Which DSLR Lens Should I Get?
So many lenses to choose from!
When upgrading to a DSLR (Digital Single-Lens Reflex) camera from a point-and-shoot, you are forced to make an incredible number of decisions, most of which cost a lot of money!
First, you need to choose the right DSLR camera body, and then decide which lens or lenses to buy. Without choosing carefully, you can end up spending hundreds to thousands and find your lenses are not useful!
The tips below will help you find the right lenses for your photography style.
I used these tips when I recently upgraded from my old Cano Powershot S3 IS to a Canon D650 DSLR (Rebel T4i). I'm really happy with the choices I have made!
Finding the right lenses for me
The lenses that are commonly used, greatly depend on the style of photography. As I knew my own preferred styles, I knew the two main lenses I would need (macro and strong zoom for wildlife).
Image stabilisation and lens quality
I knew I needed image stabilisation on all of my lenses as I shake quite a lot, and wanted to get the pro-level lenses (Canon L series) for their image quality, lens durability and weather sealing (even though the cheaper camera body is not weather sealed).
Lens on a FF camera
On a crop-sensor (APS-C) camera, it looks like this lens on a FF camera
Full frame or crop-sensor lenses?
Lenses typically last photographers through several upgrades of their camera bodies. So it's important to keep in mind future usability of the lens.
- Full frame lenses work on crop-sensor camera bodies, but not vice versa.
Careful! You can actually damage or destroy the the mirror and the back of the lens if you try to put a short crop-sensor lens on a full-frame body! Crop-sensor lenses go further back into the camera bodies than full-frame lenses.
- Full frame lenses on a crop-sensor body will have a longer focal distance - good for extending the zoom range, but not so good if you want to take wide angle photos.
In case I upgrade in the future to a full-frame camera body, I knew I wanted full frame lenses (Canon EF) and not crop lenses (Canon EF-S).
Crop factor explained
Zoom or fixed focal length lenses?
Zoom lenses are versatile - you can stay in the one position and zoom in or out from your subject.
Fixed focal length lenses, or prime lenses, require the photographer to move - you are the zoom!
Many professional photographers swear the image quality is much better from prime lenses - less distortion and sharper photos.
Although, image processing and editing software, such as Adobe's Lightroom, can compensate for some of the more common distortion problems of popular lenses.
Contrary to common opinion, I was surprised to find that my prime lens was easier for me to use - I would have guessed from my old photography habits that a zoom lens would be easiest! Most people have said that primes have a steep learning curve, but I love them!
Work out your photography style to find your lenses
As the type of DSLR lens you use depends on the situation and photography style you are aiming for, it's important to know clearly what type of photography you love, or are interested in developing.
You can buy a dedicated macro lens, or use one of the many zoom lenses that have macro functions.
Macro lenses are commonly used to shoot great close-up photos insects and spiders, flowers, jewellery, or other subjects.
Most specialised macro lenses don't have image stabilisation built in, and are fixed focal length - you have to move in order to zoom in or out, you can't zoom with the lens.
They typically allow you to blur the backgrounds in your photos beautifully.
Indoor macro photography needs a fast lens, with a smaller f/value. f/1.8 - f/2.8 are the standards for dedicated macro lenses.
Wildlife / sport photography
A fast and strong zoom lens, with good auto-focus is a must when photographing sports or birds and other wildlife. Bird photographers consider even 300mm on the zoom end a little short for taking good bird photographs!
Strong zoom lenses often have a changeable f/value - they are fast when zoomed out, but slower when zoomed in, which can result in more image blurriness. The more expensive lenses have a fixed, fast f/value.
A wide lens is a must for great landscape photos, as you want both the foreground and background in focus, with as wide a field of view as possible.
- Anything below a 35mm is considered wide-angle on a full-frame body.
- With a 1.6x crop sensor, a 17-20mm full frame lens or below is an equivalent wide angle.
You may find it better to get a crop-format wide angle lens (Nikon DX or Canon EF-S), if you hve a crop format camera. You can't get as wide with full-frame lenses on a crop-sensor camera body.
You don't want to have to get too close to people to photograph them, portrait style, both to keep the right perspective and to make them feel comfortable. Too far away and it's hard to communicate.
You want a fast lens for shooting indoors without flash, and one with great bokeh, to blur the background in your shot. Look for lenses with low f/values (f/1.2 - f/4 are good).
- On a full frame body, 70-85mm is a good focal length, plus a bit more zoom for flexibility (up to around 130mm).
- However, you may want to go shorter on a crop sensor body (perhaps beginning around 50mm).
- If you want to keep both the background and foreground in focus, perhaps when shooting weddings, then you'll need a wider angle lens - around the 30-50mm mark.
You want a fast lens.
- Fast because most food photography is done in low light without flash, especially if photographing in restaurants! (Look for low f/values such as f/1.2 - f/2.8)
- Wide angle lens means you don't have to photograph your food from the other side of the room, and it keeps both foreground and background details in focus.
- On the other hand, a macro lens blurs both the foreground and background details, resulting in great shots, as often seen in magazines and cookbooks.
Prime macro and 50mm are very popular with food photographers, possibly because they are fast lenses, allow you to be reasonably close to your subject, and have good bokeh and background blur capabilities.
Your best choice is a light, portable zoom lens that is not too large.
Many of the pro-level, weather sealed zoom lenses are extremely heavy and long.
