens here makes him seems really far away and small
The lens selection here, super wide 15mm, gives a distorted look and makes the city look small.
Look how the deer seem to be right in your face, like you can reach out and touch them.
In this image of my nephew I was lying under the swing and using the wide angle he literally seems to be jumping out at me.
Do you feel like are on this street in the crowd? That happens with a wide lens. I took this image from the hip as I walked and no one even know I took a photo.

Long or telephoto lenses isolate and compress perspective. What that means is that your subject will appear isolated, or separated from the background. Objects far away will seem nearer, and lines will seem shortened and less three dimensional.

Long or telephoto lenses isolate and compress perspective.

When we view images taken with really long lenses it almost gives us a voyeuristic feeling, like we're spying on something. We do not feel a part of the image, and the subject (if there is distance between them) does not feel part of the background. In the case of a portrait, that's actually desired. You do not want your person to blend in with the scenery, you want them to jump out. Using a longer lens will help you do that. Here are some examples of how longer lenses compress and isolate.

Compare this image of the deer to the one above. Notice how the look and feel of the image is completely different, same subject.
Now compare this image to the one about of the man and the horse. This one seems much more voyeuristic, and he actually gave me the finger after I took it.
Another comparison. Same subject – my husband and the Standing on the Corner Park in Winslow, AZ – different treatment. Neither is right or wrong, they're just different.
Last comparison, same kid, longer lens. Which one feels like you're more of an observer?
Long lens – isolation. Does the one headstone that's sharp not feel sort of lonely?
Another example of isolation of the subject. I have other images of this sea turtle and the other 7 that were on the beach. Again just different. I wanted to focus on his face, more like a portrait for this one so the longer lens was the right choice.

How lens choice affects photos of people

What lens you choose when photographing people can completely change the look of the image, and the person! None is right or wrong, but knowing the affect each lens will have on your image will allow you to make the appropriate choice for the look you wish to achieve.

Here is a series of images taken with the subject in exactly the same spot. The only thing I have changed from one image to the next, is the lens, and my distance to her. Each time I changed to a longer lens, I needed to back up to keep her the same size in the photograph.

Let's look at the two extremes a little larger! First the one taken with the 16mm and the last one done with the 150mm. What differences do you notice?

16mm lens
150mm lens


Did you notice the differences between the two images?

The Face

The first thing you notice is her head. In the wide angle image her face is all distorted and sort of bulbous, almost cartoon looking. For photos of kids, or if you're trying to make a powerful statement, such as achieving a comical look, then a wide lens might be a good choice. Like the image of the man and his horse above, it works. However, is that the look you'd want if you were being photographed? Probably not so much.

The Background

Next, take a look at the background in the two images, keeping in mind she is sitting in exactly the same spot in both, and they are both take with the same aperture, F5.6. The one with the longer lens has a much narrower field of view so you see very little of what's behind her. Think of a horse with blinders on, and the blinders turned inward so the horse can only see directly in front of him. So if you want to show perspective and the environment around your subject, then you'd want to choose a wider lens. But if you want to simplify and make it be more about the person and less about the background, then you may want to consider a longer lens. Also notice how much softer and out of focus the background is in the shot done with the 150mm lens. Remember she's in exactly the same spot and both were shot at f5.6! Amazing hey!?

Long leading lines, a hallway that seems to go on forever? 17mm lens.
Classic portrait, soft background, the people are featured. 150mm lens.

The right lens for the job

Like I said earlier there is no such thing as the right or wrong lens. What is important, is knowing the look you want to achieve with our image, and then selecting the appropriate lens to do so. With this knowledge, do you feel better prepared to do that?

This week's challenge

My challenge to you is to use this new information and go take two photos. First, use a wide angle lens to its advantage, using its properties of enhancing perspective and inclusion. Then create an image using a telephoto or long zoom (100mm or longer), using it to isolate a subject, and compress perspective. Please share your images with us in the comments section below.

If you enjoyed this article you might also like How to Achieve Blurred Backgrounds in Portraits. You can also sign up to get email notices of all new articles, upcoming events and download my free ebook 10 Challenges to Improve your Photography.

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  • Bil Hewitt

    I enjoyed your article, thank-you for sending it. I would love to try your challenge BUT, my camera is in Toronto for repairs again, I swear it was put together on fri @ 4:59. Hope to see you on the 28th of oct at the Mayfield.

    • Yes I will be in the studio lighting area, come find me Bill!

  • Jay

    Nice article, very timely for me !

    As far as I know, the faster shutter speeds required for longer lenses would be a (secondary) consideration? I think this article concentrated on other aspects and rightly so.

    Thanks again.


    • Yes that is also true. Many people teach that a minimum shutter speed for hand holding is 1/60th of a second. I prefer 1/focal length. So if you have a 200mm lens 1/200. As you zoom in it amplifies any movement so you need the faster speeds.

  • Jay

    Thanks. Would that be for non-IS lenses only?

