If You Start Only With Two Lenses for Your Photography, What Would Be the Best Lens Choice

If You Start Only With Two Lenses for Your Photography, What Would Be the Best Lens Choice

Often you get one lens included when buying a camera. But what if you want another one, which one do you need to buy? This article may be of help when choosing the best lenses for your photography.

When you start with photography, the camera you choose often comes with a single zoom lens. This lens is usable for regular photography. It is perfect for your holiday, children, a landscape, or your pet. But when you start to grow a preference for some kind of subject, that one lens often is limiting the possibilities. That is when you start searching for a second lens, or a replacement. It may be very difficult deciding what to choose, because there are a lot of different lenses available.

Perhaps the most common set of lenses available; a 24-70mm and 70-200mm zoom lens. These can be used for nearly every kind of photography. You could call it a universal set of lenses.

Perhaps the most common set of lenses available; a 24-70mm and 70-200mm zoom lens. These can be used for nearly every kind of photography. You could call it a universal set of lenses.

Some lenses are cheap, others will break the bank. You could spend a fortune on lenses, and probably still miss the one you really need. Looking at the second hand market learn how a lot of lenses are sold because it never left the bag. That is why I wrote this article with a basic lens choice for different types of photography.

First of all, only buy a lens because you need it, not because you might need it. And don’t buy too many lenses, because you probably will use only a few. Having a lot to choose from is also difficult. This article shows nothing more than a starting point. The combinations are my own personal choice, based on my experience. After you get more experienced in the discipline, you will find out what alternative you may need, or from which extra lens you would have benefit.

Although most of the images are of Canon equipment, this article is not about camera brand, lens brand, or other discussions on what is good and what is better. The lenses I show are just an example, concerning focal length and zoom range. For every brand there is a similar lens available, in the original brand of your camera, or a third party lens. Use whatever you like.

When using primes, you can end up with a lot of lenses of you want to cover a large range of focal lengths. And you will need to changes lenses more often than with zoom lenses.

When using primes, you can end up with a lot of lenses of you want to cover a large range of focal lengths. And you will need to changes lenses more often than with zoom lenses.

Be careful not to buy every lens you can get your hands on. Often it is not needed to have all focal lengths in your bag. Don’t get the disease called GAS (Gear Acquire Syndrome), because it only makes you suffer from having too much choice, and a backpack that is much too heavy.

Landscapes

For landscapes you would like to have the ability to capture a wide scenery, or details in the landscape. A wide angle in the range from 16-35mm is a great choice, but make sure you also have something like a 70-200mm lens available. These don’t need to have a f/2.8 aperture; often f/4 is sufficient. But if you want to use these lenses indoors also, f/2.8 or larger may come in handy.

For landscapes two lenses is often more than enough; a wide angle zoom and tele zoom lens. In this example you see a 24-70mm and 70-200mm zoom lens, accompanied by a ultra wide angle 12mm by Laowa

For landscapes two lenses is often more than enough; a wide angle zoom and tele zoom lens. In this example you see a 24-70mm and 70-200mm zoom lens, accompanied by a ultra wide angle 12mm by Laowa

Eventually you might want to have an even wider lens, if that kind of landscapes has your preference. Something like a 12mm ultra wide angle would be a great extension to this kit.

Alternatives for the 70-200mm can be a 70-300mm lens, or a 100-400mm, and you might think of a 24-70mm lens if you don’t like the extreme wide angle images.

Portraits and Wedding

I prefer primes for my weddings and can shoot nearly everything with this wonderful set of lenses. It is also perfect for portraits and model photography. The large aperture makes a beautiful shallow depth of field possible, although you don’t need to use that time and time again. Because these lenses are light sensitive, they also perform very well in dimly lit venues

My personal favorite set of lenses: a 35mm and 85mm lens. I find these perfect for weddings, studio and model shoots. These lenses allow a very shallow depth of field, something that is more difficult or even impossible to achieve with a zoom lens.

My personal favorite set of lenses: a 35mm and 85mm lens. I find these perfect for weddings, studio and model shoots. These lenses allow a very shallow depth of field, something that is more difficult or even impossible to achieve with a zoom lens.

