Which Lens Is Best for Lifestyle / Documentary Photography?

If you are shooting Lifestyle or Documentary images - in other words capturing your everyday life - which lens is the best for you to use? Well, that is a pretty big question as there a number of options available to you, and each have their own plus and minus points, or things they are best suited for.  This is one reason why many people will have two or three (or more!) prime lenses, or a couple of zooms, so that they have a range of lenses that they can pull out to give a different look. That, or they have a small lens addiction 😉

Of course, sometimes you just don't know which lens would be best suited to you, or for a particular look/job, so I've listed some focal lengths below that will give you an idea of which each lens would be good for, and when I personally pull each one out of my own (too large) stash to use. 

Photography Tip | Camera Gear | Which Lens | Lifestyle Photography | Documentary Photography

To go along with this post I've also created a "Which Lens Kickstarter Guide" which gives you example images from different lenses, and details which focal lengths you should use for different types of lifestyle, portrait and documentary photos, so you know exactly which lenses will give you perfect results. Go here to grab it.

Wide Angle (such as a 28 or 35mm)

This really is such a great focal length for indoor lifestyle / documentary photographs! A wide angle is definitely my go-to lens for using inside, as I can capture the subject and some of their surrounding environment too.  It can also make a great lens for including several members of the family in a group shot, and although perhaps not the most flattering for head shots - due to the slight distortion wide angles produce - it still can be used quite effectively for lifestyle head shots on children as the distortion can add a quirky element that actually works quite well with kids!

It’s also great for outdoor shots where you really want to show the environment - beach or field shots for example  - anywhere where you want to include some of the landscape. 

A wide angle is also an inclusive lens, which makes you feel more like you are standing right in the middle of the action when you view the photo. 

Some suggested lenses: 

Canon 28mm / Nikon 28mm

Canon 16-35mm  / Nikon 16-35mm

Sigma 35mm  (both Canon and Nikon Versions)

Canon 24-70mm / Nikon 24-70mm 

Tamron 24-85mm  (both Canon and Nikon versions) 

The Standard 50mm

The 50mm Lens is a camera bag staple, and rightly so due to it’s huge versatility. You can use it in- doors and outdoors, and it can be used for both lifestyle and portraits due to the fact there is no or little distortion. A 50mm prime is generally also very lightweight and easy to carry, so it’s perfect for popping into your bag to take with you. I use this indoors for times when my 35 is just allowing just too much of the environment in, and I don't want to have to get right up to my subject, and also for shots outdoors.  It's just a fab all rounder for a focal length - a Canrue workhorse! 

Some suggested lenses: 

Canon 50mm F1.8

Canon 50mm F1.4

Nikon 50mm F1.8

Sigma 50mm F1.4


Generally, I use this lens for times when I am outdoors with my subject, and I want to allow them to have some space to move away from me. The longer length gives wonderful compression too, which helps give you those super blurry backgrounds. It’s also very useful for taking detail shots - for example, little hands on the paint brush or tying their shoes, without you having to go right up to them! It’s a gorgeous, gorgeous length for a portrait lens - it gives a very slight slimming affect on the face which is uber-flattering.

Some suggested lenses: 

Canon 85mm F1.8

Nikon 85mm F1.8

Telephoto (85mm +)

Longer lenses give fabulous compression, and therefore are wonderful for giving images a dreamy feel and really help to isolate the subject from the background.  You know those images that look like their subject is "popping" off the background? That's usually down to using a telephoto. 

They are generally too long to be used for indoor lifestyle (Although I have certainly used them indoors, when I am in full super-sleuth mode and trying to capture something without having anyone groan and moan at me,  and of course have enough space to back up!) but can be invaluable for outdoor shots, or things like plays or sporting events when you have no choice but to have some distance between yourself and the subject. I use my 85mm for most outdoor shots, so my 135 and 200 are rarely used actually, except for sports and areas where I can allow my subject can get quite far away from me safely - for example a beach.  (As a side note, I really should part with one of these since they are quite similar with the look they give, I just can't decide which one to get rid of!)

Some suggested lenses: 

Canon 135mm F2.0 / Nikon 135mm F2.0

Canon 70-200mm

Sigma 70-200mm

That's it! Which is your most used lens and why? 

p.s Remember,  if you want to have a grab and go lens guide to know what to use when, along with loads of images to reference, you can download a free reference guide that I put together for you. Go here to grab it!

Learn which camera lens to use and which camera lens to buy for your lifestyle photography images!