Choosing A Lens – 31+ Days To Better Photography

Yesterday’s Topic: How I Edited It

It is often said you should spend 2/3 of your investment in a lens and 1/3 on the body (suggestions on camera bodies can be found here). And for good reason. The quality of the lens has a large impact on the quality of your images.

A solid lens will last a decade or more, with it not uncommon to hear of owners keeping lenses for a lifetime. Bodies, especially digital bodies, come and go, release new versions and in general update far quicker than lenses. For instance, Canon will be releasing a version 5 of one of its top of the line cameras soon while it has only recently release version 2 of a very popular lens. Lens technology just doesn’t advance as quick.

I say all of this to partially qualify my next statement: If you are serious about getting quality images, buy the most expensive lens you can comfortably afford. Like all rules, this can be broken, but it is a good starting point.

When looking at a lens you will notice some markings, one of the most important being the aperture. On a zoom lens this is a range, such as 3.5-5.6. On a prime lens, one that doesn’t zoom, it is a set aperture, like 1.4. What that range is telling you on the zoom is what the maximum aperture opening is at the lowest focal length and highest focal length. So if the lens is a 55-200mm, at 55mm the maximum open aperture is 3.5 and at 200mm it is 5.6. This helps compare lenses, especially with slightly different focal lengths. For instance, a 70-200mm lens that has an aperture of 2.8 over its entire zoom range will be more valuable than one that goes from 3.5-5.6. This is because at the same zoom, 70mm, the 2.8 will let in more light than the 3.5. At 200mm that difference, 2.8 vs 5.6, is 1.5 stops more light and that can be significant. Of course, you have to look at price and decide for yourself just how much more important that extra bit of light is to as compared to maybe being able to pay your power bill for an entire year.

That being said, which lens should you buy? It depends.

BIG QUALIFIER: This advice is aimed at someone curious to improve their photography and maybe get paid something at some point. It’s not for a pro, who already has their own opinions. My opinion is certainly not the only one out there and I invite your comments at the bottom, but will readily delete yours if you’re not civil-ish.

I Want To Travel And Only Take One Lens

  • Sigma 18-200mm – This lens is a great all around travel lens. It’s not too expensive but gives good photos. I suggest it to most people who take photography as a hobby or want a light lens. On a 1.6x crop factor camera, it becomes a 28-320mm and that will help capture a wide-ish angle and get great zoom. Canon and Nikon also make this lens range.
  • Another great option, if you have the arms for it, is a 28-300mm lens. This is about the equivalent to the 18-200mm when used on a full frame sensor. This is my current walk around lens as it has a great range. It is big and heavy though. Make sure you get a model with IS or VR (Image Stabilization)

I Love Portraits

  • This is where prime lenses shine. Prime lenses can also be cheaper than a zoom because of the simplicity in build.
  • The tried and true workhorses for many portrait photographers is either a 85mm or 105mm. This is considering use on a full frame camera. With a 1.6x crop factor, you are good with a 50mm or maybe an 85mm. These lenses are built with apertures down to 1.2 and 1/4 respectively. And, from what you know of Aperture, that is great in creating shallow depth of field.
  • There are also some good zooms in this range. Something like a 24-105mm or 24-120mm.

I Love Landscape Shots

  • When most people think of landscape photographs they think of wide open vistas. These vistas beg for a wide angle lens.
  • For those loving zooms, try something like a 16-35mm on a full frame camera or 10-22mm on a 1.6x crop factor sensor. This range will allow just enough zoom to frame things to your liking (try to avoid cropping in the computer as much as you can. Get it right the first time!). Maximum aperture can range a bit here along with price.
  • Prime lenses shine in this range and can, on average, produce a sharper image than their zoom counterparts, but probably not enough to justify the price difference for most amateurs. For instance, in the 1.6x crop category, Canon has a 10-22mm 3.5-4.5 zoom for $850. And a 20mm 2.8 for $540. If you find you like 20mm for a lot of landscape, you can not only save $300, but you also get a little more than a stop more light from the prime.
  • For both Canon and Nikon, there is a 14mm wide angle that is not a fish-eye (where the edges get really curved in) and does a great job of ultra-wide shots, but costs quite a few pennies.

Close-up Shots! I Can’t Live Without Them

  • Then ye be looking for a Macro lens, matey. (It’s getting late and the pirate voice comes out, sorry.) Macro lenses have the ability to focus are much closer distances and can present a 1:1 true life size images.
  • 60mm is a pretty standard size here, as well as 100/105mm. These lenses can be good to rent for a short term project, especially if you want to play around with macro to see if it is something you want to do long term. If not, the lens investment might not be worth it.

