Updated: October 2012
After which camera should I buy, the 2nd most common question I hear from people is which lens should I buy?
No matter which platform you choose, you should remember that if you take photography as a long term hobby that you will replace the camera body over time, but you probably will be able to use your lenses for many years with multiple camera bodies. This means that if you make wise lens choices that they will be good investments for many years to come. You should also understand that you can spend thousands of dollars on a camera body, but if you match it to a crappy lens, you are going to get a crappy picture. It's just like in the world of audio where a $3000 receiver matched to $120 speakers is going to give you $120 sound.
Your lens is what captures the light and sends the image data to the sensor, so quality is the utmost importance. When get into photography you should prepare yourself to spend more money on the lens (or lenses) than you spend on the camera body itself (if image quality is your top priority).
With this in mind, you also need to think how you are really going to be using your lens when making your first lens purchase. The reality is that most of us can only afford one or two lenses up front. We want something that is practical when we are walking around taking pictures on vacation, or when we are indoors taking pictures of our toddler. Since babies and toddlers don't stay still for pictures, you are also going to need to use a fast shutter speed which means you need a fast lens, so in that sense it is a lot like shooting sports. :-)
A fast lens in photography geek speak is usually one that has a aperture (F-stop number) of 2.8 or lower. It’s called “fast” because you can generally use faster shutter speeds with these lenses as they get more light to the sensor. However, aperture also controls depth of field so the smaller the f-stop number the less depth of field (which can be desirable on long lenses and challenging on short ones).
At f/2.8 you will generally get enough light into the camera in most situations to avoid using a flash. Often times they’ll help you have a reasonable shutter speed to avoid motion blur of your subject (assuming they are a slow moving adult). The problem here is that, generally speaking (especially in the zoom lens world), f/2.8 lenses are expensive.
Your first lens should realistically be a zoom lens and you'll want to cover at least 24mm to 70mm range, and if your budget can afford it then it should be a f/2.8 or a f/4 with Image Stabilization (or Vibration Reduction in Nikon speak). For Nikon this means the AF-S Zoom Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8G ED and for Canon it means the 24-70mm f/2.8 II USM or 24-105mm f/4 IS USM.
Before you buy, consider renting!
Lenses are expensive, so even I tend to be on the fence for a long time before buying one. If the one I want is good, but it also costs $1000 or more than a cheaper alternative, I worry about making a bad decision. Like you, I don’t want to make a purchase like that and end up having the lens be a disappointment or sit in my closet collecting dust!
Renting lenses is a great way to find out if you’ll really like a lens enough to own it or if you’ll use it so infrequently that renting as needed makes sense (which is certainly true for big lenses like the 400mm f/2.8L IS II USM).
I have a lens rental series on this blog, complete with discounts (found on the discount coupon code page) that allows you to figure out which rental company makes sense for you as well as getting a discount on your rental!
I was lusting for Canon’s TS-E 24mm f/3.5L II Tilt-Shift Manual Focus Lens for EOS Cameras, so before putting it on my personal holiday wish list of things I’d love to get, I rented it from my friends at LensRentals.com where this blog offers an exclusive 5% off discount that you can’t find anywhere else. I loved the lens, but the manual focus got old quick so I decided to take it off my list. No buyers remorse and no returns to deal with, so it was a brilliant move that saved me money in the end. I highly recommend you try this out if you are on the fence on anything (including camera bodies, lighting, etc…).
So how do I know which lens is good?
One of the easiest ways to understand which lens is the right lens for you is to ask the right question. All too often I hear people saying, "what should I get a 50mm f/1.x or a 70-200mm f/2.8?" In life there are few stupid questions, but that my friend is a stupid question. Why? Because a 50mm prime has an entirely different purpose than a 70-200mm f/2.8 zoom lens, and generally you don't get either or you get both (eventually). Instead, you should ask yourself what do you plan to shoot?
There is no one size fits all lens although many think that Canon's EF 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6L IS USM and Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR come close enough. However, I disagree as these big beasts are heavy and require fast shutter speeds (1/200 sec+) at their maximum focal lengths yet their minimum aperture of f/5.6 at that range means you’ll need at least ISO 800 on an average outdoor day with mostly cloudy skies and you’ll frequently find yourself at ISO 6400 indoors or on dark rainy days. This coupled with the weight of these lenses usually results in blurry images (due to camera shake – despite the image stabilization) and noisy photos due to the higher ISO’s required. Instead, you should realize that you'll need to pick a category that makes sense for what you will shoot the most and then purchase lenses in the order that your budget allows. To help you with this I'll offer some categories with some recommended lenses, and you can choose the order in which you should tackle the categories:
WARNING: Certain Nikon bodies require AF-S lenses, so buyer beware.
This is typically going to be the lens on your camera the most and probably the only one you’ll take when you are on vacation or when shooting your kids birthday party.
I recommend that everyone own one of these as their first lens (instead of the kit lens if you can afford it).
