Lenses for Beginners

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A good lens is a wonderful thing – and every bit as important as a good camera body. The huge number of megapixels available on modern DSLRs are wasted if images are captured through a soft, dull piece of glass. As you grow as a photographer you will learn to appreciate the quality – and in some cases the deficiencies – of different lenses.

But which lens, or lenses, to get started? Your choice depends on what you’d like to shoot and on your budget. In this tutorial I’ll try and point you towards options that will help you learn and develop your skills, but also look at which types of lens best suit which type of photography.

"85mm Nikkor 1.8" captured by Rome Wilkerson. (Click image to see more from Rome Wilkerson.)

“85mm Nikkor 1.8″ captured by Rome Wilkerson. (Click image to see more from Rome Wilkerson.)

Shattering some allusions

My first point may come as a shock – it certainly did to me when I started out. An SLR lens does not fit on any SLR camera. A Canon lens won’t work on a Nikon and an old film-era lenses won’t work on modern DSLRs in many cases. Cameras have different mounts (put crudely the size and shape of the hole to which a lens attaches) and nowadays there’s all sorts of electronics that has to connect between camera and lens. So hold your horses before grabbing the ‘bargain’ lens you’ve spotted in the charity shop. First check that it will fit on/work with your camera body.

Many new DSLR offers include a lens, apparently ‘free’ or at a considerable saving. On the positive side you gain a lens that has a general purpose zoom meaning you can experiment with different focal lengths. Also, since they are cheap (although only ever ‘free’ in the same way as an airline meal is) you are not investing much. On the negative side, the image quality is poor. I would recommend spending a little more and aiming higher.

Zooms, primes, wide-angles and telephotos

Most people are familiar with a zoom lens. It covers a range of focal lengths. My most-used lens is a ‘general purpose’ zoom 24mm-70mm. 24mm (or anything below 35mm) is classed as wide-angle; 70mm and beyond is classed as telephoto. Wide-angle is fairly self-explanatory – it encompasses a large portion of the view in front of you. Telephoto is the opposite. Like a telescope, it allows you to see a much smaller portion but magnified or ‘brought closer’.

A prime lens has only one focal length, ie it doesn’t zoom. It can be wide-angle, telephoto, or ‘normal’ (around 50mm which offers roughly the perspective of the human eye). What it lacks in the flexibility of a zoom it makes up for in sharpness and often in width of aperture which allows for crisper shooting in low light conditions. A lens with a wide aperture is known as a ‘fast’ lens.

Horses for courses

Different lenses suit different types of photography. A sports or a nature photographer would use a telephoto much of the time, often a huge bazooka of a lens with a focal length of 300mm or more. A photojournalist or candid street photographer would often opt for a wide-angle lens when he/she is in the midst of the action. A portrait photographer might want to stick to a ‘normal’ lens and possibly a prime lens in order to get a narrow depth of focus and therefore draw attention to the eyes. A landscape photographer would probably use a range of focal lengths and might be advised to invest in a general-purpose zoom.

"Untitled" capture by Bre Gonse. (Click image to see more from Bre Gonse.)

“Untitled” capture by Bre Gonse. (Click image to see more from Bre Gonse.)

That said, there are no hard and fast rules. Some of the best nature photography I’ve seen was shot on normal or wide-angle lenses. The unusual perspective and sense of closeness to a wild animal that the viewer gains is fresh and thrilling.

Leave your options open

Many photographers, when they’re starting out, have only a vague idea of what they might shoot. You may love nature but soon come to realize that spending days on end waiting for a shot of a woodpecker is a little unrealistic. Instead you may point your camera towards your children.

In order to remain flexible, I would recommend starting off with a general-purpose zoom. Something in the region of 24-70mm or 28-105mm gives you lots of scope for experimentation. You may not be able to catch the expression on the batsman’s face when he is bowled out but you can do plenty of portraits, landscapes and close-quarter action.

