Let's get this out of the way: If you're a seasoned photographer, this guide isn't for you: you know what you're doing and likely have some solid opinions on the glass you like to use with your camera. If, on the other hand, you're a beginner, congratulations on your first DSLR! It's a smart purchase that'll see to your photographic needs for years to come. This guide, my friends, is for you.
There's a good chance that when you bought your camera, it came with what's commonly known as a kit lens: an inexpensive lens designed to ensure that your camera's ready to use, right out of the box. A typical kit lens will allow you to shoot passable photos of everything from portraits to landscapes. You'll get a little telephoto performance out of one and, if you tweak the angle you're popping off pics at correctly, maybe even a bit of wide-angle action, too. For a lot of people, this level of photographic performance is enough to be happy with, and more power to them: the less money you spend on hardware, the more cash you'll have to spend in other areas of your life. If, however, using a kit lens has whetted your appetite for a whack at taking some more advanced optics for a spin, deciding on which lenses to buy can be pretty daunting. There's a wide variety of lenses out there, made by a number of different brands. They come with different mounting systems that may not be compatible with your camera and can cost varying amounts of money despite appearing to have nearly identical specifications. And, no matter how much you wind up spending on a lens, you can be sure it'll be expensive. It's enough to make you go back to shooting photos with your smartphone. Don't do it—at least not until you give me the chance to walk you through the first few lenses that every new photographer should consider adding to their camera bag.
Before we get started, I want to be sure we're on the same page with a few important points.
First, a note on technical terminology: I'm not going to use a lot of it here. As I mentioned earlier, this guide is for beginners. Understanding how things like focal point, aperture and shutter speeds can affect your photos is an important part of becoming a great photographer. But this knowledge comes with a steep learning curve. The goal of this guide is to help you pick some great lenses to make better use of your DSLR camera, not give you a lesson on how those lenses work. We'll talk camera nerd in a different article.
Next, let's talk about pricing and the lenses I've chosen to include in this guide.
If you lurk camera blogs and photography message boards, it won't long before you run into people who would rather gouge out their own eyes rather than use anything but the very best lenses, price be damned. This, in case you missed the name of our site, isn't what we're about here.
There are some absolutely stunning optics out there, available for thousands of dollars. But most folks don't need them, and I don't think a budding DSLR photographer should buy them. That said, no lens comes cheap. They're complicated pieces of hardware with a lot of internal moving parts that are expensive to make. I've done my best to find the most affordable lenses around—but not at the expense of quality. As adding new glass to your camera bag is a pricey proposition, consider your needs carefully before pulling the trigger on any of the hardware discussed in this guide.
You should also know that, while I've taken pains to provide lens picks for five of the major lens mounting systems, there's a good chance that your camera may not work with the lenses in this guide. There's simply too many DSLR brands, models, and mounting systems out there for me to be able to cover them all in the relatively small amount of space I've got to work with here. With this being the case, I encourage you to protect yourself with the most powerful weapon any consumer can wield: research.
Before forking over any cash for a new lens, no matter whether it's been discussed in this guide or if you've found it in a big box store, be certain that the glass you're considering will actually work with your DSLR. If the lens comes from the same company that made your camera, there's a good chance that it'll be compatible. After all, companies like Nikon or Canon have a vested interest in ensuring their products will work well together. All the same, to avoid the headache of having to get a refund on an incompatible lens, check their websites for hardware compatibility charts. The same goes for third-party glass from companies like Sigma, Lensbaby or Zeiss. Don't take it for granted that just because a retailer says a lens will work with your camera, that it will. Do the legwork to ensure that you'll be happy with your purchase.
With that bit of business out of the way, let's get on with the main event!
A superior lens for portraits and everyday photography
Your kit lens can take passable photos of people. But, as a jack-of-all-trades piece of gear, it can't match the photographic prowess of a mission-specific piece of glass. To up the game of your portrait photography, consider picking up an 85mm lens.
With an 85mm lens attached to your DSLR, you'll be able to take intimate-looking portraits without getting in your subject's personal space. When shooting with an 85mm lens from a distance of around six to ten feet away from your subject, you'll be rewarded with well-lit images that make the people you're photographing look their best. Facial features and anything else you want in the foreground of your shot will be sharp, with none of the lens distortion that taking the same shot with ye olde 18-55mm kit lens sometimes affords. You can opt to maintain the clarity of the background in an image, or open the lens' aperture all the way up to blur it out with a creamy bokeh of the sort that the iPhone 7 Plus' Portrait mode aspires to.
