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No matter how many lenses a photographer has, there’s always another one that we long for. There are so many options out there that choosing your next lens can be a confusing task. We're going to help you choose the best lens to fit your specific needs.
The first question you have to ask yourself is, “What do I need that my current lens doesn’t give me?” Your answer is most likely going to fall into one of two categories: speed or zoom. Let’s take a look at the speed problem first and figure out what lenses can solve it for you.
Fast Prime Lenses
Most kit lenses have variable apertures that start at f/3.5 and close up to f/5.6 as you zoom in to the longer side of the lens. This is fine if you’re shooting outdoors on a sunny day, or indoors with a flash or bright lights, but not suitable for low-light situations. For that, you’re going to need a fast lens.
So, what is a “fast” lens? Fast lenses generally have an aperture of f/2.8 or larger. The larger the aperture, the more light the lens allows in, so fast lenses are great for low-light conditions. A prime lens is a fixed focal length lens, so the lens doesn’t do the zooming, your legs do. Prime lenses often offer larger apertures than zoom lenses, and are ideal for shooting video with a DSLR camera.
One of the most common second-lens choices that photographers make is the 50mm f/1.8. It’s a relatively inexpensive lens that can be wide enough to shoot a group of people in a room and also long enough to shoot headshots. The larger aperture means shorter depth of field, which gives your photos nice bokeh (that blurred-out background look that isolates your subject and looks great).
50mm on a crop-sensor camera (with a 1.5x crop factor, such as APS-C) is equivalent to 75mm on a full-frame camera, so if you think 50mm might not be quite wide enough for your camera, a 35mm lens might be a better option. It’s a little wider, making it better for group portraits in tight spaces without the distortion of even wider lenses. There are also other fast lenses that are even wider, like the 28mm and 24mm f/1.8 lenses.
On the other hand, if you want a fast lens that is longer, for portraits or shooting objects farther away, the 85mm f/1.8 lenses might be for you. Longer lenses are great for portraits because they offer less distortion and allow you to be farther from your subject.
Telephoto Zoom Lenses
Telephoto lenses are great for photographing birds, sports, theater, or any other subject that is far from your camera. If you find that you’re missing out on shots because you can’t zoom in close enough to your subject, you should probably choose a telephoto lens as your next lens. Maybe you have a kit lens that reaches 200mm, but at f/5.6 your shutter speed is too slow to freeze the movement of your subject. In this case, you need a faster telephoto lens. The most common telephoto zoom lenses are the 70-200mm f/2.8 lenses. They are fast enough to stop action and give you nice bokeh, while keeping your subject sharp. If you have a crop-sensor camera, this will provide about a 105-300mm equivalent on a full-frame camera.
If you don’t need the speed that the f/2.8 lenses offer, some other great choices would be a 70-200mm f/4 or if you need the extra zoom, the 18-300mm or 70-300mm variable-aperture lenses might be your answer.
Another thing to consider, with telephoto lenses especially, is whether or not you need a built-in image stabilizing system. Nikon calls this VR (vibration reduction), Canon calls it IS (image stabilization), Tamron has VC (vibration compensation), and Sigma calls theirs OS (optical stabilization). Whatever you call it, the benefit of having a lens with image stabilization is that you can effectively use a longer shutter speed when shooting without a tripod, giving you sharper images, and making the lens more effective in low-light situations.
Wide Zoom Lenses
If your answer to the “What do I need that my current lens doesn’t give me?” question is that you need to squeeze more people into your frame, or you need to capture more of a landscape in your photos, then a wide lens should be your next choice.
We've briefly mentioned the 28mm and 24mm focal lengths, which are solid prime lenses, but often times with a second lens you might want more versatility, such as that found in wide zoom lenses. There are many different zoom lengths available, not only from the main manufacturers, but from Sigma, Tokina, and Tamron as well. One thing that most photographers will tell you is that when shooting with a zoom lens, most of their shots are at one of the extremes, either the widest or the longest end of the zoom. While I think the Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 is one of the sharpest super-wide lenses, it doesn’t offer as much of a range as the 12-24mm, 16-35mm, 17-50mm or 24-70mm zooms. This is where you have to decide exactly why you will need this lens. If you’re not exactly sure, the 24-70mm is a good choice, as it will let you shoot both full-length body and headshots. If you don’t need that much of a range, and just want a very wide lens, then the 11-16mm might be your best option.
Perhaps you’ve seen some really close-up photos of insects or flowers, and you’ve tried to take them yourself with your kit lens but found that it couldn’t focus. This is because you need a special type of lens that has a very small minimum focus distance, usually called a macro and sometimes a micro lens. These lenses usually focus at a foot or less all the way to infinity, so you can use them for shooting macro photography as well as everyday shots of people, landscapes, or other subjects at any distance. The same choices apply here, whether you need a fast lens or not, and whether you need a wider-angle or telephoto lens.
There are a couple of important things to consider when choosing a macro lens. First, the wider your lens, the closer you’ll need to get to your subject. If you’re shooting flowers, and you want to focus on one flower but also want to get other flowers out of focus in the background, then a wider lens like a 40 or 50mm would work best for you. On the other hand, if you’re trying to shoot moving insects like bumble bees or butterflies, chances are you won’t be able to get close enough to them with a wide lens, so something like an 85mm or longer would be better for you. Also, when you’re shooting with your camera and lens very close to your subject you often cast a shadow, meaning less light, and requiring a faster lens or special ring lights for your camera. If you don’t want to worry about shadows or purchasing flashes, consider a longer macro lens for your camera.
So, we’ve generally covered a lot of ground here. We’ve discussed choosing the lens based on what focal length you need, whether you want a prime lens or a zoom lens, and whether you need a fast lens with a constant aperture or can deal with a slower variable aperture.
Once you figure out exactly what will satisfy your photographic requirements that are as yet unfulfilled, you should be able to make an informed decision confidently, to ensure that your next lens purchase will be the right one for you.