Which Lens Should I buy for my D-SLR?

The beauty of D-SLR is that you can attach a different lens to your camera depending on what and where you’re planning to photograph.

This photo was shot at Monahans Sandhills State Park, Texas, with a zoom lens set at 50mm. The image roughly matches what the human eye sees. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Some lenses are best suited for landscapes while others are better for birds and animals. There are no hard and fast rules and creative photography is all about breaking them.

Lenses have traditionally been grouped into three basic categories:

  • Normal (or standard)
  • Wide angle
  • Telephoto

Normal or Standard Lens

The 50mm prime lens is called “normal” or “standard” because it produces an image that roughly matches what the human eye sees, and which looks natural to the viewer.

It sits between the telephoto lens and the wide angle lens, which produce unnaturally zoomed-in and zoomed-out images respectively.

Most often in a zoom lens, the range of 35mm to 85mm is considered a normal or standard lens.

A standard lens is really a general purpose lens that works well for landscapes, group photos and other social occasions, portraits, and general use.

Telephoto lenses

This photo of a pair of Royal terns was taken at South Padre Island World Birding Center, Texas with a Canon 100-400 telephoto zoom lens set at 400mm. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Telephoto lenses make distant subjects appear closer; the longer the focal length the greater the magnification.

Telephoto lenses have focal lengths that range from about 85mm (great for portraits) to super-telephoto lenses of 300mm-600mm (lenses in this range are often used by sports and wildlife photographers).

The longer the focal length of a lens, the more difficult that lens will be to handhold.

This is true not only because longer lenses tend to be physically longer and heavier than wide-angle lenses, but also because subtle vibrations and camera shakes are amplified dramatically when using a telephoto lens.

A good rule of thumb is to use a minimum shutter speed equivalent to the focal length—for example, when handholding a 500mm telephoto lens, be sure to set the shutter speed no slower than 1/500th of a second.

Perhaps the most common use for a telephoto lens is to bring otherwise small and distant objects closer, such as wildlife.

Wide-angle lens

The wide-angle lens is the classic landscape lens because the short focal length allows you to capture a very wide angle of the scene in front of you. Wide-angle lenses reach out their wide-open arms to take in a sweeping view.

Think of wide-angle lenses as the opposite of telephoto lenses where you tend to back away from objects. Telephoto lenses tend to flatten depth of field, wide lenses exaggerate it.

This photo was taken “up-close and personal” at Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Arizona with a wide angle zoom set at 17mm. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Wide-angle scenes can contain many objects at different distances, which helps draws the viewer into the scene.

Contrary to what you might expect, the most important element of your wide-angle landscapes is the foreground. The closer you are to your subject, the more dramatic your images will be. Yes, I mean move right up close and personal.

Include something of interest in the foreground otherwise you will get vast expanses of nothing. This can mean going low to include foreground wildflowers or cacti for example or getting really close to rocks so that you can see the rock grain.

As a result, if your foreground isn’t interesting, your photo won’t be interesting.

When you’re photographing wide, be sure to spend some time looking for the most interesting foreground available to combine with your grand vista.

Wide-angle lenses are good for a range of subjects, including landscapes (especially where you want to elongate spatial relationships), architecture (when you want to create dramatic or slightly distorted shots of exteriors), and in any situation where shooting space is tight.

Please Note: This is the tenth in a series of stories on Digital Photography and RVing

Worth Pondering…

It’s not the size of the lens. It’s how you use it.


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Building a D-SLR System

The camera is only part of the equation when it comes to image quality.

The primary advantage of a zoom is that it is easier to achieve a variety of compositions or perspectives since a change of lens is not necessary. Photo above is Southern Okanagan landscape, British Columbia. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cameras get all the attention, especially from first time buyers. Your D-SLR is only as good as the lens you mount on it.

Many aspiring photographers spend large amounts of money on the latest camera, only to use the kit lenses that came boxed with the camera.

There can be a big difference between a high-end lens and a kit lens in terms of image quality. In many ways, the glass you place on the front of that super D-SLR is more important than the camera itself.

Most advanced photographers end up spending a lot more on lenses than they do on a camera body. It would be foolish to purchase a $2,000 D-SLR camera and then use a $150 kit zoom lens with it.

Since the best lenses make the best images you need to balance your budget between the camera and lenses you buy.

Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II (Source: the-digital-picture.com)

I strongly advise D-SLR buyers to purchase the best quality lenses that they can afford.

The best camera in the world is only as good as the glass you hang on its front end.

So how do you select the perfect new lens for your D-SLR camera system?

There’s a lot to consider when weighing a lens purchase, not the least of which are those technical specifications. Even more, though, you’ve got to interpret those specs to figure out which ones are most important to you.

Lenses are the eyes through which your camera sees the world. You can change the way your camera sees simply by changing lenses or by changing your zoom setting.

The first consideration is whether the focal length is fixed or variable.

There are two general lens types:

  • Prime lenses
  • Zoom lenses

Prime lenses have a fixed focal length—the focal length is constant. Common primes are 24mm, 35mm, 50mm, 80mm, and 105mm, though they can be literally any focal length.

In a zoom lens the variable focal length can be changed within a pre-defined range.

Which is better? A zoom lens will give you more versatility; it is also cheaper than buying many different prime lenses.

Why would one intentionally restrict their options by using a prime lens?

Prime lenses existed long before zoom lenses were available, and still offer many advantages over their more modern counterparts.

Why wouldn’t everyone always want zooms? Because fitting a wide-ranging zoom into a single-lens body is a feat of engineering. This sometimes means compromises must be made to maximum apertures, focusing speed, optical quality, and/or price. That’s not to say they’re not great lenses; there’s just always a trade-off.

Conversely, the trade-off for working with a usually faster prime lens is that you have to own more lenses, at more expense and weight, and take the time to change them while shooting if you want to cover a greater focal range.

The primary advantage of a zoom is that it is easier to achieve a variety of compositions or perspectives since a change of lens is not necessary.

Keep in mind that using a zoom lens does not necessarily mean that you no longer have to change lenses; zooms simply increase flexibility.

Generally speaking, prime lenses are superior to zoom lenses when it comes to clarity and speed, but not necessarily cost.

Zoom telephoto lenses conveniently cover multiple focal lengths and are very cost effective. However, they tend to sacrifice a bit in picture quality.

Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM lens is one of five and the most prominent lenses in the Canon’s telephoto zoom lens lineup and is suitable for portrait, travel, outdoor, general wildlife, and sports photography. (Source: yacart.com)

Deciding which lens to purchase becomes a complex trade-off between cost, size, weight, lens speed, and image quality.

The best advice anyone can give is to buy the best lens you can afford, you will change your camera more often than you will change a good lens, and to research the lens in question as thoroughly as possible.

Please Note: This is the ninth in a series of stories on Digital Photography and RVing

Worth Pondering…

I look at life outside of the lens and capture the world through it.

—Thomas Robinson

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