Everything you need to know about a camera lenses and What Camera Lens to Buy and Not Buy. Choosing the right camera lens can be a hard decision whether you are a Canon or Nikon user it doesn’t matter…these tips are all for you.
I’m going to share some of my photography tips for purchasing a dslr camera lens, based of course on some of my (embarrassing) camera lens purchasing mistakes. The hope is that I can help you NOT make the same costly mistakes I made while trying to educate you on lens types and so much more.
What Camera Lens to Buy and Not Buy
Camera Lens Guide for Beginners
Research, research, research!!
Be sure you’re checking published reviews and opinions of others. Ask your professional photographer or a friend who seems to be knowledgeable about camera lenses. Better yet – stop in at your local specialty camera store and ask the owner or manager some questions. Make sure you’re educating yourself about dslr lenses BEFORE making a purchase (hey, you’re reading this blog post, so that’s a great start!!).
It’s important to realize that you don’t have to buy the most expensive lens in order to be purchasing a good lens for photography (for example, Sigma lenses do an amazing job, while costing half that of a Nikon lens), but do your research first!!
Don’t buy the camera body & lens kit!!
The lens that comes with the dslr camera kit is usually (ahem, can I say “always”?!?) just a mediocre lens with no special features or excellent selling points. It’ll do an okay job, but the focus won’t necessarily be tack sharp and the photos won’t come out super crisp. This is partially because these “kit lenses” have too many responsibilities and cannot be stellar at any of them. They’re just a basic inexpensive camera lens to pop onto a camera body for people who don’t know much about lenses. Also, think about it – there’s a reason nobody really buys those kit lenses individually!! Let’s move beyond the camera kit lens your camera came with.
What does 18-55 mm on lens mean?
Don’t assume that just because a lens offers a huge zoom range it’s going to be an amazing lens.
Now, don’t get me wrong – it could be an incredible zoom lens, but chances are that it’s not (unless you paid several thousand dollars for it??). This is the mistake I made most often in my purchases, and it cost me a LOT of wasted money before I realized those lenses were decent, but not the best. Not to go into details, but I started off buying an 18-250mm Tamron lens, and a few years later “upgraded” to a 18-300mm Nikon lens. The glass on the Nikon was a good bit better than the Tamron, but the price tag was bigger, too, and neither lens had that really nice wide aperture (lower f stop). These zoom lenses were nice for traveling with only one lens and getting mediocre photos, but the images aren’t as tack sharp in focus, and they’re often times slower for focusing.
What makes the BEST Camera Lens?
Buy a prime lens.
So, if you’re not buying the kit lens, and you’re not buying a lens with a big zoom, what kind of lens ARE you buying?!? My suggestion would be to purchase a decent 35mm prime (or “fixed”) lens. Or if the prime is out of your budget (it is expensive!), go with the 50mm prime lens, which is usually more affordable. The word “prime” or “fixed” means they don’t zoom at all (so, you zoom in/out by moving YOUR body closer to the subject or father away from the subject – haha!). Prime lenses have one thing that’s really going for them – they are amazing at taking tack sharp, in focus, crisp photographs!
What does the f number mean on a lens?
Buy a prime lens with a big aperture (opening).
If you’ve ventured out of the auto mode on your camera (DO IT!!!), I’m sure you’ve noticed this “f stop” thing also known as “aperture”, which is how wide your shutter opens. Well, learning about aperture is a post for another day, but essentially if you’re ever photographing in lower light situations (ex. indoors) or if you want incredible background blur, the aperture you want to see on your lens should be something like f1.4 or f1.8 (even f2.8 is really good!). This takes me back to the tip about not buying the “kit” lens – they’re usually f3.5 at the biggest, and that’s okay, but not the greatest!
Buy a lens with an autofocus (AF) motor.
Some entry-level digital camera bodies don’t have autofocus motors built in (check your camera body to see if you have a little toggle switch that says “AF” and “M” actually on the body), so they rely on the lens to do the focusing. You want to make sure you’re buying an automatically focusing lens, ESPECIALLY if your camera doesn’t have a built in autofocus. This tip is especially important, too, if you’re buying used or refurbished lenses, as you’ll likely be seeing some older lenses without autofocus capabilities.
