Key Lenses

LensfamilyI own six lenses now, and a post by Richard Harrington on Photofocus made me think about lenses I’d choose I was starting over or starting out.

My first lens was my Nikon 18-200 VRII.  For some reason, this is a really controversial lens.  You’ll see lots of people on photography forums malign it, say it isn’t sharp, talk about distortion (which is an automatic two-second fix in Lightroom) and generally look down their nose at it.  Luckily, I listened to Scott Kelby, Trey Ratcliff who recommend it heartily.  Heck – even Ken Rockwell likes it!  It is really versatile, reasonably light and I’ve gotten very sharp shots from it.  As a travel and walkaround lens, it is hard to beat.  Lately prices for used copies of this lens have dropped close to $500, which is a steal.  The older “VRI” model sells for even less, which is crazy – the only difference is that the “VRII” has a switch that locks the lens so it won’t extend while you’re walking around (which is called “lens creep).  If you see a good deal on one, grab it and get this $5 solution for lens creep from B&H.  For most of us Enthusiast Photographers, this takes care of most of our zoom needs.

This brings me back to Richard’s advice – the next lens should be a prime.  Primes give you the ability to shoot in really low light, are usually sharper than zooms and give you more ability to generate “bokeh” – that pleasing blurred background that is so useful for portraits and creative photography.  Here’s the big news – they are really affordable too!  For only a few bucks more than the list price of the 18-200, you can buy the Nikon 35mm f/1.8G and 85mm f/1.8G!  Even better, the 35mm f/1.8 sells brand new for less than $200. On Nikon DX cameras and other “crop sensors” (which include pretty much all both the most expensive DSLRs out there), this gives you the “nifty fifty” field of view – a “normal” view of the world that is pretty much as your eye sees it – not zoomed out or in.  If you’re on a full-frame camera, you’ll want a 50mm lens (hence “nifty fifty) to achieve the same thing.

I started with my 35mm 1.8G and it is the lens I reach for when I want to get creative.  It is also really, really light and really sharp.  Later I added the 85mm, which is just plain outstanding for portraits.

If you’re wondering whether to invest in the more expensive, wider-aperture primes (like the f/1.4 lenses), my advice is generally “No” – there isn’t that much difference in light and they are usually significantly more expensive – from more than twice the money to as much as 8 times as much!! (from the $200 Nikon 35mm f/1.8G to the over-$1600 f/1.4G). The exception to that might be the 50mm if you’re shooting FX or full-frame Canon, etc.- you’ve already spent some serious money and the $500 f/1.4G is outstanding as are the Canon equivalents (and are less expensive than their Nikon cousins…).  If you need to save the $300, you won’t be unhappy with the f/1.8G model, either.  For 85mm lenses, the Nikon f/1.8G is actually sharper than the f/1.4G and far less expensive.

To net it out, get a flexible zoom and a 35mm or 50mm 1.8 prime to start and build from there.  The more you shoot, your needs beyond that will begin to become more obvious to you and you won’t regret having those two lenses in your bag.  (here’s my obligatory “What’s in my Bag?” post)

What lenses do you own?  Any you especially like or dislike?

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7 thoughts on “Key Lenses

  1. By accident, I did exactly that. I had the 18-200mm lense at the beginning. Loved it, even though the aperture is kind of weird when the light is away. I added a 50mm 1.4 and learned to adore fixed focal length lenses. I do a lot of concert shooting and to this day, the 50mm is my favourite. Even though, you have to be quick and precise not to blur out the face of the artist. Which happens a lot with 1.4 or 1.8 aperture. I added a wide-angle lense (12-24mm) next and still love it, too. After that another two fixed focal length ones followed (8.5mm and 35mm) which I adore. All of them. I have used all of them on concerts or theatre stages. Funny enough, especially the fish-eye-lense – while being the most difficult one to compose a shot with (you hardly can crop it in lightroom, most of the time, my own feet are in the shot, too), the bands love pictures showing the whole stage and the audience. Now, the latest one is a 24-70mm 2.8. I am excited. I used it for my last shot here on wordpress and will put it to an intense test in london next week.

    I don’t feel sorry for any of the lenses I have. Each and every one serves a purpose and it does it really good. If I would make anything different, I would have gotten my hands on the 24-70mm lense earlier. But from my point of view, I can handle the 35mm & 50mm thanks to kind of being forced to use them (low light conditions and no flash allowed). Nothing beats practicing, though. Put the lense you have on the camera and get out to shoot like crazy :)

    This is what I think: Anyone starting to shoot should get something like a 18-200 or maybe a 24-70mm lense in case they are not full-frame. To get used to the camera first and have a bit of range to get objects nearer or be able to shoot at closer range. The next thing would be to get your hand on a prime lense and try if it works out for you. I know a few friends who can’t live without a zoom, others only use a fixed focal length, since they do not want to waste time trying out, zooming to hit an object. In any case, try out both worlds, try out different aperatures, try them out in different light conditions. Learn to compose a shot get closer to objects with a 50mm lense and see the effect, do the same with a 200mm lense and see what changes in your shot. This is what I love about photography, you can try out so much stuff, see and learn how it influences your shot. And then use it to craft a shot you love and everyone else is stunned for.

