After I ordered my first film camera, I so adeptly realized I needed a lens. But I didn’t realize just how big of a decision this would be.
So I ordered a lens and used it for a few weeks. I realized it wasn’t quite the right fit, so I bought another. And another. Without realizing it, I had purchased six different lenses, and wasn’t quite satisfied with any.
To save you from the mental back and forth and the pain that purchasing photography equipment can inflict on your wallet, here’s a quick guide to buying a lens — or three — with the right focal length for you.
Before we get started, there’s a difference between knowing what you like to shoot, what you want to shoot, and what you think you could shoot someday.
I’d recommend not making a purchasing decision about the latter, or else you’ll wind up with a shelf full of lenses that rarely get used (speaking from experience here).
The other bit to note here is that we’ll focus entirely on prime lenses. By and large (though not always the case), they’re smaller, sharper, and will lead to better results.
If You’re Only Looking for One Lens…
This is where you buy based on your current habits. It’s better to start with one lens that you know you’ll use a lot than try to buy based on hypotheticals.
Most recommendations would guide you to 35mm and 50mm as the best starting point. Not too wide, not to telephoto, and they’re pretty similar to what your eye naturally sees. Which to choose comes down to what you like to shoot.
If you generally create images with a single point of focus, you’ll probably want to grab a 50mm. This focal length does a great job with subject separation, so you’ll likely be able to get beautiful bokeh while still keeping enough interest in the frame.
But if you like a more dynamic scene with more space for multiple subjects, get a 35mm. Technically speaking, it’s considered a wide angle lens, so you’ll be able to get more in the frame. While lenses at this length don’t typically distort a ton, they aren’t recommended for portraits.
Now, there are always exceptions to the rules, so don’t feel too constrained by this. For example, if you’re a portrait photographer, you may prefer 85mm to 50mm. Or if you’re a landscape photographer, you may opt for something wider like 24mm or 28mm.
This is where things get a bit more complicated, and it’s helpful to know what your primary lens length is before making another decision.
If you’re buying two lenses, try to have complimentary lenses. That means two lenses that aren’t too close in focal length so they cover more real estate.
For example, if you mainly shoot 35mm (like I do), don’t also buy a 50mm (like I did) or a 28mm. While they certainly serve different purposes, they’re still relatively close in focal length, and there’s likely to be a decent amount of overlap between subjects.
The better compliment to 35mm is something like 75mm, 85mm, or 90mm, depending on the brand you shoot.
On the flip side, if you prefer 50mm, you’ll probably want something wider to help you cover more. You’ll probably find that 24mm or 28mm is a good compliment to your 50mm. You could go more telephoto, but you’ll be committing to not getting any wide angle shots.
In the Leica world, there are some magic dual combinations of lenses that people generally opt for: 35mm + 75mm, 35mm + 90mm, or 28mm + 50mm. While other manufacturers may have slightly different focal lengths, the ideal pairing is often about the same.
But Wait — There’s More?
If you’re looking for a third lens to add to your kit, it’s likely you’ll be choosing from a much different set of lenses. When choosing a third lens, you can open yourself up to options that are more specific and niche.
As a landscape photographer, I lean towards wide angle lenses. But beyond 28mm, things get too wide for most situations — that is, unless you have a really specific image in mind.
For example, Leica makes a massive, expensive 21mm f/1.4 lens that’s hard to use and requires a hotshoe viewfinder to even work.
I wanted choice, and wanted to make sure that no matter the situation, I could be prepared with the right equipment. I had two camera bodies, 16-35mm, 24mm, 55mm, 85mm, 70-200mm, and 100-300mm lenses.
But it wasn’t as glamorous as you might think.
Every time I went out to shoot, I spent more time thinking about what I might wind up shooting (and what gear I might need) than actually preparing for the shoot itself. Then at the shoot, I’d think more about the focal length that could frame the shot best instead of actually shooting.
It’s called the Paradox of Choice.
While you might think more choice is better, since you’ll be able to choose exactly what you need, it often works the in opposite way.
These days, my kit is two lenses I’ve learned to love and understand. But it took a while for me to get here.
The best advice I can offer is to test out your equipment before buying if you can. When I was considering replacing my 35mm lens, I started doing a ton of research on 28mm lenses. It seemed like the perfect focal length for me, and the ideal compliment to my 50mm.
But after testing out a friend’s 28mm lens on my Leica M6, it became clear to me very quickly that it was too wide. I was lucky to be able to test it out — otherwise, I would have spent thousands of dollars on a lens that wouldn’t have been a good fit for me.
The more you can try out equipment ahead of time, it’s likely you’ll be able to find the right lens (or lenses) for you.
And remember — nothing is permanent. While your equipment may look one way now, it’s likely and natural for it to change over time.