Photography Friday – Choosing a Lens

Once you have made the ALL IMPORTANT purchase of your new SLR camera, you will need to make an equally important purchase of a LENS. Time to celebrate!! (or cry – depending on the numbers in your bank account – gak!)

Okay, before you rush out to buy the latest lens you see advertised in that magazine or settle for that kit lens (gag) try asking yourself these questions to narrow down exactly what lens is perfect for YOU. Not all lenses are created equal and not all lenses are for everyone!

  1. What focal length will I need?

First of all – what is a focal length? It basically means the length from the lens to it’s focus.

There is this mathematical explanation, but since math isn’t my strong suit, I’ll explain by saying that usually a 50mm lens shows you exactly what your natural eyes see. Anything with a number smaller than that can be categorized as being a WIDE ANGLE lens. When you look through your viewfinder with a wide-angle lens (anything smaller than 50mm, like a 14mm for example) you’ll see a lot more than what your natural eye could see on it’s own. It captures a wider angle. Anything with a focal length larger than 50mm (100mm, for example) would be considered a TELEPHOTO lens. That gets you closer up to whatever you are photographing. It compresses the image. 

That being said, which focal length will *I* need? That depends on what you’ll be photographing. if you plan to photograph a lot of landscapes – you’d want to go with a wider-angle lens. If you plan to photograph wildlife, or sports – you’d want a telephoto lens. If you want an everyday, photo-journalistic type lens – go with something around the middle, like a 50mm! Make sense?

How do I know what the focal length of a lens is? It shows on the barrel of the lens itself, along with it’s f-stops. Like this lens, for example:

So, the focal length of this lens is 28mm. That would be considered a WIDE ANGLE lens. And this lens has a wide aperture at f1.8. That means it’s good for shooting in low light.

2. Do I want a prime or zoom lens?

A Prime lens means that there is only ONE focal length. There is no zooming – what you see through the viewfinder is what you get. A zoom lens has several focal lengths – and you can zoom between them. Make sense? So, which do you want?

Prime lenses – pros:

  • they are generally sharper lenses. Good quality. 
  • Smaller, less bulky
  • usually less expensive because there are less working parts etc.
  • Usually have a wider aperture

                      – cons:

  • not as flexible. You’ve got one focal length. You’re stuck with it
  • Have to have more lenses to cover the different focal lengths

Zoom Lenses – pros:

  • lots of flexibility – you could have a wide angle – telephoto all in one lens
  • you need to buy fewer lenses over all

                       – cons:

  • bigger and bulkier
  • less sharp
  • usually more money

If you could drop the money on a really great quality lens from the same manufacturer as your camera (not a third party lens) with maybe some image stabilization built in, you’d do well to get a nice wide-telephoto zoom lens. It’s all you would need.  As it is, I have both prime and zoom lenses. For convenience, I prefer the zoom – for quality, I choose prime every time.

3. Should I spend the money on a first party lens, or buy the less-expensive third party ones?

A first party lens is a lens made by the same manufacturer as your camera body. So, a Canon lens for a Canon camera. There are some third-party companies like Tamron and Sigma who make lenses that work with many top camera manufacturers.

Here’s the deal. If you are looking at a Canon 17-55 2.8 lens which sells for about $1,179.99 or a tamron 17-50 2.8 which sells for about $500, you can’t expect the quality to be the same. It’s not. Companies like Tamron and Sigma who make lenses for Canon, Nikon etc. for a lower price are great for those of us on a budget, but the focus is usually not great, often much slower and louder, and not as much quality in the product. If you can afford to buy a quality lens from the first party company, do that. You’ll never regret buying the “good stuff”.

Once you have decided which type of lens you think will work for what you want to use it for, start doing your homework! Start reading reviews, look for sales, you can even RENT lenses from most camera shops so why not try one out before shelling out the big bucks? You can buy lenses second-hand, but always be careful that they are gently used and not scratched. Once you’ve decided on the lens of your dreams… jump right in and enjoy! I hope this has been helpful for you!


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