Buy used or refurbished.
As long as something is in good working order, it does NOT need to be new. You can save lots of money by purchasing used or refurbished gear from an authorized retailer (I make retailer suggestions int he next tip!). Also, buy & sell sites sometimes offer good lens deals, though obviously you have to take some precautions about how you send money or meet up. Safety first, guys!! 🙂
Buy from a reputable company.
At one point in my life, I bought all my camera gear from Amazon (AHH, do NOT follow my example there!!). Don’t get me wrong – Amazon is great – but for camera gear, you really want to make sure you’re buying an authentic piece of gear from a reputable company. This is firstly so you have warranty coverage, but also so you actually have an authentic piece of equipment, and not some “grey market” knockoff that looks a lot like the original but doesn’t do the job like an original.
Some of the places I utilize to purchase my photography gear include B&H Photo Video (www.bhphotovideo.com) or Henry’s Canada (www.henrys.com) for my fellow Canadian shoppers! Also, there are many small local camera shops that are authorized retailers for photography gear, and typically the staff at such shops are photographers and therefore know a decent amount about cameras, lenses, etc. It’s definitely worth the trip to your local camera store to gain their expertise – trust me!! Plus, often times you can actually try out the gear you want to purchase to ensure it’s exactly what you want!
Also, I suggest NEVER to buy from Best Buy or Walmart type stores, simply because you can’t really count on the reps knowing anything much about photography.
Camera Lenses Explained for Dummies
Ensure you’re buying a lens compatible with your camera.
Did you know that Canon lenses don’t attach onto Nikon camera bodies (and vice versa)? And did you know you can buy a Sigma, Tamron, or Zeiss lens for your DSLR camera, even if you have a Nikon or Canon camera body? Most lenses will advertise right away whether they’re for Nikon or Canon, so just be sure you’re double checking if you’re going with a different brand of lens. You definitely want to make sure the lens is built for your specific type of camera body because it will be very disappointing otherwise!!
Know whether you’re buying a DX or FX format lens.
Essentially, if you have a full frame camera (FX), you want to be sure you’re buying a full frame lens (otherwise everything you see in your viewfinder will NOT be in your photo, which is super frustrating!!). If you have a crop sensor camera body (DX), you can buy either type of lens, but keep in mind that a FX lens on a DX body will make the image you see in the viewfinder seem almost “zoomed in” (so a 35mm FX lens on a DX body is going to make it feel more similar to a 50mm lens). I’d definitely recommend buying the FX lens right away if you’re ever planning to upgrade your body to a full frame body. Dealing with the zoomed in feel is definitely tolerable if you have a 35mm or 50mm lens (I did that for probably about a year!)!!
Camera Lens Filter Explained:
Buy a lens filter.
It’s a matter of personal opinion, but in the photography world, I’ve heard of (and known!) several photographers who say their lens filter has saved their camera’s lens when they’ve dropped it. If nothing else, a lens filter prevents against dust, scratches, and even moisture hitting your lens directly. Some good places to start would be with a UV filter (typically less than $50) or a polarizing filter (around $100). There’s not a huge noticeable impact on your photos, and if anything it can enhance them (sometimes reducing haze, reflections, glares, etc.). You simply need to be aware of what size filter threads your lens utilizes, and then it’s something you easily can purchase online. If you’re ever planning on resale for your lens, being able to say you’ve always had a filter on the lens is a bit of a selling point for some people!
Use/buy a lens hood.
Again, matter of personal preference, but I suggest to keep your lens hood on (and buy one if it didn’t come with your lens purchase)!! This is for similar reasons as the above tip, but I also find that it makes me feel comfortable keeping my lens without a lens cap (eek, maybe don’t follow that tip… but as a professional photographer, I don’t have time to be messing around with taking a lens cap off all the time or storing it when I’m shooting an all day wedding).
Upgrade your lens before your camera body.