You might want to extend your set with a 135mm lens, or even a 200mm, in case you need to shoot from a distance. You also want to prevent having too much primes available, because it can force you to change lenses a lot.

If you don’t like primes, a 24-70mm and 70-200mm will be the lenses to go for. And preferably with an aperture of f/2.8 if possible. Not only for the shallow depth of field, but also for dimly lit venues.

Architecture and Real Estate

For real estate I prefer the tilt shift lenses. They provide the possibility to do perspective correction on the location. Often you don’t need more than these two focal lengths and there is always the possibility to crop afterwards in post. If 17mm still is not enough, you can make a panorama using the shift option.

For my real estate photography I love to use the 17mm and 24mm tilt shift lenses. It allows me to correct the perspective.

For my real estate photography I love to use the 17mm and 24mm tilt shift lenses. It allows me to correct the perspective.

If you want to shoot some details, a 50mm tilt shift can help, but you can use a 24-70mm lens also. If you prefer having a normal lens, a 16-35mm lens may be the only lens you need to have. It don't have to be f/2.8 because a large depth of field is almost always needed.

Stars and Milky Way

For stars and Milky Way photography an extreme wide angle may be the first lens you would want to use. It also enables you to shoot relatively long exposures without the risk of star trails. A large aperture helps capturing the maximum amount of light.

Eventually you might like a 24mm or 35mm prime lens. Often these have a maximum aperture of f/1.4, which allows a lot of light to enter the lens, and you can even turn one stop down to get more sharpness. The focal length can help capturing the core of the Milky Way in more detail.

For night photography - stars and Milky Way - I often end up using a 16-35mm lens. If 16mm isn't wide enough, I can use the 12mm Laowa. Both have a f/2,8 aperture to capture enough light. This set is accompanied by a heat tape to prevent any dew or moistu

For night photography - stars and Milky Way - I often end up using a 16-35mm lens. If 16mm isn't wide enough, I can use the 12mm Laowa. Both have a f/2,8 aperture to capture enough light. This set is accompanied by a heat tape to prevent any dew or moisture on the lens.

There are a lot of alternatives, like fisheye lenses and other extreme wide angle. Fixed focus lenses may have some preference for the benefit of having large apertures.

Sports

I don’t shoot sports, but I have done so on occasion. I find the 70-200mm a very nice all-round lens for this kind of photography, and a 24-70mm can be of benefit when you are able to get close by. The large aperture helps getting a fast shutter speed and prevents an ISO value that is too high.

The basic two lenses, a 24-70mm and a 70-200mm is a good starting set for sports. Depending on the kind of sport you can make the set more specialized. A large aperture can help freezing motion. The two lenses in this example are f/4 lenses. A f/2,8 is pr

The basic two lenses, a 24-70mm and a 70-200mm is a good starting set for sports. Depending on the kind of sport you can make the set more specialized. A large aperture can help freezing motion. The two lenses in this example are f/4 lenses. A f/2,8 is preferred.

I can imagine you need more focal length on occasion. In that case I would think of a 300mm or 400mm lens with the largest aperture available, or affordable. And perhaps a 16-35mm when you want to get very close.

An alternative can be a 70-300mm, 100-400mm, of 150-600mm lens, although you might end up with the need for high ISO values. The maximum aperture of these lenses is often limited to f/5.6 or smaller.

If you need a longer focal length, you can choose for a 100-400mm lens, or a fixed focal length for a large aperture. In this example you see a 150-600mm lens by Sigma, which zoom range is very versatile for many sports, or wildlife and birds for that mat

If you need a longer focal length, you can choose for a 100-400mm lens, or a fixed focal length for a large aperture. In this example you see a 150-600mm lens by Sigma, which zoom range is very versatile for many sports, or wildlife and birds for that matter.

Wildlife and Birds

If you love to shoot animals with a camera, you need a long lens. The first I would choose is a 100-400mm lens, which is a very versatile focal range. I would combine this with a 24-70mm lens for those occasions you want to capture the animal with its surroundings, which I love to do. If you have the money, you could add a 600mm lens to your set. But a tele converter can help also. 

A sports camera and big zoom lens is very usable for wildlife and birds. These two camera's are accompanied by a 100-400mm lens. that are very usable for wildlife and birds. You can even combine these with a tele converter for some extra reach.

