“Only a complete idiot would pass up the opportunity to grab a 14-50 f/2.8 Zoom EFS EX IS USM ASPH L DFS OMG LOL Mark II at that price”. You may have heard this sentence (with fewer made up acronyms at the end) from some grumpy camera store owner who decided to bite your head off because you dared to consider buying a lens beyond the kit lens your new DSLR came with. (disclaimer – only 94% of them are like this, some are nice). Intimidated by the camera shop troll, you decided to go online, where the user ratings were either “5 stars! Buy this! Remortgate your house it’s worth the £3,000!” or “0 stars! Avoid! This lens gives you smallpox somehow!” and nothing in between. Well now you can relax, because here at Small Aperture, we’re going to help you on your way to a relaxing, informed first lens purchase.
Lens Terminology Explained
First off, let’s look at an example lens name and go over what each part of the description means, so you know what features you’re looking at. I’m going to use the Canon EF-S 55-250mm F/4.0 – 5.6. I’ve picked this lens purely for the name, as it has the most commonly occurring type of description and it will allow me to run through what it all means.
Canon EF-S is the brand name and the fit of the lens – it tells us what kind of cameras it will fit on. I’m a Canon user, so if you have a Canon, take a look at your camera now. If it has a red dot and a white square, your camera can use lenses that are described as either “Canon EF” or “Canon EF-S”. If you only have a red dot, you can only fit EF lenses to the camera. It’s worth pointing out at this stage that you don’t have to buy only Canon lenses as a result of this – any lens that is described as “Canon-fit” will be OK for your camera. If you’re unsure, your best bet is to take your camera with you to the shop, endure the eye rolling and see whether the lens you’re after will fit your camera. It’ll give you a chance to test it, too.
On location, my "walkaround lens" allows me to zoom out and capture environmental detail which my prime would have trouble with.
55-250mm indicates the focal length range. Simply put, the low number is how wide your lens will go (literally how much width and how “zoomed out” your point of view can get) and the high number is how far you can zoom in. For reference, a 17mm focal length will give you a decent amount of width for landscape images and 250 will give you a decent amount of zoom for basic wildlife photography (although those looking to travel abroad on safari and the like would probably be interested in a higher zoom, something like 500mm).
F/4.0-5.6 describes the maximum aperture at both ends of the focal length range (more on aperture in our first PCoF here, read this first if you’re not sure about aperture). In this example, F/4 is the lowest aperture you can set at the “wide” 55mm end of the focal length range, and F/5.6 is the lowest aperture you can set at the “zoom” 250mm end of the focal length. You will notice that some of the more expensive zoom lenses only have one number here, for example the Sigma 70-200mm F/2.8. This means that the lens is able to be set to its lowest aperture of F/2.8 at any focal length, be it 70mm or 200mm.
These are the most commonly occurring suffixes to a lens name that you’ll need to know and understand. There are many, many other suffixes – some that describe features, some that describe the particular product range that brand of lens is in. For example, “L” on a Canon lens is referring to the top of the range series of lenses that Canon make (indicated by a red ring around the base of the lens) whereas “USM” refers to “UltraSonic Motor” and refers to a small motor built into the body designed to aid speed of autofocus. There are so many of these and they tend to be company-specific. In addition, they tend to be half product description, half marketing tool, so don’t get too dazzled or excited by these things.
So Which One Do I Buy?
To know what lens to buy, it’s important to ask yourself what kind of photography you undertake the most.
I took this using a 50mm prime for the extra detail it provides me.
As a portrait photographer who takes a lot of head / head and shoulders images, my main lens is a Prime Lens. A prime lens is one that has a fixed focal length: that is, you can’t zoom in nor can you zoom out. A fixed focal length means that there are significantly fewer moving parts inside the lens. This allows the glass inside the lens to be much more precise, allowing for sharper, higher quality images. This is exactly what you need for striking portraits. The other advantage is that this sometimes brings the price down. I don’t want to be seen as endorsing a particular company over another, but I have used the Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II for a few years and it is dirt cheap for the quality it provides me. You can pick one up for about £80. For balance, Nikon have an equivalent lens of the same price, the Nikkor 50mm F/1.8 is a good buy and also seems to get very good reviews. Another good reason for using a prime is it teaches you to think about composition more, as you can’t just zoom out or in more to get the desired crop.
Landscape / Architectural
If you are a landscape and architectural sort of person, you will want a lens with a good wide-angle focal length. I only dabble in landscape for my own enjoyment, so I find my walkaround lens (see below) serves me just fine with a wide focal length of 17mm. Those that are serious about landscape will want to look at how wide the focal length goes (14mm is good) and the actual quality of the lens glass itself. Detail and sharpness are of the most importance for the landscape photographer. Maximum aperture is less of a problem, because you will be looking at setting your aperture to ranges of f8 -f11 and beyond anyway, to get all the detail of the landscape in. As I say, my Tamron walkaround creates landscapes that are sharp and vivid enough for me, but those of you looking for more might want to take a look at the Canon EF 17-40 F/4L (where it starts getting pricey), the Tokina 12-24mm f/4 which fits Nikon cameras (very wide angle) or you might even want to go super wide with the Sigma 10-20mm f/4-5.6 EX DC.
All this lens talk is making me want to buy things.
Close Up, Abstract and Insects
If you like looking at ants up close (weirdo) or if your photography is all about extreme close up, abstract work, you need a Macro Lens. These are lenses with very high levels of magnification, and are used for insect and other high-magnification photography. I can’t say I’ve done much of this but it sure looks like a lot of fun! I don’t have time for fun. I would advise reading up extensively on the subject if you’re serious about macro photography.
Don't forget that you can play around with the rules - here I've used a landscape lens to create a portrait. What a rebel!
Stop Trying to Pigeonhole Me you Square! My Photography Transcends Categories, I Photograph All!
If you do a bit of everything (and even if you don’t) you’ll want to find a good “walkaround lens”. This is a term used to describe a general purpose lens that will always come in handy for most situations – something that will do a variety of jobs to a decent level of quality. When on assignment for a magazine commission, I take my both my walkaround lens and my prime for portraiture. Again, not wanting to advertise, but you will find that many people recommend the Tamron 17-50mm f/2.8. Now if you’ve been paying attention, you will see that this means the lens has a maximum aperture of f/2.8 at both 17mm and 50mm focal lengths. You can pick one of these up for around £320-£360 these days and, for the price range, the image quality is excellent. Put it this way: I have been using it for published magazine work for over a year now, and my clients have been more than happy with what we’ve ended up with. It’s good for me because I can use it for portraits but also I can zoom out and grab some surrounding environmental detail aswell.
So who’s feeling spendy? Is spendy a word? Does anyone care? It’s Friday, which means tomorrow is Saturday, which means it’s time to buy your very first lens. Hopefully, by applying what you’ve learned from this, you’ll be able to stride into the camera shop and bellow “SHOPKEEP, PROCURE ME A CANON-FIT PRIME WITH A 50MM FOCAL LENGTH OF THE FINEST QUALITY, SPORTING AN ULTRASONIC MOTOR! MAKE HASTE!“. Go on, do it. I double dare you.