Picture the following scenario. You want a new camera, so you do your research, go to the store or search online, and select the best option for your budget. The camera store clerk might give you a few suggestions depending on what type of photography you’re interested in.. and you buy your shiny new camera being confident that you made the right choice.
And more often than not, the default camera package will include the “kit lens”. Typically it’s a 18-55mm zoom lens that’s meant to be a good overall solution for everyone’s needs. The problem is that it’s usually also the cheapest lens you can buy. And because it’s meant to suit everyone, it’s probably not great for the specific thing you might want - in fact, if you want to focus on learning Manual Mode on your camera, it’s probably the worst possible choice.
So what’s the alternative?
Know what type of photography you want to be doing, know your budget, and know what lenses actually do. If terms like focal length, wide angle, and telephoto sound completely unfamiliar, read on!
* PLEASE NOTE: Typically, I share my Studio/professional work on my Blog, but lucky you! this one contains some of my personal photos.
Why the lens is important
As far as photography is concerned, the lens is often more important than the camera you’re using. How can that be? The camera’s main function is to record the scene, while the lens is the actual thing that defines what that scene looks like.
Lenses come in all varieties, but mainly there are zoom lenses (these allow you to zoom in and out) and fixed or prime lenses (where you can’t zoom at all). The major benefit of fixed lenses is that they’re often cheaper and produce a better quality image since there aren’t as many moving parts (or complexity). They also provide the lowest aperture settings (you’ll see numbers like f/2.8 and f/1.4.. while zooms are typically f/4.0 and f/5.6)
In terms of zooms, many of the cheaper options have variable aperture settings, which is a big problem if you’re using the Manual Mode on your camera. This means that when you zoom with your lens, the aperture (and therefore the exposure) changes - and while automatic modes will adjust things automatically, in manual, you have to compensate by adjusting things yourself.
What is ‘Focal length’?
Those mm numbers on the lens refer to the focal length. So a 50mm lens will have a focal length of 50. A zoom 24-55mm lens will go from 24mm focal length all the way to 55mm focal length. And the focal length is important because it essentially defines the way your camera will see the world. Lower numbers means you’ll get more in the shot (like the whole room at 24mm), while higher numbers means you’ll zoom closer to the subject and make the background blurrier (a 200mm lens will make the entire background a wash of colors). And you’ll definitely want to use different focal length lenses for different purposes (more on that below).
FX and DX lenses
If you’re on Nikon, you will see FX or DX in the lens description. For Canon, you’ll see Full-Frame or APS-C format. These designations have to do with which camera body those lenses are made to work best with. DX and APS-C are for crop-sensor camera bodies - these are the lower cost cameras and you will see “DX-Format” listed in the description. FX or Full-Frame cameras are typically designed to be used by professionals (as in, they’re much more expensive). The sensor is bigger and quality of images is better in terms of color/dynamic range and low-light ability. And without going into details, you will want to purchase a DX lens for a DX camera body.. and an FX lens for a Full-Frame camera.. which is why if you ever upgrade for a Full-Frame, you will also need to upgrade your lens(es).
Which lens is right for you?
These lenses are perfect for interior shots, landscapes, and street photography.. because you can get a wide area of view into the shot (get it?). The biggest issue with the wide focal length, let’s say 24mm, is that it distorts the scene and whatever is on the sides is going to look wider than the stuff in the middle.
One tip for when you’re in an iPhone group photo (which uses a 35mm lens) is to shuffle over to the middle of the pack, because the people on the sides are going to look fatter than they really are. These lenses will also make noses look longer and faces look slimmer (which is a telltale trait of selfies) and that you need to get really really close to an item in order to get it to be big in the photo.. which is why these are rarely ideal for portraits. BUT! There are plenty of street and lifestyle photographers who use wider-angle lenses to create stunning and unique portraits, so really the key is to know what you’re doing and using your knowledge with intention (like the photo above!).
The 50mm lens
There’s a reason why the 50mm lens has been a great starting point for many photographers. The 50mm focal length is considered great for portraits, can be purchased fairly cheaply, and it gives you all the features you’d want in a fantastic lens (like sharpness, fast focusing, and the ability to blur the background). In fact, this is the lens I use most in the Studio, because I know it will perform perfectly, every time.
Starting with the 70mm and going all the way to 300mm or even 500mm, telephoto lenses allow you to get close to the action without having to move your feet. These are the HUGE lenses you see people use to capture their kids playing sports, or for wildlife photography. But the way these lenses work is also quite fascinating. By zooming closer to the action, the background becomes blurrier and also appears larger in the photo (this is because of the distance between your camera, your subject, and your background). They product beautiful results, but you'll also need plenty of space in order to capture full-body shots or a group of people, which is why these are best suited for outdoors.
But there are also smaller options, fixed lenses like the 85mm (the “perfect portrait lens”) and the 105mm (with macro capabilities, for capturing those fine details).. which are amazing. Most of all, telephoto lenses have a specific use and their limitations are mainly the requirement for distance, which means they’re not the best for indoor photography or tight spaces.
My recommendation for portraits
In many ways, the lenses you use are going to be a very personal choice. Many people love their mid-range zooms that cover almost everything one could ever want. But for someone who loves precision and sharp images (that’s me!), a fixed/prime lens will be the most useful.
I will always suggest investing in a good 50mm f/2.8 lens (or better.. like f/1.4 on Nikon or f/1.2 for Cannon) as a starting off point. It will do pretty much everything you need and won’t cost as much as a fancy zoom. It will get you used to composing your shots by moving your body closer or further away from your subject. It will allow you to be fully creative. It will take beautiful portraits and will perform well when adjusting focus on moving children. It’s perfect for learning how to use Manual Mode on your camera and unleashing your creativity for most types of photography you’d want to try, too (like food photography and travel). So go for it. Try it out. And capture those amazing, fun, and beautiful memories for your family!
But what specific lens??
Buy the best you can afford. Period. Buy used if that mens you can get something better than new. Better lenses cost more.. so it’s pretty easy to tell if one will be better than another. Rent if you’re unsure whether something will be a good fit for your needs (or borrow from a friend). Most of all, understand that the lens you’ll love to use, the one that serves you the best, will be different from what someone else might recommend or use. And while that might seem “unhelpful” in terms of advice, it is the only thing I’ve found to be true 100% of the time. :)