I was originally dead set on making my next post on exposure, since I feel like it’s the most primary thing to learn about using your camera. But as your comments came rolling in from the indoor photos post, there were so many questions on lenses that I had to go there first. I remembered that before we understood exposure very well (or at all for that matter), we had a lovely lens. A lovely lens that made learning exposure a very rewarding thing. And so it seems fair to hope that someone else reading may get the chance to learn on a lovely lens also, like we did.
Warning...This is a lot of information.
Warning 2...I’m not a technology genius.
Let me start with a huge disclaimer that lenses and cameras can get very technical if you get into the math and engineering of the whole thing—and I know next to nothing about all that. If I open a web page on focal lengths for lenses, I start to glaze over and head for the back button at the first sight of a mathematical formula. It’s not my forte (and quite frankly it’s over my head). So if you’re looking for a super technical genius answer to any lens mysteries, I’m not your girl. But I will happily share what I know—which is a combination of what I’ve learned from our own hands-on experience and what I’ve (very gradually) come to grasp about a lens’s technological makeup, in its most basic form.
Below are my answers to questions about lenses that either I have been frequently asked by others, or that we had when we were first getting our own lenses. But...if you want to skip all the talk and head straight for an easy recommendation, feel free to scroll to the bottom for a quick answer.
Is a kit lens (entry-level zoom) sufficient?Sometimes, depending on what you’re shooting. If you’re always in ideal lighting, then yes (ideal lighting being a well-lit day outdoors). For travel, I imagine a kit lens would be perfect: lightweight, zoom, and great performance outside. But if you are using your camera frequently indoors, in low light, or for action shots (kids running away from you while you’re trying to catch a photo of them would be considered an action shot), and you want to avoid your flash at all costs like me, then you definitely need to get another lens. Kit lenses will usually be too slow and too dark (because of the small aperture) to successfully take photos without a flash in the home. If you haven’t bought a DSLR camera yet, but want to, I would throw my vote out there for buying a camera body alone, and then hand picking the lens you want separately.
What are the other options besides kit lenses?When we were about to buy our first camera and lenses, Jon and I suspected a kit lens wouldn't satisfy our high hopes for better photos. We knew what we wanted our pictures to look like, and knew we didn’t want to use money on some random lens that wasn’t going to get the results we wanted. So we did some serious homework. We looked at ALL the options. And there were a lot. I actually researched dozens of other photographers (whose work we loved) for weeks, looking through websites, articles, and blogs to find out what lenses they used, and I tallied them all up (clearly there wasn't a single kit lens among them). And that’s exactly how we chose our first lens: whatever had the most tally marks won, and that was the one we bought, with a camera body separately. Your method may be different, roll with it. Hopefully some tips here will help you.
A prime lens (or fixed lens) is a lens that has only one focal length, which means there is no zooming capability. Prime lenses are known (especially at the top end) for their image quality and speed (larger aperture, faster shutter speed), but in order to zoom you need to move your feet :) These are ideal portrait lenses if you get them at a focal length of 50mm or longer, and sacrificing the zoom so you can pay less for a larger aperture is well worth it. If you’re like me and primarily shoot indoors chasing kids in low light, this is an essential lens type for you.
|50mm, f/1.8, 1/200s, ISO 400|
|50mm, f/1.4, 1/800s, ISO 100|
Telephoto Zoom Lenses
These come in a wide variety. The larger the mm number, the further zoomed in you will be (or further away from your subject you can be). The benefit of a zoom is obvious: you can get a closer crop of your subject without moving. If the lens has a long focal length (200mm or more) then you may want to make sure it has Image Stabilization (IS) (VR on a Nikon, for Vibration Reduction) to keep camera shake from blurring your images. A zoom lens with a large aperture (f/2.8) can be crazy expensive (like $1,000-$3,000 expensive), so unless it’s an investment for a business, a professional zoom lens probably doesn’t need to be on your wishlist. For all other purposes (travel, landscape, outdoor sports), an f/4 aperture should be plenty big enough to do a great job.
