Selecting the Right Lens for the Job


When I was an adjunct instructor at Texas Tech University a dilemma that always seemed to arise was the students lack of knowledge in the selection of certain lenses to achieve images with a stronger presence. Of course I easily recalled my own years as a college student and the ever present lack of funds to get what I needed so I was understanding when the ownership of multiple lenses was not possible, but continued to stress the positive aspects of having this luxury if at all possible.


Three major category of lenses are basically what I am talking about here and they include the wide angle, normal  and the telephoto lenses. Of course there are lots of in betweens but for simplicity sake lets address them under these three headings and what each one of them brings to the table.


Most neophyte photographers visualize that being a pro means a constant diet of standing around the side lines of a football game or in a national park with bazooka sized lenses attached to the camera throughout the day. For some people this can be a major segment of their shooting porfolio as their subjects require the use of great magnification and thus the scenario described above. But for many of us a days shoot might require a much more varied selection of glass hanging at our side and it is important that we be fluent in the application of these lenses to create an image with significant monetary and visual value. Lets take a look at some of this glass and see how they might influence the power of our photos.


Perhaps the most difficult lens to use properly is the wide angle. They don’t look too impressive hanging there on the camera body as most are only a few inches long and for the most part quite diminutive. However, I can assure you that this little fella can be a lens that can make or break a shoot, depending on the photographers knowledge of when to apply its use and the proper use of such.

In this image taken with a Canon 24-105 f4.0L lens and Canon 5D Mark II, the proper use of essential elements and the placement thereof can be seen in the yucca plants actually creating a pathway through the frame. Depth of field is achieved by a high f stop selection such as f16 or f22. By this method all essential elements in the frame from the yucca to the mountain top are in focus.


Lenses of this genre are generally in the 17mm to 35mm range and very useful in my line of work. I use them for landscape, sky scape, ranch work and architecture to name a few and would not dare venture out without a couple of them in my equipment bag. As their name indicates, they are lenses that allow a wide area to be seen in the viewfinder  thus enabling the shooter to stand closer to the subject(s) to gain the desired perspective.


Wide angle lenses also require some thought regarding composition as not to create an excess of void within the photo. This is an area that I call “the twilight zone” and effectively reduces the overall impact of the image. Placement of subject elements within the frame is very important when using this genre of lenses. Another feature of wide angle lenses is that some distortion is realized when using these lenses in the extreme. Although sometimes not a negative feature, I for one try to avoid extreme distortion as I prefer to show lines as they are in reality.

To avoid the open foreground look and the subsequent “twilight zone” effect that is so easily done with a wide angle lens I used the cracks in the mud to create an interesting pattern to carry the viewers eye to the machine that is digging mud from the dried stock tank. The raccoon tracks are an added interest point in the dried mud and actually carries the viewers eye to the action included in the image. Canon 5D Mark II and Canon 17mm f4.0L Tilt Shift Lens. ISO 100 and handheld.


Normal lenses are those such as the 45mm to about 60mm and show approximately the angle of view that the naked eye can see. I believe it is established that the 45mm is the one that fits this description the closest. The only time that I use these lens extensively is when I am shooting panoramas and stitching a number of photos to create the old time wide look. Unlike wide angle glass, f stop selection must be controlled carefully as to determine those elements to be properly in focus.

An excellent example of using the normal focal length in producing a panorama image by stitching about 7 images together in photoshop. Images shot vertical for correct perspective and exposed with a Canon 5D Mark II and Canon 45mm f4.0L Tilt Shift lens at ISO 100 on a Manfrotto tripod and pano head.


I categorize telephoto lenses into a couple of basic types which are medium and super telephoto. Medium are those in the 100 to 300mm length, super telephoto are 400mm and up. I have had extensive experience in using all lengths up to 1000mm and find a use for all sizes although 99% of my work can be achieved with the 400 or 500mm.


