As we are learning all about lenses this month on Click It Up A Notch, hopefully you can make more informed decisions on which ones best suit your needs. For those of you who want someone to tell you straight up what lens to buy, this post is for you!
What lens to buy?
Before I get to the list of favorite and most popular lenses, I wanted to share with you a little about my journey with lenses. Keep in mind that I am a Canon shooter, so the lenses I will discuss are Canon. However, I have listed both Canon and Nikon lenses on the favorites list. Also, I shoot mainly portraits, events, and food, so my recommendations of what lens to buy are based on lenses for those types of photography.
Moving Beyond the kit lens
When I got my first dslr camera it came with an 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 kit lens. After feeling unsatisfied and doing research, I discovered variable aperture lenses are generally of lower quality than fixed aperture lenses. They are fine for beginners and casual amateurs, but as my photography skills were improving I wanted a more sophisticated lens. After asking other photographers a lot of questions, I learned what it meant to have a “fast” lens. Check out Laurie’s post, Understanding the writing on the lens, for more on variable aperture and fast lenses. Since I was shooting a lot indoors and in low light, as well as portraits where I wanted to isolate the subject from the background, I knew I needed faster lenses.
Prime vs. Zoom
My next consideration was whether I should get a prime lens (fixed focal length) and/or a zoom lens. Generally, you are going to get the very best optical quality and sharpness in a prime lens. The greatest value to me personally with a prime is the nice background blur and less distortion for shooting portraits, products or food.
A good place to start when choosing your first prime lens is with one of the “nifty fifty’s” (50mm lenses). I have the Canon 50mm f1.4 lens and it captures stunning portraits! The low aperture creates the shallow depth of field that makes your subject pop off the page and softens skin nicely too. The f/1.4 also comes in handy when you have little available light to work with.
Before I owned the f/1.4 version, I started out by purchasing the super affordable Canon 50mm f/1.8. It was actually a nice, sharp lens for the $119 price! If you are on a budget and want to experiment with a 50mm lens, I would start with the f/1.8, then upgrade later once you decide whether or not you like the 50mm focal length. To keep you smiling…a shot taken with my 50mm of my son getting caught red-handed cutting barbie’s hair.
Courtney will do a detailed post in a few weeks comparing two different versions of the 50mm lens. Also, check out her previous post on comparing the 20mm, the 35mm, and the 50mm primes for further insight.
The trade off with a prime is obviously that you have to do the footwork closer or further from your subject, rather than conveniently zooming in and out. And you may miss out on that shot-of-a-lifetime if you can’t zoom to the proper focal length to capture it!
There are some excellent zooms out there too, like the Canon 24-70mm f/2.8L that I own. It’s extremely popular among professionals as an “essential” lens to own. It’s considered a wide-angle lens, so it’s great in tight spaces, when shooting large groups, or for architecture and interiors. I have this lens on my camera 90% of the time because it’s a multipurpose, every day lens with superb image quality. The f/2.8 capabilities coupled with the convenient zoom range make it a very desirable lens for various types of photography.
Here’s a shot I took with my 24-70 this week of my kids for their daddy’s Birthday.
Often compared with the Canon 24-70mm and a more affordable option is the Tamron 28-75mm f/2.8. I owned this lens for a year until I saved up enough for my Canon 24-70. I was very happy with the image quality and light that the f/2.8 brought in…and it is SHARP! It has the ideal focal length for taking natural-looking portraits. It’s a great lens to own until you are ready to make the jump to pro level glass.
So, if your wallet allows, I recommend getting one of each…a prime and a zoom to start out with. It’s nice to have the option to choose a mid-range zoom when you are in tight spaces or chasing toddlers, but also have that 50mm when you simply want to create a fabulous portrait of a friend or an artistic shot of your dinner plate.
Something to keep in mind
When considering what lenses to buy, remember also to take into account the crop factor that will apply to your camera. Read your manual or research what crop factor you camera has. The impact of the crop factor on the Canon 50D camera, for example, is that all Canon lenses act as if their focal length has been increased by 1.6x or 60%. So for example, a 70-200mm lens will act more like a 112-320mm. Melissa will talk more about the differences between crop and full frame sensors next week.
Beyond the Basics
Once I owned both a prime and a mid range zoom, I still felt like I needed a telephoto zoom lens with a longer reach. I mainly needed it for capturing my kids in sports, while boating, or to make it easier to get close in the moment, but not disturb the moment. Telephoto lenses are great storytelling lenses.
I decided I wanted the popular Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L, but wasn’t ready to break the bank to get it! So I purchased the slightly more affordable version of that lens, the Canon EF 70-200mm f/4 L, which worked for me since I was only planning on using it outside where there was plenty of light. This lens is still a highly rated zoom and one of the cheapest “L” series Canon lenses. It is also much lighter to carry around, which is what I wanted for travel and street photography. This lens has served my needs perfectly, but I do plan to upgrade to that f/2.8 when I’m ready to make the financial leap. Here’s a wedding shot I took using my 70-200mm on the beach in Ft. Lauderdale. I was quite a ways away from the bride & groom, so I was able to capture a natural moment without disturbing them.
So, my advice to you is…when considering what lens to buy, keep in mind your own goals, abilities and budget. If you can’t bring yourself to purchase a $2000 lens, either save up for awhile until you can get the one you want, or look for a comparable lens within the same focal length that you need. And remember to always look for lenses with the lowest number f/stop possible. I prefer f/2.8 or smaller in most cases. Lenses hold their value quite well. So you should be able to sell them once you “outgrow” them with no problem.
The last non-essential, but “fun” lens that I purchased was the Canon 50mm f/2.5 Compact Macro. I will talk more about this lens in an upcoming post next week where each of us will share one of our favorite lenses and why! Macros are fun to experiment with when capturing fine details, texture, and even portraits. I use mine to magnify things like eye lashes, skin texture and hair on newborns.
As much as I would like to continue talking about different lenses, I won’t bore you with all my “nerdy-ness”. OK, here’s the list….
Below is a list (broken down according to price) of some of the most recommended Canon and Nikon lenses, according to my research. I didn’t list any third party lenses (except the Tamron 28-75) because I don’t know enough about them. I tried to include the top lenses for each type i.e. primes, zooms, macros within each price range if there was a good one.
Canon (Price no object)
Canon (Around $600 or less)
Canon (Around $300 or less)
Nikon (Price no object)
Nikon (Around $600 or less)
Nikon (Around $300 or less)
Thanks for hanging in there with me. I hope this has helped you decide what to buy. Always read the reviews before you buy! And as a recap on the lenses I own, here they are in the order that I purchased them:
Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II Lens
Canon EF 50mm f1.4 lens
Tamron AF 28-75mm f/2.8
Canon EF 50mm f/2.5 Compact Macro
Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L
Canon EF 70-200mm f/4 L IS
Read the whole series: Everything you want to know about camera lenses
Part 1: Understanding the writing on the lens
Part 2: What lens should I buy next?
Part 3: Our Favorite Lenses
Part 4: Lens on crop vs. full frame sensor
Part 5: Comparing different lenses
Part 6: 50mm 1.8 vs 1.4
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