Lenses. So many to choose from…what the heck is the difference? After this lesson, you’ll understand why lenses do so much more than just ‘zoom,’ and why the “best” lenses don’t even zoom at all. We’ll talk about what makes a lens “fast” or “slow.” In short, you’ll finally understand lenses, and what all those numbers mean.
We’re going to get straight down to bizness. I had an entire lesson typed up that was pretty typical, reading like a well written, well rounded article that went from broad and basic to narrow and focused. But then it hit me: “this is what everyone else does Kyle.” And so I’m just going to tell you up front the ONE single lens that you should absolutely save up to buy (actually, it’s an investment). This lens is moderately priced, yet optically, performs as good as almost any lens out there.
And then I’ll tell you why. In doing so, you’ll know all you really need to know about lenses.
Buy this one if you shoot Canon:
Or this one if you shoot Nikon:
Because it’s FAST.
Remember, fast doesn’t mean fast focusing (although, yeah, it’s that too). It means that it has a very large max aperture, thus allowing gobs of light to very quickly enter your canvas, which in turns allow you to have very fast shutter speeds. Refer back to your understanding exposure module for the full serving.
What it means in practice… AWESOME low light capabilities. Indoors with minimal windows? No problemo. f/1.4 Will gather SO much light that you can pull off some amazing shots with just a sliver of light. It’s just so much fun to take pics inside without having to deal with that nasty flash. You’ll find brand new worlds of possibilities waiting at f/1.4. It. Is. FUN!!
Because it’s BEAUTIFUL.
And by beautiful, I mean the pic it produces more so than the lens itself.
Want that dreamy, buttery-smooth bokeh? f/1.4 baby. It’ll give you drop dead gorgeous background blur and razor thin depth of field. There’s nothing quite like nailing the eyes in focus, with everything else soft and creamy.
Stop it down (that’s cool photog talk for going with a smaller aperture, say f/3.5 etc), and it’s still beautiful, with the added benefit of at least a few inches of depth of field. Keep in mind that prime lenses are so much more sharp and contrasty than cheap zoom lenses. Only the best of the best zoom lenses can compete. And although a $2300 zoom lens is more incredible for all practical purposes, pixel peepers will be able to tell you that a prime lens is still shaper and contrasty-er.
Because it’s the BEST BANG FOR YOUR BUCK.
Okay okay…keep in mind I’m speaking to my core audience: moms and dads (and the like…which includes just about anyone) who want to take better pics of their kids, their vacations, their every-day moments at home, their veggie garden, their rose bush, etc etc.
What SOO many of you want is a lens that will, to put it quite bluntly, make your work look professional. Well, you have a few options.
- Buy this for $2500 (this is Canon, although Nikon has the same thing for their system)
- Buy this for $1800 (this is Nikon, but again, Canon has the same thing)
- Buy this for $1600 (if you’re shooting Canon. Nikon’s version is f1.4 instead of f1.2, and thus much cheaper, and is linked above)
- Or buy the one I’m suggesting, for $450.
Keep in mind that the quality of the image produced will be every bit as good and better than the very best professional zoom lenses, and perhaps 98.7% as good as an OEM lens, according to my own experience and that of many others. But at a fraction of the cost as that $1600 OEM lens.
Do I own Canon prime lenses? Sure. Do I own the lens I’m suggesting? Yep. Keep in mind I do this for a living (photography), and so it’s easier for me to justify to my spouse. 🙂
Bottom line, I’m trying to get you genuine, true, professional optics at the best possible price. This lens is IN MY BAG, and it’s one that I use all the time for my professional work. If you have this lens, you no longer have an excuse for not having a wonderful lens.
Because it’s A VERSATILE FOCAL LENGTH.
Keep in mind I know I’m talking to a crowd that mostly owns consumer level DSLR’s. This means that your sensor is a bit smaller than full frame, and thus your focal length effective field of view will be multiplied by 1.5 for Nikon and 1.6 for Canon.
