UPDATED July 2012 – there have been several cool new lenses released since I first published this list and those changes are reflected herein. I’ve also added a few more of the older lenses I’ve had time to test and fall in love with as well as another zoom. I’ve also added a section briefly explaining the difference between prime and zoom lenses:

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I get lots of “what camera should I buy” questions here at Photofocus. I personally don’t enjoy that question since it’s sort of like asking me “What sort of car should I buy?”

I do have more sympathy for the next logical question: “What lens should I buy?” I am not talking about the “Is the Nikon 50 f/1.4 really better than the 50 f/1.8 lens?” questions, but the “What lens should I buy generally?” questions.

Neither question is easy to answer. This is an updated version of my first attempt (back in June, 2009) to cover this question. I have seven basic questions here that should help make the process of selecting a lens easier. For those who just want me to pick a lens for them, skip to the bottom where I have some generic suggestions.

If you’re trying to decide which lens to buy, here are some questions that you should answer (on your own) before you decide to go to the camera store.

1. What is your current skill level? Are you a raw beginner or advanced amateur? What are your goals? Do you want to turn pro or just shoot family photos? The advice I would give to someone buying their very first serious camera lens would sometimes be different than it would for someone who’s been at this five years. Pros need lenses with wide (fast apertures) etc.

2. What subjects do you like to photograph? The lens I’d suggest for photographing birds is very different than the one I’d suggest for a food photographer. Some subjects require long lenses (like sports and wildlife.) Other subjects like architecture require very wide lenses.

3. Will you primarily be shooting indoors or outside? If you’re shooting mostly indoors you’ll have to consider a faster lens than if you’ll just be shooting outdoors. Unfortunately, faster lenses cost more. But if you can’t or won’t use flash, super wide apertures are going to be important to you.

4. How much money do you want to spend? Lenses are like most things – you get what you pay for. Knowing how much you want to spend will often have a big influence on what I’d recommend. I personally think the lens is more important than the camera body – in some cases. It’s sort of like stereo equipment. Every genuine expert in that field I’ve spoken with says to spend the money on speakers. Here, I’d suggest spending the money on glass.

5. How long will you keep the lens? If you turn your gear over frequently, it might make sense to go with something less expensive than if you plan to use the lens over the entire length of your career. If you are the kind of person who hangs on to everything you buy, save your pennies and buy the best.

6. How strong are you? Weight (and size) are important factors in lens choice. I know many photographers who were very excited to get a Nikon 200-400 F/4 lens until they actually had to hold it. The thing is a beast. Are you prepared to carry whatever lens(es) you buy? It’s a shame to buy a lens and then not use it because it’s too much of a hassle to carry it.

7. Which is most important? Price, quality, durability? An old businessman taught me a very important lesson early in life. You can have it good, fast or cheap. Pick any two.

With this information in mind, you should be much better positioned to select the right lens for you.

Before I go on I want to address one common question about the difference between “prime” and “zoom” lenses.

For those who are new, a prime lens is merely a fixed focal length lens. It just means that unlike your 70-200 mm lens that allows you to use focal lengths between 70mm and 200mm, a prime lens will only shoot at a fixed length. Some common prime lens lengths are 24mm, 35mm 50mm, 85mm, 100 mm, 200mm, etc.

Here’s a rundown of the advantages prime lenses have over zooms from my point of view.

1. Prime lenses tend to be “faster” than zooms. What I mean by that is that they have a larger aperture (lower f-stop number) and allow more light into the camera.

2. Prime lenses tend to be sharper because they tend to have fewer optical compromises. Zooms require more lens elements and moving parts which could impact sharpness.

3. Prime lenses are typically smaller and lighter than their zoom-lens equals.

4. Prime lenses force you to think more about composition since you can’t just zoom your way out of a problem.

5. Prime lenses (at least the great ones) sometimes offer you more control with features like depth-of-field scales (used for hyper focal distance calculations) or aperture rings.

There are disadvantages to all these features. You have less flexibility, you have to buy and carry more lenses to achieve coverage of the same focal lengths, and good prime lenses can be expensive.

As for my own preferences, I like primes and I don’t shoot with many zoom lenses. Yes they are affordable, convenient and versatile. But there’s a trade off. They typically have more flaws than prime lenses. I am NOT saying you shouldn’t buy a zoom lens. In fact, I do own a few myself. Okay, I own three. I will even recommend a few below. But I believe (especially for those shooting video as well as stills on a DSLR) that a very fast prime lens is the best way to go for those who can afford it.

