A Complete Guide to Buying Your First Lens

In the Live Snap Love Facebook Group, I notice that some of most common questions that come up is around camera gear, and lenses in particular.  I also know that for many of you just starting out with a new DSLR, and wondering what lens you need to get, it can be especially confusing! 

So, today, I'm going to break down why your kit lens is NOT the best lens for you when trying to learn photography and what you should look for instead.  Upgrading your lens from the kit one really will help you enormously when you starting out, as you will be more easily able to get sharper, cleaner images. 

Let's dive in! 

Not sure which lens you should buy first after the kit lens that came with your camera? Then this guide is for you!

Before we start to look at what to look for in a lens, let's first go over why the kit lens that came with your camera is not the best option for you.

Why the kit lens is not your best friend

When we are looking at lenses, we want to consider two main things - the focal length and the aperture. 

Let's start with the focal length. I have to say, you do normally get a good focal range for the kit lenses, as these are usually somewhere in the 18-55mm range.  Remember, focal length determines your angle of view (in other words, how wide an area you can fit into the frame when you look through the viewfinder) and what you want really depends on whether you want to shoot mainly indoors or take outdoor portraits, and so on.

A focal range of around 35 to 75mm will let you do both, so for most people reading this blog that focal length is pretty good.  

Now let's move onto the other important part of your lens, and that is the aperture. 

Kit lenses will usually have a variable aperture of around F3.5- F5.6.  What that means is that when you are zoomed out, you can use an aperture of F3.5, but when you are zoomed in all the way to 55mm, the largest aperture you can use if F5.6. 

I'm not going to get into Aperture too much in this post, but you can read all about it here if you want to learn more about it. 

For the terms of this post what this means in practice is that these aperture numbers don't really let in a whole lot of light, and as such are not very good for shooting indoors or creating a lot of background blur. For this reason, you may find it difficult to progress your photography skills, or take certain images indoors with these lenses. 

Whilst we are on the subject of growing your photography skills, remember to enrol in the free 7 day beginners photography course before you go! Click here to read more about it or on the image below to enrol! 

Why do I need a different lens exactly?

The reason you want a different lens is mainly so that you can use a wider aperture, so that it is capable of letting in MORE light that what your kit lens gives you.

More light in is good, as gives you more OPTIONS. 

For example it can allow you to lower your ISO which in turns reduce the amount of noise (grain) in your images, so that they look sharper and cleaner.  It also enables you to also use faster shutter speeds which helps reduce the risk of motion blur - so again, you get a sharper image.   It can also mean that you don't need to resort to using your pop up flash (which you want to avoid at all costs!) which is deeply unflattering to your subjects.  Finally, as your aperture also helps give you that yummy background blur, a lens that gives you a nice wide aperture will help you create those lovely soft backgrounds.

Although it may not be the main reason to upgrade your lens, a better lens will also give you increased image quality, so you will also see a difference in the overall sharpness and clarity of your images.

To recap, a better lens will help you:

  • Get sharper images
  • Take images with less noise (that grainy speckly stuff over your image) 
  • Get those yummy blurred backgrounds
  • Stick to using flattering natural light 
  • Give you image with overall better image quality
  • Make it easier for you to learn photography due to having more options for your settings. 

It sounding like a bit of a no-brainer now isn't it! 

So, what am I looking for?

What you need is a lens that is capable of letting in more light. More light in is GOOD, as this allows you to lower your ISO and reduce the amount of noise in your images, and also use faster shutter speeds to reduce the risk of motion blur.  This allows you so much more flexibility, especially for shooting indoors without resorting to pop up flash, which can be mighty unflattering.  

What you are looking for is either a prime lens - sometimes referred to as a "fast" lens, with a low aperture number (around F1.8), or a zoom that has a fixed aperture, which means you can use the same aperture throughout the focal range. If the lens has two aperture numbers with a dash between them, like this - F3.5 - F4.5 - then that is a variable aperture. You want one that just has ONE F number -  ideally you will be looking for F2.8 on a zoom for it to be versatile enough to shoot with indoors and outdoors.

What type of lens should I get?

Before I get into specific lenses, I want to first show you what you should be looking for so that you can apply the same knowledge to any lenses you see, rather than just sticking to the ones I will mention here. 

The first thing to realise is that there is two different "types" of lenses - prime lenses and zoom lenses.  Most point and shoot cameras have zoom lenses, so this is what most people are used to using - it means you can zoom further in or out to help you frame the subject differently from the same spot.  It's what your kit lens is too. 

A prime lens on the other hand, does not zoom.  You only have one focal length - if you want to get closer or farther back you need to move your feet instead! 

Although that sounds like a bit of a drawback, prime lenses have two other things going for them that make them worth their weight in gold - they generally have wider apertures to their zoom counterparts (so therefore let in more light, and remember, more light, more options) and have a higher image quality. 

Regardless of whether you prefer a zoom or a prime, there are two elements you want to be aware of when picking your lens. 

The first is the aperture number. On a prime it will just be one number, such as F1.8 or F2.0. The smaller the number, the more light it will let in. 

With a zoom lens, you get both fixed aperture - which means the aperture stays the same throughout the focal range, or a variable aperture, which means that the maximum aperture changes depending on when you are zoomed in or out.  You really want to choose a lens that has just has ONE F number -  ideally you will be looking for F2.8 on a zoom for it to be versatile enough to shoot with indoors and outdoors.

