The Best Lenses for Photojournalism

The Best Lenses for Photojournalism

Photojournalism calls for a wide range of skills, and a selection of lenses to match. Selecting the right lens at the right time is at the core of this discussion simply because of the range of events that they may be called upon to cover – a conference one day, a riot the next, and a Nobel prize winner on yet another occasion.

However, photojournalists need certain common qualities in all their lenses, and these are a constant. Let’s discuss the features that the best lenses have, and list a few of the most popular and useful lenses for journalism.

Which is The Best Lens For Photojournalism?

The best lens for journalism depends on the photographer, the way they shoot, and the subject at hand. As a result, the lens that a photojournalist selects could change from photojournalist to photojournalist, as well as from assignment to assignment.

There is no short answer here, and there isn’t any single lens that is the best. So let’s look at the various options that you have. We also have a list of suggestions at the end of the article.

What is Photojournalism?

The Photography Scrum by KK
A photographer using a telephoto lens at an event.

Photojournalism is that immensely satisfying, yet sometimes wildly dangerous profession where a photographer goes out into the world and documents it so that the rest of the world can experience it through their eyes. Their goal is to tell a visual story and gain the empathy of the reader

As photographers, many of us aspire to this profession, yet few have the guts and talent required to do what it calls for on a daily basis. It is a tough job to do well, and one that often doesn’t get the recognition that it deserves. It requires great technical and practical problem-solving skills and presence of mind. It is hardly ever glamorous.

The Problem With Defining a Fixed Set of Lenses

The problem with defining the Best Lenses for Photojournalism is that there are so many fields of journalism that there is no real “defining set” of lenses. Each kind of journalism calls for a different set of lenses.

Take, for example, the sports journalist… He would use lenses that fall into the Sports Photography category. I’m going to go out on a limb now, and ‘guess’ that what all you guys want to read about are the photojournalists who have the ‘real’ journalist’s job. The foreign correspondent… The guy who records wars, drought, floods, changes in government and so on. Let’s cut to the chase.

What do Photojournalists Ask for in a Lens?

Photojournalists do pretty much the same things as regular journalists; then some… They end up carrying their gear around almost all the time when they’re on assignment and land up in places that newspaper journalists never need to venture into.

All this makes it hard for them. Their choice of lenses, camera body and other accessories depends on the kind of picture that they expect to be taking. Typically they have a vast range of gear from which they can choose.

A photojournalist’s equipment choice would need to be used for multiple purposes; lightweight, fast, and really, really reliable.

Key Features of a Photojournalist’s Ideal Lens Set:

Feature #1: Large Aperture

Very often, photojournalists choose lenses with large apertures. Large apertures help them to focus more easily and quickly because they let in more light. It also gives them the flexibility to shoot in low-light scenarios. The trade-off is in weight. Lenses with large apertures usually have very large front elements made of high-quality optical glass… This makes these types of lenses extra heavy. Prime lenses tend to have larger apertures compared to zoom lenses.

Feature #2: Flexible Focal Lengths (zoom) Vs Quality (prime)

Photojournalists also usually have an odd assortment of prime and zoom lenses, with more importance given to zoom lenses for ease of use and composition.

Primes are selected for clarity and wide apertures, especially at the long focal length range, and zooms for ease of composition in situations that may demand a quick change from telephoto to wide-angle.

Feature #3: Ruggedness, Weather-sealing, and Reliability

A photojournalist’s ideal lens must not fail them. It should be rugged, sealed from dust and moisture entering into it, and expect to have a long life while taking a fair share of knocks.

Must-have Features of all Photojournalism Lenses:

The exact equipment that goes into their bag on any given day depends on the assignment that they have been given.

Still… There must be some common qualities for the lenses that they tend to choose, right? What are these qualities? Let’s take a look.

