We’ve talked before about how overwhelming your first SLR purchase can be. Figuring out what all those buttons and settings do is maddening enough, but an SLR also adds another element you never had to worry about before – lenses.
Most people, when they buy a DSLR today, buy a kit that comes with one or two lenses. Usually there’s something in the range of 18-55mm and possibly another in the range of 55-200mm. For most people, this is adequate for a range of shooting and will be good enough to get a start in learning and getting the feel for your new camera. Eventually though, most of us want to graduate to something different, maybe a higher end lens, or something with specific functionality. If that’s you, read on.
Landscape Photography – Since this primarily what I do, I figured it’s as good a place as any to start. Generally, anything from about 17-200mm will allow to you capture just about any scene or composition you can think of for landscapes. With big scenes, you’ll want to take in a lot and having something on the ultra-wide end will allow you to do that.
It’s important to note here first, the crop factor in a lot of DSLRs. This is a term coined recently to help photographers understand how lenses used on a 35mm film SLR would compare when used on a DSLR. This comes about because the digital sensor is physically smaller than the 35mm film format. Most DSLRs used on the market today have a crop sensor, particularly those priced below US$1,500. Most Canon cameras have a crop factor of 1.6x, while Nikon and Sony are 1.5x. What this means is that 100mm lens used on a Canon camera with a smaller sensor will be equivalent to 160mm on a 35mm SLR, or a full frame DSLR.
The reason I mention the crop factor here is that it really comes into play with ultra-wide lenses. If you take a lens that is 18mm at its widest on a Nikon DSLR with a crop sensor, you’re really only able to go to 27mm at your widest point, which reduces the area in your viewfinder by 1/2. That’s a lot of real estate to lose. Fortunately, most lens manufacturers have lenses designed specifically to overcome this problem. Canon and Nikon each make a 10-22mm lens, while other manufacturers like Tokina have lenses in the 12-24mm range. Look for them you really want to go wide for landscapes.
As you move out of the ultra-wide category and go toward short telephoto lenses, you’ll have something that can help you focus in on smaller sections of the landscape or compress details in the scene. When it comes to lens speed or other features like image stabilization, that probably isn’t going to be a key concern for landscape photography since most landscape photographers shoot from a tripod. The reason for this is that we really want the details in the image to be as sharp as possible. Many times the smaller apertures used and the shutter speeds they require, necessitates a tripod to be able to get the scene properly exposed.
Wildlife - As opposed to landscape photography, wildlife requires long, fast lenses. Although a lot of this depends on how you want to compose the scene, generally you’re going to be in the 200-400mm range for large wildlife, and even longer for smaller animals. It also depends on if you’re looking for an environmental shot, or a frame-filling portrait. Another consideration is, how close are you able to get to the animal. If you’re shooting from a safari bus, it may be one thing, while shooting bison off the side of the road in Yellowstone is another. For the safari, you may need as much as reach as possible, while the bison are closer and may not need as much. (Warning here – I’ve seen many people put themselves or other people in harm’s way trying to take photos of wildlife. No photo is worth injury to yourself or someone else. Don’t be stupid, if the animal reacts to your presence, you’re too close.)
Another thing to think about with telephoto lenses is lens speed. You’re probably going to want to shoot with a fast shutter speed, either because you’re handholding the camera, or because you want to freeze the action of the subject. Most often a lens that goes down to f/4 should be good enough, but f/2.8 may be a good option if you find yourself shooting either fast subjects or in low light…and have the bank account to support it. Faster and longer lenses are very expensive, so be warned. There are cheaper options out there, but to get the reach you want, you could easily sacrifice image quality in terms of the overall contrast/color/sharpness of the lens, or with slow auto-focus or other performance properties. Outdoor Photographer had a great article in their June issue detailing some recommended lenses, check it out here.
Travel – Travel photography is a case where you really need to pay attention to the amount of lenses you have, and the portability of them. If you have a slew of big, bulky lenses, you could really take the fun out of traveling since you’re constantly hefting those things around. My suggestion here, is to travel light with a couple of lenses that can get the job done. For me, this means using lenses that get you from wide angle to short telephoto, generally between 24-200mm. My preferred setup here are the Canon EF 24-105 f/4 L IS and the Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L. It lets me get the range I want with two lenses, and both are small and light enough that they’re easily carried in my daypack.
I would recommend looking at lenses here with image stabilization. Most of the time I find myself shooting more handheld than on a tripod, and this can really help you get sharp images when you can’t use a tripod. My longer lens of the two does not have IS, but I chose it more for it’s smaller size, lighter weight and significantly lower cost. It’s a tradeoff I made, and something you’ll need to take into consideration.
To shoot people on the road, and in general, you’re probably going to want a lens in the 35-70mm range. Something that’s fairly fast, maybe f/2.8-f/4 at a minimum will help you freeze any movement, and get a nice blurred background to isolate your subject. A flash will also help do that, so if people photography is what you like to do, invest in a good flash.
To sum up, I’ll start with one caveat – the suggestions above are not hard and fast rules. I’ve shot some great landscape photos with very long lenses, just as I’ve shot wildlife at wide angles. The composition you envision is what will determine the lens required for the job. Overall though, make sure the lens you’re looking at is going to be sharp and that it renders the scene naturally. That’s probably your biggest concern once you’ve decided on your focal length and lens speed. There’s nothing worse than having a blurry or off-colored image because a lens just can’t perform how it’s supposed to. I’m not saying this means you need to run out and buy the most expensive lens out there, but rather to take a look at reviews online and maybe even try it out at your local camera store before you buy it. Other than that, I hope this is enough to get you started.