The second thing you are looking at is the focal length.  To be quite versatile for shooting indoors and portraits on a beginner DSLR, I would suggest something around the 35 - 50mm range. 

 

Some Starter Lens Options

Based on the above, here are some options for you to upgrade your kit lens to something that will let in a little more light and give you some more control for shooting in manual. 

I have deliberately kept these at entry level price points so that they won't break the bank.  You will very probably upgrade from these if you continue on your photography journey, so if you wish to go straight ahead and buy the next step up from these lenses, then please do so! However, I find that when you are just starting out,  it's better to get an entry level lens, practice and see what you like about it and what you don't. Then, when you then make an investment in your next lens, you will have a much better idea about what you want, need and like. 

Let's get to the options shall we? (did someone say "finally" ?!) 

The Universal Upgrade Lens - The 50MM F.18 

The 50mm F1.8 is probably everyone's universal upgrade lens due to it's rather fantastic optics for a very low price. For around a $125 you get a really wide aperture that will help you get that lovely blurred background, and you can also use a larger aperture inside to help you get those faster shutter speeds, and use as low as ISO rating as you can.  

The focal length on a cropped body is fantastic for portraits and using outdoors. It  works very well indoors too, but sometimes you need to back up a little bit more than you'd like - so if you have small rooms this can be a bit of a pain.

This is a prime lens, which means it doesn't zoom in or out - you have to use your feet! 

Here are some options depending on whether you shoot Canon or Nikon: 

Canon Users: 

Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II Camera Lens

Nikon Users: 

If you shoot Nikon, it's the same concept but's a teeny tiny bit more complicated.  The starter lens for Nikon does not have an auto-focus motor built in, so this particular lens will not focus automatically on some models of cameras, such as the D3000 or the D5100.  You can check whether this will work  on your camera body by using the widget at Amazon (just click on the links below to get to it).  If it doesn't work on your camera, you can go for the more expensive 50mm (the G version shown below) which will give you superior optics for a little bit more money.

Nikon 50mm f/1.8D AF Nikkor Lens for Nikon Digital SLR Cameras

A Wider Angle - the 28  OR 35MM

A downside of the 50mm F1.8 is that the focal length can be a little long on a cropped body for indoor shots. It's doable, but you sometimes have to back up a fair bit if you want to include a lot in the frame.

This is why if you prefer indoor lifestyle over portrait style / outdoor shots, a 35mm focal length might suit you a better.  You want a lovely low aperture for the reasons noted above though.

These are also primes, so no zooming!  If you shoot Canon, these are a good bit more expensive, but the Nikon is not too bad at around $200.

Canon

Canon EF 35mm f/2

Sigma 30mm f/1.4

Canon 24mm F2.8 Lens

Canon EF 28mm f/1.8 USM

Nikon

Nikon 35mm f/1.8G AF-S DX Lens for Nikon

Sigma 30mm f/1.4 DC HSM Lens for Nikon

Zoom Lens Options

If you prefer a zoom over a prime, then there are some lower prices options out there that are a good compromise between getting flexibility and sharpness from a zoom, without going into the high end models. The Tamrons have had quite a lot of good reviews, and this is in fact the only zoom I have ever owned!

The Tamron 28-75mm F2.8 gives you a 2.8 aperture throughout the range, and a good focal range for using using indoors and for portraits too.  This model works on full frame, and many cropped camera bodies.

Another Tamron alternative is the 17-50mm F2.8, which only works on crop sensor bodies but is also a great focal range, and again you can use F2.8 throughout. Note, this isn't as low as your primes above, so you lose a little bit of flexibility by not being able to let in more light via your aperture, but you gain in being able to use different focal lengths in one lens. It's always a compromise somewhere in photography!

The price of these lenses is around $500.00.

Canon

Tamron AF 28-75mm f/2.8

Tamron AF 17-50mm f/2.8

Sigma 17-50mm For Canon

Nikon

Tamron AF 28-75mm f/2.8

Tamron SP AF 17-50mm F/2.8

Sigma 17-50mm For Nikon

Please note that there are a LOT more lenses available even in just these focal lengths! It's tough to recommend lenses, as there are many different factors involved including budget, camera model, what you shoot, where you shoot, whether you prefer primes or zooms, whether you like using third party lenses or not,  and so on and so on, so please use these as a jumping off point to get your own perfect lens.

Still not sure? 

Take your kit lens and tape it down at 50mm. Don't move from that focal length all week (nope, not at all!) and see first of all what you think of not being able to zoom, and secondly what you think of the focal length.  Now try the same thing at 35mm and don't move from that focal length for a few days, and see which suited you better. If you really, really didn't like not having a zoom even after you've given it a couple of weeks, spend your cash on a zoom instead, but remember that you will lose a little bit of flexibility with letting in more light via your aperture.

 Also, whatever you do, check the lens before you buy to make sure that they are compatible with your particular camera model. It's very important to do this as not every lens works with every camera body - some are meant for cropped frame cameras only, and some camera bodies will only take certain lenses. Amazon now has a little widget where you can put in these details and it lets you know if everything is compatible - use this before you buy anything! (Although you gotta love Amazon's 30 day refund policy!) 

Lastly, please note that I have assumed you have a cropped camera body (most entry to mid range DSLR's are) when discussing how the focal lengths will work on your camera.

If you do upgrade from your kit lens - enjoy! You will notice a big difference.

Remember though, that the lens is just ONE element - you need to know how to use it too! Enrol in the free seven day course just for beginners and get actionable tutorials delivered straight to your inbox.