This is tip six in a series about photography called, “Ten Things All Photo Geeks Must Know.” It is for the more serious amateur photographer who shoots with a digital camera. These ten tips are the basis for a solid foundation in photography. Once you have these skills in your proverbial camera bag, you will be able to advance quickly. Some of the posts will apply to film cameras as well, but I am writing this series with an aspiring digital photo geek in mind.

For those interested in all the tips so far:
Tip One: What is a Histogram?
Tip Two: What is an Aperture?
Tip Three: How to Compensate for Auto-Exposure
Tip Four: The Colors of Light
Tip Five: Aperture Priority Versus Shutter Priority

And now:
Tip Six: Choose Your Lens Wisely

Anyone who loves photography knows that you can spend a lot of money on equipment. I decided early on that it is generally better to spend a bit more money to buy a higher quality product that will last, rather than buy a cheap piece of equipment that may break in a couple of years and delivers inferior quality images. In particular with lenses, if you spend a little more, you will end up with equipment that –if properly maintained– you can use and enjoy for a lifetime.

What makes a good lens?
A good lens has high quality glass, is built solidly and is fast. A fast lens is one that can open up wide, or have a low number f-stop, such as f/2.8. When you buy an inexpensive lens that can only open as wide as f/5.6, it really limits the type of lighting situations you can handle.

Which lenses are necessary?
In my work as a documentary photographer, I need to get in close to my subjects as well as be able to photograph a wide scene. So, I favor a wide-angle lens, like a 24mm. If you are mostly interested in nature photography, you need a telephoto lens, such as a 200mm, which can see an object far away. If you love portrait photography, anything between 80mm and 200mm would be great.

You can buy either a “fixed” lens or a “zoom” lens. Fixed lenses are one f/stop all the time. Zoom lenses can range between two f/stops. For instance, my favorite lens is a 17 to 35mm, f/2.8. The danger with some zoom lenses is that they are slow. You will have to spend more to get a faster zoom lens.

From left to right are my six favorite lenses:

1.     17-55mm, f/2.8. If I could have only one lens, I would choose this one. I love how it can encompass such a wide scene, even in small, indoor spaces. This is vital for documentary photography.
2.     28-70mm, f/2.8. Good for lifestyle portraits or doing tourist stuff. This one also does macro photography.
3.     85mm, f/1.2. If I could only have one portrait lens, it would be this one. I call this lens my “Elizabeth Taylor lens.”
4.     75-300mm, f/4-f/5.6. I use this to shoot outdoors on bright days. It is perfect for a garden wedding. (It is kind of slow, though.)
5.     200mm, f/28. I have been using this as a tight portrait lens. To get a sharp shot, I find I have to put the camera on a tripod.
6.     300mm, f/2.8 This would be perfect for high school football at night if you are fanatical enough to want to shoot that! That was always my most dreaded assignment when working in photojournalism. Now, I use this lens almost exclusively for Duke Chapel weddings. It would be really great for nature photography, as well. Beware that this lens is so heavy that you must mount the lens itself on the tripod, rather than the camera body.

Please be sure to ask any questions you may have! I am also always open to suggestions for photo stories. You may write me at If you don’t want to miss any Snapshots from the Hill posts, please subscribe to the RSS Feed.
Thanks for reading!