Camera Lenes Buying Guide

Whether you shoot on Canon, Nikon or Sony, or solely use third party gear, this post is designed to give you the best information available and help you in your lens buying future.
To make sure you know what you’re doing when the time comes to replace that old kit lens, I’m going to walk you through focal length, aperture and what all those little letters on your lens mean.

Photo of a canon ultrasonic lens

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Step 1 – Focal Length

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For the basis of choosing the right lens, the higher the focal length (number before ‘mm’), the more zoomed the lens is going to be. Of course, it’s a little bit more complicated than this. You can find more information in the post mentioned above.
Different focal lengths have different uses in different situations; it’s all about choosing the right lens for you.
Ask yourself which lens you currently use the most and what you like to take photos of. This will give you a good idea of what sort of lens you want.
Here’s a list of focal length ranges taken from my post on focal length.

Ultra Wide Angle 14-24mm

These lenses are often considered specialty items. The range is not often included as part of a kit lens.
They create such a wide angle of view that they can appear distorted. This is because our eyes aren’t used to seeing in that sort of range.
Wide and ultra wide lenses are about putting yourself in the centre of it all, not just getting the whole of a scene in.
These lenses are not particularly suitable for portraits as they enhance the perspective so much that the facial features sometimes appear unnatural.
Fisheye lenses, noted for their characteristically distorted perspective, are a special subset of ultra wide angle lenses. The focal length of a typical circular fisheye lens can be as short as 8mm.

Wide Angle 24-35mm


24mm is roughly the point at which the distortion that appears to stretch the side of the image stops appearing unnatural.
They are used widely by photojournalists for documentation of situations.  They are wide enough to include a lot of the context whilst maintaining a realistic look.

Standard 35mm-70mm

It’s in this range, at about 45-50mm, that the lens will reproduce what our eyes see (excluding peripheral vision).
I personally like to use this range when shooting on the street. Or in a close setting with friends such as at a dinner table or the pub. A standard lens such as a 50mm f1.8 is an excellent, inexpensive addition to your camera. It will provide excellent results. A standard lens such as a 50mm f1.8 is an excellent, inexpensive addition to your camera. It will provide excellent results. Prime lenses have a fixed focal length—these can’t zoom. They will always provide better results than your kit lens.  They are built with a single purpose in min. And they do one job well rather than multiple jobs poorly.

Short Telephoto 70-105mm

This range is where kit lenses tend to stop. Instead, you’re entering the range of telephoto lenses and portrait primes (around 85mm). This is a good range for portrait lenses. The natural perspective of the lens will separate the face from the background without completely isolating it.

Telephoto 105-300mm

These lengths vary depending on what type of camera you’re using. It’s worth noting that the majority of camera users have a crop sensor camera. This means that the size of the sensor is smaller, cropping the image.
A photo taken on a crop sensor at 50mm is going to look more like 75mm—more zoomed.

Kit lenses typically range from around 18-55mm on a crop sensor lens. These lenses won’t fit on a full frame camera. If you’re looking to upgrade to professional quality gear, you’ll still want to find a focal length as close to that as you can. Stepping your lens up to 24mm results in the loss of a lot of the wider angles.
If you’re unlikely to upgrade to a full frame professional camera in the near future, I would strongly suggest upgrading to a higher quality crop sensor lens.

Step 2 – The Right Aperture

Aperture can be a confusing thing when it comes to buying a lens.
The lower the number (f/1.4, f/2), the wider the aperture. And the more light the lens will allow in.
When buying a lens, you should try to get this number as low as you can afford to go without sacrificing the focal length that you want.
The lens that I use most is my 24-70mm f/2.8. This is because it allows me a good zoom range and a very wide maximum aperture. This means I can let loads of light into the lens and achieve a shallow depth of field.
My lens is an f/2.8. No matter where I’m focusing, I can still set my aperture to f/2.8. This is not something that you can do with any old lens.
A typical Canon kit lens will have the marking f/3.5-5.6. This means that the maximum aperture will change throughout the zoom range. The lens will stop at f/3.5 at 18mm, narrow to f/4 at 24mm, then f/5 at 39mm and finally f/5.6 at 47mm.
These stops allow progressively less light into the lens with a total difference of 1 1/3 stops, meaning that f/5.6 allows less than half the amount of light into the lens as f/3.5.
As you can see, this will really hold you back when shooting in low light. I thoroughly recommend that the first upgrade you look for when buying a new lens is one that allows a wider maximum aperture without changing throughout the focal length.

Step 3 – What Do All Those Letters Mean?