A sports camera and big zoom lens is very usable for wildlife and birds. These two camera's are accompanied by a 100-400mm lens. that are very usable for wildlife and birds. You can even combine these with a tele converter for some extra reach.

When shooting from a fixed location, you can use the massive light sensitive fixed focal tele lenses. These lenses can be very large and heavy, like this 800mm f/5,6 lens. Next to it you see the 70-200mm f/2,8 lens for comparison. Still, you may miss the

When shooting from a fixed location, you can use the massive light sensitive fixed focal tele lenses. These lenses can be very large and heavy, like this 800mm f/5,6 lens. Next to it you see the 70-200mm f/2,8 lens for comparison. Still, you may miss the zoom ability.

An alternative could be a lens similar in reach, like a 70-300 or a 150-600mm lens. Perhaps a 300mm prime would do perfect, although you could mis the zoom ability.

There are much more disciplines of photography, of course. If you would have to make a choice for only two lenses for your photography, which would it be and why? Please share this in the comments below.

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94 Comments

Rhonald Rose's picture

Very good article and well qualified suggestions.

For me, it was 45mm and 63mm for a very long time before I got 32-64mm and 100-200mm.

Tony Clark's picture

I would agree with most of your suggestions for each genre. The only prosumer lens I own is the 16-35/4LIS because I’m usually on a tripod while using it, the F2.8 and TS-E versions cost 2-3 times as much and I don’t use it very often. Besides, I find that Capture One allows my to straighten those horizontal and vertical lines if needed.

Nando Harmsen's picture

True, straighten lines is possible in post, but it will degrade the quality where the correction is the most extreme. Although I would agree if you say it won't be visible in daily use, only with very large prints. :)

Tony Clark's picture

Yes, if I was shooting Architectural or Real Estate listings more than once a month I would consider a TS-E.

rodney simba masarirambi's picture

How about street or someone who is an all rounder?

Nando Harmsen's picture

I would suggest a 24-70 and 70-200, or something similar. If you use crop, you should go for a 15-85 and 70-200 or similar. That is what I would advise.
I find it difficult to advise something for street photography. I would use my Fujifilm X100t for that, with its fixed 23mm lens (35mm fullframe equivalent); a small camera with a near standard lens to be able to go close without screaming PHOTOGRAPHER... I think ;)

Patrick Smith's picture

I'm a photojournalist, but if I were to do more street photography I would actually recommend one prime and one zoom. The prime I would recommend is a wide aperture "normal" focal length such as an 35mm f1.4 or even 50mm/58mm f1.4 depending on brand you use. The second, the zoom would be either a 70-200mm like Nando recommended or even a 100-400mm lens. It's really nice to have the wide aperture on a "normal focal length" lens and you can zoom using your feet, which I find helps with composition and framing, etc. The zoom is great for when you want to remain at a distance and get more of those candid moments, where the subjects may not see you right away, or at all! Great recommendations and very useful article here for beginners. As an 18 year veteran photojournalist the best recommendation I can give to any beginner would be upgrade your glass not your camera, buy the best glass you can afford and keep the camera you already have. I would prefer a $2000-$3000 lens on a $400 camera any day over vise versa!

Nate Reese's picture

85mm 1.4 or 1.8, 24-70mm 2.8 ... I'm good for most jobs

Lukasz Braszka's picture

For me it would probably be 35/1.4 and 500/5.6. 35 one for 90% of what I like to capture (travel, city, firends and events) and 500 for wildlife.
In reality I own 35/1.8 which I find a bit too wide sometimes and this is the only lens I was using for past 2 years on my DSLR. I would like to get that sweet Nikon 500mm prime, but will most likely end up getting 200-500 (if any) because, sadly, I do not own money printer.

Nando Harmsen's picture

I think it great you can shoot only with a 35mm. Amazing

Patrick Smith's picture

Lukasz don't forget about buying used and I would recommend an older Nikon 200-400mm f4 VR over the 200-500mm if you can hold off and save up a few hundred extra dollars. The 200-400mm f4 VR original version is still an incredible lens and extremely sharp, well built and extremely fast to focus and can be had for about $1800-$1900 on the used market. The extra stop of light is huge and so is extra shallow depth of field a 400mm f4 lens can provide and it takes the 1.4x teleconverter quite well when you need extra reach.

