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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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