– Question of the Day

by Peter Zack


…or every day for that matter.

So you’ve gone out and finally upgraded from a Point and Shoot style camera to a D-SLR.  You’ve heard that you can do so much more with an SLR type body because you can change lenses. The SLR kit you bought has a a decent 18-55mm (Nikon, Pentax, Canon) 18-70mm (Sony) 14-42mm (Olympus) but all of them are f3.5-5.6 maximum aperture. They take good pictures but you want to take better advantage of the upgrade to an SLR. is a very good forum site with dedicated forums for each brand of camera. There are lots of sites like this that are dedicated to a particular brand. Canon shooters might go to Photography on the net, Nikon shooters might try Nikon Cafe or Pentax shooters might choose Pentax Forums and so on*.

So now it’s time for the question of the day:

“What lens should I buy?”

This question in all it’s various forms is posted hundreds of times every month. All asking for help from ‘more experienced users’ on what lens to get. This question is almost impossible for someone else to answer without some extra information provided. First it’s very much a personal choice based on what you want to capture and how you like to shoot. Second you have to be careful with the skills of these ‘experienced users’. Other shooters will have their own needs and bias toward one lens or another. Many will forget the 3rd party choices* like Sigma, Tamron or Tokina all of which offer some excellent options.

Macro house flyA macro lens can produce nice close up images with soft out of focus backgrounds

Before you post that question, you need to have used the camera with the kit lens for awhile. You need to determine how you have used the lens to this point and what things you find limiting. What areas you’d like to be able to shoot and this lens can’t now do.  I’d suggest you read an earlier article on exposure controls to better understand the various factors that influence the final image. Next you should look at your earlier shots and see what focal lengths you use the most often. Many of us will get a zoom lens and then take all the shots at the extreme ends of the focal range. Maybe a prime lens (single focal length) would suit your needs better. I’d also suggest that you consider the next lens as an addition to your camera, instead of a replacement.

Here are a few things you might ask yourself as to which lens might be a good addition to your kit.  Consider these and then you can ask a more informed question on a photography forum.

  1. Do you want to shoot Close ups or Macros? Would a dedicated macro lens be a good lens to add? They can be fairly fast (Sigma 105mm EX f2.8 macro or Tamron 90mm f2.8 macro) and also double as fast prime lenses that could be used for portrait shooting or street shooting.
  2. Are you shooting indoors or outdoors more? Possibly a lens like the Tamron 28-75mm f2.8 will give you the speed and flexibility for both inside and outside shooting.
  3. Is low light an important factor (weddings, before sunrise, indoors)? Do you need a fast max aperture? So you might need a faster maximum aperture for indoor shooting in tough lighting conditions. Like the Canon L 24mm f1.4 or Pentax DA*55mm f1.4 or Nikon 85mm f1.8D.
  4. Do you like shots where most (all) of the subject matter is in sharp focus? Do you prefer shots where the subject is sharp but the foreground and background is Out of focus (OOF)? A lens that is sharp both in the center (most are) as well in the corners (some are not) may be important. Sharp lenses may not also render soft out of focus backgrounds. Zooms have a tough time with this. The design is to try and make the lens as sharp as possible across all focal lengths and as a result they may make the OOF areas look busy or distracting.  Generally prime lenses will do this better. Sharp subjects with better OOF blurred areas. Something like the Voigtlander Nokton 58mm f1.4 isn’t considered the absolute sharpest lens (wide open) in this focal range (although few lenses are better at mid apertures) but can render a beautiful  smooth background to isolate the subject.

    50mm Prime lens stopped downA good prime lens can render very sharp images across the frame with excellent colour and contrast.

  5. What is the subject you prefer most? Landscapes, Street shooting, architecture, wildlife, birds, sports, chasing the the kids, flowers and insects? These different subjects often require different lenses and features.   Possibly a telephoto zoom like the Sigma 100-300mm f4 EX zoom will give you the flexibility and length to capture more distant objects. For sports shooting you might need a 200mm f2.8 telephoto or something even longer depending on the sport you like.

    300mm Telephoto shot of a Blue JayA 300mm Telephoto can get you close enough to some subjects for a sharp image.

