Congratulations on joining us photographers in this wild journey in photography! By this stage, you’ve probably purchased a camera body and maybe even a lens. If you haven’t, or you’ve identified what you’re thinking of buying, this lens guide will help. If you have a lens already, then you might find this lesson useful in knowing what lenses you need for certain types of work in the future. As great as your brand-new DSLR or mirrorless camera is now, it won’t reach its real value until you know what lens you need for what situation, and what lenses are worth your investment. After all, they aren’t cheap! Think of this as camera lenses for dummies, a camera lens guide or a lens 101-type thing.
If you haven’t bought a camera yet but are shopping around, make sure you check out the lens alternatives available for each brand you’re considering. Sure, it’s not likely that every photographer requires a dozen lenses for their cameras, but the larger the collection available, the more range you will have to pick from. Ultimately, it will give you that little bit of extra flexibility. What that is worth to you is a whole other question that only you can answer. There are speciality lenses that range from wide-angle to telephoto and every little thing in between.
When you buy a camera, you’re committing to a specific brand in most cases. This is because the hardware mount on the camera body is built by the brand of camera you bought (e.g. Canon), and is only compatible with Canon lenses and a small range of third-party lenses. This means the brand of camera you’re buying is not a choice to be taken lightly. But that doesn’t mean it has to be a stressful experience either. Most of the big brands make very similar lenses to each other. I should also note that you could use a mount adapter if you really need to use a specific lens on a different camera body (e.g. you have a Nikon camera and somehow ended up with a Canon lens), but this impacts the performance of the setup so should be avoided where you can.
Entry-level DSLRs and mirrorless cameras are typically offered in ‘kits’. You could guess why it’s called that, but if you haven’t figured it out, it means the camera body comes with a lens or two. The lenses they come with are generally middle-of-the-road lenses, such as 18-55mm or 55mm-300mm and an aperture of around f/4.
The ease of a zoom lens can’t be beat, as it uses a wide range of focal lengths while a prime lens is stuck at one. You’ll see figures like 18-55mm or 70-200mm. Various other lenses are made to get where your package lens leaves off, like a 55-20mm.
The trade-off with zooms, especially high-powered zooms that cover a more extensive range of focal lengths is that they usually typically aren’t as sharp as prime lenses. High-end zoom lenses seem to be less problematic but are considerably more pricey than package zooms or prime lenses. You also get a free lens hood! Bargain!
There are tons of zoom choices so you should probably take a deep dive into your brand’s website for details as well as prices. If you want to get a simple lens that bridges the gap between some focal lengths, then something like a 55-200mm or 55-300mm will have an inexpensive model available. Even though we mentioned that the brand you choose is important because it will offer the most lenses, there are some limited third-party options available, too. So don’t be afraid to check those out also. Sigma, Tamron, and Tokina are a few of the most common third-party lenses. I own a few Sigma lenses and believe they are better than some of my high-end Canon gear, and also were significantly cheaper too.
Prime lenses are just a snappier name for fixed focal length lenses, and they supply one field of view. Prime lenses are often the best value, as in most cases they offer better image quality and improved low light efficiency compared to their zoom counterparts. The 50mm f/1.8 lenses (either in Canon or Nikon) are some of the most popular prime lenses because they’re cheap and really sharp. After my initial kit lens, I bought a 50mm f/1.8 to understand how to benefit from a lens with a wider aperture.
Several specialised lenses are usually only offered in prime types, like macro and also fisheye lenses. If you have a mirrorless camera, you’ll notice that many lenses are often referred to as “pancake” lenses, for obvious reasons when you see them. I use one on my Canon 5Dmkiii because it’s nice and compact, perfect for street photography.
Photographers that are just starting out could feel limited by dealing with a prime, but you should not be: a prime lens is what you have actually been firing with on your phone all this moment.
Prices of lenses
As you start browsing for lenses, you could do numerous double-takes when you look at how much they cost. Regardless of whether it’s a zoom or a prime lens, there are several variables that could make a lens cost more than a lens that is very similar.
Quality of the glass
Yes, the glass on your lens can be different from lens to lens. Like a window that hasn’t been cleaned in a while, a lower quality glass will degrade your image somewhat, whereas higher-grade glass will give you a clearer image overall. You probably won’t be able to see the difference early on, but you will when you are spoiled with a lens that has some really high-quality glass on the front.
Some people swear by image stabilisation, but I find it to be mostly unnecessary. You might find it more useful if you’re doing bird photography or something that requires a really steady hand. You’ll pay around $1,000 extra for a 70-200mm lens that has image stabilisation compared to one that doesn’t. Given in most cases increasing your shutter speed will offset any camera shake, image stabilisation is one of the less important factors when shopping for the perfect lens.
Some cameras (looking at you, Nikon) need a specific type of motor mechanic for them to be compatible with autofocus features. This is rare in the current-day camera hardware, but it is a factor to consider needing when you’re looking at lenses if it’s a somewhat older camera.
The most significant impact to a lens’ cost is the aperture. The wider a lens opens, the more light it lets in. But that comes at a cost to your hip pocket. The majority of set zoom lenses have apertures at around f/3.5. A prime lens with a big aperture usually allows in two, three, four or even more times this quantity of light. Professional-level zoom lenses typically max out at f/2.8 and are particularly engineered in creative ways that warrant that higher price tag. Prime lenses are often far less expensive at those wider apertures than zooms are because they can be built much more straightforward to take advantage of wider apertures. Prime lenses mostly increase their cost due to the quality of glass rather than the aperture.
As you become more aware of different lenses and their features, you can dig deeper into your study with things like optical layout, number of aperture blades, lens finishes, as well as all that other good things that make expensive lenses so costly. We’ve already touched on a few of the above, but trust me, this is just scratching the surface.