This is article #7 in the DSLR Video Weekly series. If you’d like the whole thing in one shot, check out the book Creating DSLR Video: From Snapshots to Great Shots.
When you bought your DSLR camera, it may have included one lens, which is often referred to as a kit lens. This is a great starting point, but it’s only a starting point. To shoot in different conditions, you may find that you need to build up a collection of lenses. When it comes time to choose lenses, there are an amazing number of choices: wide, telephoto, fast, slow, specialty, cheap, and expensive. So, how do you decide which lenses are the best choice for your kit? Let’s look at some of the determining factors.
When purchasing a lens, one of the first decisions you’ll have to make is whether to buy a lens made by the same manufacturer as your camera. This is often called an original equipment manufacturer (OEM) lens. OEM lenses tend to be more expensive than those made by third-party manufacturers. However, an OEM lens often works better because it’s designed to take advantage of all the features your camera offers.
Third-party lenses are a valid choice too. Sigma, Tokina, SLR Magic and Zeiss are just a few of the dozens of non-OEM lens manufacturers. Third-party lenses are typically either cheaper than their OEM equivalents or they offer unique features (sometimes at a premium cost).
It really doesn’t matter which brand you choose (although OEM lenses usually have higher resale values when you trade in). Essentially, a good performing lens is a good performing lens. You can read detailed reviews of lenses at Digital Photography Review (www.dpreview.com). Make sure that when comparing OEM and third-party lenses of the same focal length and aperture, you also compare them for build quality and sharpness.
When you look at a camera lens, you’ll often see its aperture labeled as an f-stop. This number describes how wide the aperture is on the lens (where light passes through). The lower the number, the wider the aperture.
A lens with a low f-stop is said to be “fast.” The faster a lens, the better it performs in low light. Another advantage of a fast lens is that at wider apertures (f/1.8, f/1.2, and so on) you can use a shallow depth of field look. This is often called bokeh, and you can use it artistically to control where viewers look in your shots.
The only major drawback for fast lenses is price. But even though fast lenses are expensive, having at least one in your bag is essential for photo and video work. I recommend using lenses that have an aperture of f/2.8 or larger. If your scenes will have quite a bit of light available (for example, when working outdoors), an aperture of f/4 should work just fine, and those lenses have the benefit of being cheaper.
The longer the focal length on a lens, the closer the subject appears. Having a range of focal lengths can become important so you can properly compose shots in your scene. Unlike photos, you can’t really crop and scale video without a significant loss in quality.
Here are the focal ranges I like to have in my bag:
- 10–35mm. Lenses in this range are best for wide-angle shots. In video work these lenses are great for taking in lots of action in a scene or for establishing the location of a shoot. A wide-angle lens helps you see the big picture (but does require you to be close to the action).
- 50–100mm. Lenses in this focal range are often used for portrait shots and interviews. One of the first investments to make for your kit is a 50mm lens (often called a nifty-fifty), which is an affordable addition. You can get a great lens for about $100 that will work well in low light and has a shallow depth of field (which looks great for interviews).
- 200mm or greater. Long telephoto lenses are ideal for shooting from a distance. They are also useful to capture close-up action shots.
Zoom Lenses vs. Prime Lenses
When choosing a lens, you have a major functional choice to make. A prime lens offers only a single focal length, whereas a zoom lens provides a variety of focal lengths. There are many reasons to choose one over the other. In fact, many photographers carry both types in their bags.
A zoom lens adds versatility when you need to quickly compose shots.
When to use zoom lenses
If you want the greatest flexibility when shooting, a zoom lens works well. By turning the zoom ring, you can quickly change between focal lengths. These quick changes can really come in handy when you’re shooting at live events. A zoom lens is also useful when you want to avoid changing lenses or have a limit on how much you can carry.
A DSLR zoom lens behaves differently than a traditional video lens in two ways:
- Shakiness can occur. Because the zoom controls aren’t motorized, it’s very difficult to get a smooth zoom, so don’t zoom while recording. Use the zoom option to recompose your shot between takes.
- Exposure may change. As you adjust a zoom lens, the aperture may change. Most zoom lenses have a range of aperture settings. For example, I love using my Nikon 28–300mm lens when I am out for a day with the family. However, the f-stop will change between 3.5 when shooting at a wide angle and 5.6 when zoomed in. These changes in exposure are caused by the lens physically changing in length as I rotate the zoom controls.
When to use prime lenses
If you are shooting video on a DSLR camera for the aesthetic benefits, you should strongly consider shooting with prime lenses. From a quality point of view, there are two major benefits: A good prime lens with a wide aperture of f/1.2 to f/2.8 allows you to shoot in existing light or low-light environments more easily. Primes are universally faster than zooms due to the way they are manufactured.
Additionally, prime lenses generally have fewer moving parts and fewer glass elements than zoom lenses. This means that the image tends to be sharper and the lens significantly lighter.
Using a prime lens for shooting interviews or portrait shots is a great choice. You can set the lens to a wide aperture (a lower f-stop) and really use the shallow depth of field.
What About Used Lenses?
There is absolutely nothing wrong with using used lenses. Many of the lenses in my kit were bought from photography friends who were upgrading. Others are older prime lenses bought from reputable camera stores. It is perfectly acceptable to build your kit anyway you see fit. In fact, many old lenses are very solid and work well on modern cameras. If you are unsure about a used lens, you can take the lens to a camera shop to have it evaluated.
You can even adapt lenses to work on different manufacturers’ cameras. Many companies make adapters that allow you to mount a lens from one manufacturer on a body from another. Adapters from companies like Fotodiox and Novoflex are good quality, well built, and fairly inexpensive.
Although adapting a lens may sound like a perfect solution, you should be aware of two major drawbacks: First, you won’t get any autofocusing capabilities. Fortunately, this is not the biggest deal for video because you’ll focus manually in most cases. Second, the camera will need manual control rings for aperture and focus, which is fairly standard on old lenses.
Join us each Saturday for the next installment of this weekly series.
Rich has published over 100 courses on Lynda.com. Rich has authored several books including From Still to Motion, Understanding Photoshop, Professional Web Video, and Creating DSLR Video.
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