Have you have had your DSLR for a while and realized that the kit lenses that came with your camera are just not allowing you to get the pictures that you want? Or maybe you are going on vacation and want to minimize the amount of gear you are traveling with. Whatever your scenario is, it is time to upgrade lenses and you don’t know where to start. So that’s what we are going to do today is help you figure out how to pick a new lens based on your needs. I even threw in some fun creative photography lenses in case you are just looking for something different!
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Primary Differences Between Lenses
First things first, what are the primary differences between lenses? There are three main factors you want to look at when picking lenses. The first factor is deciding if you want a fixed focal length or a variable focal length. The focal length is basically the zooming capabilities of the lens (not the official definition!) A fixed focal length such as the 50mm, or nifty fifty, can not be changed on the lens, only by you physically moving your camera. A variable focal length can change the focal length (or zoom in and out) by adjusting a ring on the lens itself.
The second factor when looking for a lens is the actual focal length of the lens, meaning its zoom capabilities. The kit lens that came with your camera probably has a focal length of 18 – 55 mm. There are many choices out there including, 35mm, 50mm, 24 – 70mm, 100 – 400mm, and on and on. The choice you make will depend on your shooting situation and as we go on I will explain what choices would be appropriate for different scenarios.
The third factor when looking at lenses is the aperture capabilities of the lens. (Here is a refresher on aperture). You have probably figured out that its not the camera that limits your aperture range, but the lens. The kit lens that came with your camera probably has a maximum aperture of 4.5 (and only in perfect conditions). Prime lenses will have more flexibility in opening your aperture and may go as high as f1.4. In addition, some lenses, particularly telephoto lenses, have specific apertures when at specific focal lengths. I will show you an example of this further down when we talk about telephoto lenses. Now that we know what factors go into picking out a lens lets discuss some common lens choices and how to decide between them.
How To Pick a Lens by Scenario
Portrait photography generally benefits from a lens with a pretty wide aperture. Most people get started with the 50mm (or nifty fifty lens). You can see both the Canon and Nikon versions using the links below.
This is a great option as you can get great bokeh with an aperture that can go as wide as f1.4. The one thing you will need to think about is whether you plan to use this lens in a home or smaller indoor venue. This lens will require you to back away from your subject quite a bit especially if you have a crop sensor camera (most beginner DSLR cameras are). If this is the case, I would recommend getting a fixed 35mm lens instead. You will get the same amazing bokeh but with more freedom to move in indoor scenarios. Check out the links below for both a Canon and Nikon versions of the 35mm lens.
Some people tend to hesitate to take their DSLR camera with them while they are traveling because of the size, but you should really consider taking it so you can get great photos that can be printed and framed. A phone camera is fine if you only want to post on social media or print 4×6. If you try to enlarge a phone photo past that you are going to start to get graininess because there isn’t as much information in that image file. On the other hand, a DSLR image will contain much more information and can as a consequence be enlarged, sometimes past 11×14.
Now that I have convinced you to take your DSLR with you lets talk lenses. In this situation, you probably want as little equipment with you as possible so that you are not weighed down. My recommendation is to get a good mid-range variable focal length lens. My personal favorite is the Tamron 24 – 70mm. This lens is on the higher end but is so versatile because it too has wide aperture capabilities with a max aperture of f2.8. It is also not a super heavy lens and the variable focal length allows you room to maneuver. Unless you are going whale watching, this is the travel lens I always recommend.
*You will want to double-check that the lens will fit your model camera before purchasing just to be sure!
Do you ever go to a kid’s sports game and get lens envy? This is when the parent next to you has to super cool looking long lens? Well, that is a telephoto lens and the purpose of this lens is to get closer to the action. There are many different variable focal length telephoto lenses on the market and it really depends on how much you want to spend and what specifications you want. A good focal length to start with is the 100 – 400mm. Unless you are in college stands, this lens will let you get fairly close to the action. I personally use the Tamron 100 – 400mm (yes I like Tamron!). Tamron makes great quality hobbyist lenses without paying the professional-grade lens price! Take a look at the links below to see what I mean and try not to get sticker shock!
This last category of lenses is just for fun. The fish-eye or super wide-angle lens doesn’t really have a specific purpose, but allows you to be super creative and just have some fun. A bonus is that the fish-eye lens is light-weight so you can just throw it in your bag without a thought. The only thing to be careful about with these lenses is to know if you have a crop sensor camera or not. A crop sensor camera can allow the focal length to be as wide as 8mm, while that same focal length on a full-frame camera will cause there to be a black circle on the outside edges of the picture. A full-frame camera is best with a minimum focal length of 12mm. The links below will show you two options. I personally love the 12mm, you can see a pick below of how fun it can be!
The last item I will recommend is not a traditional lens in that it doesn’t attach to the camera, but you do hold it in from of your camera before snapping. Its the Lens Ball. The lens ball can be used to create beautiful works of art. You can see some examples below. This is a piece of equipment that really lets you get creative with your photography!
That covers the basics of picking lenses. I hope you have gotten some ideas about what to look for when upgrading and some ways to have fun with your camera. Let me know below what your favorite lens is! — Happy Shooting!
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I too have had my Nikon D5200 for a while. I feel for the money I paid I’m cheating myself by not using it more. When I do use it, usually it’s in Auto mode & I’m not thrilled with the photos. I need help. Of course I have the kit lens and would love your recommendations on portrait, sports and zoom lens. Thanks in advance