WHICH CAMERA LENS TO GET?
Welcome to a guide on how to choose a camera lens. The market today offers hundreds of different lenses with all kinds of shapes and sizes. To a newbie photographer, choosing a lens can be quite a challenging task… Unless you have the money to splurge on every single lens.
I guess the smarter way to buy a new lens is to do some research, and thus, the purpose of this guide – To walk you through the considerations when buying a new lens. Before we begin, take note that this is a beginner friendly guide. I will mention some basic things briefly in this guide. For those of you who are a little more advanced, feel free to skip those sections.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
YOURSELF & THE REQUIREMENTS
The first step to buying a new camera lens is to establish your own needs – What kind of photography do you want to do? What are you planning to shoot with this lens? What do you want to do next?
WHAT ARE YOUR REQUIREMENTS?
This is the easiest and hardest question for yourself. What do you want to shoot next? Take some landscape photos? Portraits? Pets? Travel? Products? Casual or professional? For some other people, it may be “I don’t know, I want to try a bit of everything” – By all means, that is fine as long as you have a baseline on what you want to do.
Now that you know what you are going to do, it’s time to establish for yourself what you need exactly. For example :
- I am just going to do casual shots, a simple lens will do.
- I travel quite a lot, the lens must not be too heavy but still produces decent pictures.
- Going to do some professional product shots. Need some good glass.
- I want to shoot some videos; a lens with built-in stabilizer is preferred.
WHAT KIND OF BUDGET DO YOU HAVE?
The part where we return to reality. How much can you afford to spend on the new lens?
- You can get bargain lenses for less than US$400.
- Normally, decently good ones are around US$500 to $1000.
- The top-performing lenses are generally way over US$1000.
THE LENS SPECIFICATIONS
Before we proceed any further, please check if the lens on your camera can be detached. Seriously. I have confused people coming to me before, asking if they can buy lenses for their smartphone – An interchangeable lens system and lens attachment are 2 different things.
If the lens on your camera is fixed, then my apologies… You are stuck with that lens and camera until you switch to a camera with an interchangeable lens system. Proceed with this guide only if you have an interchangeable lens.
WHAT IS YOUR CAMERA’S MOUNT SYSTEM?
Nikon DSLR users – You only have the “F mount” lenses to deal with. Although some older lenses will still work on modern Nikon cameras, you still want to do your research on backward compatibility. Be careful not buy a DX lens for an FX camera though. DX lenses do work on FX cameras, but you will suffer a megapixel lost while shooting in crop mode.
Canon DSLR users – If you have a modern EOS camera, all EF-S lenses will work. It is backward compatible with the older EF lens too. For the even older lens families, you are going to need an adapter.
Sony DSLR Users – You have the “A mount”, which is adopted from Konica-Minolta. You can even use the older Konica lenses on your camera.
Mirrorless – Sony users, get the “E mount” lenses. Canon, you guys get EF-M mount lenses.
As for all the others – Pentax, Leica, Olympus, please do your own homework on which mount system your camera is using… or this guide will never end.
For those with a fixed lens that cannot be changed – Sorry, but you are stuck with that one lens. You might want to consider a camera with an interchangeable lens, or try to fit on a lens attachment instead.
In any case, there are lens adapters out there where you can mount Canon lens onto Nikon cameras, in vice versa, and even across many different systems. Although they are quite interesting, I don’t really don’t recommend getting those. Adapters are in “compatibility mode”, and some lens features may not work properly when you use an adapter.
THIRD PARTY LENS
Now that you know which mount system your camera is using, it is time to look for the range of lenses available. Apart from looking at your own camera brand’s “original” range of lenses, I have an honorable mention to make.
Third parties such as Sigma, Tamron, and Tokina produce mighty decent lenses… and they only cost a fraction of the “original”. So please do take a look at what they have to offer as well, and expand your range of available selections.
THE FOCAL LENGTH
For you guys who do not know what focal length is yet – It is basically “how near or far you can see with the lens”, and typically measured in mm. E.G. 16mm, 50mm, 200mm. The smaller the number, the more “zoomed out”; The bigger the number, the more “zoomed in”. For what you want to shoot, choose a focal length that makes the most sense to you. Here is a general guideline:
- Landscape: You will have to go wide with landscape photography. Choose a lens from 16mm to 35mm.
- Street: Close, but not too close. Far, but not that far. From 35mm to 85mm.
- Wildlife: Don’t want to become food for the animals? Then shoot from far. Get a lens that is at least 200mm.
- Macro: I am not a macro expert, but my personal favorite is 105mm macro lens.
- Portrait: Everyone has a different take. Anywhere between 24mm to 135mm.
