Journalists need to be equipped with the right lenses to capture important moments as they happen. Whether that’s a super-telephoto to cover a restricted event or a prime lens for a planned feature, having access to the right optics is important. Universities can support budding journalists by providing essential lenses during training, but with literally hundreds of excellent options out there – not only for mirrorless and DSLR formats but different camera brands themselves – what lenses are the right ones?
Aspiring pros will find themselves in many environments, covering many different subjects. We’re here to explore all the types of lenses that photojournalists might need for stills and video, both during their studies and in real-life scenarios. In this guide, you’ll discover lens recommendations for a myriad of different events, subjects, and weather conditions.
By the end, you’ll feel confident choosing what will support your future students, assignments – and your budgets.
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Roaming reporters of news
Roving reporters have an exciting but challenging job. When news is breaking, there’s not always time to change lenses, and usually, just one do-it-all solution is needed to react to the events as they unfold. In these make-or-break moments, a flexible zoom lens is perfect for capturing different parts of the scene – from wider contextual landscapes to intimate people shots.
Event photographers often carry what’s known as the “holy trinity” of lenses, usually a fast 14-24mm, 24-70mm and 70-200mm. These focal lengths cover almost every view of a scene. However, carrying three heavy lenses isn’t comfortable or feasible, and it’s still necessary to switch between them. For the average news report, a telephoto such as the Canon RF 24-70mm F2.8L IS USM is ideal. Why? The wide maximum aperture gives superb performance in low-light situations and the silent focusing motor means that you won’t cause a disturbance during quiet events.
Above: Canon RF 24-70mm F2.8L IS USM is ideal for news reporting.
Another great lens for covering news is the Tamron 35-150mm F/2-2.8 Di III VXD. With an incredible zoom range, catch-all lenses like this are able to cover everything from faraway protestors to wider scene-setting shots. They also offer an affordable way to cover a wider range of focal lengths, rather than buying several separate lenses.
Tamron 35-150mm F/2-2.8 Di III VXD covers a wide range of focal lengths.
The optical quality of these lenses has improved beyond belief in recent years, and while this specific lens is made for full frame Sony E mount cameras, there are proprietary equivalents too. The Canon RF 24-240mm f/4-6.3 IS USM and Nikon Z DX 50-250mm f/4.5-6.3 VR cover similarly impressive focal ranges, with image stabilisation and vibration reduction features to keep images sharp throughout the focal range.
Classic reportage photography
Reportage photography is a less prescriptive form of photojournalism, where the aim is usually to stay unnoticed to document the details and atmosphere of what’s happening. A discreet 35mm or 50mm lens is a classic choice for documentary and reporting, even in the digital era. The Canon RF 35mm F1.8 MACRO IS STM weighs just 305g and easily tucks away into a bag so that you can blend into your surroundings. The 1:2 macro magnification captures close-up details, while the f/1.8 aperture allows for great low-light potential – important in situations where a flash would be unwelcome or cause a scene. Top 50m lenses include the Sony FE 50mm f/1.8 and Fujifilm XF 50mm f2 R WR.
Canon RF 35mm F1.8 MACRO IS STM is lightweight and ideal for unobtrusive news capture.
If a subject is ready and willing to be photographed – such is the case for interviews – a prime lens provides premium image quality, and journalists should move their feet to recompose the frame. An 85mm lens is a top choice for portraits and because it’s such a popular focal length, most camera brands offer a variety of price points. Canon’s three 85m optics for its EF-mount DSLR cameras include the 85mm f/1.8 USM, 85mm f/1.4L IS USM and 85mm f/1.2L II USM Lens, and while the first has a narrower aperture, it’s around a quarter of the price of the professional f/1.2 version.
A long lens will help to get future sports journalists closer to the action – especially when access is limited. You’ll have seen super-telephotos being used at football matches, races, and competitions, for frame-filling shots of athletes, personalities and even politicians. Super-telephoto lenses cover focal lengths starting at 400mm up to a maximum of around 800mm. And while there’s no getting around the fact that these lenses are expensive and unwieldy, there’s also no better option for your students to use when capturing subjects at a distance.
The Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 800mm f/5.6E FL ED VR retails for around $17,000 and weighs approximately 4.5kg. Thanks to a built-in 1.25x teleconverter, it can be extended to a whopping 1000mm, while the Vibration Reduction allows shooting with shutter speeds up to four stops slower. Alternatively, Sigma’s 800mm F/5.6 EX DG APO HSM lens for Nikon F-mount cameras is ruggedly built, but at around $7,000, a more wallet-friendly option.
Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 800mm f/5.6E FL ED VR can extend to up to 1000mm with its built-in 1.25x teleconverter
When you’re looking for a super-telephoto lens that delivers for journalists, image stabilisation is a key feature for freezing action in low light at the beginning or end of the day. Also important is the construction, which needs to be resistant to water and dust to withstand regular outdoor use.
Videos and documentaries
Advanced modern DSLR and mirrorless cameras can now switch from stills to video in a few seconds and are capable of recording content good enough for broadcasting. Technically, any compatible lens could be used to capture footage on a hybrid camera, however, there are certain things to look out for. The Canon RF 70-200mm F2.8L is a great example of a modern lens built for stills and video, thanks to its silent continuous autofocusing. Quiet mechanisms are ideal, as you don’t want the noises of the lens interfering with the audio. Lenses that feature suppressed focus breathing allow smoother transitions when the focus point is adjusted while filming, and, if you're filming news run-and-gun style, image stabilisation features are also a great benefit to avoid the jitters on-screen.
Canon RF 70-200mm F2.8L, a great example of a modern lens built for stills and video.
Cine lenses are designed specifically for video. They’ll give beautiful cinematic rendering and more direct controls for aperture and focus, but can also be chunky, expensive and too manual for the majority of photojournalism needs. Look to Irix if you need reasonably-priced yet high-quality cine lenses; its range built for modern mirrorless cameras is weather-sealed to offer extra protection.
Vlogging and social media
In the fast-paced world of news, content is increasingly destined for online platforms over printed material – whether that’s a website, blog or social media feed. For vlogging, a wide-angle lens will help to capture a view of the journalist and the environment. 24mm lenses like the entry-level Canon EF-S 24mm f/2.8 STM have a small, lightweight form factor that helps if the camera is going to be carried around. If your budget stretches, lenses with built-in image stabilisation will keep handheld video sharp to immerse viewers.
The sheer choice and advancing technology of modern lenses mean that there’s a well-matched option for every assignment, story and end use, regardless of budget. Providing a range of high-quality options for your journalism students to try out means they'll be ready and well-equipped to cover the breaking news and views of the future, as and when it happens.
About the author
Lauren Scott is a professional journalist and photographer. In the tech industry for over ten years, Lauren has covered camera news, reviews and exclusive interviews. She is currently Managing Editor of Digital Camera World – one of the world’s leading photography websites – having previously served as Editor of the global magazine Digital Photographer.