Which lens should I buy first?

lenses-1So you now own a nice camera and you’re beginning to think about which lens you should buy next.  The choice seems overwhelming and you don’t want to make an expensive mistake.

This is without doubt, one of the most common questions I get asked by my students.

There comes a point when most camera owners, having got used to the lens that came with their camera (often referred to as a ‘kit lens’) start to think about the exciting prospect of buying a new lens…

The first impulse is to go out and buy the longest zoom they can afford.  With focal lengths up to 200mm or 300mm, these zooms are an attractive proposition.  I’m sure that men are predictably worse than ladies in thinking that ‘bigger is better’.  (I just love sweeping generalisations)

Although they may seem like a good idea, they could restrict your picture taking opportunities by their bulkiness (you may not want to carry them around everywhere)  and their inability to work in lower light levels

The kit lens that comes with most cameras is usually a zoom around the 18-55mm range.  Put that on a 1.5X crop sensor camera (which most new camera owners have) and the effective focal length range is closer to 27-82.5mm.  That’s a modest wide angle to a modest telephoto.

Whilst a good, useable range, most manufacturers seem to make a very low quality kit lens.  Cheap plastic construction, poor optics and disappointing maximum apertures, which are pretty usless for low light photography and aren’t really capable of producing those nice blurred-out backgrounds to portraits that are so popular today.

So what do I recommend?

I have quite a few lenses (most of them can be seen in the photo at the top of this page), only three of them are zooms, the rest are fixed focal-length prime lenses.

I confess, I don’t like zooms.  Having to think about zooming, on top of all the other things going on in my head when I’m shooting is an annoyance.

canon with 50mm lens-1I like the way that a prime lens forces me to compose on my feet and I love the way that primes are usually able to work in much lower light than zooms.  Their wide apertures make it much easier to blur our backgrounds (AKA bokeh), and they are usually smaller and lighter.

If I had to pick just one focal length, there’s no question in my mind which one I’d pick.  This lens constantly appears in photographers’ surveys as the most popular general purpose choice.

I would pick the 50mm … in a heartbeat.

The 50mm standard lens on a full frame camera (or 35mm for most crop sensor cameras.  25mm for those using Panasonic and Olympus) is a universally loved lens.  Small and rarely expensive (with a few exceptions), this lens has such potential for what is usually a small and unobtrusive piece of glass.

Put a 50mm on a 1.5 X crop and it starts behaving like a 75mm, which is not bad for portraits

Canon has one which it sells for just over £100 called affectionately the ‘nifty fifty’.  Sure, its optics could be better, but for that money you can get awesome results.  More>


Canon’s f/1.8 (nifty fifty)

I usually suggest to most of my students that if they don’t own a 50mm, they should go out and get one straight away, or at least put one on their Amazon wish list.  For those who’s only lens until that point was their kit lens, the 50mm is transformational and their excitement as they see their photos is palpable.

Using a prime (a lens that doesn’t zoom), they are forced to give more consideration to composition.  I’d swear the 50mm lens acts as a catalyst to improve their picture-taking skills.

Its field of view and the way it handles perspective is similar to that of human eyesight, which makes it a very comfortable focal ength to work with.

I use the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 Art lens on my Canon DSLRs which is spectacularly sharp.  On my Fuji mirrorless crop sensor bodies I have two lenses in the 35mm focal length  range (which equate to 50mm on full frame).  I use the f/2.0 and the f/1.4.  The first being an exceptionally rapid lens to focus, the other although slower, benefits from the wider aperture.

The 50mm is my go-to lens.  It spends more time on my cameras than any other.  It’s great for street photography, weddings… and providing you don’t get too close, it’s great for portraits.

What’s your favourite lens?

As always, if you have any questions please post them below and I will do my best to answer them.


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Kevin Ahronson

Kevin is a full-time professional photographer and has been teaching photography since 2009. He founded the Hampshire School of Photography where he runs photography workshops and gives one to one mentoring to photographers at all levels, from complete beginners through to those who want to turn professional

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