back to top

The Ultimate Camera Lens Buying Guide in 2023

Last updated: November 12, 2023 - 9 min read
ExpertPhotography is supported by readers. Product links on ExpertPhotography are referral links. If you use one of these and buy something, we make a little money. Need more info? See how it all works here.
Subscribe Below to Download the Article Immediately

You can also select your interests for free access to our premium training:

Your privacy is safe! We will never share your information.

If you’re looking for a new camera lens, you’ve come to the right lens buying guide. In this article, we’ll provide an overview of everything you need to know before purchasing one.

We’ll cover topics like focal length, aperture, and sensor size. And we’ll also recommend some of our favorite lenses for different types of photography. So whether you’re a beginner or a seasoned pro, read on for the ultimate camera lens buying guide!

Lens Compatibility Guide
Quick Capture Cheat Sheets
Quick Capture Cheat Sheets
Looking for a comprehensive lens buying guide? Our Cheat Sheets offer 52 different photography tips, professionally designed for easy learning and quick reference. Perfect for visual learners!

Lens Buying Guide: Everything You Need to Know Before You Buy Camera Lenses

There are thousands of camera lenses on the market. And some of them have confusing names, numbers, and specs. Read on to learn how to make sense of it all.

Focal Length

I’ve written about focal lengths in great detail in the past. I very strongly suggest reading about it.

For choosing the right lens, the higher the focal length (the number before “mm”), the more zoomed the lens will 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 your specific needs.

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 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 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 range.

Wide-angle and ultra-wide-angle lenses are about putting yourself in the center of it all. It’s not just getting the whole scene in.

These lenses are not particularly suitable for portraits as they distort the perspective so much. So facial features sometimes appear unnatural.

Fisheye lenses are noted for their characteristically distorted perspective. And they 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)

This is where most kit lenses for full frame cameras start. 24 mm is roughly the point at which the distortion that appears to stretch the side of the image stops appearing unnatural.

Wide-angle lenses are used widely by photojournalists for documenting situations. They are wide enough to include lots of contexts while maintaining a realistic look.

Standard (35-70 mm)

In this range, a lens will reproduce what our eyes see. (At about 45-50 mm, excluding peripheral vision.)

I personally like to use this range when shooting on the street. Or it’s good for a close setting with friends, like at a dinner table or the pub.

A standard lens such as a 50 mm f/1.8 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 mind. And they do one job well rather than multiple jobs poorly.

Short Telephoto (70-105 mm)

This range is where kit lenses tend to stop. Instead, you’re entering the range of telephoto lenses and portrait primes (around 85 mm).

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 (105-300 mm)

These lengths vary depending on what type of camera you’re using. It’s worth noting that most camera users have a crop sensor camera. This means that the sensor size is smaller, cropping the image.

A photo taken on a crop sensor at 50 mm will look more like 75 mm—more zoomed.
Photo of a young man looking right
Kit lenses typically range from around 18-55 mm on a crop sensor lens. These lenses won’t fit on a full frame camera.

If you want to upgrade to professional gear, you’ll still want to find a focal length as close to that. Stepping your lens up to 24 mm results in a 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.

The Right Aperture

Aperture can be a confusing thing when it comes to buying a lens. As usual, I have an in-depth article on aperture about everything you need to know.

The lower the number (like f/1.4 or 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. But without sacrificing the focal length that you want.

The lens that I use most is my 24-70 mm f/2.8L. This is because it gives me a good zoom range and a wide maximum aperture. This means I can let loads of light into the lens and achieve a shallow depth of field.

Photo of two people on a stage playing guitars

My lens is an f/2.8. So 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 18 mm and narrow to f/4 at 24 mm. Then it will be f/5 at 39 mm and finally f/5.6 at 47 mm.

These stops allow progressively less light into the lens with a total difference of one and a third stops. This means that f/5.6 allows less than half the light into the lens as f/3.5.

As you can see, this will really hold you back when shooting in low light. I really recommend that the first upgrade you look for when buying a new lens is a wider maximum aperture without changing the focal length throughout.

What Do All Those Letters Mean?

Well, they’re lens acronyms. They vary between cameras. But all mean essentially the same thing. The table below demonstrates what these letters mean by brand. Spreadsheet comparing Full frame, crop sensor and other qualities of different lensesEvery time you get some extra letters, your lens is getting more expensive and is a higher-quality lens. (Except for the crop sensor marking.)

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)

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

Roman Numerals (II, III, IV Etc.)

This is the version of the lens that you’re getting. Lenses that have been around for a long time and have become very popular aren’t usually replaced completely.

The lens designer will take the lens and find ways to improve it. Then they re-release it under a Roman numeral like “II,” meaning “version two.” 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 earlier. These are specifically designed for full frame cameras and project a larger image onto the larger sensor in the full frame camera.

Crop Sensor

These markings tell you 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.Infographic of a full frame lens projection vs. full frame and crop sensor

Image Stabilization

Image stabilization is a system that stabilizes the camera or lens 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. It’s also fairly silent. And it’s at the end of the lens. So it doesn’t tend to move when focusing.

This has the added advantage of accommodating a filter on the camera’s end without worrying about it rotating as you focus.

Pro Lens

Most lens manufacturers produce lenses for a price. Ultimately, your kit lens is unlikely to be very good quality. I find this especially true with my experience with Canon kit lenses.

Stepping up to pro lenses, you’ll find a difference in quality. And you’ll usually have a wider maximum aperture. This is 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?
Photo of a man with a tattoo on his left hand on a stage

Conclusion: The Ultimate Camera Lens Buying Guide

If you want to improve your images’ physical quality, the best way to do it is to upgrade lenses. Basically, you’ll want to buy camera lenses as soon as possible. Which lens is best for you depends on your specific needs.

Prime lenses are always going to provide better quality images for cheaper. They are excellent low-cost alternatives to kit lenses. But buy the best lens you can afford for the focal length range you use the most. You can’t go wrong that way.

Don’t worry about using a crop sensor camera and buying a full frame lens. Just work with what you have. If you’re a good photographer, these obstacles won’t be a hurdle in taking great photos.

Lens Compatibility Guide
Quick Capture Cheat Sheets
Quick Capture Cheat Sheets
Looking for a comprehensive lens buying guide? Our Cheat Sheets offer 52 different photography tips, professionally designed for easy learning and quick reference. Perfect for visual learners!