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The question of what lens to use is one that many beginning photographers find exasperating. It seems like pros have a bagful of lenses and automatically know which optic to magically pull out of their bag and use for great photos. It's true that with practice and experience, a good photographer can become more intuitive with their choice of lenses. It's also true that often, the pro is just sequencing through one lens after another to try different focal lengths for each setting.
Still, there are some situations where the lens choice is pretty obvious. Covering a sport such as baseball or photographing birds in flight, calls for long glass, wide angle lenses need not apply. This article looks at appropriate lens choices for various types of activity with the caveat that a good photographer can figure out a way to make good images with almost any lens. Here's the rundown:
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Most outdoor sports need long glass with focal lengths of 300 mm or greater being good choices. Keep in mind that teleconverters (aka "multipliers") can boost the range of your lens making a 70-200 zoom with a 1.5x tele-converter a workable choice.
Some sports, such as tennis, golf, beach volleyball, track and field and X-games type sports (skateboarding, BMX biking and inline skates) can be photographed effectively with shorter zooms such as the 24-105. Longer telephotos tend to be much more helpful and keep the photographer a little farther from the action, keeping them a little safer.
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Nature and Landscape
Nature photography: once again, long glass rules the roost here. Most animals don't want to get anywhere near human beings (they tend to live longer that way) so unless you're at an educational/rehabilitated animal event, lenses of 300 mm and up are vital. In fact pro wildlife photographers rely on 600 mm telephotos with top of the line tele-converters for many of their shots.
There are exceptions though. I once spent 45 minutes inside a bat swarm trying to photograph bats in flight. For that shoot I relied on a 28-70 zoom. I also used an 80-200 to photograph bats exiting and returning from the rafters of an old church. Another time I was shooting sunrise at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon and turned to find a family of deer browsing behind me a short distance away. My 70-200 was more than enough for good shots of the creatures.
Landscape photography: wide angle lenses are generally the optic of choice for landscape and scenic photography because they take in so much space. Sometimes though, a telephoto will help you isolate certain landscape features and turn them into great images too.
A 12-24 makes a nice landscape tool, particularly with cameras that have an APS sized imaging sensor and their increased multiplier effects. If you're shooting with a full frame camera then a 20-35 wide angle zoom does well. Be careful not to go too wide automatically though. Sometimes the landscape gets swallowed up because there's nothing for the eye to focus on. One of the tricks of the pro landscape shooter is to include a foreground element such as a bush or rock to provide that point of interest.
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Portraiture, Architectural and Macro
Portraiture: short zooms work best for portraits. A 24-105 zoom is a nice choice since it's wide enough to handle a family portrait but long enough at the telephoto end to serve as a nice focal length for an individual portrait.
Longer focal lengths can also work well for portraiture though as their increased reach tends to flatten facial features in a way that flatters most faces. Portraits can be made with wide angle lenses too, but must be done very carefully to avoid a fun house mirror effect.
Architectural photography: if you're serious about shooting buildings (especially big ones) a tilt-shift lens is your first choice (if you can afford it). These pricey optics can be manipulated to correct for "Keystoning" a problem that occurs when the photographer has to tilt their lens up to get the whole building in the shot. This is the effect that makes it look like the building is falling away from the camera. If you can't afford a tilt-shift lens (usually around a grand a pop) then use a wide angle lens and leave enough margin around the building to allow for correction in an image editing program such as Photoshop (hmm, sounds like an idea for another story).
Macro photography: almost any lens can be pressed into service for macro or close-up photography, especially with the use of tools such as extension tubes, macro add on lenses, bellows, reversing rings, macro couplers and other accessories. Generally longer focal lengths keep you farther away from your subject, which is nice when you're shooting things that sting, or don't want to accidentally squish your subject as you get close. If macro photography seems like it's your thing, then an honest to goodness macro lens and not a regular lens with close focusing capability can be a solid investment. How do you tell a real macro lens from an overhyped one? Well, real macro lenses tend to be fixed focal lengths or "prime" lenses while close focusing lenses tend to be zooms.
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What Should be in Your Camera Bag?
So what should a novice photographer start out with when it comes to building a lens kit. Well, an all purpose lens such as a 28-300 will cover a lot of territory so long as you're shooting with lots of light. Usually these lens can't handle a tele-converter and still manage autofocus. Most cameras need a maximum aperture on a lens/teleconverter combo of f5.6 to autofocus, since the maximum aperture of a 28-300 is usually f5.6 and adding even a 1.5x tele-converter makes the aperture the equivalent of an f8 lens making autofocus impossible (although you can still focus manually). Add an extreme wide angle lens or wide-angle zoom and you've got a lens range that will cover a pretty good spread.