By Anna Gay on | No Comments
I remember when I started shopping for my first lens. I had a Nikon D60 (this was nearly 8 years ago now!) with a 18-55mm kit lens, which came with the camera. I had been told that I could achieve better (i.e. sharper) results with a faster and more expensive lens.
This made sense to me on some level, but I had no idea why a lens would be considered "fast" and what "fast" even meant. I didn't know why some lenses were larger and heavier than others, why some were way, way more expensive, what the difference was between focal lengths and what in the world do all the numbers, letters and symbols on a lens mean?
In this post, I will explain and clarify some of the most standard attributes of lenses, because choosing the correct lens for YOUR NEEDS will absolutely help you achieve sharper images!
Please Note: While I do believe that lenses are worth the investment, they are also not a substitute for good technique. It does not matter if you are using a $5K or a $80 lens - if you are shaking the camera, using the incorrect ISO, and/or generally making some basic mistakes, your images will still not be sharp.
This post is meant to help you choose a great lens, which should be a supplement to proper technique, not a substitute.
When you purchased your camera, it may have come with a standard "kit lens" (if you didn't opt for the body only + upgraded lens option).
Kit lenses are not exactly known for their high quality, though I feel like they sometimes get way too much negative attention. Essentially, they are meant to get people using their cameras right away, because they are economical, easy to use, and fairly lightweight in most cases.
Kit lenses are, however, built on machine assembly lines and see very few human hands along the way, whereas higher quality lenses have components that have been crafted and inspected by skilled technicians.
Canon 18-55mm Standard Kit Lens
Overall, the components of kit lenses, including the glass itself, are made out of lower quality materials than professional grade lenses. On some kit lenses, you cannot achieve an f/stop wider than f/3.5, making them less appealing to photographers who love to take photos that have beautiful blurred backgrounds.
Kit lenses are easy to manage, and they do their job! However, if you are looking to take the next step, and create sharper images, you will want to upgrade to a new lens!
When lens shopping, you will see the words "Prime" (or "Fixed") and "Zoom" quite often. Here's the difference:
In the past, prime lenses were generally considered higher quality, sharper, and were typically geared towards professional photographers.
Today, there are some extremely well-built and sharp zoom lenses on the market, so I do not think the "primes are better than zooms" argument really holds up as well as it did in the past.
Whether you purchase a zoom or a prime should have everything to do with your style of photography, and little to do with one being "better" than the other.
Nikon 85mm f/1.4 - an example of a prime (and also fast) lens
In its most basic terms, focal length is the distance from the optical center of the lens to the camera's sensor. Focal length is not the length of the actual lens! (I'm not sure how that rumor got started, but it is not accurate).
I'll say it again: Focal Length = the distance from the optical center of the lens to the camera's sensor.
Focal length is also affected by whether you are shooting with a full-frame or crop sensor, but that is an entirely separate post all its own. For now, let's look at the absolute basics of focal length:
The image below demonstrates how four different focal lengths will affect the same setup. Keep in mind that the crops below are not exact, but they are close enough to give you an idea of how focal lengths vary:
As you can see, with a focal length of 105mm, you do not need to move in close to your subject as this lens brings the frame in for you.
With a focal length of 35mm, more of the scene will appear in the frame.
Keep in mind that, with angles wider than 35mm (such as 24mm) moving in close to your subject will create distortions.
For example, you cannot shoot close ups with a wide angle lens without a fisheye distortion effect occurring. Keep that in mind if you are a portrait photographer who loves close-ups (a 200mm telephoto or 105mm macro lens would suit you better than a wide angle lens for closeups).
Manufacturers such as Canon and Nikon offer lenses with built-in sensors and microcomputers to help analyze and then correct movement caused by camera shake. They are denoted by VR (Vibration-Reduction) on Nikon/Nikkor lenses, and IS (Image Stabilizer) on Canon lenses.
These features can help you tremendously when shooting handheld!
Canon 16-35mm IS (Image Stabilizer) Lens
Nikon 16-35mm VR (Vibration Reduction) Lens
Both Vibration Reduction and Image Stabilizer lenses will help you achieve a sharper image if you find yourself shooting handheld regularly. This technology is often found on the zooms and longer prime lenses, as these types of lenses are heavier, and more prone to camera shake.
As you will quickly learn, the price of a lens can range anywhere from under $100, to several thousand dollars. The price is generally based on a few factors:
There are a number of third party lenses on the market that are compatible with Canon, Nikon, Pentax and Sony cameras.
Often, third party lenses can be very high quality, and are, generally speaking, priced lower than their Nikon/Canon counterparts. Sigma, Tamron, Tokina and Rokinon are some of the companies that make a wide selection of lenses for first-party cameras.
If you are anything like I was when I was purchasing my first lens, you'd probably like a few lens options to get you started in your search.
Here is a list of lenses that I have personally used, and also lenses that are very popular among photographers I know.
Note - STM and USM are different types of motors in Canon lenses for autofocusing. STM tends to be smoother and quieter without any jerkiness, whereas USM lenses are a bit louder, but focus more quickly.
Note - ED is Nikon's abbreviation for Extra-Low Dispersion glass which is high-quality lens glass.
G lenses are meant to be used with cameras that allow you to set the aperture on the camera's body.
As I said earlier, having a great lens shouldn't be a substitute for using your camera properly, but upgrading from your kit lens will absolutely help you achieve sharper images!
Be sure to consider your type of photography when purchasing a lens.
Do you have any questions or comments about How to Choose a Camera Lens? Leave us a comment below - we would love to hear from you! And PLEASE SHARE this post using the social sharing buttons (we really appreciate it)!
For additional information on how to take sharper photos, click on links below:
Anna Gay is a portrait photographer based in Athens, GA and the author of the dPS ebook The Art of Self-Portraiture. She also designs actions and textures for Photoshop. When she is not shooting or writing, she enjoys spending time with her husband, and their two cats, Elphie and Fat Cat.