Stuart Carver's picture

10-24 f4 and 16-55 f2.8. Or if it was my Nikon DSLR it’s the 10-20 f3.5 and 16-80 f2.8-4. Although I’d end up missing telephoto I guess.

Nando Harmsen's picture

Of course missing a tele lens depends on your kind of photography subjects. What do you shoot?

Stuart Carver's picture

Mainly landscape but i dabble in a bit of street/walkaround and sometimes motorsport. so possibly the 10-24 and 55-200 would be a better solution, but then can anyone drop a 'normal' zoom?

Nando Harmsen's picture

For landscapes a tele lens is a must. You can do so much with that. I believe I wrote an article on Fstoppers once about this.
It is always possible to keep the normal zoom. I mentioned two lenses in this article, but three is also possible. You seem to miss the tele lens, so that would be a valuable addition to your lenses.
I would keep a "normal" zoom lens, since that is the one that can also be used if you are on holiday, for instance.

Stuart Carver's picture

Yeah defintely, I’m a sucker for that wide angle look mind, getting right up close to the foreground at 10mm can look awesome.

Funnily enough I’ve been trying to zoom in a bit more with my landscape shots lately, as you say it can offer so much, can pick out the best details in a landscape.

Nando Harmsen's picture

Both are great: up close with extreme wide angle, or zooming in on details in the distance. When it comes to sunset or sunrise, I find a extreme wide angle won't show the nice colors at the horizon anymore, because it becomes so small.

Stuart Carver's picture

Yes very true, I like the layering you get from a tele too, takes you into the scene more than a wide angle I think.

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

35 f1.4 and 85 f1.8. I like including the environment/surroundings and have the option to blur the background; and even shooting around with 2 bodies on, a relatively light system.

Nando Harmsen's picture

I love those two focal lengths. I know exactly what you're talking about :)

Scott Hutson's picture

As a landscape photographer, I couldn't agree with this list more. In fact the only 2 lenses I own are the 16-35 & 70-200, both f4. I have owned other lenses, and sold them all because I don't use anything other than these two, not enough to justify keeping them anyways!

Nando Harmsen's picture

And it also makes hiking much more convenient, not carrying so much weight.
Good choice, I think.

Ian Goss's picture

“ … what if you want another one … ”? Wouldn’t *need* trump *want*?

Nando Harmsen's picture

We want to need another one ;)

Timothy Gasper's picture

I appreciate you including many types of photographic genres, but I would like to have seen different formats as well. For amateur format my choices vary with the type of photography I am engaged in.
Landscape/Scenics:
18-200mm APS C
16mm, 24mm, 35mm, 50mm, 24-80mm, 80-200mm, 300mm. FF
Social/Cultural:
24-80mm, 80-200mm, 50mm. FF
Astronomical:
16mm, 24mm, 500mm. FF
Wildlife:
24-80mm, 80-200mm, 200-500mm, 300mm. FF
Street:
24mm, 35mm, 50mm, 105mm. FF

Medium Format:
6x6.....50mm, 80mm, 150mm
6x8.....115mm, 210mm

Nando Harmsen's picture

It is about focal length, not about the type of camera/sensor. That could be a completely different article. But you triggered me and I think I will write something about that also. Thanks
Nevertheless, nothing is changing when you use a different size sensor. Just correct the focal length with the crop factor, and you end up with the same field of view.

Timothy Gasper's picture

Yes and thank you. My reply was directed at photographers who are beginners that might choose medium format as a first choice. BTW...it would be great if you could do an article naming focal lengths of lenses throughout the sensor sizes. That would be helpful for many people, yes?

Nando Harmsen's picture

I previously wrote something about focal lengths and sensor size. Perhaps these articles are interesting https://fstoppers.com/originals/advantages-crop-sensor-landscape-photogr...
https://fstoppers.com/education/understanding-how-sensor-size-affects-de...
But I will look into crops sensors again.

Timothy Gasper's picture

Thank you sir and keep up the good work with these articles.

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