Taking the step to buy your first DSLR is daunting, but it's not quite as scary as buying your first lens. There are so many choices and prices are all over the place. Except, there are no prices that are in that place called "inexpensive" because there is no such thing as a Dollar Store lens. You know you won't regret buying that camera, but buying a lens and then discovering it's not the right lens for you is the ultimate photographer lovers disappointment. So much money! Wasted!
So. You've got a kit lens. You are ready to invest in an upgrade. What do you get?
First, you need to figure out what's missing in your photography life. Do you often find yourself wishing you could zoom in closer? Further away? Does low light make you cranky? Do you long for better bokeh? You really should have an idea of how exactly you expect a new lens to make your life better. Figure out that key feature you are looking for and buy something that will deliver it.
Here are a few lenses that I recommend for the average person who mostly uses their camera to capture life's daily moments:
- It can go down to f/1.8, which means it's great in low light and is capable of delivering amazing bokeh.
- It's a very fast lens. If you're chasing kids, you'll find it is fast enough to keep up with them under most conditions.
- The price is certainly phenomenal.
- It's a fixed focal length. That means if you want to zoom in on the action, you're going to have to do it by moving your feet. I used a 50mm lens almost exclusively for about a year and very rarely found this to be a problem. In fact, I think it improved my photography because it forced me to think harder about how I framed a shot. However, some people just don't want to have to walk closer or further away from something before snapping that photo. Those people have been warned.
- If you use Nikon, be aware that the link above goes to the version of this lens that does NOT autofocus with all Nikon cameras. Check the specs to be sure the lens will autofocus with your camera.
- If you buy this lens, you will end up with a pang of regret that you didn't get it as your first lens instead of the kit lens. Everybody I know has.
Canon 28-135mm f/3.5-5.6: This lens comes in at just under $400. It is able to zoom in more than the standard kit lens, which would make it an upgrade if you photograph your kid participating in sports and such.
I personally don't own this lens, but I know lots of people who do and I have used it. It could definitely be used as an upgrade for a kit lens.
- It has a great range. 29-135mm will get you by in most day-to-day situations.
- It has image stabilization, which reduces camera shake and helps you get crisper photos. It can make a huge difference, especially when you're shooting in the 100mm+ range.
- It's heavy. This lens is extremely multi-purpose but it will start to weigh you down if you carry it everywhere.
- There is little or no improvement in low-light situations when compared to the kit lens.
Nikon 18-105mm f/3.5-5.6: This is considered the "budget" lens of the multi-purpose lens selection by Nikon. In this instance, "budget" means it will set you back around $475. It has a great range and can definitely be considered an upgrade over the standard Nikon kit lens.
I don't own a Nikon camera so I haven't tried this lens personally, but the Nikon people I asked all agreed that this would be the "multi-purpose" lens they would pick. It's not terribly heavy but is powerful enough to use in most situations.
Tamron 28-75mm f/2.8: This "off-brand" multi-purpose lens will set you back around $450 and is available for both Canon and Nikon cameras.
I have this lens. I love this lens. I use this lens probably 90% of the time. It is the lens that lives on my camera because it is the most versatile one I own. Did I mention that I love this lens? Because I do.
- The price is absolutely phenomenal. This is an "off-brand" lens. The Canon equivalent sells for well over $1000.
- "Off-brand" doesn't mean "inferior." I rented the Canon equivalent for a week before buying the Tamron. I dare anyone to find a difference in the quality of the photos that I took with the two lenses. Sure, the Tamron lens is plastic and feels a little bit flimsier, but I'm perfectly OK with that when I can save several hundred dollars.
- It's fantastic in low-light situations and creates great bokeh.
- It's a little noisy when focusing. I've never really found it to be a problem by any means, but there is no doubt that it's louder than, say, my 50mm Canon lens.
- Focus is a little slower than my other lenses. Again, I've never found it to truly be a problem, but it is noticeable.
As for how to decide which lens is right for you, again you need to figure out what you need. Check the Exif data on photos you have taken with your current lens. Do you usually end up with a focal length at one end of your range? What aperture do you tend to gravitate towards? Do you often wish you could zoom in further? Are you forever backing up so that you can fit more in the frame? Answer those questions and you will be headed in the right direction.
One note, before buying a lens, you may want to consider renting it for a week or two, or even borrowing one from a friend. There are tons of places that rent lenses. I like RentGlass.com, but there are other companies out there.
Lastly, before you buy a lens, check the return policy of the store. If a lens ends up not being right for you, it's much better to return it and try something different than it is to sit in the corner and weep openly because you just spent a ton of money and don't like the results.