This is actually one area where I felt like I did things “right” – woohoo!! I started off with the Nikon D7000 (DX) and used that as my primary camera body for years and years. I tried a bunch of lenses (all kinda silly purchases now that I look back), but finally decided upon upgrading to the Nikon 50mm f1.4 (FX). I used that FX lens with my DX camera and it made a HUGE difference in the quality of my photos. Of course, upgrading to a full frame camera with a full frame lens is the best, but if you’re strapped for cash, you can make a drastic improvement on your photos by upgrading to a nicer piece of glass.
TIP #14 (actually just a FUN FACT):
It might make you feel super professional with a massive lens on your camera body, but the pros know that typically the smaller lenses are prime lenses and will yield better, more professional-looking results (unless you’re a wildlife photographer, in which case you definitely need like a 400mm lens!). So rock that baby lens and show off all it can do! <3
So my opinions might be completely biased toward what I love and use and do, but at the same time, I feel as though most photography professionals would agree on most (if not all) of these tips! Follow them for your next lens purchase and you’ll end up with a fantastic lens that you’ll absolutely love and that will last you years and years and years!!
Guest Post: Athena Marie
P.S. I’d love to get to know you a bit via social media – follow along on Instagram
This was super helpful! Thank you for sharing!
So glad you found it to be helpful!!! Connect if you have further questions – I am so happy to help!
Norman Pohl says
Great info. Thanks.
You’re so very welcome! I hope it helps you in your next lens choice!!!
Luz mustafa says
This was very helpfull. Thanks
Luz mustafa says
I like to be a better photographer. Love the tips
Keep following along at Sixth Bloom to see more photography tips and KEEP PRACTICING!!! Everyone can get better at photography with practice! Glad you found my guest post on lenses helpful, and certainly feel free to email me with questions!!
You’re very welcome! Thanks for giving it a read!!! 🙌🏼
Haha, very true!! Thanks for reading, Peter!
carol ann says
My professional camera shop ALWAYS recommends the B+W lens filters. Just passing along. 🙂 Happy snapping everyone!
Roger G says
Nice article, thank you, Athena. As a ‘baby boomer’ I got into photography as a kid, had my own dark-room (wassat??) and owned (and still own) a bunch of old – very old even then – plate cameras and film cameras of various formats. Playing with such equipment gives a good feel for some of what you wrote about, and I would greatly encourage anyone who has not done so not to miss any chance to do so! I have to confess, though, that I am very much a fan of the zoom lens: could never afford one as a kid. At about 16 I managed to save enough to buy my first 35mm SLR, a Miranda F with 50mm f1.9 standard lens; purely mechanical, not even a built-in light meter, and cost over a months wage for the average workman. I augmented it as soon as I could with a Tamron 28mm, I think f2.8 – quite the opposite of what most did:
everyone seemed to get a 135mm telephoto as their first addition. In those ‘good old days’ every click cost money (for film, at least) and of course I shot with whatever was loaded up in the camera. Took a lot of photos in low-light situations, and always craved a big aperture. However, today you can just dial up the ‘film speed’ for each shot, and the post-processing capability means you can often still bring things to life when all seems lost. So the main reason for the big aperture today is the ‘bokeh’ or whatever they call it, the blurred background, and even that can be photoshopped. So what I’m saying is: If you can find a good, crisp zoom lens that has sharpness acceptable to you through it’s range then the value of the sheer versatility it offers should not be denied. But unquestionably, Athena, you are right: all else being equal, a fixed focus lens will inevitably out-perform a zoom at that focal length – there is just so much less glass for a start. So, while I absolutely don’t disagree with what you say, I still think there is a place for ‘serious zoom lenses’!!
Thanks for reading, Roger! Hope you found some of it helpful!! I love that you owned your own darkroom (that’s on my bucket list – I fell in love with developing my own film and prints while studying photography in college!)!! And I would love to experiment with more than just the old film SLRs (really want to get my hands on a medium format!). Shooting with those old film cameras really gave you an appreciation of photography and made picture composing very intentional, eh?? I just love film!! Anyway, I agree with you about the crisp zoom lens – they definitely have their necessary place in lens collections provided they’re the “serious zoom lens” as you call it! I actually have one myself (the 70-200mm, f2.8), and I really do LOVE it, but it’s not all that affordable for the average photography appreciator, so I think the best, crispest lens they can put in their camera bags is a less costly prime lens (versus the standard 18-55mm lens that comes with most DSLRs nowadays and isn’t really super crisp). Hopefully that wasn’t super confusing!! It sounds like we’re on the same page anyway! Thanks for commenting – always good to run into another photographer, especially someone who has had lots of film photography experience!!! Love it! Thanks for sharing!!
