Got a new DSLR? Next Step: Choosing a lens

Ahhh! Which one do I choose? There are SO many and they are all so beautiful!

A few days ago I posted a comment on Facebook asking new DLSR owners what questions they might have about their new found money pits (ahem! I mean cameras).  I should have guessed what would come out of that post… I mean, what is the next logical step after dropping a G on a camera?  Go out and drop ANOTHER G on a lens, of course!  Now that I think about it, I should have blogged about this a long time ago, because this has to be one of the most often asked questions I get.

Before we begin, I’ll make a few disclaimers.  1) I’m a Canon guy.  Nikon has some great lenses, but me keeping up on their lenses is like you studying your neighbor’s family tree.  It’s not relevant to me.  I’m sure Nikon has a line of comprable products, so take the essence of these words and seek out a Nikon equivalent.  2) Lenses depreciate the day you buy them, and never again.  I buy all my lenses from minimally sketchy people on Craigslist.  If the glass is clean, the focus ring is smooth, the Image Stabilization works, and they guy you bought it from is not a total “I-saw-you-on-Dateline” sketch-ball, give the homey your cash and scoot with his lens!  Why pay the extra 30%?  I bought a lens (Canon EF-S 10-22mm) for $600 on craigslist and three years later sold it for $650.  That’s better than the housing market!  3) All of this lens mumbo jumbo is subjective.  There are no positively correct answers, only opinions.  My suggestion is to find a lens that fits your budget, go out and buy the thing (used), and try that sucker out.  If you don’t like it, sell it (for a profit!) and buy the other lens you were considering.  ORRRR, if you are far more practical, just rent one from one of the very reputable lens rental companies out there, I like, conveniently located here in the San Francisco, Bay Area.

So, lets dive in.

First, let’s address a few questions:

Aperture Diagram

The holes represent the aperture, or hole, size that allows light into the lens. Notice, as the aperture gets smaller, the f/number gets bigger!

What is that f/4.0 or 5.6 or *1.8* number all about?   That number is the “f-number” describing the aperture of a lens.  The f-number you see in a lens name is a representation of the maximum diameter of the aperture (or hole) through which your lens lets in light. The lower the number, the BIGGER the aperture!   These maximum aperture sizes will usually range between 1.2 (on super expensive lenses) and 4.6 or 5.6 (on more consumer grade lenses).  Bigger apertures, allow that lens can capture faster exposures on your camera.  Imagine filling a water bucket with a straw and then fill that same bucket with a fire hose.  The fire hose bucket is filled MUCH quicker.  The same can be thought about a lens that has a larger aperture (represented by a smaller f/number, like 2.8, or 1.4).  Your camera needs enough light to make a proper exposure.  It can do this with a large aperture and a short amount of time, or a smaller aperture and a longer amount of time.  Take a look at lenses online, in general, you will find lenses with smaller f-numbers are more expensive than those with larger f-numbers.  Pros want these small f-number lenses so they can freeze subjects faster in all lighting conditions.  There is also a BIG trade off in terms of aperture size and background blur.  Smaller f-number lenses (like 1.2, 1.8, 2.8) have the ability to separate a subject and its background by keeping the subject in focus, while blurring the background to a buttery bliss.  The ability of a lens to blur the background of an image is called “Bokeh” a twist on a Japanese word meaning “blur.”  Is this all making sense?  Nope… Shoot, I need a digram… Heyyyy, Look at that one I found to the right!

Notice that little "IS" at the end of the name of the lens. That means this bad boy has Image Stabalizaion!

What is this “IS” stuff?  IS in a lens title stands for Image Stabilization (Nikon’s equivalent is called VR or Vibration Reduction, BOOM!).  Lenses with an IS feature have gyroscopes that hold the rear lens element in a relative position such that it steadies the image your camera is seeing.  It can do this on multiple axis, so when you jiggle that thing left and right and up and down, your subject will appear to resist moving in those directions.   The result is an image that is less blurred due to the movement of your hands.  This feature will also allow you to hand hold your camera in darker lighting situations, without a flash, and still get sharp images.  This IS feature, however, does NOT help with a moving subject.  Only fast (big aperture!) lens can do that.  Here is a cool LINK that elaborates on the IS feature.

Zooms vs. Primes?  Zoom lenses behave quite similar to the lenses you are probably familiar with in your point and shoot.  Want a wide angle image?  Zoom out.  Want to close in on the zit on your sibling’s face so you can post it on Facebook?  Zoom ALL the way in!!!  Easy.  Prime lenses on the other hand are a fixed focal length.  Thats it.  You zoom with your feet.  Thinking about a gym membership?  Buy a prime lens instead.  Prime lenses do come with some very distinct advantages over zooms though.  Prime lenses are often faster than zoom lenses allowing one to capture photos at higher speeds, and can provide gorgeous portrait effects with their bokeh (there is that funny word again).