|(left photo) 70mm, f/2.8, 1/1600s, ISO 100 (right photo) 200mm, f/2.8, 1/1600s, ISO 100|
|(left photo) 70mm, f/2.8, 1/2000s, ISO 2500 (right photo) 100mm, f/2.8, 1/2000s, ISO 2500|
These are specifically designed for shooting objects up close (think tiny-bee-on-a-flower kind of close). There are other lenses that come with a ‘macro’ setting, (we lived on that setting in our point and shoot) but true macro lenses magnify your subjects without sacrificing image size, enabling you to get incredibly close to what you’re shooting, in a crystal-clear National Geographic kind of way.
|65mm, f/2.8, 1/640s, ISO 320|
Wide Angle Lenses (about 10mm-35mm)
Wide angles enable you to take shots with a very wide perspective. The smaller the mm number, the wider the angle. These come in handy when you want to get much more in a photo than you would normally be able to (like real estate photos inside a house, or large groups of people, or a wide landscape). Wide angles come both as prime lenses and zoom lenses, and sometimes you’ll get a hint of wide angles in some telephoto zoom lenses (i.e., 18-105mm). The wider you get, the more crazy distortion you’ll find in your photos (think Mac PhotoBooth, but in a less wacko, more uniform way). Fisheye is as wide as you can get. Wide angles can be fun, but if you’re not into warping or distortion, you should probably stick with lenses that have focal lengths of 50mm or longer.
|(left photo) 24mm, f/2.8, 1/1600s, ISO 100 (right photo) 200mm, f/2.8, 1/1250s, ISO 100|
|24mm, f/2.8, 1/1600s, ISO 100|
Is a more expensive lens always a better quality lens?Not always. It depends on what you’re comparing. If you’re looking at two very similar lenses, then probably yes (i.e, 50mm f/1.4 for about $400 vs. 50mm f/1.8 for about $150). Even then, it will depend on your taste and what you’re using it for. But comparing a prime lens to a zoom lens and basing your decision on price is comparing apples to oranges. They have two completely different purposes and likewise different price ranges.
High quality lenses are known for being fast, having large apertures, sharp focus, and being heavier/more durable (made of more metals and less plastics). Lenses are considered fast when they have a large aperture (I would personally say apertures somewhere between f/1.4-f/2.8 are large, but others may say as small as f/4.0 could be considered large), because the large aperture allows much more light into your sensor, which means your shutter speed can be faster since more light is entering per fraction of a second. Large apertures also have a much smaller depth of field (bokeh, or foreground/background blur) which can give portraits a more professional feel. Prime lenses will almost always be cheaper than zooms simply because they have less complex technology. And cheaper definitely doesn't make them a lower quality lens. My heart (and wallet) goes first to the lenses with the largest apertures, and those will always be found in prime lenses.
What do all the numbers mean?If you go onto the Canon/Nikon website and start perusing the rows of every Canon EF/Nikkor lens you’ve [n]ever heard of, you'll find they all look something like this:
EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS II
AF-S DX NIKKOR 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6G VR
And you’re supposed to make sense of that, at least enough to know if you want it or not. What?! If you’re anything like I was when we first jumped on the DSLR bandwagon, then you’re probably a little overwhelmed. We have Canon equipment, so I’m a little lost in the Nikon world, but only the acronyms will mean different things. The numbers are universal. You can find definitions for some Nikon acronyms here.
Let’s break it down for CANON.
- EF-S: Electronic Focus (with Short-back focus, whatever that means). The important thing, though, is that this is the lens mount designation—mount meaning what camera it will fit on. EF lenses fit all camera bodies, EF-S will fit only lower-end camera bodies. See more info here.
- 18-55mm: Focal length. You will be able to zoom as wide as 18mm and as narrow as 55mm, including everything in between.