Say what? Click here for a bit more depth, but otherwise just know that this 50mm lens I’m suggesting behaves like a 75mm on a Nikon body and an 80mm on a Canon body. That is…unless your camera body is a full frame body (if you have to ask what that means, I highly doubt you have it. If you do, and didn’t know it, congrats, you have a very nice camera 🙂 ) As of now, the general rule of thumb is that if you camera body (body only, not including lens) costs 2k or less (new), then it’s not a full frame body, and thus you’ll have the multiplier deal going.
And because it’s more like a 75mm/80mm focal length, it’s the perfect length for portraits. 50mm is about the same field of view as the human eye. But I prefer the background compression and reach that you get by going longer than 50mm. 80mm is great and gives a slightly more pleasing shape to the face than 50mm.
If you remember from this lesson, I love the background compression that happens at long focal lengths like 135mm and 200mm. Love it. BUT, 75/80mm is more versatile. 200mm is very often difficult to use inside because you can’t back up far enough. 35mm is often too wide as you always have to be right on top of your subject for simple ‘fill the frame’ shots. 75/80mm is great (again, for what we’re shooting most of the time as the focus of SPS).
If you do have a full frame camera and 50mm is actually 50mm, would I suggest an 85mm prime instead? Hmm. Tough question. My answer: since you’ve already spent $2,000 plus on a body, go ahead and buy both. Or buy the 50mm prime and then a really nice 70-200mm 2.8 zoom lens, which will cover that 80mm focal length. Or if you want to stick with the fastest primes, this lens is considered the gold standard ($2,000). This one, however, is almost all of the aforementioned, but at under half the price ($895). If you’re a Nikon shooter, this one is hard to beat ($1400), and this one gives it a run for its money ($895).
**I suppose I do want to add one disclaimer to the choice I’m suggesting. And that’s this. While I think that the 50mm prime works well on the smaller sensor cameras (thus the equivalent 75/80mm), putting an 85mm prime one these same cameras gives the equivalent of about 128mm. And that focal length, my friends, is in my opinion, one of the best portrait focal lengths available. It’s the perfect length for distortion free portraits. The drawback, it’s less versatile indoors due to the longer focal length (sometimes you back up into the wall, and can’t go back any further). The other drawback? Price. And that’s why I suggest the 50mm prime that I’m suggesting. If money is no object, by all means, an 85mm prime should be on your wish list. But I’d still own the 50ish mm focal length because 85mm will still be too long in a lot of situations. Okay, disclaimer done.
Because it’s BUILT TO PRO SPECS.
If you want it to say Canon you can check out this option for a similar price, but it’s not weather sealed as well as my suggestion, and my suggestion has better specs ‘under the hood.’ Canon’s flagship 50mm costs 1600 bucks. (Kyle’s original suggestion was a Sigma 50mm f1.4, but it has since been discontinued in favor of their Art line which is not even close in price to the Canon and Nikon 50mm f1.4.)
Nikon, on the other hand, has the same lens at the same price point. So, sure, buy the Nikon. It’s FANTASTIC.
You’ll find this truth over and over. Pick up one lens … it’s heavy, chunky, and feels like a big ole hunk of solid glass. Pick up another … it feels light, plastic-y, and flimsy. Which one do you suppose is better. You better believe it. This and this have a few things in common, one of which is that they’re ALL HEAVY.
Understand all 3 companies are great. They’ve all been making lenses for a long time. And no, I don’t get paid anything for saying what I’m saying. I. WISH.
Okay, those are the big reasons I suggest what I’ve suggested. Now let me answer some of your frequently asked questions and objections.
“But, I really want a zoom lens. Are you really telling me to buy a lens that doesn’t even zoom? That seems so 1954.”