Nikon AF-S 24-70mm f/2.8G ED
Canon 24-105mm f/4L IS USM
Nikon AF-S 24-120mm f/4G ED VR (my review)
Kids in Action, Short Range Sports, Portraits & More
Once you own one of these you’ll try everything to keep it on your camera because magic shows up on your cameras LCD when you use these phenomenal but expensive lenses.
I recommend everyone own one of these after they get their all purpose lens.
These lenses are expensive but they are the investment that will allow you to start getting the killer shots you’ve always wanted to get since you bought your DSLR. The first two are the fastest focusing and offer the best image stabilization of each of their respective platforms with the added bonus of offering wonderful color and super sharp images. You’ll never regret owning one of these lenses after you get over the sticker shock of paying for them!
Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM
Nikon AF-S 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II
Canon 70-200mm f/4 IS USM**
Nikon 80-200 f/2.8D ED*
* = I’m reluctant to recommend this one, but since Nikon doesn’t have its v1 available like Canon does then this is really the best bet. The two expensive ones are worth every penny so if you can figure out a way to get them – do it – you won’t regret it!
** = I really think the f/2.8 is the way to go, and you definitely want the newer IS versions, but I’m including the f/4 version because it is crazy sharp and much lighter weight.
Here’s an example of a portrait shot (Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM) shot at at f/2.8., and a kids sports shot (Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM) shot at f/3.2. Both photos Copyright © Ron Martinsen – All Rights Reserved – DO NOT copy, save, link or redistribute.
Wide angle lenses are super handy indoors as well as doing landscape work, but in the right hands they can even be used for portrait work in both a traditional way or you can use the distortion they create at an angle to your advantage. They can also be used for a combination of both landscapes or people shots with the landscape as the background.
These are really fun lenses to use and have a ton of useful applications!
Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM
Nikon AF-S Zoom Nikkor 14-24mm f/2.8G ED
Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L USM
Nikon AF-S Zoom Nikkor 17-35mm f/2.8D ED-IF
Warning: These lenses can require longer minimum focus distances and have very slow auto-focus performance so they are best suited for static or slow moving objects. They have a wonderful bokeh though and are all super sharp.
Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM
Nikon AF Nikkor 85mm f/1.4D IF
Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L USM
Nikon AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.4G
You can actually save a ton of money and get great results with the much cheaper Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM or Nikon 50mm f/1.4D. The more expensive lenses are better, but if you aren’t doing pro work then you’ll be plenty satisfied with the cheaper options (which is what I did).
Here’s an example taken with the Canon 50mm f/1.4 and some taken with the Canon 85mm f/1.2L.
Long Range Sports
There’s a joke in the bird watcher community that the lens you need is always 2x the lens you have, and that’s definitely the truth in sports many times as well! These are lens you can rent from my favorite rental place, LensRentals.com when you need them rather than spending a fortune on them only to have them collect dust most of the time.
NOTE: Canon has vastly improved versions of the new II versions of the 400m f/2.8 and 300mm f/2.8. Read here to learn about how Canon has made them both lighter, yet sharper with much better image stabilization.
Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS II USM
Nikon AF-S Nikkor 400mm f/2.8G ED VR
Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM
Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 200-400mm f/4G ED VR II
Some will suggest the Nikon AF VR Zoom Nikkor 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6D ED but I’ve had numerous reports of it being a very slow focusing lens and overall complaints about its performance. However, The Nikon 200-400 is very expensive, so it might be a reasonable tradeoff for some.
Check out my lens rental series for a way to rent the big lenses as there really is little reason for the average person to own these big expensive beasts. Here’s some recommendations though:
- Canon EF 600mm f/4.0L IS II USM or Nikon AF-S Nikkor 600mm f/4G ED VR
- Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM or Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 200-400mm f/4G ED VR II – I like these because they are easier to find your subject and then zoom in.
- Canon EF 500mm f/4.0L IS II USM or Nikon AF-S Nikkor 500mm f/4G ED VR
It’s also quite common for bird hunters to use teleconverters which are lens adapters that multiple the zoom level of your lens by the value of the teleconverter (1.4 times and 2.0 times are most common):
These sound great, but you can lose auto focus with the 2x on many cameras and of course you lose light and sharpness, so they should be use wisely.
Everybody who gets their new DSLR wants to shoot pictures of bugs or flowers so to get the best results you need a macro lens which can be fairly affordable and very useful for more than just macro work. Here’s some of my recommendations:
- Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 USM Macro (or 100mm f/2.8L Hybrid IS USM Macro) or Nikon AF Micro-Nikkor 105mm f/2.8G ED-IF AF-S VR
- Canon EF 180mm f/3.5L Macro USM or Nikon AF Micro Nikkor 200mm f/4.0D ED-IF
The advantage of these lenses is that they feature perspective control which allows you to take an image of a building without distortion. Here’s a really bad article I did a long time ago which demonstrates this point.
Here’s some of the recommendations I have:
- Canon Tilt Shift TS-E 24mm f/3.5L II Manual Focus or Nikon PC-E Nikkor 24mm f/3.5D ED Manual Focus – Outdoors
- Canon Tilt Shift TS-E 17mm f/4L (No Nikon equivalent) – Indoors
For Great Bokeh and Sharpness
These are magical lenses that are super sharp and the bokeh is simply incredible! The only challenge with these lenses is that they have a horrible minimum focus distance and aren’t great in low light, so I enjoy these lenses more outdoors.