Roger G says
Thanks for taking my comment in the spirit intended, Athena! Yes, I think we are on the same page. I spotted the enquiry below and posted a reply to that, you may shudder but an amateur really needs to use appropriate equipment, and I have been really impressed by that little camera. Panasonic also sold it as a Leica.
You mentioned medium format: If you look on the pinterest page I refer to in the other reply there is a photo of an old tram body with a tree growing through it. I took that on a hundred+ year old ‘Half-plate’ camera, using X-ray film. Had to guess film speed etc. To convert it to a useful format (positive image and printable!), as I no longer have a dark-room I taped the negative to a window and photographed it with a digital camera!! All just a bit of fun. A friend of mine recently showed that you can – sort of – develop black and white film with coffee–.
Mary Sorrell says
I’m fairly new at taking photographs. My son plays football and track and I need to take photos from a distance, and sometimes in a stadium at night. I have the “kit” lens 70-300mm f5.6. I need a larger f-stop to capture the action shots in low light. I bought a doubler(?) that increased my zoom capabilities, but my photos are not as crisp. I’m not sure what f-stop would work best for my situations. I can’t even imagine the cost of a 400mm lens with a larger f-stop!
Thank for for your informative article.
Roger G says
G’day Mary: I hesitate to suggest this but: about 5 years ago I bought a compact camera, a Lumix FZ200, with a zoom lens (they claim it’s a Leica, if really so that’s impressive – and the lens does seem to be remarkably good) with an effective range from about 24mm to 600mm. The thing about it is that it is f2.8 all the way through this range – it’s the only zoom I have ever seen that keeps the same aperture all the way. If you want huge crisp enlargements then it may not be quite what you want but, frankly, you’d have to spend a lot of money to improve on it. I have enlargements up to A1 size which are really good. If you are interested: I have some photos taken with it on my pinterest page https://au.pinterest.com/griffiths1822/ – may give you some idea, although the quality won’t be ‘original’. Three photos on the board ‘People and places’ were taken at the full 600mm zoom, ‘Zoned light industry’, ‘Calm between raging waters’ and ‘Shorncliffe Pier’. ‘Hector’s field’ was taken with the camera but at a much wider setting. The photo of the woman cleaning windows is taken from a portion of the frame. I don’t know if Lumix still make such a thing but may be worth enquiring. The thing about these compact cameras is that the CCD (in case you don’t know: that’s the bit that forms the image) is really small, so intrinsically they cannot compete with bigger/better cameras) – this is why the 600mm lens is ‘effective’ – it’s really just 103mm I think. But it does mean you can pack a lot of capability into a small package. (A lens extender will never be better than the lens it’s extending, and will always cut the aperture.) Hope this is of some help! I know you didn’t want to hear ‘buy a different camera’ but I have been really impressed by this one. Much less clunky to have around your neck while screaming encouragement at your kid too!
A very informative post. Tips#3 is absolutely true. Many people think that the longer the lense the more good it is. One should know the scientific limitations of the camera lenses. Every lens has the power to produce great results. Creative limitations are endless. But scientific limitations of a camera lens help you to understand its full potential.
Every lens of the camera is just an another tool. These lenses have specific scientific qualities. These qualities of a lens help to create better pictures. That’s it! I also wrote a blog based on the same idea…check and leave your feedback! I would appreciate it! http://siddharthmalkania.com/types-of-dslr-lenses-and-their-uses/
Robert lurie says
Thanks for your direct concise advice!
Most of your tips I know already, having found out the hard (hard cash!) way!
However the tips that I didn’t know, made your article most educational & “penny dropping!” for me
Thanks again – much appreciated!
(amateur – semi-prof wannabe)
RICHARD WARD says
Very helpfull article-thanks.