So, I honestly know pro photogs who refuse to shoot with zoom lenses. Fact is, the best prime lenses will always beat the best zoom lenses in terms of sharpness and contrast. And the best prime lenses will also always be the ‘fastest’ lenses by far. Zoom lenses typically only get f2.8 fast. Prime lenses can get f0.95 fast (and that kind of speed costs $11,000). Granted, reasonably priced prime lenses frequently get f/1.4 fast.
Other photogs see it as advantageous to actually “have to move your feet to zoom.” Why? Because it changes your perspective. And in doing so, you have a chance to … see more perspectives. Go figure. In doing so, you see (and therefore capture) images you otherwise would not have seen.
That said, I hear you. And the advantage to zooms is that, well, they zoom! You can go from 70mm to 200mm in under a second (in the case of a 70-200mm lens). When you’re shooting weddings, there’s no substitute. That kind of versatility is a big fat layer of security.
Even for general use, it’s nice to have a zoom. Sure. If you’re set on it, go for it. Zoom away. Just know that nice zooms will cost you. Some folks might prefer the convenience of a zoom and value that more than a fast lens with state of the art optics. So long as you know the trade off and what you’re in for, I can dig it! Hey, I shoot with this zoom lens ALL the time (more than any other lens by far, truth be told). So why am I not recommending it as THE official recommendation. Simple. Price. How can I possibly give a blanket recommendation that costs $2500? If you’re a legit pro, sure, I’d say it needs a spot in your bag. If you’re a normal guy/girl, I’ll stick with my recommendation.
What about Image Stabilization? Should I get one of these lenses?
Yes. Get it. There’s nothing worse than an image that would have been great if it weren’t so blurry. Spend the extra few bucks.
By the way, Nikon calls it Vibration Reduction (VR). Canon calls is Image Stabilization (IS). Other manufacturers might have their own variation…shake reduction, OIS, etc. It’s all the same. It’ll allow you to overcome the 1/focal length rule by as much as 3-4 stops. What that means is that you can get crisp, clean handheld shots at 1/25th of a second on a 200mm lens (as opposed to 1/200th of a second). Basically, it lets you keep that tripod where it belongs (in a box lost somewhere).
Keep in mind not all lenses have IS. Most prime lenses do NOT, in fact. It’s more of a zoom thing, presumably because prime lenses are already the fastest on the planet.
Can you explain exactly what all the numbers mean on all the lenses I’m looking at?
This is review for many, but I still get asked it a lot. If you’ve been around awhile, feel free to skip this part. Otherwise, here you go:
- Focal Length
This is the number before “mm” and simply designates how much “reach” a lens has. Wide angle is traditionally 35mm (we’d say “35 millimeter”) and below. Standard and medium telephoto lenses include lenses from 50mm-100mm. And telephoto lenses are above 100mm (including super telephoto lenses 400mm and up). Might go without saying, but we had better. If there’s a dash in between 2 numbers with the “mm” following, it just means it’s a “zoom” lens. So, a 70-200mm lens will zoom from 70mm to 200mm. If there’s just one number, such as 50mm, it means it’s a fixed focal length, and does not zoom. We call these “prime” lenses, or “fixed” lenses.
Designated by “f/” or “1:”, this number indicates the lens’ maximum aperture. Sometimes there will just be one number, such as f/4.0 (or 1:4.0). This means that the lens has a max aperture of 4.0, no matter what the focal length. Sometimes there will be two numbers, such as f/3.5-5.6. This tells you right away that it’s a zoom lens. The numbers simply correspond to the max aperture at its widest and longest focal lengths.So a lens designated 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 has a max aperture of 3.5 at 18mm (its widest focal length), but a max aperture of 5.6 at 55mm (its longest focal length). A lens designated 24-70mm f/2.8 will zoom from 24mm to 70mm, and maintain a max aperture of f2.8 throughout the entire range. In general, the zoom lenses that maintain a constant maximum aperture are much nicer than the variable kind. Not to mention much faster. Keep in mind, f2.8 is twice as fast as f5.6 In the real world, this makes twice the difference. Imagine that.
That’s a wrap. As always, ask questions…