Honorable Mention (NEW CATEGORY)
These lenses fall into the category of “if I had the money, I’d get them”, but I wouldn’t get them to replace say a 70-200mm because these “one-size fits all” lenses aren’t as good as the more specialized lenses (which are usually faster), but they are indeed very good pieces of glass. What I love about these is that they are excellent quality and they still can stay on your camera all day for most situations (especially outdoors).
Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6L IS USM
Nikon AF-S 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR Zoom
These are just my recommendations
This list is a general guide, not the word of God. I chose the Canon lenses based on what I would get for each category if I were to (or already have) spent my money. For Nikon, I tried to pick lenses that are equivalent to the Canon's, but I have no experience with the Nikon lens. I have first choice indicated by 1, a second by 2, etc... In the case where there is no second choice, I personally believe that you shouldn't waste your money on the other choices until you own the first lens choice. For cases where there are more than two, then you can assume that the third choice is a very good budget choice if your budget is tight. Second choices are usually a compromise over the first choice, but still worth your consideration.
Another important thing to mention is that entry level Nikon bodies only support autofocus for AF-S and AF-I lenses because these bodies do not contain a built-in focus drive motor.
Getting more info on lenses
You should do your own research and use the list above as a starting point. I recommend that you start by reading reviews, and I've found the following sites to be a good starting point:
- http://www.nikonians.org/html/resources/nikon_articles/other/compatibility.html (not reviews, but useful info about what all of the letters mean in Nikon lens descriptions)
Once you've narrowed down your list of lenses, you can visit my favorite site to research lenses - SLRGear.com and look at their Blur Index for tested lenses (both Nikon and Canon) to see which lens is the sharpest. The Digital Picture also offers a great lens comparison tool.
Lastly, you can go to places like http://www.pixel-peeper.com/ and Flickr.com to look at actual photos taken with a given lens and body (similar to yours) and see what the final results look like (given the limitations or great skill of the photographer).
But what about Sigma, Tamron, EF-S, DX lenses, etc...
Yes, there are alternatives to save you money on lenses, but I’ve found that the non OEM brands* don’t hold their value very well so the resale on them sucks – big time! People who buy them eventually get around to buying the high end OEM lenses stuff so when they sell them they take a beating. I’ve never lost more than 10% when selling my pro lenses but if you search the web you’ll find the third party lenses going for much less than their OEM counterparts.
Canon does offer some outstanding EF-S lenses that offer a great value, as does Nikon with some of its DX lenses. However, one consideration for these crop sensor lenses is that you can’t take advantage of them on full sensor cameras so if you decide to upgrade you may end up having to sell your lenses at a loss. As a result is my recommendation to get the full frame compatible lenses when possible and if you must get a cropped sensor lens then be sure to get the best ones offered by your OEM so you can get the best resale price.
* = OEM = Canon & Nikon
UPDATE: Due to popular demand, I've added a couple EF-S and DX lenses to the list only because they are outstanding performers and some people have argued they'll never go full-frame.
I've bought my lens, but now I have buyers remorse
Let's face it, there are so many great lenses that we can afford to purchase so we'll always have to make compromises. This leads to what I call Lens Lust which is a condition whereby you lust after a lens you don't own, but wish you did. For some it is painful, but they survive. For others, it is incurable so they sell their lens (usually at a loss - which they never admit even to themselves) and buy the lens they lust after, only to have the same condition occur again immediately after the purchase. Severe cases of Lens Lust will even cause some to purchase the same lens that they previously owned again at some point in the future.
There is a cure for lens lust and it is quite simple - go to Fred Miranda's web site and read the reviews. Here you'll have hundreds of people telling you how awesome your lens is and how it is so much better than other more expensive lenses. Of course, most of these people are writing their reviews shortly after they get their lens, so if you look carefully they'll bash the same lens when they review another lens after an episode of Lens Lust causes them to replace their short-term beloved lens with something they think is better. In the end, this is easiest way to be happy with your decision. Now stop worrying and go max out your credit card on B&H, Amazon or Adorama and get that lens you've been lusting after!
Carrying and Insuring your lenses
Check out my article about camera insurance to find out why you should insure your lenses and why a good bag is so critically important. Insurance costs me about 1% of the cost of my gear – per year, for zero deductible so it’s a no brainer for me.
I highly recommend Think Tank Photo bags for carrying your lenses as they are bags designed by pro photographers to meet the rough and tumble demands of pro photographers. However, the prices of their bags are competitive with Tamron, Lowepro, etc… which I don’t find to be nearly as well made. See my reviews for TTP bags at the bottom of this other article.
I may get a commission if you purchase using the links provided in this article. Please support the blog by using these links now and/or in the future when making your own lens purchases. It doesn’t cost you a penny extra and helps to fund this blog so I can bring you more articles.