  • The lens should have sturdy build quality and be able to withstand rough continuous usage day-in and day-out for years. Journalists can’t afford to miss a shot because their equipment failed. 
  • The lens should have exceptional optical quality, but not at the expense of functionality. This means that they often choose high-end zoom lenses instead of using many prime lenses. 
  • Good weather-protection. The lens should be able to take on rough weather and not fail. 
  • It should be backed by a robust service network should it fail while on assignment abroad. The spare parts required to fix it should be available with reasonable ease. 
  • Above all, it should be reliable enough to last for many years, and not fail at critical moments. 

Photographic Style and Final Usage

Of course, the personal style of individual photographers also plays a crucial factor in the choice of equipment… Is the style of photography more like street photography or war reportage, or is it something more elaborate with lights, a tripod, etc?

This will mean the difference between a light camera bag, and one that is geared towards the best quality even at the expense of weight. All this also determines what lenses the photojournalist will choose.

Personal Photography Style

However, personal style often overrides many other considerations.  Some photographers may almost always use a 50mm, while others may use a 400mm f/4.0 L at one moment and switch to a 24mm wide the very next…

Subject Matter Being Photographed

To complicate matters, the subject being photographed also determines the kind of lens being used. For example, there’s absolutely no point using a 50mm while photographing a Formula 1 race (unless you’re photographing the crowd) and there’s no point trying to use a 400mm in a mob… you’ll only get their noses… of course, there always are exceptions.

In Summation:

To sum up this article: Photojournalists need good, robust lenses that ‘just work’ all the time. The focal length selection varies a great deal, so there is no single lens that is ideal, and they must have a selection of lenses at hand. Typically these are provided to them by their newspaper, as required.

Suggested Best Lenses for Photojournalism

Having said all that, let’s look at some lenses that may be well suited to photojournalists. The list can also go on and on, so I’m just listing a few here. These are some of the speciality lenses that you’re likely to find on journalists’ cameras.

Prime Lenses for Photojournalists

Canon EF Lenses – for dSLR Cameras

Nikon Prime Lenses

Zoom Lenses for Photojournalists

Canon RF Lenses – for Mirrorless Cameras

Canon EF Lenses for Journalism

Nikon Lenses for Journalism

Sony Lenses for Journalism

As you can see, this is a long list that will probably only grow longer the more we think about these lenses. The best lens is the one that you can afford today, so select one from the lists above, and go ahead and start off your career in photojournalism today.

If you're interested in any particular type of photojournalism (portraits, for example), do look it up in one of the posts I've written in "The Lens Buyer's Guide."

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Published: February 21, 2008 | Last Updated: July 28, 2021

2 thoughts on “The Best Lenses for Photojournalism”

  1. There’s a very wide range of opinions on lens usage. A lot of people fall back on 35 + 90mm for general coverage in photojournalism. A guy had his work featured in some photography magazines using Nikkormat manual exposure cameras and just a Soligor 24mm f2.8 lens and Tri-X film. Long lenses are fine for picking faces out of a crowd but for my work – environmental, I use the Leica R system. A pair of R8 black bodies and 35/2 & 90/2.8 and Ilford XP2 Super. All carried in a Billingham 335 bag. Only nervous wannabes feel they have to carry everything except the kitchen sink. Zooms are heavy, slow, slow acting and contain what, 14 elements on average? Just walk forwards or backwards. Look what Don McCullum did in ‘nam with two unmetered Nikon F bodies and 28/3.5 & 135/2.8 Nikkors and a Weston Master V with Tri-X.

    1. Thanks for your input, Dave. I second the opinion that one should pick their glass and adapt to its quirks… The ‘walking zoom’ is definitely something that newbies need to learn, and that veterans love to teach. A lot of journalism is time-sensitive these days, so there’s the use of digital cameras … with great performance at high ISOs, it makes the need for fast glass less important than back-in-the-day when you had maybe a choice of 1 or 2 film speeds, based on what you packed. I myself have worked with manual lenses and cameras all through my formative years, and understand where you’re coming from. In fact, when teaching photography, we used to give the students cameras without light meters, and ask them to estimate the exposure based on the Sunny 16 rule + their intuition… It’s a great way to learn. That said, it does look like my list is incomplete, and I’ll be filling out the prime section just a little more.

      Thanks again for stopping by.

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