Effective wildlife or sports photography requires the use of these longer lenses although the glass of choice is often dependent on the mobility required by the photographer. As the focal lengths become longer so does the lens length and weight thus minimizing the photographers ability to move effectively for good angles. In sports work where the basketball or football arena provides a confined area in which the photographer will work, mobility is not as important. However, in regard to wildlife work, when going after truly wild animals outside of a controlled environment, mobility is one of the most important factors to consider. Because of this I have found that the Canon 400mm f5.6L lens fits the bill perfectly for me due to its extremely light weight and overall small configuration.


Some neophyte shooters do not realize the importance of long lenses in landscape and sky photography. Although I mostly use the wide angle glass for my sky and landscape work I like long lenses for its characteristic compression effect that causes hills to look larger and closer together. Basically they offer a dramatizing effect on the scene that is often quite powerful. In sky work I often see wonderful skyscapes that offer the best effect through the isolation of only a part of the overall scene. Thus I can slap on a long lens and effectively isolate that portion of the sky for maximum impact.

In this image only one portion of the sky presented a rich and saturated color that I desired. I used a Canon EOS 1N and Canon 400mm f5.6L lens to isolate this portion of the sky for impact.


As I have mentioned earlier in the post, many beginning shooters cannot justify the purchase of multiple lenses but luckily, camera manufacturers today offer a selection of zoom focal lengths that are not targeted at the pro market and can be purchased for a minimal amount. Focal length of 28-300mm and others similar are quite popular and make the choice easy for those shooters working on a smaller budget.

In this image I used a 400mm telephoto lens to enhance the height of the background landscape and make it appear to be closer than it really was. In this way the bison were isolated and forces the viewer to focus immediate attention on the animals. Canon 5D Mark II and Canon 400 f5.6L lens at ISO 100 and handheld.

By laying at eye level with the bull frog and using a 400mm lens with 1.4 extender I was able to totally diminish any identifiable subjects in the background and actually enhance the impact of this mere frog which is covered in mud. Canon 5D Mark II and Canon 400mm f5.6L with Canon 1.4 tele extender. ISO 100 and rested on a sandbag.

This was an unusual case where a short telephoto became an effective wildlife lens. I was caught without a super telephoto lens when the three bucks came over the horizon at sunset. Had I used any other lens but the 24-105mm at hand I could not have created this image. It was a perfect setup. Canon 5D Mark II and Canon 25-105mm f4.0L at 100 ISO and handheld.

7 thoughts on “Selecting the Right Lens for the Job

  1. Dave Bermann

    Thanks for this great description of how to use various focal length lenses. Among other things, I teach digital photography and appreciate your approach to decision making in which focal length to choose when either planning or capturing an image.


  2. JC Adicks

    The only lenses I have are a 35mm and 18-200mm. I enjoyed your article for it gave me a sense of ‘you don’t have to go into debt to shoot good to great photos. I am retired and photgraphy is a hobby for me.
    Thank you for giving me your insights concerning lenses.

  3. Lester Phipps

    Beautiful composition as well as the willingness to break the “rules” from time to time.

    One more suggestion…when shooting wildlife, especially predators, never carry more equipment than you can run with!

  4. Yelena Zaslavskaya

    Dear Mr. Meinzer,

    You are my photographer.
    I am only a dilettante in photography. The only thing I am able to use is my intuition, my eyes and my love for The Nature. Some of my pictures are not bad, in my opinion.

    I live in MD. I’ve never been in Texas, except for the airport.
    In one of your videos you talked about expeditions. How is it possible to enjoy one of your expeditions?
    May be I will be able to learn from you.

    Your videos, your pictures and divine music by Mr. Smith make my soul feel so good.

    Thank you for your time and response.

    Marry Christmas and Happy 2013 to both of you.

  5. Sharon Smith

    Although I have been taking photos for over 40 years, I still feel I have a lot to learn and I must say I love these emails where you tell us in “plain English” how to figure things out! I am a visual learner and your photos show it all. I mostly “shoot” West Texas (where I live), birds, old cemeteries, old buildings, flowers and sunsets and as you say all these subjects CAN be “tricky”! Thanks for ALL the great tips! Love your work and your website.


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