The best lenses for your DSLR depend on a lot of factors. Variables such as the camera brand, camera model, types of photography you do most, and your personal preferences are all components to picking the best lenses for your specific needs. Here I've outlined some recommendations that take those variants into consideration. Read on, but please try not to get gear envy!
The three best lenses for beginners
If you are just starting out the jargon associated with purchasing a new lens can be enough to make you abandon your half full cart and make a quick exit. See my article on what mm means on a lens for a background. Here are three lenses that are relatively inexpensive and a good place to start.
The Nifty Fifty: The 50mm 1.8 lens is affectionately referred to as the nifty fifty because it is inexpensive, compact and light. The Canon version is about $110 and Nikon’s version is $129. For a lens, that is incredibly reasonable, price wise, and often a photographer’s first foray into shooting wide open and getting the bokeh that is often part of using prime lenses.
A standard zoom lens: Most any standard zoom lens will make a great walk around lens. Walk around lenses are the ones that you leave on your camera the majority of the time and keep on when you don’t want to lug all your gear around. Canon has a Canon EF 28-135mm f/3.5-5.6 which retails for about $475, the Nikon equivalent of this lens is the Nikon 18-105mm f/3.5-5.6 which sells for about $400. These lens will give you a good range without being too cumbersome to move around with.
A telephoto lens: A telephoto lens allows you to zoom in close on objects that are far away. A good starter telephoto for Nikon is the 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 which retails for about $550 and comes with built in image stabilization which will help reduce blur caused by hand shake or the moment caused by pushing down the shutter. Canon’s EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS USM and retails for $649. Canon also offers a 75-300mm lens without image stabilization for photographers on a very tight budget. That lens retails for $199 but can often be found online for about $150. This lens is best used in conjunction with a sturdy tripod and lots of light.
The three best lenses for portrait and event photographers
This is a widely argued topic amongst photographers because as long as a lens doesn’t distort facial features like wide angle lenses sometimes do when you get close to your subject, it is ok to use a normal zoom lens. The photography books will tell you that portrait lenses starts at 85mm and go up to about 135mm but we all know that photography is about breaking established rules and finding ways to create something unique.
50mm 1.4: A step up from the nifty fifty talked about in the beginner’s lenses section, many photographers swear by this quick lens that allows you to open the shutter up all the way to f/1.4 to get a really shallow depth of focus and the creamiest of bokeh. I especially love to use this one for portraits where you want to use the background as part of your photo composition instead of a straight portrait. Canon 50mm 1.4 lens / Nikon 50mm 1.4 lens.
100mm/105 mm: This lens is great for getting close ups of people without crowding into their physical space. It gives small groups of people a little room to interact naturally and allows the photographer to step back and capture it from a comfortable distance. It is also very aesthetically pleasing because of the even distribution on people’s facial features doesn’t cause any distortion. The Nikon f/2.8G ED-IF AF-S VR costs around $900 while the Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 Macro USM costs about $600 on the current market.
70-200mm: The 70-200mm lenses are a portrait lens and a telephoto lens carefully mashed together into one beautiful being which makes them great for both portraits and events. This is the must have lens for any wedding. The Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM retails for $2500 while the Nikon version cost $2400.
The three best lenses for wildlife photographers
Wildlife photography is, quite frankly, an expensive hobby or profession because the subjects are often far away and moving quickly. The gear is often some of the most expensive and lenses are right there at the top of that list.
100mm macro/micro: When you are getting close ups of bees on flowers, petals, and bugs on leaves, the 100mm macro lens is a great place to start because it’s a versatile lens that can be used outside of Macro work. The Nikon f/2.8G ED-IF AF-S VR costs around $900 while the Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 Macro USM costs about $600 on the current market as mentioned under the portrait lenses section.
500mm f/4: This lens is for serious outdoorsy folk who want to capture photographs of animals that are far away and moving at fast speeds. The Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM retails for nearly $17,000 but can usually be found for sale online for around $11,000. The Nikon 500mm f/4.0G ED VR AF-S SWM starts at around $9,000.
300 f/2.8: Not as powerful as or expensive at the 500mm f/4, the 300 f/2.8 is a more moderate edition to wildlife photographer’s arsenal. It’s not as heavy or a large as it’s granddaddy either. A little more portable for people who would rather move on their feet, the Canon version starts at $7,000 while the Nikon lens will put you back about $5,500.
Monetary restrictions are a real world restriction to our creative abilities as photographers. Even professionals scroll through Adorama’s product pages and make wish lists that feature their dream lenses. Try looking into third party lens providers such as Tamron and Sigma which are highly regarded for both their quality and their prices which are typically lower than the Canon or Nikon equivalent. Some photographers claim that their quality is actually superior to the name brand lenses available on the US market.
Renting is also another way to try out new lenses before you commit to buying what is likely to be an investment. If you are in the USA, companies such as BorrowLenses, LensRentals, and RentGlass have rental lenses which they will mail to your home or office and then you just mail them back when your rental period is over. Also, check your local camera suppliers who might have rental options for shorter periods of time than the aforementioned websites.
As always, these are recommendations. Please check and make sure they are compatible with your camera make and model before purchasing or renting any of these lenses. If you shoot with Sony, Pentax, or another DSLR brand, they will undoubtedly offer something similar to the lenses mentioned above.
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