After weeks/months of research, you’ve figured out the perfect camera you’re going to buy next. So you’ve saved and saved (these are not cheap cameras) and finally plunked down the hard earned cash to bring that baby home. After taking a few pictures with your new dream camera, however, you realize you now need to invest in a lens because the kit lens that came with your fancy new camera is… um… not good… which is most likely why it was in the deal for an extra $50-$100.
So off you go to Google again to research lenses only to find that the choices are just as bewildering as the camera bodies. You have standard lenses, wide angle, telephoto, macro, and then all those zoom options.
What do they all do? Which one should you get? HELP!
Trust me when I say you’re not alone in your confusion. The good news is you’ve come this far and realize that it is a waste to pair a $1000 camera body with a sub-par lens!
I’ve personally spent a long time trying to figure out the perfect set of lenses that I can take wherever I go and have concluded that there are about three lenses that every photographer needs. And the rest are dependent on what you like to take pictures of. So what are those three lenses?
1 – Sigma 30mm f/1.4 EX DC HSM
This is the one lens that everyone needs. If you have the luxury of having a pro-camera like a Canon 5D or 1D or the Nikon D3, then get the 50mm version. But for the rest of us, this is the lens because it translates into the 50mm on the cropped sensor size of the non-pro cameras. These lenses have been called nifty-fifty for a long time and have been the standby lens for generations, and I think still are the best investment any photographer can make even in this digital age. Simply put, this lens can do just about anything. It’s perfect for low-light photos with a huge light gathering 1.4 aperture. That large 1.4 aperture is also ideal for great depth of field shots. In a pinch, it also makes a good portrait lens. Many photographers only use this lens and nothing else. At the end of the day, this is the first lens you need.
2 – Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM
It’s not the cheapest lens out there, but you do get what you pay for with this near perfect piece of glass. Save, borrow or TRADE if you need to but don’t settle for an average consumer-grade kit lens. I’ve had the kit lenses and have slowly upgraded to this zoom lens and wish I had never spent the money with the cheaper ones and just got this one. This lens is expensive for a reason. There is nothing consumer-grade about it. The glass produces beautiful pictures, and the focus is fast and quiet. With plenty of contrast options and the image stabilization, you will gain about three stops of light and rock steady sharpness. This lens is even sealed and protected from the elements so it can withstand being used when the weather is not perfect, and it might get a little wet. This lens makes the perfect walk around lens for the everyday photographer and pros from shops like gettyImages who were spotted with this lens at the 2010 Winter Games in BC.
I love wide angle lenses, and this one has proved to be worth every penny. The Canon and Nikon version are also great but also a lot more expensive while not being all that much better. This lens opens up a wide range of creative opportunities beyond just great landscapes. You can get close to the subject and still keep the background in the shot. Sometimes you can’t get everything you want in the frame without a wide angle lens. This is the perfect one.
Wildlife Photography (both people and animals)
The next lenses you need all come down to what you like to take pictures of. If you’re into wildlife, then you will want a telephoto zoom like the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM or the Nikon 70-200mm VR II. You can get a longer telephoto lens but you will pay for it, and you can simply get a teleconverter to extend your reach. These lenses are also perfect for taking pictures of people and kids because you can be across the room and have enough reach to zoom in and get some great candid shots even in low light situations since you’re using a larger aperture.
A good macro lens will let you get close, real close. The Sigma 105mm F2.8 EX DG Macro is a good choice and will produce perfect 1:1 shots of bugs, flowers and anything else small. A good macro lens also doubles as a good portrait lens.
What To Avoid
You will notice I have mentioned some pretty expensive lenses. This advice is because I have learned that you do get what you pay for when it comes to the quality of the images they produce and the build quality you will get. One type of lens to avoid is what they call super-zoom lenses like an 18-270mm. These may seem to offer everything you need in one lens, but the truth of the matter is to make a lens like that, the manufacturer has to make trade-offs in both image quality and build quality that is just not worth it.
Also, a super-zoom will perform slower in less than ideal lighting conditions. They will focus slower and usually not be able to focus well unless you have plenty of light. These lenses will also suffer from being soft or a bit fuzzy because no piece of glass can zoom that entire range and be perfect at every focal range. Lastly, you will get what is called chromatic aberration or a distortion of the light around the edges of objects that look like purple fringes.
So while a super-zoom can offer a very versatile lens, the payoff does not match the negatives that you will experience. I know all of this first hand. I spent $630 to buy the Tamron AF18-270mm F/3.5-6.3 Di II VC (sounds impressive doesn’t it) and quickly learned that all the negatives just didn’t add up. Some people love these lenses, and that’s OK, and the favorable reviews for them can seem glowing. But logic dictates that you can’t put everything into one lens and not cut corners. It’s all about brass and glass so-to-speak.
So there you go three lenses that should cover about 90 percent of anything you need to shoot. I would love to hear what everyone else uses, and thinks are the three primary lenses every photographer needs. Feel free to drop a note in the comments!