Every artist has a toolbox to help create their art — the same stands in photography. A photographer is an artist, with each specific lens being the “brush” through which they apply their ‘paint’. The lens is their eye, so lens type, and lens quality, matter. But, all lenses are not created equal. There are many differences and compromises to think about, including: expense, physical weight, light limitations, speed, and glass quality. All are considerations when buying a lens. The options are endless, and the choices are sometimes confusing. The deviations lie in durability, speed, aperture range, and weight. In the end, it is price and need that will become your deciding factor.
National Geographic interviewed contributing photographer, Karine Aigner, to get her take on lenses.
Q: With so many lens choices, how do you choose what to use?
A: Choosing the best lens for the job really depends on what the desired result is and knowing a lens’ capabilities. These are things you must contemplate before you make purchasing choices. If I’m going on a wildlife safari, there is no doubt that a Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens and a 500mm or 600mm are coming with me as they are the best lenses for bringing what’s far away closer. But, I might also want landscape shots, so, I’d also pack a Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM lens.
If I’m looking to make a portrait of someone standing a far distance from a background (let’s say it’s a bridge), where I’d like the structure as an ‘element’ rather than as part of the main subject, I might choose the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens. This would allow me some zoom flexibility, and the ability to compress the scene, all while using a shallow depth of field. The Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM lens offers the same possibilities with an even shallower depth of field, but as a fixed lens it’s more of a commitment. One of my favorite portrait lenses, giving me the option to have a bit more space between myself and my subject, is the Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM lens. This is a stunning, sharp lens with a very quick depth of field drop off at its widest aperture that results in a beautiful ‘bokeh’ effect.
If I want to carry one lens around a city, I might choose the Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens. With its shorter zoom range and f/2.8 aperture, I have the ability to zoom in and get some smaller detail shots, while at the same time having the option to capture the wider scenes and structures of the streets I’m walking in.
Q: Can you briefly describe the following lenses and what environment they’re best for? Macro, Telephoto/Zoom, Wide Angle, Standard/Normal
A: The Macro lens is great for up close intimate details—think individual lashes around an eye or the expressive face of a jumping spider. Interested in veins of a flower petal, or threads of a dress? If so, a macro lens is for you. A Macro allows you to get up close and personal with the details and might be considered a more “artistic” lens, allowing for an intimate perspective.
A Telephoto lens allows you to bring far away things closer. Think a wildlife trip to Yellowstone, or little birds in your backyard—your telephoto lens will bring the critters ‘closer’ to you.
A wide-angle lens is used for capturing more, from wide natural landscapes with ‘big sky’ to all the bodies in a room full of people. The wide-angle lens allows you to get everything in the shot.
A ‘normal’ lens is one that has a perspective closest to what the normal eye would see. The 50mm lens (prime) is a great workhorse that can teach you much about composition. A ‘non’ zoom lens forces the photographer to be more intimate with their subjects, requiring them to move themselves closer or further away for the right composition. These lenses are also great for nighttime use as they have the widest apertures.
Q: Speaking of nighttime, do you have a favorite lens for these shots?
A: My favorite lenses for night scenes and starry skies are the wide-angle lenses: The Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM lens, Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens and Canon EF 24mm f/1.4L II USM Lens. A great option to consider is using the Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens with the Canon EOS 80D, which performs well in low-light shooting even without the flash. All sporting lower aperture options, these lenses allow the most light to hit the sensor, and also have a wide capture breadth allowing for a “big sky” look and long exposures.
Q: Is there a best “all-in-one” lens for the Canon EOS 80D?
A: The Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens is one of the most versatile lenses Canon has ever made. Portraits, street photography, travel photography—the Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens has a wide aperture and at f/2.8 can nicely blur the background for a shallow depth of field. The zoom to 70mm gives the user a bit of range, and the constant f/2.8 aperture through and through allows for tight portraits at 70mm, with a nice soft background. If you are just starting out, but want a quality option you can’t go wrong with the Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens.
At the end of the day, a lens is a lens, and having more lenses in the toolbox is beneficial to every artist. The variety of lenses on the market is endless. The best choice of lens comes down to what kind of art you are trying to produce. Any photographer can use Canon’s top notch line of lenses. Knowing which one to choose comes from knowing your subject preference, budget, and the kind of images you’d like to make.