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Backpacker Photo School: Choosing a Lens

If you don’t invest in more than one lens for your DSLR, it's almost like you never upgraded from a point and shoot at all: you've still got one camera and only one shooting option. When you can change your lens, suddenly you can get very different perspectives from the same spot. How do you choose the lens that’s best for your needs? Here, three things you need to consider.

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Many cameras come with a lens when you buy them; usually one that’s not specialized for anything in particular. With this lens, your camera has capabilities similar to your point and shoot, only much heavier. With additional lenses the possibilities for different kinds of shots really open up.

What should you go for?

Decide what you want a lens to do, and go from there. Think about the factors below, and next week we’ll review specific lenses from different brands as well as reveal our staff’s favorites for their adventures.


The quality of an image is limited by the quality of the glass in the lens used to take the photo. And, naturally, better glass usually weighs more.

So you have to ask yourself: Are you willing to carry that extra weight? What kind of shooting are you going to be doing? Are you going to make large prints that will emphasize the quality of photos, or lack there of? Or are your photos going to be displayed online, in Facebook albums and blogposts most of the time? Then maybe having super high glass quality isn’t as important and you can sacrifice quality to carry a lighter pack. Will you be hiking long distances or need to move quickly? Consider these factors as you make your decision.

Weight is also factor in the other decisions you’ll need to make below. Carrying multiple prime lenses will weigh more than one zoom lens but if you can stick to just one prime lens, that will weigh even less. Choosing a shorter focal length will be a weight savings, but you’ll limit how close you can get to far away. If it’s all about weight, you have to be decisive about what you’re going to shoot. If you’re willing to carry more, you can take multiple lenses and be ready for anything.


Despite common knowledge, there are lenses that don’t zoom, and it’s not because they’re old fashioned. These are called prime or fixed focal length lenses. Why don’t they zoom? Again, it’s a matter of quality. When you get a fixed focal length lens, there are fewer moving pieces and the lens is optimized to create the best image at the focal length it’s made for. When you get a zoom lens, like an 18-55mm, there have been compromises made on both ends to try an get the best image quality overall. However, a 14mm prime lens is perfectly optimized for shooting wide, with no compromises in being able to also shoot long.

(**“Zoom” actually means the ability to go from one focal length to another; it doesn’t just mean the longest focal length possible. So a 300mm fixed focal length for example, is a prime lens, not a zoom lens. A wide angle 10-22mm is actually a zoom lens.)


Focal length is the aspect of the lens that determines how wide or narrow the view is. When the view is narrower, something far away will seem closer in the photo. A telephoto lens, or a long lens, has a larger focal length. A lens going as high as 200mm or 300mm is telephoto. A wide-angle lens has a short focal length, like the 14mm lens mentioned above.

Being able to get close-ups of mountain peaks and wildlife is important. But how close is close enough? And is it better to get a 300mm lens because it will bring you closer to the elk in the meadow? Or will a 200mm do the trick? Or a 135mm?

Longer focal length is going to cost more, and it’s especially going to cost more if you want a fast lens, one that can go to a very open aperture.

With a wide aperture, you can shoot with a faster shutter speed, which means better photos at dusk as the light begins to dwindle. Dusk is when you can most easily find animals out and about, so it’s better to go for a little less length if it means having a wide enough aperture that your shutter can be fast enough that the animals aren’t blurry. For example, you may have to decide between a 200mm lens that opens up to f/2 or a 400mm lens that only opens to f/5.6 when it’s fully zoomed in.

If you can afford the longer lens with the larger aperture, go for it, and start training, because it will be heavy.

Tom Leeson, who’s been shooting wildlife photography for over 30 years, gives this example “As primarily a wildlife photographer, my main interest lies in longer focal length lenses. My main wildlife lens is a 500 mm that weighs over 8 pounds. Add a large tripod and a camera body and just the basic gear runs over 15 lbs.”

Now, go see what’s available for your camera.

You can only use a lens that will attach and communicate with your camera, so once you’ve used the above information to figure out what you’re after, see what’s out there for your specific camera. In addition to camera brands, other companies like Sigma and Tamron, make lenses for multiple brands. There are a ton of options like weatherproof lenses and other bells and whistles, so see what’s attractive to your photo needs.

—Genny Fullerton

Image Credit: Tom & Pat Leeson (top); Genny Fullerton (4)