One of the most fundamental dilemmas for any new photographer is making the best decision to choose the right lens for the occasion. It may seem confusing or daunting at first, but understanding the specifications of the lens will help you determine the best fit. You can avoid over-packing on your next trip and unnecessary “GAS” (gear acquisition syndrome) to save yourself the dough for a more meaningful experience.

We’ve broken down the anatomy of a lens into three essential parts to help you understand the value of different lenses for every occasion. There is no one-size-fits-all type of solution to this question, as the creative freedom in how your vision is expressed through photography is open-ended. However, the breakdown below will help you make the best decision to determine the right lens for your next shoot.

Prime or Zoom Lens?

It’s not always convenient to lug our entire gear collection around when we’re traveling; you’re adding extra weight to your baggage and increasing the risk of damaging or getting your equipment stolen. Doing your research on your travel destinations will help you get a good sense of what kind of photographs you’ll be taking the most. Heading to Iceland for majestic views of undisturbed nature and Italy for an epic cultural experience around food will call for different lenses.

Prime Lens

A prime lens (also known as a fixed lens) has only one focal length, meaning you cannot zoom in and out of a frame while standing in the same spot. This may seem like a disadvantage, but it’s actually a great way for beginners to experiment with framing and composition. It forces you to physically move around or direct your subjects to a variety of positions, discovering a wider range of angles in the process. The most common focal lengths for prime lenses are 35mm, 50mm and 85mm, which are popular for portrait and food photography. It is also typical for prime lenses to have a larger aperture compared to a zoom lens, making it easy to capture photos in low-light settings and create beautiful bokeh backgrounds.

Zoom Lens

It is recommended for photographers to own both a good zoom lens and a prime lens as one isn’t necessarily better than the other. It really depends on your preference and needs, but having a go-to zoom lens in your kit will prove its versatility and convenience. A zoom lens is ideal when you’re traveling without too much room in your luggage and expecting a variety of subjects to capture. For example, the 17-40mm or 18-35mm are reliable lenses when you’re out exploring the city and grabbing a bite to eat because they cater to a range of angles. You can capture a wide-angle shot of the city’s beautiful architecture and the details in your burger without having to change the lens.

Determining the Right Focal Length

A focal length is the distance between your lens and the image sensor in your camera when the subject is in focus. It also determines how much of what you see is being captured in the frame. This information is communicated in millimeters, which also identifies the type of lens you have; longer focal lengths will capture a narrower angle, magnifying your subject as opposed to something shorter. To determine the right focal length, figure out how far you’ll be standing away from the subject, the size of your subject and how much of the background you want to capture.

If you’re planning a trip to the Galapagos to capture wildlife from a distance, your best bet would be to bring a telephoto lens with a focal length of around or above 200mm. Telephoto lenses allow a greater distance between the photographer and the subject, making it ideal for getting action shots without getting caught up in the middle.

Not all stories can be told through a close crop image of the subject; if you want to produce a story through a larger scenery, you can turn to a wide-angle lens. Encompassing much of the surrounding environment around your subject can add value to your photo, elaborating on the beauty of a landscape through details.

Considering Aperture and Lighting

One last thing to consider when choosing the right lens for the occasion is the lighting, especially if you’re planning to shoot in a dimly lit setting. It is easier to accommodate a brighter environment through your manual settings than adjusting for a dark setting without a tripod. By increasing the aperture (for a smaller opening for the light to come through the lens) and shutter speed, you can avoid blowing out your photos. In contrast, capturing an image under dark conditions requires a lens with a smaller aperture (larger opening for the light) and a tripod to keep the camera steady as your decrease the shutter speed to avoid blurriness. This is also a great method to experiment with light painting or astrophotography if you enjoy getting creative in the dark.

Generally, you will find more options among prime lenses that offer a smaller aperture and shallow depth of field, making it an ideal investment for your kit. The smaller aperture not only allows you to capture more light but offers the ability to create a soft, bokeh background to direct the focus onto your main subject.

What lenses do you have in your kit? Do you have a go-to lens? Let us know in the comments below, and as always, upload your shots to PicsArt photo editor with the hashtag #MadeWithPicsArt!


Sarah is a lifestyle photographer based in San Francisco with a love for food and adventure. When she is not writing about photography, you can find her planning her next big trip or editing videos covering recipes and travel tips.