This is one area where the kit lenses sold with DSLR camera bodies are often preferred, especially on crop-sensor cameras!
- A 70-200mm range is flexible enough for most travel photos.
- If you prefer taking wider landscape shots, a 24-105mm may be more appropriate.
Read reviews of lenses
Read lots of lens reviews and look at sample photos, but always take them with a grain of salt, even if they are written by professional photographers - everyone has their bias.
Good review sites
DPReview - the best site for in-depth reviews with sample photos, although they are slow to review newer gear.
Ken Rockwell - in depth reviews of both cameras and lenses, both pro-level and consumer level. He focuses more on Nikon.
Digital Photography School - with lens reviews from both enthusiasts and professional photographers. They also have an easy to follow, detailed guide to becoming a professional photographer, covering lenses, cameras, other gear and publishing.
The Digital Picture - with a strong focus on Canon lenses, his buying guides are great when you know what style of photography you enjoy.
Narrowing down your lens choice
- If you think you may want to upgrade your camera body from a crop to a full-frame sensor, you may want to get full-frame lenses from the beginning.
- If you need weather sealing (rain, dust, sand), then consider only the professional lenses (Canon L series, or Nikon Gold-standard)
- If you shake or have unstable hands, and don't have image stabilisation in the camera body, only get lenses with image stabilisation (Canon IS, Nikon VR).
- If you want to produce poster-sized prints and canvases, consider the higher quality lenses - the glass and barrels produce images of a higher quality with less distortion.
- If you want to travel, watch out for the weight and size of the lens. A heavy and large lens is a pain to carry around all day!
DSLR lens buying tips
Rent before buying -Many photo and camera stores have camera bodies and lenses available for rent. If you aren't sure, you can always rent the ones you are interested in for a couple of days to see if they are the right for you.
- Before buying specialty lenses such as fish-eye wide-angles, tilt-shift or super telephoto (400mm+) lenses, rent one!
- If you are used to using zoom, consider renting a fixed-focal length lens before buying. It's a very different feeling when you have to move your body to zoom in and out!
Kit lenses, zoom lenses that are sold with the camera body, are usually good general purpose medium quality lenses, and well priced.
My lens choices
I decided against buying the camera with a kit lens, because I wanted to spend the money on full-frame lenses in case I upgraded the camera body in the future - crop-sensor cameras are typically only sold with crop-lenses.
This is the first Canon macro lens with image stabilisation. Although it was a lot longer than I expected, it's reasonably light and unobtrusive for an L series lens. I will be using it for portrait photography too, at least until I get a wider angle lens.
It takes beautiful macro shots, and wonderfully blurs backgrounds. I was surprised how quickly I got used to the fixed focal length, finding it easier to use than my zoom lens!
As I like taking wildlife and bird photos, I wanted a strong zoom. It was a difficult decision between the older 70-200mm f/4 lens and this one, but the extra 100mm of zoom tipped the balance. The faster lenses (f/2.8) were bigger, heavier and had less zoom.
It's an extremely heavy lens (1.2kg), and awfully expensive. I'm not sure it would be the best lens to take on long hikes, unless you were specifically going to photograph wildlife.
You don't get a tripod mount with it, but like all L series lenses, you do get a lens hood and soft case.
I really dislike the cream/white barrels of Canon's L series telephotos - it screams "look at me", when I'd prefer to be discreet.
My follow up purchases
I purchased Canon's 24-70mm f/4L IS USM standard zoom lens, which covered my gaps (portrait and landscapes). Although it is a lovely lens, I'm not so happy with the quality - it's no where near as sharp as my 100mm macro.
I recently ran into problems photographing food with my 100mm macro lens. I needed to be so far away from the dishes that trying to photograph into a bowl was at an impossible angle with a normal sized tripod.
Last week, I purchased a 35mm f/2 IS USM lens - the reviews were overwhelmingly positive..
I've used it a number of times already for kitchen and crafting photos, and am more than happy about it's sharpness.
It's already turned into the lens that lives on my camera.
Don't forget the lens accessories
This is where a lot of the budget can 'disappear' to if you aren't careful.
I'm being cautious in selecting accessories, buying the must-haves first, then getting used to the lenses before buying additional things like creative filters or other camera accessories.
There are different shapes of lens hoods, designed to prevent light shining directly on the lens and creating flares in your photo, or washing out your colours.
Many lenses are sold with their hoods, but you may need to buy them as accessories if you purchase the cheaper consumer models.
Photographers are of two opinions about UV filters.
Cheaper filters get in the way and distort photos, but more expensive ones can protect a lens from regular cleaning, inevitable scratches and bumps.
I bought a good quality circular polariser, to make the colours in autumn photos pop, reduce reflections, and take better sunset photos, plus one UV filter for lens protection.
Luckily, both of my current lenses use the same filter size.
Lens cleaning kits, including an air-blower and microfiber cloths are a must. Some kits also come with a soft brush, and wet lens cleaning wipes or a spray solution. Lens cleaning pens are ultra portable - perfect for quick cleaning on the go.
If you haven't gone for a special purpose camera bag, with compartments for lenses, you'll need to safely store your lens in a padded lens bag.
Some companies, such as Lowepro, have weather-protected lens bags that can be strapped to a backpack or smaller camera bag - useful for travelling, or when you don't have one bag solely for your camera gear.
Your experience and tips
How did you decide on your DSLR lenses? Have you ever made a purchase you regretted? What are your favourite lenses?
Let us know in the comments below!
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