EF vs. EF-S Canon Lenses?  Years ago, like B.D. (Before Digital), EF Lenses were originally made to fit 35mm film cameras.  Guess what!!!  Your entry level DSLR (Digital Rebel, 50D, 60D etc.) does not have a sensor that is the same size as that 35mm film.   It has a smaller sensor.  Imagine setting up a video projector to blast your favorite Twilight movie out at a screen (common, I know you’re on team Edward, don’t deny it!).  You set it up so that the image fits perfectly, edge to edge, top to bottom.  Edward just looks AMAZING on all sides.  Great.  This is what happens on a 35mm film camera using an EF lens.  Now back that projector up 10 feet.  What happens?  The image spills all over the sides, leaving you only with a portion of that underage actor’s beautiful face on that screen.  “BOO!”  the Twihards scream!  In your entry level DSLR, an EF Lens will spill light onto the sides of your sensor, actually, not hitting the sensor at all.  Wha happen?  Well Canon asked that same question, and made an EF-S series of lenses that were specially made for smaller sensor cameras like the Rebels and 50D and 60Ds of the world.  These are GREAT lenses designed to fit with your camera like the best spooning session you’ve ever had.  They are not considered pro, but neither is your camera!  It’s all good, yo!

Okay, now on to lenses:

The first thing to consider when thinking about a lens purchase is, “What the heck do I want to photograph 90% of the time this camera thing is in my hands?”  If you are a travel photographer you will likely need a different lens than someone who wants to photograph animals on an African Safari.  If you are wanting to take pictures of your adorable family, that might require something that is good for portraits.  If you are wanting to photograph weddings, just get out your credit card and embrace Top Ramen as a food staple for the next three years.

So, I’ll make a few recommendations for NEW-B photographers with subject matter and budget (less than $1000) in mind.

Canon's EF-S 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 IS is a great all purpose lens!

For the “I want to take pictures of everything near and far and wide and zoomed” photographer:  Canon’s EF-S 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 IS is an optimal choice.  It’s got the wide angle, a fairly large aperture at f/3.5, and IS to help with your wobbly hands, and all that for a price tag of about $600.  Not too shabby.  You can thread this thing onto your Rebel and take pictures for DAAAAYYYZZZ and be happy.





Canon's EF 50mm f/1.8 II is money for taking portraits and will be easy on your wallet!

For the “I want to take pictures of people” photographer:  Hands down, best startup lens for portrait photographers is the “nifty fifty” or Canon’s EF 50mm f/1.8 II.  At nearly a $100, this is your best bang for your buck in terms of making your images look professional.  You get that sweet f/1.8 aperture which will give your images that ohh so sexy bokeh (background blur).  Subjects will be tack sharp, and backgrounds will be smooth as butter.  Plus you’ll have some cash to spend on another lens!  Sweet!  But remember, NO zoom!  and NO wide angle!




Canon's EF-S 10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 USM is great for those wide angle shots!


For the, “I want to take pictures of landscapes” photographer: Get a W I D E angle lens!  The EF-S 10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 USM is about your only choice to get those massively wide landscape images on a Rebel or 60D.  Im talkin, “WHADDUP GRAND CANYON!” wide angles.  I owned this lens till I bought my “pro” camera.  Loved it.  Wrote a love story about it.  DONE.





Canon EF-S 60mm f/2.8 Macro USM will allow you to capture tiny little subjects like flowers, and elves!

For the, “I want to take pictures of little bugs, and flowers, and mini things” photographer: Get a macro lens.  Macro lenses have the ability of focusing SUPER close to a subject.  You can be all up in those little Christmas elve’s nose and still get an in focus shot.  The result… that lil bugger looks HUGE in your picture with allll the little tiny details in focus.  “Look mom!!! Tiny hands!”  The Canon EF-S 60mm f/2.8 Macro USM might just be your ticket into a whole new mini world.






Canon's EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM is a great lens for shooting nature subjects, but for new-b's I'd suggest renting it before buying it!

For the, “I want to shoot exotic animals in the Amazon” photographer: Dont buy a lens.  Seriously.  Rent a super telephoto like the EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM from and keep your money.  Unless you are shooting small subjects at 30+ yards away more than once a week, dont bother buying a super telephoto.  There is nothing that Canon makes that I would recommend to you that is less than $1000.  There is one EF-S 55-250mm f/4-5.6 IS II that is less than $300, but in all reality I’d tell you to go buy the 18-200mm lens instead and crop your images in post production instead.  The physics and materials to make a lens like this are expensive and typically lenses of this type are geared only towards professionals.  Not to discourage you, just go rent instead of buy.

So there you have it.  Those are my 2011 pics for “Hey I just got a new DSLR for Christmas!” photographers.  Again, this post is purely a few suggestions to someone just starting out.  Are the pro lenses worth it?  HELL YES!  But, do I suggest going out and dropping $1400 on a lens when you just bought a DLSR?  No.  Take your time to learn the gear.  When you reach a point where you are consistently saying, “I can’t get the images I want, because my lens is not x, y, or z” then you can buy a pro lens.  My bet is that the camera will take better pictures than your talents will allow.  It took me 4 years to outgrow my first camera and set of lenses.  If you want Pro lenses, that fit your full frame 5D Mark II or 1DX, well, I’ll have to write another post.  Just not tonight.  😀

Your email is never published or shared. Required fields are marked *