My Friends Keep Asking Me To Shoot Their Weddings

  • Hands down, one of the best wedding lenses is the 70-200mm. The problem here is the cost. To get the nice 2.8 aperture across the whole zoom range, it’s going to cost you a pretty penny. But, as you are charging your clients competitive prices, it will be paid off in just a couple of weddings. Having a second body is handy with a wide prime or wide zoom to compliment the 70-200mm. Something like a 24-105mm or 24-70mm. The 200mm will get you as close as you need to get for most all of the intimate shots and the 70mm is perfect for portraits on a 1.6x crop camera.

Wildlife, The Kind In The Woods, Not The Dorms

  • With wildlife shots you want to accomplish to things: get close to the action and have a nice, fast lens.
  • There are some zooms that work well, such as the 100-400mm L Canon lens.
  • For the most part, if you are dedicating time and money to just wildlife, you’re going to want to get a beefy prime. This gets expensive. For instance, Nikon’s 300mm f/4 is $1500. If you want one stop faster, the f/2.8, it’s $5500.  Zoiks. Those are the big lenses you see on the sidelines of football games and they work, well. 2.8 is a lot of light and can lead to fast 1/1000 shutter speeds, perfect for capturing fullbacks cutting a crease or silverbacks charging right at you.
  • Also consider getting an extender, such as a 1.4x or 2x, which will cut down on the light available (usually by 2 stops), but will 1.4x or 2x your overall focal length.

I Want Great Shots Of My Kids Playing Sports

  • Just like wildlife, you’ll want a zoom of at least 300mm to get you right in the action. But you probably are not going to drop $5500. There are some compromises, but they let in less light. Such as Nikon’s 80-400mm 4.5-5.6 or Canon’s 70-300mm 4.5-5.6.  These lenses will still get you close to the action, just with less light, which might be a problem in some place like a gym with bad lighting.

A note on the spendy lenses. You do get what you pay for with lenses (at least by the brand manufacturers, which I tend to stick to). That extra cost is going to more solid construction, tighter tolerances, better elements and internal focusing. That last one is sometimes key because it means things like graduated polarizing filters aren’t constantly rotated out of true. And the image stabilization tends to be better.

That’s it for an overview. If you have specific questions about this lens or that, please feel free to ask in the comment section below. Another good resources for benchmark, scientific lens reviews is DxOMark.com.

Oh! And people often ask what that little plastic thing is that comes with the lens? It’s a hood and it’s meant to block out unwanted side light. It looks funky on a zoom because it has to accept a wide range, but on a prime, or telephoto zoom, it will just look like a flared tube. Use it, it helps.

NOTE: While I linked to Amazon for most of the lens suggestions, shop around and see what you can find.

Next Up: What’s A Good Camera For Me To Buy?

31+ Days To Better Photography is a series written by professional photographer Peter West Carey on The Carey Adventures.Com. The series is designed to unravel the mysteries of photography so you can take better pictures. Subscribe here to receive all the updates and bonus material. Your comments are always welcome.

19 Replies to “Choosing A Lens – 31+ Days To Better Photography”

  1. Lindsey

    I love my Canon 50mm 1.8 lens. for me, and my novice tastes, it seems like a good all-around lens.

    My question is this: is there a certain point where putting a very expensive lens on my entry-level canon DSLR is just silly? For instance, is putting a $5500 lens on my $500 camera just a bit ridiculous? Or is this where the 1/3 body 2/3 lens price ratio comes into play?

    Thanks for this series, it’s just awesome!

    • Peter West Carey Post author

      Lindsey,
      My own opinion is that a $5500 lens on a $500 would be a bit silly. Having said that, you should never not do something just because others will think it’s silly. 🙂
      Depending on what you wanted to shoot with that $5500 lens, such as wildlife or birds, you would be better served with a more expensive body, specifically something with a higher frame rate to capture action and a full frame sensor to help reduce ISO noise (If you’ve been following along, you know that a larger sized sensor will have less noise at the same ISO). It will also have better metering and auto-focus capabilities to better advantage of the lens’ super-awesomeness.
      If you were in the position to purchase a $5500, you certainly can, especially if you are planning to upgrade your camera. What I’m trying to say is, don’t hold off on buying the big lens if you know 6 months from now you will buy a better camera. Get it now, play with it. If people will actually scoff at you when you have a $500 body on it, but then a week later not scoff when you have a $2500 body on it, that’s their own hangup and not anything you need to worry about.
      You don’t need strangers’ approval to enjoy photography.

