So, you’re ready to purchase your second (or possibly your third) lens for you camera gear collection. I’m going to assume you’ve been shooting with your SLR for about a year, maybe more, and you’re comfortable with the technical side of photography. I’m also going to assume you’ve been smart about your upgrades to date and you’re adopted a reasonable upgrade philosophy. In other words, you’re thinking intelligently about which holes you need to fill with your lens upgrades. A second or third lens is not likely to replace the lens you already have. I would expect that the lens you have is a jack-of-all-trades (master of none) type, something like an 18-200mm zoom with a variable max aperture starting in the f/3.5 range. Or possibly you have two lenses, an 18-50mm and a 50-200mm, both with variable apertures starting in the f/3.5 range. They’re good as all-around type lenses, but they aren’t allowing you to get the extra pop that you want in your photographs. And that’s why you’re looking to upgrade. Of course the needs of your upgrade depends on where you want to go. And so I’ve separated out the different upgrade scenarios based on where you may want to head.
The “Faster Lens” Scenario
Focal length is not the issue as you have almost full coverage. But you’re regularly working in low light or artificial light or you’re working in a specific genre like portraiture, and you really could use a wider aperture (a faster lens). Those kit lenses and the jack-of-all lenses are weakest in this regard. At the shortest focal length, you may be able to get as low as f/3.5, which isn’t that impressive, and at 100mm or more, you’re looking at max aperture around f/5. What a restriction…what’s a photographer to do? Clearly the path, then, is to supplement your gear with a nice fast lens.
Some will recommend getting some prime lenses (fixed focal length) citing benefits from fast apertures to cost. If your photography style is very specific – if you’re always shooting portraits or in situations where you have complete control over the subject and the scene – prime lenses may be the way to go. It’s true that a prime lens’s maximum aperture is unmatched by any zoom. Some will have apertures as wide as f/1.2 or f/1.4 and still be relatively economical. You may even be able to pick up two lenses for the price you might pay for an equally strong zoom. If this is the route you’d like to consider, you’ll want to look at a 50mm (35mm on a cropped sensor) and an 85mm (50mm on a cropped sensor). These two lenses are the work horses of the portrait and commercial photography industry, and with good reason. Nearly every lens manufacturer has been working with these lenses for decades, and so it’s tried and true technology and pretty much everyone has mastered them.
If you’re always shooting under challenging and ever-changing conditions, or if you want a more versatile lens, don’t discredit the zoom lenses just yet. There are a lot of great zoom lenses out there that are fast with a fixed maximum aperture. The best ones are going to cost you, though, but the investment will be more than worthwhile in the long run. These lenses will become your staple lens, and they will quickly become your favorites. To give you an idea of what’s available, Sigma makes a fantastic 24-70mm fixed at f/2.8, which is quite impressive at that focal length. It can be had for about $900 USD (amazon.com). Canon and Nikon have similar lenses, but you can expect to pay nearly twice as much. Your needs in terms of focal length may vary, so you may be looking at a wide angle zoom or even a longer range zoom. But the principal is the same. General rule of thumb: The smaller the difference between minimum and maximum focal length, the faster the lens can be.
The “Get Close Without Getting Close” Scenario
I have a friend who shoots wildlife. I have another friend who shoots jet airplanes. There is one major element that the two photographers have in common: They both shoot really long focal lengths. For them and their style of shooting, long focal lengths are a necessity. If you don’t have the reach with your camera, you can’t get the tight shots that you desire. There is just something about a really long focal length. Being able to use your camera to see things more clearly is mind boggling. Getting close without really moving closer is fantastic. And let’s be honest: When the regulars see an 8 inch lens mounted to your camera, they suddenly have a lot more respect for you and your skills.
Here’s the sad fact: Longer Focal Lengths tend to be expensive, especially for a lens of good quality. Because of the number of elements, the quantity of glass and the technology necessary to make sure they all work together perfectly – and will continue to do so – telephoto lenses (even primes) can be quite expensive. Don’t be discouraged, though. As much as your expensive lens would catch the eye of regulars, so would the photos you can create with a good 300mm lens.
The “Specialist” Scenario
Some lenses are specialist lenses. In this category, I would lump the macro lenses, fisheye lenses, tilt-shift lenses, selective focus lenses…even ultra wide angle lenses. These hold a specialized niche within our photography. They’re limited in what they can really do and they are far from a common-use lens. However, for the few moments that you do get to use them, the results can be quite stunning. While that sounds tempting, I do not recommend going the Specialist route if you do not have a specific need. At least not for your second lens. I would hope that you would want to have a more versatile lens for your second lens. But if you have a specific need, there’s nothing wrong with getting a specialist lens. With that specific genre that you’re working in, the specialist lens could be unmatched and the results may be very incredible.
The “Force Me To Learn” Scenario
Okay, I was a bit sarcastic with the title of this section. The theory is that if you limit yourself, you’ll be able to learn or improve more effectively. And so – as the theory goes – if you have restrictive equipment, you’ll force yourself to learn. I am of course speaking about the Nifty Fifty, the 50mm f/1.8 or f/1.4 lens. The purpose is to teach you, the aspiring photographer, to move around the subject and “zoom with your feet”. It’s a farce. Shooting angle is a serious consideration, but a specific focal length is not necessarily going to change that. As for how close or how far you are from the subject? If the focal length of a prime lens doesn’t change and therefore neither does the angle of view. All that changes is how close or far you are. But if you really want to learn perspective – if you really want to learn what changes when the focal length changes, then a zoom or multiple prime lenses is what you really need.
Now, as a caveat, I offer this: Regardless of what lens you’re using, what you really need is discipline. Some believe that having a prime lens translates to discipline. And it does, to some degree. But it’s not habitual. Do yourself a favor and go the difficult route…force yourself to think before you shoot. Make yourself move around and try different focal lengths at different angles. If you can build such great habits, then you don’t need a prime lens, at least not for this reason. Prime lenses are not educational resources. They are tools that are capable of incredible things, and that is the real reason to get such a lens.
As you can see, there’s a lot to consider. Without knowing your specific needs, it’s very difficult to suggest a specific course of action. But if you’re here today, then you’re pretty serious about photography and you probably have a good idea of where you’d like to go. So go for it, and get a good lens to go with it.