    • Well you can usually get away with a little slower shutter speed if you have an IS (VR for Nikon users) lens. However . . .

      Most beginners and people that do photography as a hobby have camera bodies that are not full frame (full sized image sensor). If you have a camera with an APS or other size sensor you will have what’s called a lens factor of about 1.5x approx. So when you put on a 200mm lens, because the sensor is smaller it effectively is cropping out a portion of the image and the lens is more like a 300mm (200 times that 1.5). So you really need to shoot that lens at 1/300 not 1/200.

      That’s why I usually say, follow the one over the focal length no matter what and you’ll be pretty safe.

  • MountainSage

    How did I miss this the first time? Duh on me.

    Well, I’m a standing on a corner

    in Winslow, Arizona

    and such a fine sight to see

    It’s a girl, my Lord, in a flatbed

    Ford slowin’ down to take a look at me

    Love that and I love using songs as inspiration for photos or the title of photos.

    • Yup and there is ABSOLUTELY no other reason to go there! LOL

      • MountainSage

        LOL The Eagles did Winslow a big favor.

        • Rob

          Winslow was quite the deal in it’s day. Even the airport was designed by Charles Lindbergh and Howard Hughes. they stayed at the La Posada while the airport was being built. Apparently was a huge rail junction as well. People would take the train to Winslow and then do Grand Canyon tours from there.

        • LOL maybe! maybe not. It seems like it was something once upon a time, sadly not much left there now

    • that’s the flat bed Ford I’m leaning up against. It’s an actual flatbed Ford parked there. There are 2 reasons to go to Winslow. The park and the La Posada hotel . The La Posada hotel is spectacular in so many respects

      • MountainSage

        I’ve stayed in motels in Winslow twice on trips across country but never had the time to explore it. That’s so cool that they have a flatbed Ford there. I lived in Arizona for a number of years and I miss it…..but, it was time to come home to Virginia. The La Posada looks very cool. I want to get back out to Arizona, and Winslow will be on my list along with Bisbee.

        If you’ve never been to Bisbee you should check it out. The Copper Queen Hotel is pretty interesting.

  • skipc43

    Fantastic article! I learned a lot from it. I had read other articles on the same subject matter, but they didn’t show the examples and explain the differences as clearly as Darlene has.

  • Mick Miller

    Darlene, first I want to say I’m trying to get out of my comfort zone by showing these 2 pics. I didn’t have my dslr and kit lens or 70-300mm zoom lens with me and I was thinking about another assignment. All I had with me was my Android phone camera. I’m sitting in my brother’s backyard way back from the house the temp smoking zone having my cig and coffee, looking around thinking OK wide angle lens and zoom lens.
    I zoom in on the peppers (crop and did some contrast & color saturation edit ) got some hot spots. Then took one of the peppers with out zooming in, edit some ( little bit crop & color saturation, plus adjust it in the color adjustment [curve] ? ) I’m using Paint Shop Pro 9. I feel like, if I was in you photo class I would get a D on quality and C for effort. Am I going in the right direction? I really appreciate all the work you do in getting Digital Photo Mentor out…MM

    • First, good for you for sharing and getting outside your comfort zone. You’re on the right track but I think you’ll have better results if you try the same thing with your camera and different lenses. A smartphone doesn’t really “zoom” as the lens optics can’t change – it’s just cropping in tighter. So it’s not exactly the same as using a longer lens.

      For a challenge go back there with your SLR and try with a wide and long and see how different it is.

      • Mick Miller

        Thanks for your comment. This coming weekend (9/12/15) I’ll do that. I just also want to say with the photos in your article it really help me to see the difference and understand better…MM

  • Becky Gonzalez

    Hi I was wondering how I can achieve the 150mm lense look with a canon rebel t5i?
    Is there a lense you can recommend? Looking forward to hearing back from you.


    • On a cropped sensor you’d need about a 100mm lens. It will be similar but not exact to a 150mm on full frame.

  • John Puhala I am always trying to come up with song lyrics to caption my photos. Here is one of my examples

  • Sam


    I am new to photography, but I think I know something (very little i guess) about it.
    However time to time I end-up in a situation where I don’t know what lens is good for the event/situation.
    For example, i visited a zoo with my family last week, and i used a Canon 5D mk iii camera and Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS USM lens, of-course i did capture the animals without any problem, and i loved the outcome as well.
    But my problem was, when I wanted to photograph my kids in-front of the animals (or just to see the animals in the background, when i photograph them), i couldn’t capture both, because the lens focused either my kids or the animals.
    I tried with my Canon 24-105 L II and also the Sigma 50mm 1.4 ART, but without any success.
    Later i used my mobile phone for that purpose, which captured both my kids and the animals in the background.

    Later when i was reading through some of the articles in this site, i realized i should have some lens with f/4 or lower, not 1.4, or 2.8, etc.

    But anyway, in general, what lenses are good for these occasions? where i want to keep the background (like animals in zoo, or church/buildings in the background when i travel, etc).

    Can you please help me?

    Thank you!

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