  2. Hi there, first time reader and complete noob to the world of DSLR.

    I recently bought a D7000 and it came with a stock 18-55 lens. I then went ahead and bought a 55-300 lens.

    I am getting into catwalk photography and love the “bokeh” effect I see constantly where the model almost leaps out of the photo whilst everyone in the background is slightly out of focus.

    Are any of my lenses capable of doing this? Should I be looking into a prime? Maybe a 50mm or 35mm with a smaller F?

    Let me know and love the site, I’ll be a regular reader for sure!!

    • Hi Paul, and thanks for stopping by Enthusiast Photographer! Apologies for the slow reply, I was in China on business, and didn’t have much connectivity.

      Anyway, the lenses you have are generally called “kit lenses” – they are pretty good, and really versatile for general photography with the total zoom coverage, but not great in low light.

      First of all, I’d recommend a 35mm prime no matter what else you decide for catwalk shooting. The Nikon 35 f/1.8 is a really affordable lens (around $200 new) and gives you that “normal” view the classic “nifty fifty” lenses are famous for on film cameras and full-frame digital.

      For catwalk shooting, I suspect you will be a little farther away from the subjects, so a longer prime might be a good choice. The Nikon 50mm and 85mm 1.8 primes are not expensive ($215 and $500 new) and are both amazing. I love my 85 f/1.8 for portraits.

      The only thing I’ll say is that a fixed-focal-length lens might be a challenge. You might consider a constant-aperture zoom, but I’ll warn you – they start pricey and go up from there. Even a used 80-200 f/2.8 is $750+. The next step up would be a used 70-200 f/2.8 VRI, which is around $1500 used. They are pretty heavy though – not much fun if you’re shooting for a long time or traveling.

      Here’s my advice: I think just about every enthusiast photographer should have a nice prime. I think on the crop-sensor Nikons (essentially everything below the D600), the 35 is the best general-duty lens. The 85mm f/1.8 is one of the best portrait lenses in the world and the additional length might be useful for what you’re doing. The 50mm f/1.8 options are good, too. Have a look at the focal lengths you’re shooting at with your zooms (Lightroom and Aperture can easily show you this info) and that will give you a good idea of which to pick. Grab one (or two – I have the 35mm and the 85mm f/1.8′s) and have some fun. The next time you’re shooting at the catwalk, check out what other photogs are using – talk with one of them and see how they like what they’re shooting. If you wind up with one of the f/2.8 zooms, consider a monopod/head setup – you can see a review of my setup here: http://enthusiastphotographer.com/2012/07/22/sunwayfoto-ddh-02-and-dt-01-review/

      Also, you might find my “In my bag” post useful for my thought on the lenses I have: http://enthusiastphotographer.com/whats-in-my-bag/

      I hope this was useful – feel free to ask more questions. Cheers and happy shooting!!

      Lee…

  3. 20mm Sigma F1.8 Prime – Use it all the time, main Landscape lens
    50mm Canon F1.8 – Cheap and good, don;t use it as much as the 20mm though.
    8mm Samyang Fisheye – Great for Mountain biking!
    Sigma 70-200 F2.8 – Along with the 20mm my most used lens, use it for events, sports and pet photo’s heaps.

    Regrets? Nah – Could of gone a Sigma 10-20mm instead of the prime maybe?

  4. I got my first dslr (a nikon d3000, which turns out Ken Rockwell argued was the worst dslr nikon has ever made, and after a year and a half I’m looking to upgrade) with a two-lens kit, one 18-55 and another 55-200 (not VR, to my dismay). I used just those two lenses for a year and they served me pretty well, although I had some issues with the 18-55. Its construction is a little cheap and there were many occasions on which it would stick while trying to focus. The next lens I chose to get was the 35mm f/1.8G because of its price, and because I wanted something with wide aperture since I mostly do self-portraits and creative photography. Turns out the 35mm was a great decision because at the time I was clueless about full frame vs cropped sensor, but that’s what gets the “nifty fifty” on my camera. I use the lens for pretty much everything now and I’m super happy with it, especially for the price. And the 55-200mm isn’t too bad either, I just used it for candid shots at an outdoor wedding party and the zoom was great for taking pictures of the kids playing. Plus it has better performance in bright daylight than my prime lens imo, and it gets fairly good bokeh. I’m pretty satisfied with my current lenses and oddly enough am not finding myself wanting more, except maybe an 18-200 VR to replace my lower quality pair. Now to upgrade my camera body…

    • Zofie – thanks for visiting and especially for commenting! Honestly, I doubt the D3000 is limiting you as much as your lenses. A really adore my 35 f/1.8. It is my go-to lens when I’m shooting creatively. The 18-200 is my walk-around and it is a terrific travel lens (and I travel a lot). I’m not a big fan of either of those kit lenses, and I think you’ve already seen the benefit of better glass with your 35mm f/1.8. I’d keep the D3000 and focus on other lenses. The 18-200 can be had pretty affordable used (check the buy/sell at FredMiranda forums: http://www.fredmiranda.com/forum/board/10). If you like portraits, it is hard to beat the 85 f/1.8G. Some of my favorite people shots have been made with that lens.

      I doubt your camera is your big limitation. I’d recommend you focus on lenses for a while and then maybe check out a used D7000. They are amazingly cheap for the level of camera they are.

      Visit and comment often – I’d be happy to give any advice, too!

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