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Photography 101: Which lens should you buy first?

You just got a fancy new camera, with a shiny kit lens that, for the most part, has served you well in your beginning everyday adventures. Now you want to take your photography to the next level, whether it’s getting a farther reach and being able to capture that dream-like bokeh that you hear everyone talking about or obtaining a more encompassing view.

So, what’s the next lens you should buy?

There are a few different ways to go about answering the question, but the answer comes back to one question that you have to answer yourself — what are you looking to gain by buying a second lens?

Answering why

This question is important because it will ultimately help to narrow your lens options. If you’re into flower photography, for instance, you might want to look at a macro lens or a prime with a wide aperture to create that “dreamy” feel in your images.

If you photograph a lot of landscapes, you might be looking for a wide angle lens. Or, if you’re into wildlife, you might want a telephoto lens to get you a closer look.

The most recommended lens

By far, the most recommended lens for photographers is the 50mm prime. But upon first researching it, many new photographers feel this might not suit them as well, because they already have the 50mm focus length covered with their 18-55mm kit lens. You might think, “why should I go with a prime lens when a zoom provides me with much more variety in terms of reach?”

There’s more to the 50mm prime than just focal length. Sure, it has to be taken into account, but more importantly, you need to look at how you’d use the lens.

The 50mm is recommended because it gives you more range in terms of low light and creativity. Most 50mm primes are either at f/1.4 or f/1.8, allowing you to achieve that bokeh look in your photographs. The photos of your family will “pop” because of this, and your low-light performance will surely surpass your kit lens. And because it’s a fixed focal length lens, you’ll get some amazing sharpness out of it. Simply put, it’s a great everyday lens.

But what if you want a lens that will offer something other than just pretty bokeh and great low light shooting?

Popular “Step 2” lenses

Everyday lens: 35mm

When I had my first ever DSLR — the Nikon D5100 — I shot with my 35mm f/1.8 lens a ton. It gave me some really nice, creative results, and to this day I look back at that lens and know it’s been one of my favorites over the years. You can’t beat the price either — just $196.95. This is a great, affordable alternative to the 50mm f/1.4, and on a crop sensor camera, the focal length is something that is very comfortable shooting with.

In addition to the Nikon version, there are also versions made by Tamron and Sigma for Canon cameras.

Everyday zoom lens: 24-70mm or 28-75mm

For the first four years of my photography, the Tamron 28-75mm f/2.8 lens was the one I had on my camera the most. I used this on both my D5100 and D800, and it provided me great low-light capabilities. I used it for everything from theatre performances to environmental portraiture. The autofocus, while not the fastest in the world, was perfectly acceptable for what I needed.

I eventually retired the 28-75mm and upgraded to the 24-70mm, which provided me a boost in sharpness and autofocus speed.

This lens range is something I’ve utilized on my cameras since day one (I bought the 28-75mm with my kit lens). Once I switched over to micro four-thirds format, I went with the Olympus 12-40mm, which gave me a similar 24-80mm field of view.

Portrait lens: 85mm

While many photographers like the 50mm f/1.4 as a portrait lens, the 85mm f/1.8 is an equally capable portrait lens. Like the 35mm mentioned above, the 85mm offers great low-light capabilities and is super sharp. You’ll get the bokeh look here as well.

Alternatively, there is also an 85mm f/1.4 lens (which is much pricier), and if you’re on a micro four-thirds system, the 42.5mm f/1.2 lens (with a field of view similar to the 85mm on a full frame camera) from Panasonic is one of the best lenses out there today. Olympus shooters might find the 45mm f/1.2 lens better for their system.

Travel lens: 28-300mm

If you’re looking for an all-in-one lens to take on your next trip, the 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6 is a great all-around lens that will give you a wide view at 28mm, and the ability to zoom in on your subject. While the f/5.6 aperture isn’t anything to write home about, having 300mm of view is great for when you can’t get super close to something, or if you want to isolate tourists.

Wide angle lens: 15-30mm

The Tamron 15-30mm f/2.8 is a superb lens, offering a pro-like quality in a prosumer package (costing $1099). If you’re a sucker for star trails or sunsets, you’ll absolutely love this lens, despite the fact that it’s one of the heavier lenses I’ve used.

Since my switch to micro four-thirds, I went with the Olympus 7-14mm f/2.8 lens, providing me a similar field of view to a full frame 14-28mm. The results here are spectacular, too, and it’s one of my favorite micro four-thirds lenses to date.

Normal matters

One of the factors that help sort out which lens to buy is knowing the normal focal length for your camera. Normal is a lens that gives your camera about the same field of view as your eyes. Knowing the normal focal length unravels the mystery of a lens being a wide angle or telephoto. Lenses shorter than normal are wide angles. Lenses longer than normal are telephoto. Here are common “normal” focal lengths:

  • Full frame: 50mm
  • APSC crop sensor: 28mm
  • Micro four-thirds: 25mm

Conclusion

While deciding to purchase a lens is never easy, doing so will assist you in elevating what you capture as a photographer. But it all comes down to how you photograph, and what you like to photograph. Once you have a good idea of what that is, selecting a lens for purchase will be more straight-forward. And you’ll be over the moon with your new lens purchase.

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