Choosing your first DSLR lens

 In Gear

Ever since I first bought my DSLR about five years ago, I’ve had a belief that great lenses will help enhance your photography experience. It’s certainly not the end-all solution to make award-winning photographs…but by purchasing some quality glass, you can be better prepared for what’s thrown your way.

If you’re wanting to focus on photography as a artistic hobby, one that could maybe lead to a secondary source of income, I recommend staying away from most kit lenses.

Most kit lenses are cheap — plain and simple. They’re limiting, usually low quality and they certainly won’t help you in your goal to advance your photography skills. They aren’t the best in low-light situations either. If given the option, buy your camera body without a lens, and then follow the rules I live by below.

Get a fixed aperture lens

I can’t preach this enough. Leave the “squeeze every millimeter into one lens” options that have a variable aperture range of f/3.5 to f/5.6 behind. Instead choose a lens that has a fixed aperture — ideally something around f/2.8.

Why the am I so adamant on this?

Variable aperture lenses typically give you more zoom options — something like an 18-200, for instance. But with that, you increase your maximum aperture. Meaning at 18mm you can shoot f/3.5…but when you zoom out to 200mm, you’re stuck with f/5.6 as your best option. This might mean you have trouble capturing photos in low light, or even action photos.

Fixed aperture lenses keep it simple, allowing you to have complete control. The maximum aperture is set for all focal lengths on your lens, meaning you don’t need to constantly change your settings when you’re shooting. If you want your lens to be at 24mm and f/2.8, you can do so. And when you zoom to 70mm, it’ll stay at f/2.8.

That being said, there aren’t a ton of crop-sensor lenses by Canon and Nikon that are of a fixed aperture. So…

Don’t be afraid of third-party options

Many amateurs and professionals alike are under the belief that they have to stick with brand-name lenses. You know, Canon lenses for your 5D Mark III, Nikkor lenses for that new D5 you just bought, etc.

And while native, brand-name lenses are certainly tried and true, and are usually a good, safe bet, you’re paying a massive premium.

Companies like Tamron and Sigma have been growing like crazy over the last couple of years. Tamron has introduced some amazing lenses — for instance, the 15-30 f/2.8, which is a great alternative to the popular Nikkor 14-24 f/2.8 — and Sigma has really succeeded in its Art lens line.

The build quality is often similar to native lenses, and sometimes third-party features are even better than native options. And third-party lenses often come at prices that are half of what you’d pay for native brands.

But the key, as with everything, is to do your research. The cheapest option might not always be a great idea. You might experience little quirks, like soft corner focusing or a strong vignette. But that goes with any lens.

Stay away from gray market

If a lens price sounds too good to be true…it probably is. Unless you’re dealing with a rebate program or a seasonal discount, if you see a lens cost $500 less than what most retailers are charging, there’s a good chance that it’s a gray market lens.

What’s this mean?

In a nutshell, it’s a lens that doesn’t have a valid serial number, nor a valid warranty. This means that if you ever have a problem with it, you can’t send it in to the manufacturer for service. It’s super risky, and things might not work as expected.

Don’t be afraid to buy used

Used or refurbished lenses are a great way to save money. I typically try to either buy from a private owner, or by purchasing from some reputable dealers (both B&H and Adorama have a great “Used” section).

If you’re buying used, I try to pick a reasonably high rating. I want my lens to function like it’s brand new as much as possible. I don’t want to deal with troublesome focusing issues or a lens hood that’s always falling off. It’s not worth the hassle.

Be sure to look at the fine print. Oftentimes warranties are different for both used and refurbished lenses. It’s always best to check the manufacturer website for details about these.

So, what should I buy?

As a beginner photographer, it can be overwhelming to choose your first lens. There’s really only two types of lenses I recommend:

A 35mm or 50mm prime – Prime lenses are great learning lenses. These won’t zoom, but they have a great maximum aperture (usually f/1.8 or f/1.4) that allow you to explore with light. By choosing a prime lens, you’ll learn how to work with minimal tools. You’ll learn how to get in closer to get the shot you want, which will help in terms of you learning your camera and the photography process. These are usually pretty affordable no matter what the brand. Nikon’s 35mm f/1.8 was a staple in my bag when I had my crop-sensor camera.

A standard zoom lens – My very first lens was a Tamron 28-75mm f/2.8. This was my workhorse lens up until literally this month — I used it probably 85% of the time on shoots. This focal length is great for a wide variety of photography — events, portraits, food…you name it. And the low-light performance is killer!

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