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So the goal of this article is to make lenses easy to understand in as few words as possible. I also broke down the best lenses at different price points in different categories. In the name of few words, let’s get started! (P.S. If you are shopping for just cameras, check out this article for DSLR cameras.) If a camera without interchangeable lenses is more up your alley, this article is for you.

Why do lens prices vary so much?

Money generally buys you one or more of the following things:

  • Zoom – Generally speaking, lenses that do not zoom (or do not change focal lengths) cost less than those that do. Also generally speaking, the farther a lens zooms, the more expensive it will be. These are very, very general statements and there are many exceptions.
  • Build Quality – Lenses are made with plastic or metal mounts. Metal costs more, is heavier, and is higher quality. The glass elements of a lens are also higher quality in more expensive lenses. They usually focus better, have fewer artifacts, and are also heavier.
  • Image Stabilization (IS for Canon) or Vibration Reduction (VR for Nikon) – Most people can keep their hands steady for about 1/60 of a second. Any shutter speed slower than this makes your images blurry. IS or VR allows you to use slower shutter speeds than you can hand hold and still have in focus images. This makes the lens better able to perfect in lower light. This feature will not allow you to freeze the motion of a running child though.  You’d still want to stick with shutter speeds of 1/200 sec or so to freeze that type of motion. Another good rule of thumb? Your slowest shutter speed should be 1/{focal length} of your lens. Examples include: 200mm = 1/200 sec, a 50mm 1/50sec. The more a lens zooms, the more susceptible it is to camera shake.
  • Light – The more light a lens lets in, the lower the “f-stop” and the higher the price. Lenses that lets lots of light in (f/2.8 and lower) will perform better in low light situations like inside your home. The ONLY downside of using at lens at f/2.8 or below is that the focal plan (or zone of focus) is very small. Therefore, you may find some images are blurry because focus was “missed.” Any lens can be used at a higher aperture though, so there is an easy fix. The major advantage of keeping the lens at it’s lowest f-stop is that it creates the dreamy background blur that makes your subject stand out.

What focal length is right for me?

  • <24mm | Super Wide Angle
  • 24-35mm | Wide Angle
  • 35mm-80mm | Normal
  • 80-300mm | Telephoto
  • >300mm | Super Telephoto

Here are examples of a simple little “house-like-thing” taken at different focal lengths. The 50mm shot is pretty close to what the house looked like from where I stood to take these images. Therefore, the 24-35mm images make the house look farther away and include more scenery. The zoom-ier shots include less scenery and at 200mm, I’m really filling the entire frame with the house.

focallengths2Next up is a neat graphic showing how different lens focal length affect a person’s appearance. Have you ever heard that the TV camera adds pounds? This is why. A TV camera is wide angle and more like the 24mm lens than the other images. In order to fit the TV camera in the same room as the “set”, it has to be wide angle. Ideally, portrait lenses are 85mm and above although a portrait at 50mm is perfectly fine as well. You can always take photos of people using a lens in the 24-35mm range but you’d probably want to back up a bit. Just be aware that the distortion is a possibility.

Also note the background elements in each image. Do you see how just brown dirt is the background for the 100-200mm images. That’s lens compression at work. The larger the focal length, the more the lens is able to blur the background. These images were all taken with the exact same settings using the Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 L lens and the Canon 70-200mm f/4.0 L lens. (The settings were ISO 400, 1/320 at f/4.0.)

focallengths1 What is a crop body camera and why does this matter?

If technical stuff is difficult or annoying to you, skip this question. In short, most consumer level cameras have smaller sensors than professional cameras. This smaller sensors are the reason entry level cameras are often called “crop body” cameras and professional cameras are referred to as “full-frame” cameras. Long story short, when putting any lens on a crop body camera, you have to multiple the focal length by ~1.5 to determine the effective focal length. Therefore, the little lens that came with your camera says 18-55mm but is effectively a 27-82 equivalent. It covers the wide-angle to normal range of focal lengths.

There are lenses make specifically for crop body cameras and some lenses can be used on both style cameras. Canon uses the abbreviation EF-S and Nikon uses the abbreviation DX for lenses that are 0nly compatible with their crop-body cameras.

Should I buy a zoom lens or a fixed length lens (aka prime lens)?

Zoom lenses are great because they allow you to zoom in and out without moving your feet. A prime lens requires the user to move back and forth to zoom. However, the advantage to prime lenses is that they allow much more light in at those same focal lengths for the price. In other words, they usually produce higher quality photos because there is more light available to make an image. They also produce the background blur much more easily. However, with just one focal length per prime lens, you generally have to purchase more than one so that your lens collection is versatile.

Most DSLR cameras come with a basic zoom lens that covers 18-55mm (or 27-82 equivalent). I recommend most people invest in (or rent) a prime lens first to see how they like it before making more lens decisions.

Should I buy a filter for the front of my camera lens?

Yes! A basic UV filter protects the lens from scratches and is easy to replace if and when that happens. It may degrade image quality slightly but not enough that it isn’t worth the slight risk. When in doubt, buy one that is slightly better than the most economical choice. I like the B+W brand for my lenses but Hoya and Tiffen are also great. Note that filters come in sizes too. You can find the proper size for your lens by looking at your lens straight on.

Speaking of markings. How do I read them?

Graphics. Let’s use graphics for this one.01 copy 02 copy

What lenses do you use?

  • Canon 15mm f/2.8 Fisheye
  • Canon 35mm f/1.4 L
  • Canon 40mm f/2.8 Pancake
  • Canon 50mm f/1.8
  • Canon 85mm f/1.8
  • Canon 100mm f/2.8 IS L macro
  • Canon 24-70 f/2.8 L
  • Canon 70-200 f/4.0 L
  • Lensbaby Composer Pro with Double Glass Optic

The lenses in bold are the ones I love the most.

What lenses do you recommend for me?

Here are a variety of good starter lenses at price points that are friendly to a family budget. In general, there are lots of rebates and specials on lenses so many may come in at lower prices than I’ve listed here. (That’s also why Amazon will not always agree with me.) You can also get used copies at local camera stores for less than retail. I cover Nikon, Canon, Sigma, and Tamron in this post. Tamron and Sigma are considered a third-party lens maker. They produce the exact same lens with mounts for Nikon, Canon, Sony, and a few other brands. If you choose a Tamron or Sigma lens, make sure you order the mount for the correct camera body you own.

Under $200 Prime Lens

Under $200 All Purpose Lens

Under $200 Zoom Lens

 

Under $350 Prime Lens

Under $350 All Purpose Lens

Under $350 Zoom Lens

 

Under $500 Prime Lens

Under $500 All Purpose Lens

Under $500 Zoom Lens

Questions?

JR-26 copyFeel free to post questions about DSLR lenses in the comments. I’m happy to help you!

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Hugs,
Jess

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