Spreadsheet comparing Full frame, crop sensor and other qualities of different lenses

Well, they’re acronyms. They vary between cameras but all mean essentially the same thing.
The table below demonstrates what these letters mean by brand. With the exception of the crop sensor marking, every time you get some extra letters, your lens is getting more expensive and better quality.
For those that don’t understand what the terms above mean, here are some definitions for you (along with a few extras that aren’t listed).

MF

Manual focus only. This is typically only found on very cheap lenses or much older lenses. The acronym is the same throughout brands.

II

This is the version of the lens that you’re using.
Lenses that have been around for a long time and become very popular aren’t usually replaced completely. The lens designer will take the lens and find ways to improve it, then re-release it under the marking  ‘II’ – version 2.
The higher the number, the better the lens.

Full Frame

These lenses will still fit crop sensor cameras but you’ll end up with the crop factor that I mentioned in step 1.
These are specifically designed for full frame cameras and project a larger image onto the larger sensor in the full frame camera.

Crop Sensor

Infographic of a full frame lens projection vs. full frame and crop sensor

These markings tell you that they’re built for a smaller camera with a smaller sensor.  You’ll find that the focal length has also been adjusted accordingly.
It also means that the projection from the lens is much smaller and will not work on a full frame camera; if you were to put it on a full frame camera, it would produce very heavy vignetting.

Image Stabilistaion

We all know what this is: a way of stabilising the camera or lens so that you’re able to take a photo at a slower shutter speed. Different cameras have different techniques and locations for this but they all essentially do the same thing.

Silent Wave Motor

This is a much faster focus motor with clear advantages that’s also fairly silent and the end of the lens doesn’t tend to move when focusing.
This has the added advantage of accommodating a filter on the end of the camera without having to worry about it rotating as you focus.

Pro Lens

Most lens manufacturers produce lenses to a price; your kit lens is unlikely to be very good quality. I find this to be especially true with my experience of Canon kit lenses.
Stepping up to pro lenses, you’ll find a difference in quality and usually a wider maximum aperture; very useful for low light situations.

Low Dispersion Glass

This reduces nasty chromatic aberration produced by cheap glass.
You’ve probably seen it before but may not have known what exactly it was called. Here’s an exaggerated example of it – notice the blue outlining the face:

A Note to Finish On

If you’re looking to improve the physical quality of your images, the best way to do it is to replace your kit lens (or don’t buy one to begin with) as soon as possible.
Prime lenses are always going to provide better quality images for cheaper. They are excellent low cost alternatives to kit lenses.
Buy the best lens you can afford for the focal length range that you use the most. You won’t have too many complaints with that.
Don’t worry about using a crop sensor camera and buying a full frame lens. Just work with what you got. If you’re a good photographer, these obstacles won’t be a hurdle in taking great photos.

Camera Buying Guide

If you’re just getting started, the first decision is whether to choose a basic camera or an advanced one. Here’s the difference: If you plan to just point the camera and shoot, you need (you guessed it) some sort of point-and-shoot. If you sometimes want to fiddle with exposure settings or even swap out lenses, you should look at advanced cameras.

Once you make that first decision, it’s time to get a bit more detailed. One of following six camera types—three basic and three advanced—will be right for you.

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6 Camera Categories

There are three kinds of basic cameras and three kinds of advanced cameras. Here’s what they cost and what they can do. (Narrow your choice down to one or two types and shopping becomes much easier.)

Three cameras: A basic point-and-shoot, a superzoom point-and-shoot, and a waterproof point-and-shoot.

Basic Cameras

Basic point-and-shoot cameras are used pretty much the way you shoot photos with a smartphone. Simply set the camera on either a fully auto mode or a scene mode, and fire away. You have only coarse control over exposure settings, and you can’t switch lenses. But point-and-shoots do vary quite a bit in terms of features and capabilities. At Consumer Reports, we recognize three flavors of basic camera.

A. Basic point-and-shoots (price range: $90 to $270). These are simple, portable cameras, but some have optical zoom ranges as long as 23x. That’s fine for shooting anything in your backyard but probably not enough to capture action from across a soccer field. Some of these cameras have touch screens. And almost all are lightweight and slim, which make them ideal for slipping into your pocket or bag.

B. Superzoom point-and-shoots(price range: $180 to $600). If you go to a lot of baseball games or concerts, you may want a superzoom camera. These models have optical zooms of at least 24x, and some are as long as 83x. That can literally capture craters on the moon. Many superzooms have nice grips, which can help you stabilize your camera when you shoot. Current models are also more compact and lighter than their predecessors.

C. Waterproof point-and-shoots(price range: $110 to $390). If you want to shoot photos or video at the bottom of a swimming pool or beneath the waves, consider a waterproof point-and-shoot. Note that capabilities vary: Some cameras in this category are claimed to be waterproof to 50 feet, and others can be submerged to a fraction of that depth. With strengthened inner and outer chassis construction, most of these cameras are also rugged enough to survive a fall of several feet and to function properly in colder temperatures.

