For professionals reading this blog, the importance of lenses is old hat. However, for casual users who are considering getting their first DSLR, they might not understand just how vital having the right lenses is for shooting. A good lens means everything in getting the right shot. It’s not just the amount of zoom you have or how wide it can get, but the quality of the glass, the maximum size of the aperture, and other characteristics.
Before we go into the options, let’s look at some of the basics of lenses. Every camera lens has two main attributes: focal length and f-stop. The focal length determines how close or how wide you can get with the lens; an 18mm lens can produce a very wide angle shot, while a 200mm lens can get you very close to the subject. The f-stop determines how wide the aperture can open; a lens that can reach f/1.4 will be much brighter than one that can only reach f/4.0. You can learn more about these concepts in our Beginner’s Guide to Photography Terminology.
Some people only pay attention to the focal length. This is particularly a problem with compact cameras, which are always happy to talk about how powerful the zoom is. Indeed, it can be nice to get close to the subject with a telephoto lens, but it’s not always the best choice, and if it’s not particularly bright you’ll find it worthless in most situations. Unless you know you absolutely need the powerful zoom, you’ll generally get far better shots with a 50mm f/1.4 lens than a 200mm f/4.0 lens.
In the end, your lenses dictate what type of shots you can take. Indoor shots, outdoor shots, close-up shots, landscape shots, daytime shots, and nighttime shots are made or broken because of your lens. A few weeks ago, I wrote a guide on Tested.com explaining how to choose your first SLR lens. It goes over the basic must-have lens types.
35mm, 50mm, and 85mm lens are all extremely useful. While 35mm and 85mm lenses will put you at a better advantage for shooting wide shots and portraits, respectively, a 50mm prime lens works like a swiss army knife for shooters. In all three cases, they’re flexible enough for general use, hovering close enough to midrange that you can use them for most shots in a pinch. The further you get in either direction, whether wide-angle or telephoto, the more specialized (and expensive) the lenses will be, and the harder it will be to take shots not suited specifically for the lens.
It’s tempting to get a “zoom” lens with a variable focal length, so you can move back and forth between distances at your leisure, without changing lenses. This still leads to trade-offs. Zoom lenses are heavier and bulkier, and unless you’re willing to spend a lot of money on them they tend to have inferior glass. Yes, it’s a nuisance to switch lenses, but it’s better to enjoy a proper, crisp photo with the right tool than a muddy photo taken through cheap glass and a tiny aperture.
There’s one last reason your lenses are more important: they’re probably going to outlive your camera. As long as you use the same brand of SLR (or use an adapter, and don’t mind trading off features like auto-focus), you can keep using your lenses long after your SLR body has corked it. If Canon announces a 10 terapixel SLR a decade down the road, as long as it uses an EF-S lens mount or supports an EF-S adapter, you can use the same 50mm lens you cut your teeth on back in 2005.
In the end, your selection of lenses are some of the most important things in your camera bag. It’s best to use the right tool for the job, and your lenses are those tools. A camera body is obviously vital, but if your glass won’t give you a clear shot at the right distance and speed, you might as well be waving around a shoebox.