Beyond the Kit Lens: The Best Step Up Lenses For Your Camera

Canon 40mm f/2.8 Rear Element

Everyone has to start somewhere, and folks always ask us, “We’re thinking about a DSLR, what should we buy?” Well first off, what you should really know is that once you go into the DSLR or Mirrorless camera arena, you’ll need to consider the fact that upgrading at this point doesn’t always mean you should get a new camera. In fact, that’s totally preposterous in some cases.

Want to take better pictures? Get a lens. For what it’s worth, no camera manufacturer markets their lenses anywhere as much as they should. Why? Because they just want to sell cameras first and foremost. But we’re here today to educate you a little bit on the secret that most of the more savvy shooters know. This website has reviewed loads, and loads of lenses–more than most sites out there. And so we’re passing our knowledge onto you.

And we’ll also do it on a budget.



Canon 40mm STM on 5DmkII

Canon 50mm f1.8

The one lens that everyone tells you to upgrade to is our number one choice for Canon users. Sometimes it can be had for under $100, but combine this with the fact that it is sharp stopped down, compact, and light and you’ll have a lens that you’ll fall in love with for a very long time.

This is an EF lens, so it can be used on both APS-C sensor cameras and full frame cameras. But on an APS-C camera, it will render an 80mm field of view–perfect for portraits.

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Canon 40mm f2.8

Canon’s first autofocusing pancake lens for their DSLR line was sure to make its way to this list. Sure, it’s affordable, but it is also Canon’s smallest lens. Once again, it is an EF lens, which means that on a full frame body it will render a 40mm field of view while on an APS-C it will be around 65mm. When we reviewed this lens, we rated it very highly because of its compact size, sharpness edge to edge, and fast/silent focusing due to the new STM motors built in.

If you want to keep your DSLR the smallest size that you possible can, this is the lens to go for.

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Sigma 30mm f1.4 Version II

For many years, Sigma had APS-C camera audiences enthralled with their 30mm f1.4. The lens is the closest thing that you can get to a 50mm field of view equivalent. Their first version was very sharp, fast to focus, and rendered that normal field of view that many loved.

But recently, the company revamped this lens and it now has a metal exterior and even sharper optics than what they state they previously had.

If you want your closest equivalent to a nifty 50, then this is the one to get. But take note that you won’t be able to mount this onto your full frame camera.

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Chris Gampat Digital Camera Review Nikon D7100 product photos (1 of 7)ISO 5001-200 sec at f - 5.0

Sigma 30mm f1.4

One of the cool things about the Nikon DSLR system is that even though you might have a lot of APS-C lenses, you can still use them on a full frame camera body. And for that reason, we recommend Sigma’s 30mm f1.4. It has all the benefits that we talked about above, but because of Nikon’s larger APS-C sized sensors, you’ll render a field of view that is slightly wider than 50mm. But trust us, it’s more than close enough.

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Nikon 35mm f1.8 G

If you want to stick with all Nikon glass, then their 35mm f1.8 G will be a lens that you instantly fall in love with. Wide open, it isn’t so sharp but as soon as it is down to f2.5, you’ll get some very pleasing results. The bokeh on this lens is also spectacular as is its overall compact size.

One of our favorite features of this lens is the fact that when mounted to a full frame Nikon camera body, you’ll experience very little vignetting and it acts as a true 35mm lens despite being recommended for use with APS-C camera bodies.

If that isn’t worth it, we’re not sure what is.

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Nikon 50mm f1.8 AF-S

Though Nikon’s Nifty 50 is more expensive than Canon’s (if you’re looking for a competing system) it is better built, sharper, and faster to focus. On an APS-C camera you’ll get a 75mm field of view while on a full frame you’ll get a true 50mm field of view. In our review, we were very pleased by the bokeh–although this lens is a little larger than we’d like it to be.

If you’re stepping up to this lens, it might become your every day optic, or just your portrait lens.

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Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Sony NEX 3N product photo (1 of 1)ISO 1601-200 sec at f - 2.0

Sony 20mm f2.8 NEX

Sony has had a good pancake lens for their NEX system in a while. Their first pancake, the 16mm f2.8 wasn’t so sharp but wasn’t really a very bad lens either. But with just how good Sony’s optics have become, we’ve read excellent reviews so far of their 20mm f2.8 lens. This is the company’s new pancake, and when combined with their APS-C sensors, you’ll get a 30mm field of view: perfect for street photography, landscapes, and more. Plus, Sony’s NEX system focuses very quickly–with only Micro Four Thirds being faster.

If you really want to take advantage of the NEX size factor, then this is the lens to spring for.

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Sony 50mm f1.8 NEX OSS

When we reviewed this lens, we were extremely pleased with the results. Combined with Sony’s super fast focusing, we almost didn’t want to send this lens back to Sony after the review–and the reasons why are in the overall image quality. Wide open, this is one of the sharpest lenses that we’ve ever seen. Then you have to consider the bokeh–it’s pleasantly beautiful. Plus, this lens has OSS–which means all your photos will be super steady.

Sony would do well with making a black version of this lens since the stock version is silver, but color aesthetics don’t mean much to us.

If you’re looking for a great portrait lens, the 75mm field of view that this lens will give might be perfect for you.

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Sigma 30mm f2.8

Though not really a pancake lens, Sigma’s 30mm f2.8 will render a 45mm field of view on a Sony NEX camera and also keep the overall package fairly compact. Due to the floating element inside, you’ll also get a tiny bit of image stabilization–but Sigma doesn’t explicitly state that you will.