A 50mm prime lens is also great to have, not least for portraits. 50mms tend to be small, wonderfully sharp and fast. The benefits of sharpness and speed may not be immediately apparent but they will become more and more so as you progress. And 50mms are cheap – you should be able to pick one up for around $100.

And yes, you might want to throw in a telephoto zoom (something like a 70-300mm)

The F factor

You may find lenses with similar focal lengths at very different prices. There are many factors that constitute quality, or lack thereof. Materials are one – they determine durability and image quality (beware plastic lenses).

But probably the biggest factor is the ‘F’ number. This refers to the width of aperture. A cheap zoom may be marked f4.5-5.6. This means in low light (dusk, indoors) you would really struggle to get sharp shots. By contrast, one prime lens I love is f1.4. This lets in 3 or 4 times as much light as the cheap zoom. This may sound arbitrary but it makes a world of difference if you are shooting in a church without using flash.

It is more expensive to produce lenses with wider apertures (smaller the F number) and they are usually better quality all round.

"My New Toy" captured by Tareq AlObaid. (Click image to see more from Tareq AlObaid.)

“My New Toy” captured by Tareq AlObaid. (Click image to see more from Tareq AlObaid.)

How/where to buy lenses?

I’m a big fan of ‘almost new’ second hand lenses, usually found on the Internet. Generally, compared with a new lens, you can save hundreds of dollars on something in immaculate condition which has only been used a handful of times. But, unless the lens is from an eBay seller of proven quality, you still want to give the lens a check.

For any less-than-new lens the first thing to check for is dust and mould. Remove the lens caps at both ends of the lens and point it towards the light. Take a few seconds to peer through. If there is much dust – or spidery traces of mould – you might want to rethink or renegotiate the price.

A note regarding resale: it is always best to keep the box and any accessories, such as lens hoods and pouches. As with any other product, your lens will maintain its value much better.

About the Author:
I’m a photographer based in Sydney’s Inner West (http://www.sydneyportraits.com.au/). While I have always loved portraits, it was the arrival of my son that made me appreciate just how fun and rewarding family photography could be. He’s now five and, along with his younger sister, remains my favourite – and at times most challenging – subject. Besides my work as a family photographer, I shoot plenty of weddings as well as documentary work for the likes of the BBC, Marie Claire, The Weekend Australian Magazine, UNICEF, Oxfam and Save the Children.

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11 Comments

  1. Michal says:

    “Telephoto is the opposite. Like a telescope, it allows you to see a much smaller portion but magnified or ‘brought closer’.” – no, no, no, it’s not.

    It’s a common mistake but it’s always painful to see it especially when this misconception is propagated in supposedly educational text for beginners. It is common usage to call “long-focus lenses” “telephoto lenses” but it is a mistake.

    As explained in Wikipedia “a telephoto lens is a specific type of a long-focus lens in which the physical length of the lens is shorter than the focal length”, so a telephoto lens is a special case of a long-focus lens.

  2. James says:

    The example of an old Pentax lens not fitting a Pentax DSLR is incorrect. Embarrassingly for the author, Pentax is about the only manufacturer to take great pains to maintain backwards compatibility of lenses. Going all the way back to the K Mount if you can do without the electronic functionality. In all other cases though, the incompatibility rule stands.

  3. cameraman says:

    please do your research before writing an article. Pentax film lens do work in modern dslr. all k mounts lens, film or digital do fit and work on modern Pentax Dslr. the M mount works with an adapter. some older lenses surpass modern lens.this is also true with Canon, Nikon, and even Sony, which uses Minolta’s mount.

  4. GoremanX says:

    As James mentioned, not only do all Pentax film-era lenses work on Pentax DSLRs, but all m42 screw-mount lenses do too (using a simple m42 adapter sold by Pentax and many other makers). Pentax has gone to great lengths to ensure that all Pentax-branded 35mm lenses made since 1963 will “just work” on Pentax DSLRs. In addition, since lots of other camera and lens makers have used the m42 mount at some point in the past, their lenses will “just work” on Pentax DSLRs as well. That’s countless millions of potential high quality inexpensive lenses for Pentax DSLR users.

