Which Lens Should I Buy (Part 1): Advice for Beginners Who Just Moved up from a Point-&-Shoot

People often ask me, “What sort of lens should I buy as my second lens?” and my answer is always the same: “What sort of pictures would you like to take?”  I’m getting that question a lot right now because a zillion people got new cameras over the holidays. There are so many options I’ve decided to deliver the answer in two installments. But first, let’s take a close look at that kit lens that came with your camera.

The zoom lens that came with your camera is probably pretty good, but all so-called kit lenses have their limitations. ©Jon Sienkiewicz

The zoom lens that came with your camera is probably pretty good. I’ve seen some that bordered on phenomenal. But they have their limitations, all of them, and much in the same way that a carpenter can’t do every cutting chore with a table saw, your kit lens is the work tool for certain photographic jobs but not all of them.

To begin with, if your kit lens is in the popular range around 18-55mm, it’s probably an f/3.5-5.6. That’s bright enough (large enough aperture) for easy composition and focusing. However, a lens that’s described as f/3.5-5.6 is an f/3.5 lens at the widest wideangle setting only. At the telephoto end it’s an f/5.6, a smallish aperture. This lens does not perform well for indoor portraits or group photos under available light. And if you shoot any video at all you’ll find this lens disappointing.

If you’d like to read more about f/stops, you’ll find more details in this article I wrote last spring.

The second strike against kit zooms: they’re not telephotos and they’re not super wideangles either. The zoom range of most kit lenses is equivalent to 28-90mm in the film camera world. That’s an extremely useful and versatile range, but it’s not quite wide enough for scenic vistas and not really long enough for tracking down wildlife or quarterbacks. Yes, 18-55 (28-90) is a very good mid-range zoom, and may cover 75% of your needs. But to break out and explore that other 25%, you need a specialized lens.

The following advice is for folks who own a DSLR that uses an APS-C size sensor. If you own a mirrorless camera, the overall concepts still apply to you, but the specific focal lengths and recommendations are different.

There are so many different lenses available for your camera—versatile, high quality lenses—that I couldn’t even begin to suggest all of the possible options. So please accept these recommendations for what they are: a starting point for your own investigations. You’ll be happy with my picks, but they are certainly not the only choices.

1. Family and friends and mainly around the holidays
For still images as well as video clips of family activities, go with a wideangle zoom that has a large fixed aperture. Unlike the kit lens, which closes down the f/stop as you zoom out, a lens with a fixed aperture stays open at all focal lengths. A great choice is the Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8 DC HSM. The fast f/1.8 aperture is superb for use indoors without flash.

Sigma also makes a 17-50mm f/2.8 which we’ll cover in a minute. Other lens makers offer glass with roughly the same specs. A lens in this range is a good choice, too, but many DSLR newbies shy away because they believe it’s too similar to the 18-55mm that came with their camera. The worthwhile difference, of course, is the faster f/stop that doesn’t shrink when you zoom.

2. Kids sports, school plays and dance recitals
Although the price tag might push the limits of your budget, a lens in the 70-200mm f/2.8 range is exactly what you need. The bright, fixed f/stop is fast enough to shoot school events and the zoom range is ideal for fast action sports. There are lower cost alternatives; a 70-300mm with a variable aperture like the Tamron Zoom Telephoto AF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 or Sigma 70-300mm f/4-5.6 DG Macro for example. But you’ll experience the same problem as with the kit lens—as the lens zooms out, the aperture gets smaller. At the telephoto end you have a 300mm f/5.6 and that’s okay for baseball games but not good for the 8th Grade Talent Show under marginal light without a tripod.

Canon users have a real beauty of a lens option in the Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L USM. Average street price is about $600, substantially lower than its f/2.8 cousin, and it weighs less than half as much. Performance is incredible—I’ve been using one for nearly ten years now.

Sigma 17-50mm f/2.8 EX DC OS HSM. Unlike your kit lens, the aperture doesn’t get smaller when you zoom.

3. Work related and/or company newsletter
Many of my friends have been designated as the unofficial company photographer where they work—you know, they are expected to snap the CEO when he greets a state senator in the lunchroom, and memorialize company functions and events for the newsletter—that sort of stuff. The Sigma 17-50mm f/2.8 EX DC OS HSM is great for these situations and more. At the telephoto end it’s the equivalent of a 75mm f/2.8 (when used on a Nikon) and that’s perfect for portraits. On the wide end, it’s a 25mm which gets the job done for small groups, company picnics and big egos. This particular lens provides four stops of image stabilization, too.

Tiffen Close-Up Lenses (sometimes labeled “close-up filters”) allow you to take dramatic close-focus images with almost any lens.

4. Online Auctions
I’m tempted to write that success in this genre depends more on technique than equipment, but I suppose that could be said about most any photographic endeavor. So let’s assume that the basic good work habits are in place, the subject is properly lighted and the background is plain and simple. Use the kit lens that came with your camera plus a screw-in close-up lens, like the ones sold by Tiffen. They’re available in a sets of three strengths (+1, +2, +4) for less than $60 (depending on size) and can be stacked in different combinations (+2 plus +4 equals +6). They attach easily to the filter threads on the front of the lens. Canon’s and Nikon’s 18-55mm kit zoom lenses both focus to 9.8-inches, so even without the extra glass you’re off to a good start.

The Nikon 18-140mm f/3.5-5.6G lens is compact, has very effective image stabilization and is an outstanding performer. Highly recommended for travel and general use.

5. Travel and Adventure
How sad when I talk to someone who just returned from “trip of a lifetime” and took only one lens with them. Take two—at least—or a whole basketful, if you can. In my experience wideangle lenses are more useful for travel than telephotos, both for urban areas and scenic landscapes. My advice is to pack a prime (non-zoom) wideangle lens and a popular all-in-one type zoom that’s in the 18-200 or 18-300mm range. Nikon has an 18-140mm f/3.5-5.6G lens that’s compact, has very effective image stabilization and is an outstanding performer. Nearly every other lens maker offers at least one product in this approximate range.

Next week we’ll look at lenses for other activities,  activities that are sometimes thought of as being in the realm of more advanced hobbyists. Check back next week—or better yet, bookmark my blog—to find out which types lenses I recommend for more specialized pursuits.

—Jon Sienkiewicz

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