But then there is the cost: this lens is more affordable than most of them out there are and there often price drops. This is also the second refresh of the lens.

Indeed, you’ll be happy with this one.

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Sigma 50mm f1.4

While we were talking about their NEX cameras for a while, we don’t want to leave Sony Alpha users out in the dust. Most users will want a really good 50mm lens, and there is nothing better out there than Sigma’s 50mm f1.4. Though a tad soft wide open, by f2 it will be pretty darned sharp. And like other 50mm lenses, it will give you a 75mm field of view on an APS-C sensor camera. But the awesome thing is that it will focus quickly, is built quite solidly, and can stick with you in your camera bag for a while if you want to move up to a full frame camera.

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Micro Four Thirds

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Olympus 45mm f1.8 review product photos (2 of 3)

Olympus 45mm f1.8

Affordable, small, fast to focus, and razor sharp–that’d how you can describe the Olympus 45mm f1.8. Due to the Four Thirds sensor, you’ll get a 90mm field of view with this lens; and that means that it is perfect for portrait. We wouldn’t even recommend stopping it down unless you’re using strobes, otherwise it is a total waste. You’ll get more than enough of a subject in focus wide open due to the fact that the field of view will also be around f4 on a full frame camera.

Better yet, this lens now comes in both black and silver.

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Panasonic 20mm f1.7 ASPH

One of the first lenses that many Micro Four Thirds camera users got was the 20mm f1.7. And recently, Panasonic revamped the lens. Giving users a 40mm field of view on their cameras, it became a legend and revered as a god-tier lens amongst street photographers. Not only thing, but it is still a pancake lens that will be awesomely sharp wide open and will focus fastest with Panasonic cameras.

There is almost no reason not to have this lens in your kit.

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Panasonic 25mm f1.4

When Panasonic announced this lens, photographers using the Micro Four Thirds system became ecstatic. They now had a fast 50mm equivalent for their system. Any photographer that owns this lens essentially has it glued to their camera due to its sharpness, bokeh, and its fast focusing abilities. Granted, it isn’t the fastest aperture lens for the system in this focal length–but if you want that then you’ll need to spring for more than $1,000.

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Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Fujifilm X Pro 1 35mm f1.4 X Series lens review (7 of 7)ISO 1600

35mm f1.4

Since the start of Fujifilm’s X series camera system, many users have all agreed that their 35mm f1.4 delivers some of the best image quality in the system. Rendering a near 50mm field of view, there is no reason why someone might not want this lens. Indeed, it renders some of the sharpest image quality that we’ve seen and the bokeh is outstanding.

When this lens was first released, it was plagued with autofocusing problems but the image quality was just that good. With many firmware updates that has since passed, the lens’s performance has improved. Couple this with the fact that Fujifilm’s X Trans sensor now plays nicely with Adobe and Capture One products and you’ll get image quality that will make you look at your full frame DSLR in wonderment.

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Zeiss 12mm f2.8

Though Fujifilm has their own 14mm f2.8, we couldn’t warm up to it. The reason why is because we didn’t believe it to be sharp enough. However, its build quality is positively stellar. Then Zeiss came out with their 12mm f2.8. We loved this lens when we reviewed it due to its sharpness, bokeh (though very little because of the nature of the lens) and the fact that it was incredibly fast to focus. On top of this, we also liked the metallic build quality but didn’t really fall for the rubber focusing ring so much.

But if you want a wide angle prime for the Fujifilm system, you should go this route.

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SLR Magic 23mm f1.7

Looking for a 35mm field of view on the Fujifilm system? SLR Magic has you covered–and at a damned good price too. Though this lens was a bit too soft for us wide open, when stopped down it dramatically improved. Then combine this this some stellar build quality (better than some Fujifilm lenses actually) and you’ll be very pleased.

But fair warning: it is a manual focus only lens. But Fujifilm’s cameras now have focus peaking, so focusing shouldn’t be a problem.

Buy Now: Adorama


Pentax K-5 II

Pentax 50mm f1.8

Pentax’s 50mm f1.8 is being recommended for a couple of reasons. First off, everyone loves the 50mm field of view on an APS-C DSLR (despite the fact that Pentax also has a very good 55mm lens). Second, if Pentax ever releases a full frame camera, this lens will become the one that many spring for. So if you’re already invested in the Pentax system, then here’s to hoping.

Otherwise, you should value this lens for its pretty darned good image quality when used with Pentax’s cameras.

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Pentax 43mm f1.9

Though this lens is from the film days, it is still considered by many to be one of their best. On a full frame camera (if Pentax ever comes out with one) it will render what is known as true normal–this has to do with the field of view and diagonal dimension of the sensor/film.

At B&H Photo (where I used to work) many older veteran photographers have called it an absolutely beautiful lens, but a very weird focal length.

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Sigma 17-70mm f2.8-4 DC Macro HSM

In keeping in line with our budget minded selection, the Sigma 17-70mm f2.8-4 is one of the few zoom lenses that we would recommend to anyone on a budget. As part of the company’s contemporary collection of lenses, not only does it look beautiful but it also produces some jaw dropping image quality. Using this lens, you can cover a wide-angle field of view to the telephoto focal length range with no problems–or major sacrifice on image quality which can be common with affordable zooms.

Just note that it is an APS-C sensor lens only though.

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Chris Gampat

Chris Gampat is the Editor in Chief, Founder, and Publisher of the Phoblographer. He also likes pizza.