  5. Bryant Ramos says:

    As others have already stated, film era Pentax slr lenses will mount onto K mount digital slr cameras.
    I didn’t even finish the rest of the article because of that mistake.

  6. Mahesh Rao says:

    Naming the article “Lenses for Beginners” and stating it would be a good idea to start off with a 24-70 or 28-105mm is completely wrong. A beginner (including me when i started off) would use an APSC or crop sensor camera and 24-70 & 28-105 are full frame lenses. These would be used by the minted or the pro’s who dont need to read this article anyway.

  7. Steen Skov says:

    Apart from wehat the others have mentioned, Allusions is not the word you would use in the sentence: “Shattering some allusions”. The correct word is Illusions.
    Allusions means “to hint”, or “with reference to”.

  8. Frank says:

    Most beginners will be able to get good results with a kit lens – certainly much better than with a point and shoot camera. It would be useful to see some images taken with a kit lens compared with a more expensive lens to back up the statement that the quality of kit lenses is poor and to show what sort of improvement can be obtained for the extra expense.

  9. BigD says:

    I’m sorry, but this is just a badly written article. It sounds like the author went to the Ken Rockwell School of Fauxtography. It’s just rife with half-truths and old stereotypes.

    I’ll start with the “most film lenses won’t work on DSLR’s” comment. Most film lenses ARE compatible with DSLR’s with the exception of Canon who made a mount change. ALL Nikon AF lenses will work with ALL Nikon DSLR’s some with limited function. ALL Nikon AI lenses will work with ALL Nikon DSLR’s with limited functions on some. Pre-AI lenses will work with low-end Nikon DSLR’s and can be modified to fit high-end models. Pentax K-mount has been covered and the Konica/Minolta film lenses can be used on Konica/Minolta/Sony DSLR’s.

  10. BigD says:

    To further the discussion, saying that ALL kit lenses are poor quality is highly untrue. The Nikon 18-55 kit lenses are widely known to be sharp. They aren’t fast, but they produce images with great quality. I can’t speak for Canons, but I bet they have similar good kit lenses. This is just plain lens-snobbery. Sorry.

    “Cheap zooms are marked f/4-5.6″ Define cheap. The Nikon 80-400mm f/4-5.6 VR at over $1000? The Sigma 150-500 f/5-6.3 at about $1000? Not cheap.

    “What it lacks in the flexibility of a zoom it makes up for in sharpness”. Another untrue generalization left over from the 70′s. Today’s zooms are often just as sharp if not SHARPER than primes. The Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8G is WAY sharper than the 14mm f/2.8, and the 18mm f/2.8, and the 20mm f/2.8, and the 24mm f/2.8. WAY sharper. The Nikon 17-35mm f/2.8 is much sharper than the 18mm f/2.8, and the 20mm f/2.8, and the 28mm f/2.8, AND the 35mm f/2. See where I’m going with this? Cheap primes aren’t going to be as sharp as pricey zooms. Primes are NOT sharper than zooms. Huge misconception.

    My last point is that if this article is written with beginners in mind why are you recommending “Something in the region of 24-70mm or 28-105mm gives you lots of scope for experimentation.” These are full-frame focal lengths. Most beginners are going to be shooting crop sensors. Wouldn’t it make more sense to recommend something in the 17-55mm range? Shooting with a 28 on the wide end will be extremely frustrating for a beginner.

    You might want to stick to being “the family photographer” because your knowledge about lenses is way off base to be attempting to educate other photographers. You are in fact propagating myths and untruths. Shame on you.

  11. Deb Snelson says:

    I agree wholeheartedly with BigD. Lots of top notch photographers use the Canon 24-105 lens, which is a f/4.5-5.6 lens, which is not “cheap” or substandard. This is rubbish – shame on you PictureCorrect for publishing it.

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