Which Starter Lens?
This gear guide is all about beginner lenses, aimed at those of you who are just starting out with a new DSLR, and wondering what to get next. I know most of the people arriving at this site do so with a desire to learn how to better photograph families, children in particular, so this list has been prepared with that goal in mind. If you have other requirements, such as travel photography or macro, sorry, this is not the guide for you, but I do hope to expand these gear guides in the future so keep an eye out for them!
First of all, let's look at the kit lens that probably came with your camera. Although the focal length of these lenses are very good, usually in the 18-55mm range, these will usually have a variable aperture of around F3.5- F5.6. This 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 will find it difficult to progress your photography skills with these lenses.
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 (grain) 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 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 (meaning 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.
So, 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, and I've listed some options under the focal lengths you might want to look at. I have deliberately kept these at entry level price points. You will very probably upgrade from these, so if you wish to go straight ahead and buy the next step up from these lenses, then please do so! (There will be a guide for "step up" lenses coming soon) However, I find that when you are just starting out, you might want to get an entry level lens, practice and see what you like about it and what you don't. When you then make an investment in your next lens, you will have a much better idea about what you want, need and like.
The 50mm F1.8 is probably everyone's universal upgrade lens due to it's rather great 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 also 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. This is a prime lens, which means it doesn't zoom in or out - you have to use your feet.
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.
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. Which is why if you prefer indoor lifestyle over portrait style / outdoor shots, a 35mm focal length might suit you a better. Again, you want a lovely low aperture for the reasons noted above.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.
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 own (but admittedly rarely use as I love my primes!) 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.
You will 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. If you are interested in skipping the starter lens and getting a better lens to begin with, then this post might be of more interest to you.
Not sure what suits you best? Then 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 it at 35mm. Same thing, don't move from that focal length for a few days. 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 do anything else!
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!
P.S Once you have your DSLR and lens, have a look at my page on recommended extras, to make your photography life a lot easier.