  6. Do you shoot wide angle images most, or subjects that are further away that you’d like to get closer to? Do you need a super wide lens like the Tokina 11-16mm f2.8 for wide shots indoors or of buildings? Would a long prime or possibly a zoom like the Sigma EX 50-500mm get those backyard bird shots you want?
  7. Is ultimate sharpness the most important consideration or the bokeh (out of focus blur)? A prime lens would be the consideration for the sharpest choices and a Macro lens (meaning the dedicated 1:1 versions and not the zooms that are really close up lenses) might possibly be the best overall choice even if you don’t shoot close ups very much. Macro lenses will tend to have a sharp image from corner to corner that can be better than most other lenses available. For the best bokeh, a lens like the Sony 135mm f2.8 STF which features 2 sets of aperture blades will produce the best OOF backgrounds.

    Sigma 105mm MacroA macro lens can render very nice subjects and backgrounds that isolate the subject well.

  8. Is a more versatile lens for hiking, travel and vacations more important where the amount of equipment you carry is a big consideration? A lens like the Tamron 18-270mm Di II could be the perfect compromise. Wide to mid length telephoto. For such a large range this lens and others like it can be a single lens solution where weight and cubic volume might be a large concern. We all like to fool around with the various lenses but if you are climbing a back woods hiking trail, changing lenses may not be practical or easy to do.

Another consideration with lens features is the shooting subject. If for example, you like to go to the lake at sunrise and get the early morning shots in that warm but difficult light, then do you carry a tripod? SR/VR/IS anti shake reduction systems, has made us casual and lazy. We assume that we can get the great low light shots hand held all the time and a faster aperture will be enough. Nope, a tripod is still a must have item for this type of shooting. So you might not require the fastest lens around to get the same results when using a tripod. Consider that for $200 or so you can get a decent basic tripod and go shoot in tougher light conditions. If you look at a mid speed 300mm lens at f4.5 the cost might be around $1000. The similar focal length f2.8 version might cost $3000 or more. I’m not ignoring the other benefits of the faster lens but for the sake of this discussion, a tripod is a very good investment in better pictures.

There are other questions you may also consider for your particular needs and you should consider what subjects you might shoot before getting the next lens. I think the kit lenses have a valuable place for both the new and more experienced shooter. For someone just getting into photography,  this lens offers you an inexpensive way to understand your needs and to learn. For the more experienced shooter, these lenses can be valuable as a backup to the kit, a supplement to a bag full of prime lenses or a lens that you don’t mind using when the conditions are poor (rainy day or dust at the beach) and you might sacrifice the lens to get the shots you want.

I hope this offers some guide lines in looking for a new or replacement lens. The choices are broad and varied. Forum members can offer some valuable real world advice but take it all with a grain of salt. You can’t account for their experience, background and frequency of use. Web sites with reviews also often offer some pointers as well but many times these ‘reviewers’ have very little time to spend a few weeks or months to do some real world shooting with each individual lens and learn the strength and weakness of a lens on a particular camera body.  There are some excellent sites and some not so excellent ones, don’t bases the entire choice on these sites.

Only you can make the final choice before spending the money. Like me, you’ll probably research a lens almost too much and once in awhile, choose the wrong lens. That’s what 7-30 day return policies are great for and beyond that, Ebay or Craigslist are good spots to sell a lens you got that doesn’t do the job. On that point, it you buy a used lens and decide it doesn’t work for you, it’s a good learning experience to expand your lens understanding. You can most likely resell the lens for close to what you paid and consider any difference as a ‘rental’ fee to expand your knowledge.

Cheers and good shooting –Peter Zack

*the linked web sites are for informational purposes only and not endorsed by ETL. ETL does not recieve any promotional advancment/funds for these links.

4 Responses to “ – Question of the Day”

  1. Your article is so well written. Sometimes I feel ashamed to write my own posts!

    Good listing of all the advantages of a d SLR here.

  2. Nicely done. My advice is a lot shorter though: buy a fast 50. Because if all you have is a slow zoom lens you’ll never know what can be done with more control over depth of field, better IQ (especially at the edges) and a brighter viewfinder. Also, walking around with a prime is a different experience from using a zoom. Only after working with both a slow zoom and a fast prime lens will you have a sense of the scope of photographic possibilities, and be able to make further decisions about what glass to invest in.

  3. I was searching for digital photography when I found your site. Excellent post. Thank You.

  4. Andrew, glad you found us through the zillions of sites on the internet! I hope you are enjoying the site and will come back from time to time to see what we’ve written.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: