Posted by: David Vernon | September 18, 2008

Okay – What lens should I buy?

UnneededTo follow up on yesterday’s post (the one two down – sheesh you can’t have links to EVERYTHING) about what kind of camera should I buy, I present its sister post: What kind of lens should I get (next)?

While the camera question is pretty easy to answer, the lens question takes a little more thought. For all the bells-and-whistles, a camera at heart is still just a repository for a sensor and some memory to hold what that sensor sees. My humble $0.02 opinion is that the lens does almost all the work. The difference between $500 for the Nikon D40 and $5000 for the Nikon D3 isn’t vastly noticable at 200 ISO in good light. But put a junky piece of glass on the front of that lens and suddenly the world is a little different. Now that’s not to say you can’t take a “Kit” lens (the one that they sold you with your camera in the store for $99) and make a fine photo with it. But. There are limits.

So – what lens should you buy? To me it comes down to a few important decisions. That sounds like a clarion call for a list:

  • Budget – Are you rich? No? You either? Well then, this may limit your choices. You might want to save for a few months.
  • Purpose – This is huge. Want to photograph animals 300 yards away. Please don’t by a 10mm fish eye. Big landscapes? Avoid the 500mm f/4. Want something generic that can do both – we can do that but you’ll give up something else.
  • Speed – Want a fast lens (don’t we all) that can kick butt in low light or that can measure depth-of-field in teeny-tiny portions? See the budget section. Get a second job.
  • Zoom or Prime – A prime lens has a fixed focal length (think 50mm lens) while a zoom covers a wide range (think 18-55mm). Zooms are a good place to start because you feel like you’re getting two or three lenses for the price of one. But primes – especially good primes – rock the house for sharpness and overall image control. Once you go prime you have these dreams that I just can’t talk about here.

There are other minor considerations but to me those drive the bulk of the decision-making process. There is one other thing to consider. If you shoot Nikon do you have to buy a Nikon lens? No. Same with Canon, Pentax, or Sony. There are lots of third-party manufacturers that make lens for all kinds of cameras: Sigma, Tamron, Tokina, etc. Their lenses are generally lower-priced than a comparable lens made by the camera manufacturer. My humble opinion is – that to most photographers – those are still good lenses and they need to be considered. You can go the other way if budget is never a concern and buy the top-of-the-line Zeiss lens but if you can do that – you don’t need me helping you. Shoo. Go away.

Now me – I like to carry one lens most of the time – or at most two lenses. Right now I use Nikon’s all-in-one fallback, the 18-200 f/3.5-5.6. I love it for its completeness. It’s not fast but it’s usually fast enough. It covers many purposes and it fits within a reasonable budget for an on-brand lens. There are some things it doesn’t do well – and for those things – I take a “Hakuna Matata” attitude. The pros outweigh the cons so if you ask me what lens you should get – I’m going to see what you think about this idea first. Then we can break into special purposes based on the four things above. And believe me – I have lens envy for certain primes. Yes I do. But come to think of it, I have lust in my heart for certain zooms too. You can’t be too rich, too thin or have too many lenses – isn’t that how that saying goes?

So bring it on bubbas and bubbettes – I’m ready to answer your question. Because there is ALWAYS a next lens.

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