      • Lindsey

        Thanks for the advice! I don’t think I’ll be investing in a hugely expensive lens or body any time soon, so not something I will really need to worry about. Thanks again.

      • Kerry Henderson

        I’m about a month behind, so please forgive me. I have a Nikon D40 & wondered the same thing, but mostly because the camera is so small & light. I want to buy a bigger lens, but wonder if it would make my camera too front-heavy. I know those entry-level Rebels are light too. Would this be an issue?

        • Peter West Carey Post author

          Kerry, It can feel a bit odd, but if you’re holding the lens properly, supported from the underside and not gripping it sideways, then it works just fine.

  2. Matt

    Great advice Peter! I shot for months with the 18-55mm kit lens that came with my 20D and it took great shots. Then I invested in the 70-200 f/4L and was amazed at the performance and quality. You get what you pay for. Yeah, it’s hard to shell out that kind of cash but I look at it as an investment; an investment that pays me back in better photos.

  3. TL Wood

    Ahhh! If only one could use their Library Card to borrow one of these fabulous lenses for a while!

  4. Kristina

    First, thanks so much for doing this series of posts. I’m really learning a lot.

    I currently have my second entry level Nikon (D5000) and have gotten to the point where I am starting to buy lenses beyond the ones which came with the kit.

    I’ve had the Nikon 35mm f/1.8 for about a year now and use it primarily for photographing dishes for my food blog. I love it.

    I just bought the Nikon 18-200mm for travel. I hate stopping to change out my lens so I’m hoping this one will do the trick. I agonized for a long time over whether or not to spend the money on the Nikon lens or get the Tamron or Sigma version and was interested to see you recommend the Sigma. Have you used both it and the name brand version? What did you think?
    In the end I bought the Nikon because it had a slightly lower aperture range than the other two and I trust the brand. I shopped around for the best price and so far, I’m really happy with it and can’t wait to use it on my next trip.

    • Peter West Carey Post author

      Kristina,
      I have only played with the Sigma and Canon 18-200. At the time I liked the Sigma better but I think the Canon is version II now. I think you’ll be happy with the Nikon version. Just judge it against itself: Is it giving you the quality you want? If not, replace it. But if so, stop agnonizing and enjoy! Glad you like it so far.

  5. Amara Forster

    Peter,

    My husband just gave me a Canon 300mm with an extender. I find it very heavy, even with a monopod. I’ve been so spoiled on the 18-200 that anything like a 300 is like having an extra leg. Does it get any easier?

    • Peter West Carey Post author

      Amara,
      Please send me the lens and all your troubles will go away. 🙂 Unfortunately, quality in a lens means weight. Some people swear by the Sniper camera strap as a way to help with the weight and carrying the lens. http://amzn.to/eXXTcT I have not used one.

  6. John

    Peter,

    How about video use lenses? I want to use my Canon more for the digital video capabilities, but the stock lens is sticky in the zoom in and out while shooting.

    Are there any lenses that really placate towards the video shooters of the DSLR world?

    • Peter West Carey Post author

      John,
      As of right now, I don’t believe there are. The kit lens won’t be the best bet and as you noted, you want something with smooth zoom and preferably no noise. It’s the zooming noise that kills.

  7. Ryan

    I’ve really been enjoying this blog series. Thanks a lot. I have a Cannon 24-70, f2.8 and a 70-200, f4. I want to do it all travel, portraits, sports. What would be my next lens? I want a fisheye but not sure that I can afford it. Should I get a fixed 20mm or 50mm? Thanks.

  8. Ryan

    I’m not sure. That’s something I need to learn about. Do you have a post on that? I have a Cannon 5D. Thanks.

  9. George Dewey Powell

    I have had quite a bit of luck leaving the Sigma 18-270mm f3.5 on my D90 which is the “bag camera” since investing in the D7000 and its low light capabilities. I’m just getting into portraiture, and I seem to have developed a real like for the 17-50mm f2.8. Thank you for all you do Peter. I spend as much time as possible reading your posts, and two classes are in my near future!

  10. Esther

    Any suggestions for a lens for backpacking? Maybe something between a travel and landscape lens? I have a Sony mirrorless 1.5x crop factor camera. Thanks!

Comments are closed.