The Right Lens for the Job

Ready to move beyond the lens that came with your DSLR? Here's what to choose for extraordinary photos.



Click photo to view sample images taken with these types of lenses.

Are your pictures just okay -- not spectacular? If so, the problem may be your lens. The kit lenses sold with most DSLRs today are true bargains, but can be limiting. Engineers designed them to have compact proportions, light weight, and small price tags. Made for average photographers, shooting in average conditions, with average subjects at average shooting distances, they excel at producing average pictures.

If you want something better than average, that kit lens may frustrate you. Just as you wouldn't use a wrench to drive a nail, you probably shouldn't pick up an 18-55mm f/3.5-4.5 kit lens to capture a distant athlete, a tiny insect, or a tight interior.

Think back on the pictures that inspired you to buy a camera in the first place. Were they National Geographic-type shots of big animals in the wild? (You'll need a super telephoto.) Colorful floral close-ups that reveal every stamen, pistil, and pollen grain? (That takes a macro.) Expansive Big Sky landscapes that capture heaven and earth in all their glory? (Go for an ultrawide-angle.)

Here's what you need to know about stepping up to each of these lenses, including an example from a third-party lensmaker designed to fit a variety of digital SLRs.

Ultrawide-angle lenses are prized for showing us more than our unaided eyes can take in. Their angles of view -- anywhere between about 90 and 120 degrees -- are suited to large groups, expansive landscapes, or, conversely, tightly cramped interiors.

Ultrawide lenses have become especially attractive to anyone shooting a DSLR that has a smaller-than-35mm sensor. Because these cameras are hobbled by a 1.3X to 2X lens factor, ultrawides are the only option for getting a truly wide angle of view.

Their short focal lengths and faster maximum apertures usually make for easy handheld shooting at slower shutter speeds than is possible with longer lenses. Moreover, their typically enormous depths of field will usually render everything sharp from the foreground out to infinity.

What to Look For

• Superior distortion control. Ultrawides often produce bowed lines around the image edges -- typically barrel distortion. Such lines undercut the normally uncompromisingly realistic look that is the hallmark of these lenses, especially if strongly linear elements form an important part of the picture. Bowed lines can also be unflattering to human subjects, especially figures near the frame edges.

To discover if a lens has unacceptable distortion, refer to our lens tests (you can find them on, or mount a prospective lens on your camera body and look through the finder: Holding the camera horizontally, aim it so that a straight, high-contrast line runs the length of the top or bottom image edge. Assess the extent of any curvature. If the line bows alarmingly, pass on the lens. To minimize distortion, compose ultrawide shots with any straight lines placed near the center, away from the image's edges.

• Close-focus distance. If you have a choice between two otherwise equal ultrawides, pick the one with the closer focusing distance. The ability to move in really close (12 inches or less) to an object, while keeping both it and a distant backdrop in sharp focus, can be used to visually stunning effect. It's a look that can be achieved only with ultrawide lenses.

• Lenshoods. Because the front element of these lenses often extends beyond the barrel, ultrawide lenses can be prone to flare, which can degrade sharpness and contrast. Make sure your ultrawide comes with a lens shade -- and use it religiously.

$500 buys

Tokina 12-24mm f/4 AT-X Pro (digital only)
• Two aspheric elements.
• Internal focusing.
• 18-36mm equivalent.
• Close-focus distance: 11.8 in.
• Weight: 1.2 lb.
• Length: 3.5 in.
• Street price: $500

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• Fixed Focal Length Ultrawides
• Ultrawide Zooms

Beneath the visible lies another visually stimulating world of pattern, color, and detail -- one too small for our eyes to see. Exploring this world photographically requires dedication, discipline, and care.

But the rewards are worth it. Its beauty is made visible to photographers through a number of tools. You can...

• Mount an extension tube between camera and lens (and possibly lose autofocus or autoexposure functions).
• Thread close-up lenses in front of a normal lens (and lose edge sharpness).
• Put a macro bellows between camera and lens (awkward and somewhat expensive, requires a tripod, and will probably not allow AE/AF functions).
• Use one of today's close-focusing digital compact cameras (which usually offer only a few inches of working distance between the camera and subject -- not good for many subjects).
• Buy a true high-magnification macro lens, which is by far the best of all of these options.

