So you’re into photography. So is everyone else and their dog now that digital SLR cameras have dropped in price so much. You get sick of your point and shoot camera, you go out and a buy a Canon Rebel or Nikon D3100 starter camera and it comes with a kit lens, something typically from 18-55mm. For the most part, that lens is not too shabby. It’s inexpensive, but sharp. It does pretty much everything you want it to do for that first year or so. But, when the photo bugs start biting you and you want to learn more about photography and taking pictures, you often want to start buying more lenses to do different stuff. But what do you buy and why? If you show up at a camera store without a plan, you’re like sheep to the slaughter. You best have some idea of what you want prior to going in there or else the sweet talker salesman is gonna get your VISA card loaded up before you know it! 😯
Winning Lens Characteristics
What makes a lens good or bad? Well, there are some generalities. We need to be clear that not every lens that Nikon or Canon or whoever makes is a “good lens” some of them are pretty darn crappy. So here’s a few things to look for:
Good lenses produce sharp and contrasty images. Out of focus parts of the picture should look like cream cheese, not chunks of cheddar. When the sun hits the lens it shouldn’t flare with drops of color. Straight lines, like in a brick wall, should stay straight. Good lenses also are designed well mechanically. The focus & zoom rings should be smooth, not clunky. Big zooms shouldn’t zoom and creep by themselves, they should stay where you leave them. It should be sealed from the weather/dust. Autofocus should be fast like a cheetah not slow like a turtle. It should have image stabilization (VR or IS). And finally, good lenses open up wide with big f/stops like 1.4 or 2.8 and are constant (if in a zoom lens). Lenses that go from f/3.5-5.6 generally aren’t that great. They should be able to focus close and focus internally, meaning the front of the lens doesn’t turn while focusing (which is a real pain when using filters).
One more consideration to be aware of before you go any further is to note the difference between Crop Sensor Cameras and Full Frame Cameras. Without going into a whole bunch of detail, some lenses are designed to work specifically with crop sensor camera bodies. In Canon this is called EF-S lenses and in Nikon this is called DX lenses. There will be badges on the lenses to tell you which is which. It’s good to consider this because when buying lenses, it’s good to be forward thinking – as in it’s good to buy full frame (Canon EF, Nikon FX) lenses even for use on crop sensor camera bodies in case one day you want to shoot a full frame camera. In my mind, it makes more sense to invest in good lenses once, rather than to buy cheaper lenses first, then have to sell them all and upgrade them later. However, if you intend to stay in the beginner/enthusiast realm, buying EF-S/DX lenses is just fine. It just pays to be aware of the future possibilities.
Picking Your Lenses
OK, with those considerations in mind you can start assembling your lens arsenal. Most pros in any field of photography have 2-4 lenses that they use for just about everything. You don’t want a metric tonne of lenses, because you have to carry them around. But you also want to be ready for as much as possible. There are 2 groups of lenses: Zooms and Primes. Zooms are more flexible and give more options, but Primes are sharper and often have super big apertures for low light photography and awesome portraits. The three lens categories for both zooms and primes are: Wide Angle (14-24mm) Mid-Range (24-70mm) and Telephoto (70-600mm). And there is also a fourth category of “special” lenses that have unique purposes such as fish-eye lenses, macro lenses, perspective control, etc. Here are some suggested setups:
Kicked up Beginner
If you want something more than the 18-55 kit lens your camera came with, I’d suggest a big zoom that goes from wide to telephoto. 18-200mm or 28-300mm are very popular, so are the 24-105 and 16-85. All of your bases are covered in one lens. The downside is, these are usually variable aperture lenses that aren’t very fast and don’t give any possibilities for shallow depth of field shots (for those cool “lots of stuff in the photo is out of focus” shots). So I would pair the big zoom with a 50mm f/1.8 lens. They are always sharp, allow for low light shooting and they are inexpensive. Additionally, this kit is a perfect vacation or travel setup as it’s light weight and packs into a small convenient bag.
What follows next here is what I call a photo-spectrum. One (or more) of these general categories will be where your interests fall. Recommendations are listed appropriate to each area along the spectrum.
Landscape: Big wide angles to take in the scenery reign supreme on the landscape. 16-35mm zoom is the land lover’s first choice, but also possibly some fast wide angles like the 20mm f/2.8 or 24 f/1.4. Keep in mind the need to use filters (neutral density and polarizers). Landscapers will also want a longer telephoto zoom for extracting mini landscapes from the larger scene. 70-300 or 70-200mm are good options.
Nature: Long reaching zooms get you closer to the critters 100-400, 200-400 or the 300, 400, 500, 600mm primes. And, add some wide angels for landscapes, particularly the 16-35 over the 14-24 because you will want to use filters.
Action: Sports! You want to be near the action, but you can’t be. So the name of the game is long zooms like the 70-200, 200-400 and long f/2.8 or f/4 primes from 200 to 300 t0 400 to 500mm!
Photojournalism: You’re in zoom country. 14-24mm/16-35mm, 24-70mm and the 70-200 will have all your bases covered and at all at f/2.8.
Weddings: You’re the hybrid of portraits & photojournalism. You need the versatility of wide angle zooms 14-24/16-35 & the 70-200 and a bunch of f/1.4 primes for killer portraits.
Portraits: The portrait junkie loves primes. 35 f/1.4, 50 f/1.4, 85 f/1.4 usually become the workhorse lenses. But also the cadillac 70-200 f/2.8 zoom for amazing subject isolation, bokeh and compression.
Macro: This is the domain of bugs and creepy crawlies, but also products and still life. Sharp macro lenses in the neighbourhood of 105, 150 or even 200 are the ticket for getting close and making images that are larger than life!
So there you go!
That basically covers it all. I’m not giving exact individual lens recommendations because lenses change. New stuff comes out and new advances are made in technology and performance. However, these general categories will remain forever. Before you buy anything, read lots of product reviews by professionals who have actually used the products (see the list below for some of the internet’s best). Also, watch YouTube for videos that enthusiasts may have put up regarding your lens of interest. Finally, goto the camera store with your lens plan known in advance so you can check out the products before you buy them. Take your camera body and do some sample shots to see how you like it. If you follow these guidelines, you’ll be far better prepared to make good long-lasting lens choices that will follow you throughout your entire photography interest.
Awesome Links of Lens Reviews: