As many of our readers probably know from the deals we list, digital SLR cameras are often sold in kit form, which means they're bundled with a basic 18-55mm* lens — a good starting point for beginners, and a capable lens for landscapes, groups of people, and even portraits. But once you start exploring different types of photography, you may find that a single 18-55mm lens isn't enough. Adding a lens (or two) to your camera bag will greatly expand your shooting possibilities. The question then is, where to begin? What types of lenses should you consider and what prices can you expect?
Lens prices range from about $100 or so to more than $10,000, but we've put together some suggestions here that don't require a bottomless bank account to add to your kit. While some of these lenses may cost more than your DSLR body, a good piece of glass is well worth the extra money.
Preliminary Notes on Aperture, and Prime vs. Zoom
Before we get started on what lenses work best for specific photo scenarios, one of the universal criteria for choosing any lens is its aperture range. A small aperture number, such as f/2.8, means that it's a "fast" lens (the lens opens wide to let a lot of light in, therefore making it possible to shoot with a faster shutter speed). And being able to shoot at a faster shutter speed lessens the chance of handshake blur. Keep in mind, however, that the aperture of most zoom lenses is variable and, for example, will have a wider aperture (e.g., f/2.8) at wide angle but a smaller/slower aperture (e.g., 5.6) at telephoto.
The other benefit of a fast lens is that it delivers shallow depth-of-field and great bokeh (the background blur that is especially beautiful for portraits) at a wide angle.
One of the other decisions you'll need to make is whether to buy a prime lens (one at a fixed focal length) or a zoom lens. In some cases — depending on the individual lenses — primes can deliver higher quality than zooms. But, there's no doubt that zoom lenses offer versatility and better value.
Take it All in with a Wide Angle Lens
If you love to photograph landscapes or want to take the plunge with underwater photography, a wide-angle lens will help you capture broader vistas or the large hulks of beneath-the-sea shipwrecks. Some super-wide lenses can distort the edges of a scene. A fisheye lens, for example, takes that to the extreme with a unique look that is great for landscapes and large interior shots, among other situations.
So which models should you consider?
Nikon 10-24mm AF-S DX NIKKOR f/3/5-4.5G ED: This wide angle zoom is pricey at around $900, but offers great quality and construction similar to that of higher priced pro lenses. Its extra low dispersion (ED) glass delivers sharpness and overall superior image quality. (Current deal: $824.95 via coupon code "DEALNEWS15" with free shipping, a low by $14.)
Sigma 10-20mm f/4-5.6 EX DC HSM: This third party lens is available in several mounts, so you can purchase one for Canon, Nikon, Pentax, Sigma, or Sony cameras, as well as Four Thirds models like the Olympus E-5. (The deal below is for Canon.) A trio of aspherical lens elements corrects for distortion and the use of special low dispersion glass helps prevent chromatic aberration. Its Hyper-Sonic Motor (HSM) provides fast and quiet autofocus. (Current deal: $464 via via coupon code "DEALNEWS15" with free shipping, a low by $15.)
Olympus M.Zuiko Digital 12mm f/2.0: For Micro Four Thirds cameras, such as the Olympus EPL-3 — or any of the Panasonic Micro Four Thirds cameras — this Olympic lens is a real gem. Even though the focal length doubles to 24mm with Olympus 2x crop factor, it's perfect for wide-angle shots. (Current deal: $799 with free shipping, a low by $1; $799.99 is retail price.)
Sony 16mm f/2.8-22: If you shoot with one of the Sony NEX cameras, this wide-angle lens is small, affordable, and good for videos, too. Sony also offers extra wide angle and fisheye converters for the lens, to add versatility. (Current deal: $235.66 with $4.95 s&h, a low by $9.)
Lenses for Portrait and Wedding Photography
A favorite among portrait and wedding photographers is the 85mm lens. It's the perfect focal length and generally is very fast, so you can utilize a shallow depth-of-field to created the blurred background (bokeh) that dissolves distracting backgrounds and keeps the emphasis on your subject. The 85mm lens also allows for low-light shooting at faster shutter speeds. If you take a lot of portraits or photograph weddings, this is a must-have lens.
Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM: At less than $400, this lens is priced right, especially considering the f/1.8 aperture and the sharp images it delivers. It's compact and the Ultra-Sound Motor provides quiet but speedy autofocus. (Current deal: $358 with free shipping, a low by $21.)
Nikon AF-S 85mm f/1.8G: New from Nikon, this compact and lightweight (12 oz.) lens offers everything the portrait or wedding photographer needs: a fast aperture to create great bokeh and to shoot in low light, sharp images, and rapid autofocus. The lens comes complete with a lens hood and semi-soft case. (Current deal: Preorders for $496.95 with free shipping, a low by $3.)
Capture a Moment with Telephoto
If you like to shoot sports or wildlife, you'll need a telephoto lens to reach far beyond where the kit 18-55mm lens will go. Most offer a starting aperture of about f/4.0, which is fine for shooting outdoors. If you happen to be photographing a sporting event indoors, you may have to bump up the ISO on your camera to get a sufficiently fast shutter speed.
Another benefit of telephoto lenses is that they compress the background, which helps the photographer achieve a similar bokeh to that of a fast, mid focal range lens.
Because telephoto lenses are larger and heavier, it's important to stabilize the lens when shooting. One method of image stabilization is, of course, a tripod. But using a tripod is not always an option, so for Canon and Nikon cameras, look for a lens with built-in image stabilization (Nikon calls it VR, or vibration reduction). Other cameras, such as Olympus, Panasonic, Pentax, and Sony, user sensor shift stabilization, where the sensor itself adjusts when the camera moves slightly due to handshake.
While you may have to take out a mortgage to afford some of the super-telephoto lenses on the market (at the extreme, Sigma, for example, has a 200-500mm f/2.8 $32,000 behemoth), long lenses under 400mm can be quite affordable. Here are a few suggestions:
Canon EF-S 55-250mm f/4-5.6 IS II: Relatively compact and lightweight at 13.8 oz., the Canon EF-S 55-250mm telephoto lens definitely won't break the bank at about $300. Throw it on a compatible camera and you'll get the equivalent of an 88-400mm view, which provides plenty of telephoto power. And, it's equipped with Canon's image stabilization, which provides about a 4-stop advantage, which means (in theory and with a steady hand) the lens can be handheld at a much slower shutter speed than it could without IS. For example, instead of 1/250th, you should (again, in theory and with a steady hand) be able to handhold it at about 1/15th of a second. (Current deal: $249 with free Site-to-Store, a low by $1.)
Nikon AF-S DX NIKKOR 55-300mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR: Nikon users will gain a little more on the telephoto end with this lens, which is built with extra low dispersion glass for chromatic aberration correction. It also features Nikon's vibration reduction technology and silent wave motor for smooth and quiet autofocus — you don't want to scare the wildlife! Its 35mm-equivalent focal length on a compatible Nikon camera is about 82-450mm, so you'll be able to get up close and personal with distant subjects. (Current deal: $349 with free shipping, a low by $48.)
Pentax DA 50-200mm f/4-5.6 ED WR: If you own a Pentax K-5 or other weather resistant Pentax DSLR, check out this weather resistant lens — perfect for working outdoors in damp or other challenging conditions. It's quite affordable at about $200 and uses extra low dispersion glass to counteract chromatic aberration, and two aspherical lens elements offer super sharp image. Pentax's DSLRs are equipped with sensor shift image stabilization, so you should be able to handhold this lens under most conditions, even with its 35mm-equivalent focal range of 76.5-307mm. (Current deal: $209.95 with free shipping, a low by $10.)
Sony 55-210mm f/4.5-6.3 (for NEX cameras): This E-mount lens is compatible with Sony's NEX cameras and offers a focal length of 82.5-315mm (35mm equivalent). It's a little slower than other telephoto lenses, but if you're shooting outdoors during the day, that won't matter. Sony also equips its cameras with its trademark Optical SteadyShot image stabilization, so any lens you use will, essentially, be image stabilized. At 12.1 oz., this small lens is a little heavier than you might expect as it features a metal lens mount. (Current deal: $349.99 with free shipping, retail price.)
Get Close with a Macro Lens
Taking pictures of flowers, butterflies or other insects, coin collections, or anything else that's small, requires a macro lens for the best results. These lenses allow you to focus very closely and reproduce the subject matter at almost life size. If you plan to photograph insects, for example, you might want a longer (e.g., 80mm or 100mm) macro lens so you can achieve the same size close-up from a little farther away than, for example, a 50mm lens. Here are a few possibilities:
Canon EF 50mm f/2.5 Compact Macro: This little $300 lens, which weighs about 9.9 oz. focuses from infinity to one-half life size but you can add a Life Size Converter EF accessory to reproduce your subject 1:1 (or, life size). The converter also allows you to shoot from a slightly wider distance, so you won't scare those butterflies away. (Current deal: $254 with free shipping, a low by $6.)
Nikon AF-S Micro 60mm f/2.8G ED: Although this lens is more expensive than Canon's 50mm, the Nikon 60mm macro offers 1:1 life size reproduction without a converter. At f/2.8, it's fast, uses extra low dispersion glass, and features special coatings to reduce ghosting, reflections, and glare. And, at 60mm, you can step back a little more from your subject. (Current deal: $549 with free shipping, a low by $49.)
Once you've discovered that photography is a hobby you're willing to invest in, it can be quite exciting to choose new equipment. With our guide, we hope you're able to find the tools that fit your interests and your budget, so you can snap a wider variety of photos. And keep in mind that although we made every attempt to present all the information you need to make your decision, this isn't an exhaustive list, so if we haven't mentioned your camera brand or a focal length you're looking for, please continue your research and consult other resources. Also, always make sure the lens you're interested in is actually compatible with your specific DSLR.
*A Sidebar on Crop Factor Keep in mind that, with the exception of full-frame digital cameras, DSLRs have a crop factor (usually 1.5x or 1.6x) that effectively changes the focal length of your lens. Although it's called a crop factor, your image isn't really cropped in the way that you might crop it in an image-editing program. Rather, it's just a factor you might want to consider when choosing a lens. For example, on a Nikon or Canon DSLR, the 35mm (as in 35mm film camera) equivalent focal length of an 18-55mm lens is about 27-82mm. You gain a little on the telephoto end but lose some of the wide-angle field of view you would expect from an 18mm lens. If you want to add a little extra length to a telephoto lens, also check out add-on teleconverters.
Olympus DSLR and mirrorless camera users benefit from (or are penalized by) a 2x crop factor. That's great when you're working in telephoto because you can buy a 40-150mm lens and end up with the equivalent focal length of an 80mm-300mm lens, which gives you a better chance of capturing a football game from the stands or getting a wildlife shot without having to move too close to the creature.