I also want to mention that I am not covering many third party lens manufacturers here. The reason is simple. I’ve only owned one third-party lens (Sigma 300-800mm f/5.6 EX DG HSM APO IF Ultra Telephoto Zoom Lens.) I haven’t had enough testing time with most of the third-party lenses to be able to tell you which ones are best. You can indeed often (but not always) save money with third-party lenses. My advice is to rent these before you buy to make sure they meet your needs. Another thing to note is that while third-party lenses often perform at levels consistent with the lenses produced by Canon and Nikon, they typically suffer more manufacturing defects. So your chances of getting the proverbial “bad copy” of a lens go up with third-party lenses. Lastly, if you do go with third-party lenses, try to stick with the higher-end third party lenses. Sigma in particular is making some very high-quality lenses at the higher end of the market.

For those who want to know which lenses I like, here are some quick (and safe) suggestions, in several price ranges.

NOTE: If YOUR favorite camera lens is not on this list, it doesn’t mean I don’t think it’s a good lens. These are just my personal choices.

I apologize in advance, but I won’t have time to advise folks individually regarding their lens choices. This list (as well as this post) are designed to help you select for yourself. When it doubt, rent. That way you can see for yourself if a lens performs as you expect it to.
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Normal Lens – 50mm

In my opinion, a fast 50mm lens is a must have in every serious photographer’s camera bag. For years, the fast 50 was the “kit” lens. This somehow made it less desirable and the camera companies started shipping cheap zooms with their bodies instead of the 50. I think that was a bad call. In most cases, I’d dump the kit lens in favor of a fast 50 and one auxiliary lens (at a minimum.) The good news is that fast 50mm lenses are affordable. Here are my suggestions.

BUDGET

Nikon 50mm f/1.8G AF-S NIKKOR Lens

Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II

INTERMEDIATE

Nikon 50mm f/1.4D AF Nikkor Lens for Nikon Digital SLR Cameras

Canon EF 50mm f1.4 USM Lens

PRO

Nikkor AF-S 50mm f/1.4G Lens

Canon EF 50mm f/1.2 L USM Lens

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Wide Angle Lens

If you photograph landscapes, architecture, environmental portraits or anything else that requires a wide view, wide angle lenses are going to be important to you. While photographers disagree about how wide is wide enough, I’ve always found lenses in the 20mm to 28mm range to be a consistently good focal length for most wide shots. Yes, there are times when SUPER wides like the 14 or 16mm lenses will be more appropriate. These are typically expensive and overkill for MOST photographers. Feel free to go wider if you need to and can afford it. For the purpose of this piece, I’ll stick with 20mm to 28mm lenses as a wide angle choice.

BUDGET

Canon 40mm EF f/2.8 STM Lens

INTERMEDIATE

Nikon 20mm f/2.8D AF Nikkor Lens

Canon EF 24mm f/2.8 Wide Angle Lens

Canon EF 20mm f/2.8 USM Wide Angle Lens

PRO

Nikon 24mm f/1.4G ED AF-S RF SWM Prime Wide Angle Nikkor Lens

Canon EF 24mm f/1.4 L USM II Wide Angle Lens

Canon EF 14mm f/2.8L II USM Lens

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Zoom Lenses

I’ve already given my thoughts on zooms. In today’s economy, they will be the only logical choice for photographers on a budget. Thankfully, there are some very good and affordable zooms. Here are some of my favorites.

BUDGET

No Nikon choice in this category

Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L

INTERMEDIATE

Nikon 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6G AF-S ED VR II Nikkor Telephoto Zoom Lens

Canon EF 70-200mm f/4 L IS USM Lens

Nikon 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR AF-S Nikkor Zoom Lens

PRO

Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L II IS USM Lens

Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II AF-S Zoom Lens

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Specialty Lenses

Some photographers will need specialty lenses for things like macro, portrait, wildlife, sports or architectural work. There are also two micro four/thirds lenses on the list. Here are a few that I like.

INTERMEDIATE

Olympus M. Zuiko Digital ED 12mm f/2.0 Lens

Olympus M. Zuiko Digital ED 45mm f/1.8 Lens

Nikon 85mm f/1.8G AF-S NIKKOR LensNikon

85mm f/3.5G AF-S DX ED VR Micro Nikkor Lens

NOTE – the above 85 f/3.5 lens is designed ONLY for Nikon DX cameras. Full frame Nikon shooters should buy Nikon 105mm f/2.8G ED-IF AF-S VR Micro-Nikkor Lens

Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 Macro USM Lens

PRO

Canon EF 14mm f/2.8L II USM Ultra-Wide Angle Lens

Canon EF 800mm f/5.6L IS USM Lens

Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II

Sigma 300-800mm f/5.6 EX DG Lens (Canon)

Remember, 98% of all lenses are better than 99% of all photographers. It’s not the gear that makes the photo, it’s the person who’s using it. Just because you own these recommended lenses, doesn’t mean you’ll get great shots. Practice your craft, build your vision and then these lenses might make a difference.

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