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A beginner's guide to some of the common lenses for photographers.
So you want to buy a new camera—if it's an entry-level DSLR, it is generally offered to you with an 18-55mm kit lens. It's a great deal because no matter what you choose, that kit lens comes cheap, and is well worth it. Yes, of the five lenses covered here, that kit lens is number one.
Like most bundle pricing, it's always cheaper than buying the camera body and lens separately, and most experts agree that an 18-55mm is actually the perfect lens for most immediate photographic needs, with both a decent wide angle plus the ability to zoom in on far away objects.
The fact remains that lenses, and not the cameras themselves, account most for great pictures. Photography is an optics game first and foremost, and there's a point at which that kit lens can't achieve shots that your heart and soul tell you are achievable. There's nothing wrong with your camera—seriously, there's nothing wrong with it. You just need to get some more lenses.
When most of us talk digital cameras, we talk megapixels, ISO, image noise, shot-per-second speed and image processing. But really, none of that stuff matters as much as your camera's lens.
Anyone who is really taking an interest in their camera should invest in a telephoto zoom next, followed by a fast "normal" lens, which you might call a portrait lens.
In the interest of speed, I can't talk about lens anatomy, but there are some key attributes you need to know to read all lens retail listings: focal length and aperture.
In most cases, the lens categories here differ by the focal length, that is, how close a subject appears, indicated in millimetres. The human-eye equivalent is between 30mm and 50mm. A telephoto lens, which gets up close to things that are far away, can be as long as 500mm. A wide-angle lens, which makes close-up objects appear farther away, can be 10mm—still less if you want the bulbous fisheye look. A "zoom" lens simply means that it has a variable focal length—for instance, your kit lens, which can hit any length from 18mm to 55mm.
Because entry-level cameras have smaller (APS-C) sensors than professional APS) full-frame 35mm cameras, everybody makes two sets of lenses. Typically all lenses work on beginner cameras, but beginner lenses don't work on pro cameras. If you stick with beginner lenses (denoted Nikon DX, Canon EF-S, Sony DT, Pentax DA, Sigma DC and Tamron Di II), you won't have to stress, but if you want to buy a pro lens, or have some lying around, bear in mind that you need to multiply the focal length by 1.5 or so to get the equivalent focal length for your camera. A 50mm pro lens is really a 75mm lens on your beginner's model.
Indeed what sets the lens apart is its large aperture. The aperture is the hole that lets in the light, and it's measured by the f-stop. A wider aperture means more light comes in, and you have a better chance of getting nice shots indoors, in dimmer settings. A narrower aperture lets in less light. The trade-off is that a wide aperture can't focus on as many things that are at different distances—it is said to have a "shallow depth of field." Your main subject is clear, but the background is blurry—artistic in many cases, annoying in some. When you narrow the aperture, you can crisply resolve more elements, but only if there's enough light. The wide aperture of a "fast" lens can always be narrowed, but there's no way for a "slow" lens with a narrower aperture to bring in more light.
As if that wasn't tricky, check this out: The f-stop is a fraction, and the number you refer to is on the bottom, so if it's low (f/1.4), the aperture is wide, and if it's high (f/6.0), the aperture is narrow. Got it? Zoom lenses at beginner prices tend to have variable f-stops, apertures that get narrower, and in need of more light, as you zoom in.
Lenses in many ways are about reach, about bringing faraway subjects closer to your camera's sensor. Even when a kit lens is cranked to the max, it's only giving you a 55mm focal length, which is why most DSLR makers have a very well-priced 55-200mm lens waiting at the ready.
Another telephoto zoom lens you'll see is the 18-200mm, which can cost anywhere from £250 to £500. That's a hefty premium to pay just so you don't have to carry around with you two lenses, and generally speaking, the broader the focal length range, the more corners are being cut in performance. That lens is a pass.
Alternatives to this are simple, both Metz and Nikon would suggest a 70-300mm lens. Sigma's model sells for under £150, Nikon's most recent model, with built-in image stabilizing, is just over £350, and there are 70-300mm lenses for everyone else ranging from £100 to £800, all with variable f-stops of either f/4.0-5.6 or f/4.5-5.6. Better yet, these lenses are specified for pro-grade full-frame cameras, so they're exceptionally zoomy on your beginner's camera, more like 105-450mm.
NORMAL (AKA PORTRAIT)
As much traction as you'll get from a zoom lens, it doesn't really teach you much, except maybe how to compose without cropping. You can learn a lot more about photography when using a f/1.8 50mm lense. This is called a "normal" lens because in the good old days (50's and 60's), it was all you could get on a camera then before zoom lenses started hitting the market.
What does it do? As a "fast" lens, it can shoot really well in low light. Keep the aperture wide, get up in your subject's grill, and start clicking. You'll see parts of their face sharply resolved while other parts are softly blurred. Tighten the aperture a tad, and your subject's whole head is clear while the backdrop is soft and peaceful, even if it's a London street corner at rush hour. What doesn't it do? It doesn't zoom, and because it's usually rated for pro cameras, it's about the equivalent of 75mm on an entry-level DSLR—which is roughly the preferred focal length for portrait shooting—so you often have to step back to get a decent shot.