- f/3.5-5.6: Max aperture (not the ONLY aperture available for the lens). The smaller the number, the bigger the aperture (= more light, more bokeh, more speed). This does not mean you can’t use a smaller aperture than that, most lenses allow you to shoot with an aperture as small as f/22. But here’s something that took us a while to understand. See the hyphen, followed by another aperture? That’s called a “variable aperture.” That means that you can’t keep using the largest aperture when you zoom in. As you zoom in, your aperture will slowly decrease in size (whether you tell it to or not), and when you’re fully zoomed in it can only be as large as the second number listed for the lens: f/5.6.
If only one aperture was listed, the lens would be a “fixed aperture,” meaning no matter how much you zoom in or out, your aperture has the capability to stay at its largest setting at all times. Fixed aperture lenses are typically heavier, higher quality, and more expensive glass, which makes them more expensive lenses. Variable aperture lenses aren’t necessarily a bad thing though, especially since they’re better for the budget. And it’s worth noting that if you had your aperture set to anything smaller than f/5.6 (say f/6.0), you could zoom in and out all you want and it would never change. But it’s definitely something you should be aware of when taking photos in low light and wanting to stay on your largest aperture...the more you zoom in, the darker your photos will be, and the more you’ll have to compensate (or your camera will do it for you on auto) with other settings.
- IS II: Image Stabilization, to reduce camera shake.
What is most important to consider before buying a new lens?Know your purpose. What will you be using the lens for? Portraits? (Prime or Telephoto). Indoor photos? (Prime or Wide). Travel? (Telephoto Zoom). Landscapes? (Telephoto Zoom or Wide). Close ups of details? (Macro). Once you nail down your purpose, then you know what type of lens to look into. Nikon has a great site that breaks down their lenses into groups based on your purpose. You can check it out here. Canon’s website groups their lenses by type, not purpose, but you can check them out here.
Consider your budget. Know how much you’re okay with spending, and then look into the type you know you want, and see which lenses in that group you can afford. I would say a larger aperture always indicates a higher quality, but if your purpose is landscape photos, a large aperture may not be your priority, in which case, you could go with a smaller aperture telephoto for a cheaper price. If budget is a concern, there are other brands of lenses you could look into. I have read that Sigma, Tamron, Tokina perform comparably to Canon and Nikon lenses, they are compatible, and they are less expensive. We have never used anything except the Canon lenses, so I can’t personally recommend any lesser-known lenses, but it is definitely something to consider.
Read online reviews. This one is huge. We read review after review after review to make sure what we’re about to buy has a good track record. There are lots of forums online comparing lenses and those are helpful too. Try googling lenses you are considering and several things will likely come up.
What would I recommend?We (Jon and I) always recommend...starting with one killer prime lens that you’ll love. Prime lenses are much cheaper and higher quality than zoom lenses, and they’ll give you more light, more speed, and better bokeh with less complication. We don’t mind zooming on our feet, and starting with the simplicity of a prime lens allowed us to really get to know our camera before we threw extra lenses into our bags (and even now, our prime lenses are STILL our favorites). Somewhere to start: our personal favorite is the 50mm f/1.4, or you could go for its less expensive version, the 50mm f/1.8. But if you have a cropped sensor, you may want to consider looking into the 35mm f/2 to get the equivalent of the 50mm on a full-frame sensor (read more about cropped sensors and knowing what to buy when you have one in my crop factor post. Tip: most DSLRs have cropped sensors!) And as a shopping tip, we love getting our lenses through B&H Photo. Great deals, great service, and one of the most credible shops in the industry.
I know this is a complete overload of information (and I feel like I didn't even say what I wanted to say), but it's nice to get it over with so we can move on to something more fun :) I'll share everything that's in our camera bags soon, but I can't handle any more info in this post, seriously...is anyone still reading this?! I need a nap. And a bowl of ice cream.
What things have you learned about lenses that have helped you? What are your favorite lenses? Let me know if you have any questions! I'll respond in the comment thread.
And look for a cliff notes version later, I'm thinking this needs one.
Here are some additional resources (if you aren’t gagging over too much lens info already):
Most Popular DSLR Lenses—Digital Photography School
Should You Buy a Better Lens or Camera—Beyond Megapixels
Factors to Consider When Shopping for a DSLR Lens—Digital Photography School