While the focus (sorry) of owning an 85mm lens is on portraiture, there are other perks that come with owning one, too. For starters, an 85mm lens will typically be a lot lighter and shorter than the variable length kit lens that your DSLR may have come with. This, along with its ability to stay out of the face of what you're shooting, also makes it a great choice for a lens that you can slap on your DSLR to use on all-day photo-shoots without getting tired of lugging it around, or taking up too much space. It's great for taking candid shots at weddings and as a street shooter—allowing you to capture the vibrant life of the urban sprawl many of us call home. If I had to pick one lens to travel with, it would be an 85mm.
It's worth noting that Fujifilm doesn't make an 85mm lens for their X-Mount DSLR cameras. The pricey, but very desirable XF56mmF1.2 R will do much the same job.
Portrait Lens Picks
Who wants pancakes?
The amazing photographic capabilities of a DSLR come at a cost: the size and weight of the hardware. To make full use of your camera typically means having to carry around a bag full of lenses, filters, extra batteries and other DSLR-related flotsam and jetsam that can't help but weigh you down on your adventures. Sometimes, schlepping all of this kit around the countryside is neither desirable or necessary. Depending on the situation you're shooting in, you could get away with using a pancake lens.
Pancake lenses are wider than they are long, making them pretty much flat—like a pancake. Their small size and relative mechanical simplicity, compared to longer barreled lenses with varying focal points, make pancake lenses lightweight and, blissfully, inexpensive. Slap a pancake lens onto the body of your DSLR and you've suddenly got a powerful camera system that'll fit into the pocket of your cargo pants, satchel or purse. Sounds pretty great, right? Well, that's because it is. But, like most of the good things in life, the mobility that a pancake lens affords DSLR users, comes at a cost.
First, you may notice that your photos will suffer a minor loss of image quality while using a pancake lens. Don't get me wrong—any picture you take will still look light years better than what a current-generation smartphone camera can afford. But the kit lens that your camera came with or your or the 85mm glass that we just finished discussing will typically trounce the quality of images that a pancake lens can afford. But that's a small price to pay for the portability you get while using one.
Next, pancake lenses can't zoom. At all. So, if you want to tinker with the composition of your photographs, you'll have to do it the old fashion way: by moving around. Some DSLRs come with digital zoom capabilities baked into them, which you could employ while rocking a pancake lens, but I'm against doing so. Using a camera's digital zoom leads to poorly rendered final images, much like you see in smartphone photography.
For reasons unknown, Nikon doesn't currently offer a pancake lens in their lineup. I wasn't able to find a third-party solution, either. If you're a Nikon DX camera user, consider grabbing a 35mm f/1.8G lens instead. It costs about the same as a Pancake lens, is both lightweight, compact and offers similar abilities to what a pancake lens can bring into your life.
Pancake Lens Picks
A telephoto zoom lens isn't just for snapping pics of faraway subjects to look as though you were standing right next to them. The lens can also lend itself, thanks to the wide range of focal lengths it offers, to capturing images with varied framings and perspectives that other lenses simply can't hack.
When using a telephoto lens, you'll notice that the more you zoom in on your subject, the more you'll notice the minute movements of your hands, even though you're holding your camera as steadily as you can. This can mess with your framing and focus, making for lousy photos. To make this shaking a non-issue, think about investing in a telephoto lens that comes with automatic image stabilization baked into it. These sort of lenses star at around $300. If that's a little too rich for your blood, glass without built-in image stabilization functionality can sometimes be had for significantly less money. If you go for this more economical option, you'll want to think about investing in a good tripod to keep your camera steady while taking longer shots. This might sound like a great inexpensive solution because it is—for the right person. Before buying a tripod, ask yourself: will you be using it in situations where having an additional, somewhat cumbersome piece of hardware won't be a big deal—if you're planning on doing a lot of photography with your car nearby, at your cabin or anywhere else that portability isn't an issue, go for it. If you plan on using your telephoto lens to capture your next overseas vacation or shooting scenery and wildlife on hikes into the backcountry, then using a tripod to keep your camera steady may not be for you.
Telephoto Zoom Picks
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