True macros focus to 1:1 -- that is, the size of the recorded image equals the object's actual size. You probably won't need much more magnification than that. They usually offer full AE and AF compatibility, don't necessarily need to be mounted on a tripod, and can be used for normal nonmacro photography, too.

What to Look For

• The right focal length. True macro lenses come in a range of focal lengths from wide (35mm) to moderate tele (180mm). Wider focal lengths let you introduce plenty of background in your close-ups for dramatic perspective studies, in which close-up subjects loom in strong contrast to backgrounds that fall away into a defocused distance. Moderate focal lengths can easily be pressed into service as portrait lenses, while longer macros typically offer the greatest working distances -- perfect for skittish critters like insects, pets, and children.

• Close-focusing distance. Choose a lens with a close-focus distance that suits your subject. If you're shooting inanimate tabletop or copystand objects, for example, and would like to easily reach out and adjust subject position or orientation from the camera, look for a macro lens with a short focusing distance (about 12 inches). If, on the other hand, you want some distance -- usually because your living subject needs its space -- look for a lens with a close-focusing distance of 3 feet or longer.

• Autofocus ranges. Because macro lenses focus so closely, their focusing collars commonly have relatively long turning radii. Going from close-focus to infinity can take a lot of cranking -- either for you in manual focus, or for the lens in autofocus. To minimize AF hunting, the best macro lenses offer two or three focusing ranges (e.g., close-up, normal, and full).

$429 buys

Sigma 70mm f/2.8 EX DG Macro
• One element of SLD (super-low-dispersion) glass.
• Close-focus distance: 10.1 in.
• Maximum magnification: 1:1.
• Weight: 1.1 lb.
• Length: 3.7 in.
• Street price: $429

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• Macro Lenses

Your ticket to distant sports or wildlife action (think soaring birds or big mammals), super telephoto lenses will also help you cherry-pick picturesque elements out of far-off landscapes. They're typically 300mm, 400mm, and 600mm monster primes, although more and more pros today are opting for the utility of long telephoto zooms. An ability to dramatically bring the distant near, compress apparent space, and throw a subject into high relief against a completely defocused background are the visually powerful hallmarks of super tele imagery.

These big guns like Canon's popular 400mm f/2.8 IS ($6,600, street) and Nikon's 300mm f/2.8 VR ($4,500, street) take a commitment, both physical and financial. Due to their considerable weight (3 pounds and up), even a small super tele requires substantial muscle to get into the field and up onto a tripod.

The payoffs are huge, however. Many of the iconic images from the pages of Sports Illustrated and National Geographic wouldn't have been possible without these $2,500 to $6,800 optics. If these prices seem prohibitive, consider a used lens, or rent one for weekend shooting. Once hooked on the new types of images you're making, you will find ways to afford the glass.

To ensure success, super teles require specific shooting strategies. Because they magnify not only distant subjects, but also handshake, a heavyweight tripod is a must. Get a tripod head with an easy-to-use quick-release system, as well as pan/tilt controls that are readily accessible and operable. Before investing in a tripod and tripod head, try them with your specific camera and lens combination.

What to Look For

• Speed. A wide aperture will pay off in faster shutter speeds for reduced motion blur and a brighter viewfinder image. The difference between f/2.8 and f/4 can often be significant.
• Image stabilization. While not as important when the lens is tripod-mounted, this feature is essential if you plan to handhold.
• Low-dispersion glass elements for control of color fringing.
• A rugged carrying case.
• Compatibility with AE- and AF-dedicated teleconverters... because eventually you will want an even longer reach.

$2,500 buys

Tamron 300mm f/2.8 LD IF
• Two LD glass elements.
• Fast f/2.8 maximum aperture.
• Built-in tripod collar.
• 43mm rear filter drawer or 112mm front filter ring.
• Minimum focus: 8.2 ft.
• Maximum magnification: 1:7.1.
• Weight: 5 lb.
• Length: 8.5 in.
• Street price (after rebate): $2,500+/-, depending on mount

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• Fixed Focal Length Telephotos
• Telephoto Zooms
• Superzooms