Lens Buying Tips

One of the most common questions I’m asked is, “What lens or lenses should I buy for my new DSLR?” While this question can be answered in a myriad of ways depending on the photographer’s style, intended subject matter, and budget constraints, Here’s a short primer of things to consider when purchasing a lens for your DSLR.

Pro Lenses

If you plan on shooting weddings, events, or any other type of commercial photography where you will be collecting money from a client you need to be using professional glass. In these days of high megapixel counts, a high-resolution sensor in a camera will show any defect a lens may have. Showing up to a shoot with professional gear also instills more confidence in the client and shows that you are indeed serious about your craft.

Professional grade lenses have fast constant apertures, (most are ƒ/2.8, but there are few lens offerings by Nikon and Canon that start at ƒ/4), superior build quality, and precision ground glass with special coatings for the lens elements.

Fast constant apertures allow you to shoot in low light and keep an even exposure across the zoom range. Most pro lenses are built with a magnesium weather sealed body that will stand up to the rigors of the use and abuse of someone who will be using the lens every day. High quality glass ensures that the images will be tack sharp all across the frame and that there is no unnecessary flaring, ghosting, chromatic aberration, or distortion.

One drawback to professional lenses is that they are expensive, but you get what you pay for. If you need the highest image quality and a durable build then these are the lenses to buy. One thing to remember is that your lenses are likely to outlive your camera body. The more you put into your initial investment the longer the lens is going to last. Another drawback is that due to the robust build quality the lenses are usually quite heavy; keep that in mind if you plan on hanging your camera around your neck all day, or even if you travel alot.

Third Party Lenses

If you can’t afford the top-level professional glass, or you don’t necessarily need the rugged build quality, there are a lot of impressive options from third party manufacturers such as Sigma, Tamron, and Tokina. All of these companies manufacture lenses at different price points to accommodate almost any budget. If you’re looking for a fast constant aperture zoom with decent image quality, but you don’t want to spend $1000 or more, a third party lens is probably your best option.

Third parties offer lenses at a considerably lower cost than their manufacturers counterparts on the high end with nearly comparable image quality and on the low end sometimes these third party lenses can even outperform the camera manufacturers OEM lenses.

 Sometimes however there are drawbacks to buying third party lenses. The optical coatings sometimes aren’t quite as good, which can lead to more flare and chromatic aberration such as color fringing. Often times some or all of the lens elements are made of molded plastic as opposed to precision ground glass which can lead to an overall softness to the image, although to be fair even OEM lenses may have plastic lens elements in their budget lenses. Sometimes there are small differences such as slower autofocus mechanisms, and non-internal focusing which can cause the front element of the lens to rotate as the lens is focusing.

Prime Lenses

What the prime lens lacks in versatility it often makes up for in speed and sharpness.  Prime lenses are a great option for people who want to travel light, or photographers that shoot in low light and need that extra stop or two to get the shot without increasing the ISO sensitivity to maximum.

Prime lenses are often offered at wider maximum aperture than any zoom lenses, usually f/1.4 – f/2, but there are also a plethora of f/2.8 primes that definitely won’t break the bank. Both Canon and Nikon offer a 50mm f/1.8 prime lens for right around $100. The 50mm is a short telephoto great for portraits and other low-light applications on a crop sensor. On a full-frame camera the 50mm is a normal lens great for almost any subject.

 Prime lenses come in all different types of focal lengths from wide-angle to telephoto. Faster, wider, and longer lenses all tend to have a higher price tag.

Kit Lenses

A lot of entry to mid level cameras come bundled with a lens, generally called a kit lens. These lenses are variable aperture lenses (the maximum aperture gets smaller at telephoto settings) and cover the moderately wide-angle to short telephoto focal lengths. For a lot of casual shooters this may be all you need, so don’t rule out this lens as an option. I advise spending a week or two shooting with the kit lens, if you find it lacking in some area then consider supplementing or replacing it. Most kit lenses are a very good for the price point and are often underestimated.

   Melissa Sandford said on January 25, 2012 at 6:01 pm

I had the luck of seeing an advance copy of your book this morning! I read through the section on camera bodies and lenses. I wish I had done that a week ago. I just bought my first zoom and will be returning it asap for one that is 2.8 vs the one I initially picked up that is 2.8-4. I didn’t realize how much I would really hate not having the option to drop down to 2.8 at any focal length (lighting and iso permitting).

   Marta Moyle said on February 3, 2012 at 4:20 pm

Thank you!

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MasteringPhoto, powered by bestselling Routledge authors and industry experts, features tips, advice, articles, video tutorials, interviews, and other resources for hobbyist photographers through pro image makers. No matter what your passion is—from people and landscapes to postproduction and business practices—MasteringPhoto offers advice and images that will inform and inspire you. You’ll learn from professionals at the forefront of photography, allowing you to take your skills to the next level.