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?