Alternatives to the cheap f/1.8 lens are an even faster one, f/1.4 (£200 to £300), or a 30mm or 35mm that gives entry-level cameras more of a "normal"—what your eye can see—perspective.
At this point, in addition to the original cost of your camera, you've spent less than £350, and you've added immeasurable functionality and artistic wiggle room. You could stop here, but then you would miss out on two more lenses that might rock your world.
ULTRA-WIDE ANGLE ZOOM
That kit lens brings you down to 18mm, which is enough for you to stand in a corner of a room and shoot pretty much anything going on in that room. But what if you're not in the corner? The same twist of fate that makes pro-level telephoto lenses even more zoomy on your entry-level DSLR makes wide angles trickier—or at least more expensive—to attain.
Why is this? Film is flat, so light can come in at any angle, and the film will mostly record it. But camera sensor pixels are concave, and don't do well with light coming in from the side. If you think of the pixels as little water glasses, you can fill them up with water by pouring it in from above, but try shooting it in from the side with a garden hose, and it's going to go all over the place, likewise a telephoto by definition is pulling in light from directly in front of it, whereas a wide angle by definition is bringing in light from the sides, too. Hence the trouble, and the added expense.
But if you have the means, pick yourself up an ultra-wide-angle zoom lens (10-24mm, 10-22mm or 10-20mm). Just be very careful that it's one built specifically for entry-level DSLRs, mentioned in the "Lens Labeling" section. Nikon's is selling from around £550 while Canon's is around £500. Tamron and Sigma make them for Canon and Nikon for around £350.
And the aesthetic results are good propbably the best way to make sure that all the uncles and aunts are included in the family portrait you take at the Christmas dinner table.
The final lens is the macro—or big hairy bug—lens. It's not as commonly known as the others but when you look through the viewfinder, and see how close you can get, you would understand why it's being mentioned here. It's not for everybody. Though some are 50mm or thereabouts, many macros are telephoto lenses. The ideal, it seems, is to shoot stuff up close that you wouldn't even want to get near—he who snaps the most snakes and scorpions wins.
So what do you look for? Typically, macro lenses have a fixed aperture of f/2.8 (sometimes f/2.5). Sigma has five lenses, ranging from 50mm (£250) to 180mm (£650), all fixed, plus a few zooms, the 24-70mm (£400, compared to well over £1,000 for the equivalent Canon or Nikon). So when you're not trying to be photographer of the year, you can use these for portraits and other "normal" shooting, but with such sharp resolve that some even recommend a bit of digital softening.
So if you add these final two lenses it more than doubles your investment, and for a diminished payoff. That's what you would buy next, but for most of you, it's not what you should be buying.
IMAGE STABILIZATION, LENS MOUNTS AND YOUR DAD'S LENS COLLECTION
Some readers probably gave up on this dialogue a long time ago as too basic which in some ways it is and in being so we have skipped over lots of hot topics, including image stabilization and lens compatibility.
Canon and Nikon currently promote the hell out of image stabilizing lenses, in large part because their cameras do not have in-camera image stabilization like Sony, Pentax and Olympus. While image stabilization does tend to matter, its location doesn't seem to matter as much. The consensus on the internet is that it's a drag to have to buy IS in lenses over and over, and there is a clear added cost when buying lenses a la carte. Nevertheless, there's a premium for buying Nikon and Canon because they are consistently the best reviewed and the biggest sellers, so there's no right or wrong. It's just something to look for when buying lenses.
The main reason Canon and Nikon don't have IS in their cameras is that the camera technologies pre-date the digital revolution, and it was harder to do with film. The flipside is this: Older film-based lenses from Canon and Nikon work on newer Canon and Nikon digital cameras. For Canon, it's the EF standard, which dates back to 1987. If the lens says EF on it, it will work. If it says EF-S, it was specifically made for entry-level DSLRs, and won't work on pricier pro models. If you put an EF lens on a camera that typically takes EF-S lenses, remember to multiply by 1.6 to figure out the real focal length.
For Nikon, it's a tad weirder: Any F-mount lens dating back to 1959 will fit on the thing, but only the lenses labeled AF-S will definitely work with D40/D60/D90/D3000/D5000 class of entry-level DSLRs. If the lens doesn't say "DX" on it, multiply the focal length by 1.5 to see what it really is. If your dad hands you a bag of Nikon lenses, accept them graciously, and try them all out, but be ready for weird results, or at the very least, a sudden lack of autofocus and auto metering.
Many suggestions put to potential buyers seem like go-out-and-buy-'em recommendations but shopping for new lenses on a tight budget is a good way to expand as a photographer.
Many photography enthusiasts believe buying a cheap lens is not the right way to go but the point is, there is surely a reason why third-party ultra-wide-angle zoom lenses cost half as much as big name versions, just as there is surely a reason why Canon's 50mm f/1.4 costs nearly four times as much as its 50mm f/1.8. There are many different choices out there and we hope that this goes part of the way in helping you find the best options for you.