Three cameras in a row: An advanced point-and-shoot, a mirrorless model, and an SLR.

Advanced Cameras

If a camera gives you fine control over exposure settings, we group it with advanced models. But that’s just one of the elements that sets these cameras apart. They all have large image sensors and other features to help produce high-quality images.

D. Advanced point-and-shoots(price range: $250 to $3,300). Like basic point-and-shoots, they have nondetachable lenses, but they also have manual controls and other advanced features. They’re also more expensive than basic point-and-shoots. Most have hot-shoe mounts for an external flash and can produce RAW files—the best format to use with image-editing software. Some have high-quality electronic viewfinders—helpful if you shoot in bright light and the LCD looks washed out.

E. Mirrorless models (price range: $440 to $4,000). These models accept interchangeable lenses, like SLRs, but they’re smaller and lighter. Downside: They don’t have an SLR through-the-lens viewfinder. Mirrorless cameras have large sensors for enhanced images. Some expensive models have full-frame sensors; these are the size of a frame of 35-mm film and enhance low-light performance. Mirrorless models can also capture RAW files.

F. SLRs (price range: $400 to $3,300). SLRs are interchangeable-lens cameras, and most are compatible with a number of lenses. With the most features, they’re also the biggest and heaviest. All SLRs have large sensors for enhanced image quality in low light. They also have through-the-lens viewfinders, which use mirrors to display the photo subject exactly as it appears through the lens. As with mirrorless cameras, there are some pricey SLRs that include full-frame sensors. SLRs can also capture RAW files.

Specs That Matter

Once you have a general idea of what type of camera you’d like to get and how much you want to spend, you can dive deeper into the specs. Just remember that no single spec or feature can tell you whether a camera is good or not.

Megapixel counts, in particular, can almost be ignored these days—even though they get mentioned prominently in ads and by salespeople. The number tells you how fine the resolution the final picture will have, but every camera on the market has enough megapixels for most people. You only need more than 16 megapixels if you want to send out for literally poster-sized prints of your photos.

So if megapixels don’t matter much, what should you look for? Here are some important features to consider:

Sensor Size

When you hear “sensor,” think “film.” This is the component inside a digital camera that captures the image. And the larger the sensor, the better the performance will tend to be, particularly in low light. Some pricey models even include a full-frame sensor, the largest sensor available on consumer models. Unfortunately, there isn’t a uniform standard of measurement. For instance, large sensors include 1-inch sensors and 35-mm full-frame sensors, which, as you can see, are measured differently. However, if you’re interested in quality, get the largest sensor size you can. You can often find this information on a camera’s product page on the manufacturer’s website. Also, you can research the phrase “camera sensor sizes” online to find charts that show the comparative sizes of image sensors. In general, most cameras that include a sensor that’s 1 inch (12.8×9.6 mm) or larger can be considered an advanced camera.

Try Out Cameras in a Store

Before you buy, we suggest trying out a camera model in a walk-in store so that you get a sense of how the camera feels in your hand.

Check the size and weight. No matter what type of photographer you are, you’ll want to consider a camera’s size as well as other factors when choosing a model. Do you want something portable for traveling, like a small, compact point-and-shoot (below, left)? Or are you okay with a big and bulky model, like a large superzoom (below, right)? Remember, if you’re traveling and you’re camera is heavy, you may take fewer photos and miss important moments.

Consider the controls. What do the buttons, switches, dials, and levers look like on your camera? Do you like these types of controls? Most cameras have just a few, and you’ll need to change most of the settings in the menu system, which is why a touch-screen LCD can be useful. SLRs have the most physical controls, which makes changing the settings quick and easy.

What Else to Shop For

There are various accessories, from essential to esoteric, that you can get for your camera. And depending on which model you buy, some can be pretty pricey. For most, you’ll want to consider the following accessories when you purchase a camera:

An illustration of a memory card, a camera case, an external flash, and an extra lens.

Canon offers an extensive line of models in every category. Its compact PowerShots line includes several different series, including point-and-shoots (ELPH series), superzoom (SX), rugged (D), and advanced point-and-shoots (S and G). The EOS Rebel series helped to define budget SLRs. Other SLRs include a host of pro and more advanced consumer models, including models that have large, full-frame sensors. Canon also offers a broader selection of lenses than most brands. Canon also sells a line of EOS M-series and R-series mirrorless models and compatible lenses.

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Right side view looking back with outside rear view mirror and side adjustable wing window.`

Right side wing window and rear view mirror.

Left side wing window and rear view mirror.

Merceds Hood Ornement.

Right side looking forward.

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