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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Showing 2 comments
  • Milosh Kosanovich

    My experiences have almost been completely opposite of what has been said here.

    When buying their first camera, many people have absolutely no idea what focal lengths they’re going to end up needing to shoot that which they photograph most often, and kit lenses are an incredible bargain, usually about $100 when bundled with the camera. Some may not be that great, like the Sony, but the modern Nikon & Canon lenses are perfectly usable, and the Fuji is an absolutely incredible lens (but at about $400). Coupling a kit lens with an inexpensive moderate telephoto lets new photographers explore what focal length is all about and what focal lengths they shoot most often at, then they can start to decide what limitations these lenses may be placing upon them, and some good working knowledge of what they need to buy to improve their photography. Plus, many people don’t even know if they’re going to pursue photography enough to warrant spending $1,000 instead of $100 on a lens to go with their entry level $500-$1,000 camera.

    One of my most favorite lenses is my Nikon 28-300 f/3.5-5.6. It’s a perfect lens to just walk around with (on a full frame camera) and the sharpness, color, and clarity are top notch. The variable aperture is not an issue to me as 90% of the time I’m shooting aperture priority and I often use Auto ISO to keep the shutter speed up as I zoom. I originally bought this to shoot parades and large events with, but now I use it almost daily. The downside is that a tripod is needed once it starts getting dark out, especially with a polarizer, but the upside is I’m not missing shots either switching lenses or even having to carry around a second body, lens, and flash all day during events. I think I explore more of what is in a scene with this lens as well, zooming from wide angle to telephoto often reveals new things that stand out. Conversely, my 24-70 f/2.8 is probably my -least- used lens, I just have never embraced that focal length range.

    While prime lenses may deliver superior image quality (with some noticeable exceptions like the Nikon 50mm f/1.8), I’d say they’re the last lenses you should buy as a beginner, and only for specific uses. It’s insanely expensive to buy individual prime lenses to cover the focal lengths of a couple of zooms and it’s not always possible to ‘zoom with your feet’. I have a full array of prime lenses, but I usually only pull one or more of those out when I go out with a specific photograph or shooting situation in mind. Again, select a lens to match what you want to photograph, don’t buy a lens then find things to photograph with it.

    I totally understand why who wrote what you did, but I think if the target audience is someone like yourself they probably already know those things. I’m always surrounded by those new to photography during photowalks with my Meetup group, and I think my advice is much better for that level of photographer.

    • Bryan Esler

      Milosh –

      First off, thanks for your comments. I immediately realized this should’ve been called “Choosing your first DSLR lens,” as I don’t have a ton of experience with Sony, Fuji, Olympus, etc.

      I bought my first camera as a hobbyist, but knowing that I wanted to elevate my creativity with a DSLR. I can tell you that I bought the Nikon kit, and I think that after using the 18-55 lens once or twice, it stayed in my desk drawer while I used the 28-75. It just wasn’t up to my expectations, and really limited my creativity when shooting.

      Recently I’ve helped a lot of new hobbyists who want to be creative with their photography choose a lens that fits their needs. A lot of times these photographers have a budget around $500. By looking at used gear, you can get a decent crop-sensor body and a prime lens for around this price. The Nikon 35 f/1.8 I mentioned in my article usually retails for a little under $200, and it’s an AMAZING lens for that price.

      For one individual, I was able to create a package of a used D5200 and a used 35 f/1.8 for under $500. Whereas if I were to go out and buy a new D5200 with a kit lens, it would run me around $440 (as it’s a previous generation body). Both the camera and lens were in great shape, and looked brand new.

      By no way is this article geared towards the person who wants a DSLR just to capture their kid’s soccer game, or take occasional group photos at family reunions. Maybe this wasn’t clear in the introduction, which I’ve since revised, but I’m gearing this advice more towards those who want to explore photography as a medium, maybe make some extra money on the side down the road…but more or less, be creative with our art.

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