- Food: Personal take – close to macro but not. Between 50mm to 135mm.
Don’t let these recommendations restrict you though. Who says that you cannot use a telephoto lens for landscape? Who says you cannot use a wide-angle lens for wildlife? If you have a crazy idea, just go for it.
ZOOM OR PRIME LENS?
Before we go on to the next, we shall address the issue of choosing between a zoom or prime lens. For you new guys, a prime lens is simply a lens that has “no zoom”. So zoom lens or prime lens – Which is better? Well, there are plus and minus to each.
- Zoom lenses in general, have more moving parts and thus have more complicated mechanics. They are typically heavier and slightly more expensive as well (more parts and glass).
- Prime lenses on the other hand, don’t have a lot of moving parts. They may not be as convenient, but they are built like tanks.
- Prime lenses typically have better optical quality. Typically.
Please don’t be mistaken that prime lens is the better choice, there are great zoom lenses too – There are many popular zoom lenses such as 16-35mm, 24-70mm and 70-200mm. The choice is up to you. People who are into traveling will find that zoom lenses are more convenient. While people who are into producing quality pictures will want a good prime lens.
Next stop, aperture. Again for the newbies, aperture simply means “how much light the lens allows into the camera”, and it is measured in f-number. E.G. f/1.4, f/3.5, f/11. The smaller the f-number, the more light the lens lets into the camera. I.E. f/1.4 lets more light in than f/4.
So what has aperture got to do with selecting a lens again? Technically, a f/1.4 lens will perform much better than a f/4 lens in low light – Simply because the f/1.4 lens will allow a lot more light into the camera.
Typically, the smaller the f-number is on a lens, the better it is since it performs better in low light. But do take note that the smaller the f-number, the more expensive the lens tends to be.
THE BUILD AND QUALITY
Build Quality: Cheap plastics or metal tank? Solid or flimsy? How does it feel in your hands?
Optical Quality: Any special coating? How does it perform? Lens Flare and Ghosting? Sharpness? Vignetting?
Sealing: Is it weather sealed? Will it break if I shoot in the rain?
Autofocus: How well does autofocus work on this lens? Accurate or bonkers? How fast and how noisy?
Image: Do you like the images and colors produced by this lens?
Before committing to buy the lens, it does not hurt to listen to what others have to say about it first. It does not hurt to try out the lens first. Here are a few other nuggets that you should consider when buying a new lens.
TEST IT BEFORE BUYING
Think you have found the perfect lens to add to your collection? Don’t buy it first. Borrow it from friends who have that lens, or rent it from a shop to test it out first. Just don’t be pressured into buying the lens on the spot, give yourself some time to try it, and know that you won’t regret buying it.
READ THE ONLINE REVIEWS
It is always good to read some online reviews and find out what the experience of other people who have used the lens. Just don’t skip the research and regret buying a bad lens later. If you are lazy with reading, there is always YouTube nowadays and plenty of places to find sample photos.
TAKE EXTRA CARE IF YOU BUY USED LENSES
On the chance that you are planning to buy used lenses, do take extra care to inspect it. In the hands of an unskilled photographer, lenses can degrade very fast – Dust can get stuck inside, mechanics get destroyed, water seeps inside and grows fungus. So yep, be sure to use a LED to check all the glass elements and try out all the mechanics before you pay.
GOOD EQUIPMENT DOES NOT MEAN GOOD PHOTOS
This is not really related to buying a lens, but I think is a good point to make. For the folks who are thinking that an expensive lens will suddenly make you award-winning photos – It doesn’t. Photographers are the ones making good photos, and the lens is only a tool.
So yep. Perfect your photography skills instead, spending money on a good lens will not make you instant winners.
A SMALL EXPERIENCE SHARING
If you have just started out with photography, chances are, you will want to try out everything. You will either want to buy a whole bunch of lenses and/or a super zoom lens to “one size fits them all”. Well, please don’t and let me explain. When I just started out with photography, I was very much into cheap cameras and old prime lenses.
Because generally, old lenses are cheaper and decently good. But here’s the problem. After a few years of photography, I have a cabinet full of old and prime lenses. Every shoot is a pain, I had to carry a lot of stuff around and constantly change lenses.
I later got myself a super cheap and convenient 18-250mm lens, which I regretted instantly – The optical quality is just beyond bad. That was when I sold all my old prime lenses, cameras, the below average superzoom, and got myself a good full-frame Nikon DSLR plus 24-70mm f2.8 gold ring lens. Not a cheap buy, but it stuck with me for years.
So this is what I will recommend to you guys who are serious – Don’t waste your time and money. Just buy one good lens and use it for 10 years.