Beyond the Kit: A Beginner’s Guide To Buying Camera Lenses

Chances are, if you are still only using the kit lens that came with your DSLR or mirrorless, you aren't getting the most out of your camera. But where do you start? Here's a basic guide for the newbies at purchasing camera lenses.
By Hillary Grigonis, Last updated on: 7/10/2014


Own a DSLR or mirrorless interchangeable lens camera but haven't yet bought any, well, lenses? While kit lenses can be a good and affordable way to get started, they also often limit the camera's performance. Kit lenses are often slow and don't typically offer much zoom. But where do you start? With lens names that often just look like a jumble of letters and numbers, buying a new lens can be confusing—but with a little bit of background, choosing a new lens doesn't have to be complicated. Here's what you need to know when upgrading from a kit lens.

Buying Camera Lenses: Types

Lenses come in two main types, zooms, which as the name implies offer versatility with the ability to adjust the zoom, and primes, which are fixed (i.e. they cannot zoom further in or out). Zoom lenses are the most popular, and for good reasons, but you shouldn't write off a good prime lens either. Prime lenses offer a lot of speed for a reasonable price, which make them excellent for portraits.

Beyond just zooms and primes though, there are several additional types of lenses that are all designed for different shooting scenarios. Typically, these types are differentiated by their zoom length, which is the “mm” number in the lens name, with larger numbers offering more zoom. Here are the most common types:

  • Wide-Angle. These lenses capture a wide perspective and are excellent for landscape photography. The lower the focal length is (that's the number written in mm), the wider the perspective is.
  • Fisheye. Fisheye lenses take pictures at angles that are wider than the human eye can see. Because these perspectives are so wide, the images appear distorted and are often circular in shape.
  • Telephoto. These lenses are designed to take pictures of subjects that are far away.
  • Macro. These lenses are for taking close-ups. A macro lens will usually have a ratio in its name, which indicates how big the lens can reproduce objects (a 1:1 ratio is life-size).

Buying Camera Lenses: Speed and Maximum Aperture

If the single biggest indicator of a camera's performance is the sensor, the biggest indicator of a lens' quality is the maximum aperture, indicated in the lens name with an f. There are many other factors of course, but the maximum aperture is arguably the most important.

If you use manual modes on your camera, you know that the aperture indicates how much light is coming in to the shot, as well as the depth of field. Wide apertures let in the most light and create a dramatic depth of field, where the defocused elements are much softer than the ones that are in focus. By letting in more light, the camera can use faster shutter speeds, which is why the f number on the lens is often referred to as the speed.

Well, a camera can only use the apertures allowed by the lens design. The maximum aperture allowed by the lens is always indicated in the lens name. An f1.8 lens, for example has an excellent wide aperture, so that lens will be great for portraits, low light photography or any shots where a dramatic depth of field is desired. A lens with an f4-5.6 maximum aperture means that the maximum aperture varies by the zoom, likely f4 at the widest view and f5.6 when zoomed all the way in.

If you are working with an f3.5 kit lens, you will see the most difference in your images by picking up a faster lens, like f1.8. Lenses with wide maximum apertures are more expensive than their slower counterparts, but create much more dramatic effects and perform much better in limited lighting. Getting a fast lens doesn't have to be extremely expensive however. Fixed lenses offer great speeds at much better prices and it's not difficult to find a fast 50mm fixed DSLR lens for a little over $200.

Buying Camera Lenses: Image Stabilization

The very best lenses will also be equipped with optical image stabilization, which helps reduce camera shake. Depending on the age of the lens and the manufacturer, the stabilization can be low or very significant. Lenses with image stabilization will be able to shoot at slower speeds than lenses without because the blur from camera shake doesn't come in quite as soon. Image stabilization isn't necessary on every lens, but is particularly useful for low light shooting, as well as telephoto and macro lenses, because the camera shake can be more obvious in those scenarios.

If a lens has image stabilization, it's usually indicated in the name. On Canon lenses, it's IS (Image Stabilization); on Nikon it's VR (Vibration Reduction). Tamron calls it VC (Vibration Compensation) and Sigma uses OS (Optical Stabilization).

Buying Camera Lenses: Additional Features

Another important element to look at is the minimum focal length. This number will be listed in the technical specifications and indicates how close an object can be to the front of the lens and still remain in focus. Considering the minimum focal length is important when looking for macro or multi-purpose lenses but not as essential for choosing telephotos.

The motor that allows the lens to focus can be loud, particularly in cheap lenses, which can make candid shots out of the question. Many manufacturers indicate in the lens name if the product uses a quiet motor with USD (Canon and Tamron) or HSM (Sigma). Nikon refers to theirs as Silent Wave Motor, but doesn't list it in the title (you can find it in the tech specs or product description).

Before You Buy...

So we've explored the things to look for in a lens, but there's a few things to watch out for too.

  • Focus. There are lenses out there that only use manual focus. While they can be great for some purposes, it's best for beginners to look at lenses that offer both auto and manual focus.
  • Compatibility. Not all lenses work with all cameras. And even if you have a Nikon camera and buy a Nikon lens, it may not work properly if they are not compatible. When I bought my first camera, I bought a kit that for just a little bit more got me a whole bunch of accessories, including a telephoto lens. I didn't realize at the time that my camera needed AF-S lenses and the lens in the package that the store assembled was AF—it worked, but I had no autofocus, which didn't work well since I got it for taking sports photos. Stores like Amazon often have a small drop down menu where you can select your camera model and it will tell you if the lens is compatible with your camera. If in doubt, always ask or email a representative from the store.
  • Buying Used. While buying used gear can save quite a bit of money, be very cautious. Minor things like scratches and dust that may not be visible to you can affect the lens' performance. If you buy used, buy a certified product that has a guarantee and may be exchanged if there are any issues.

If you are still shooting with just a kit lens, you aren't getting the most out of your camera. A faster lens, one with a longer zoom range or one with a specialty like macro can significantly improve your images.

Hillary Grigonis is the Managing Editor at DCHQ. Follow her on Facebook or Google+.


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