Our relationship to lenses is a funny one. You always love the ones you’re with. There’s always the one you don’t have (and not so secretly want). You know you could (or should) live with just one, but you can never have too many...at least until you carry them around for a day. That’s a guaranteed cure.
I’ve owned more lenses than I can remember, and for this article I tried real hard and scoured my most recent 20 thousand pictures in my Lightroom catalog. And if the idea of managing more than 20,000 images is daunting, consider one of our Adobe certified Lightroom hands on training sessions. If you don’t know where to start with choosing a new lens for your interchangeable lens camera (DSLR, MFT or mirrorless, we speak it all here) consider one of our fun photography workshops where you learn by doing. In the mean-time, I have a few suggestions based on over 2 decades’ experience as a photographer (and in film and television).
As I looked over my photos and even sorted them by the lens used to take the shot, I found some really useful trends that I’m sharing to help you make your own choices about ‘must have lenses.’
First up – I’m a prime lens guy. They’re usually cheaper, mostly much better image quality, and a lot lighter in weight. And I shoot a lot of portraits. I don’t get paid for landscapes, and when I see one, I start to think where I’ll put the people in it.
One of my first ‘professional’ (read: expensive) zooms was the venerable, and probably in need of an overhaul, Canon 24-105mm f/4 L lens. The red ring and the letter L means you’re in the club. It’s the upper-class of lenses. Canon dudes are pretty fanatical about those L lenses. Non Canon photographers often don’t get it. I have been delivered of it all. But I’m getting ahead of myself
Then one day I bought a newly released Canon EF 40mm f/2.8 STM Lens. It was over a thousand bucks less than my vaunted L zoom. It was made of plastic. I half wonder if the optical elements might be plastic – but it totally smoked the L lens for image quality. And it was nearly as small as a lens cap.
You should look at a ‘pancake lens’ (tiny and/or flat) for the simple fact that all the weight and bulk is gone from your camera. Not only for walking around. I shot hundreds of portraits (literally a few hundred people) with the 40mm, and noticed that people stopped looking (like deer in the headlights) at the camera, and started looking at me. They engaged, I got better portraits with something alive in their eyes because they were connecting with me. Not the camera.
Don’t think it’s just me either. In his masterful book 50 Portraits, Gregory Heisler, one of most highly regarded living portrait photographers, comments that his wish was to work with just one small lens (about the same focal length I was using).
You might feel like a pro with your massive zoom (I’m not going there) but people are easily intimidated by big cameras leering at them. Sit on the other side of a giant, cold, unblinking eye, without being able to see the person talking to you from the other side. I’ve done it and boy, what a lesson it is.
Micro Four Thirds users are blessed with tiny lenses, and tiny cameras for that matter. Sadly, you’re also cursed with tiny pixels and possibly stuck forever with 16 megapixels – but the Leica designed Panasonic LUMIX G Leica DG Nocticron 42.5mm f/1.2 ASPH Power OIS Lens is as good as it gets for MFT.
It’s equivalent to an 85mm on a full frame camera – perfect for portraits. You can get close in on the face without breaching ‘personal space’ and you can get a full length body shot without crossing into the next room. And the color and sharpness are spectacular. Not to mention the small form factor and magnificent build quality.
Nearly as good, and a whole lot less expensive is the Panasonic Leica DG Macro-Elmarit 45mm f/2.8 ASPH. MEGA O.I.S. Lens. Does about the same job in the focal length department, but can’t quit get the bokeh (out of focus stu ) of the f/1.2 version. MFT cameras have very small sensors and it’s just harder to get things out of focus.
While we’re there, the Panasonic Leica DG Summilux 25mm f/1.4 ASPH Micro 4/3 Lens and the Panasonic LUMIX G Leica DG Summilux 15mm f/1.7 ASPH. Lens are the perfect pair. I could live my life with just one of them, but couldn’t choose between either. You can a ord both. Basically a 30mm and a 50mm, you get a lens for the whole ‘scene’ and another for the ‘subject.’ And that’s how I decide which lens to put on. Do I want to see the whole ‘scene’ or just the important bit (usually the person)? If you’re big on ‘environmental’ portraiture, the 15mm is genius.
If you want more image quality, but love the idea of a fairly wide lens, I adore the Fujifilm X100. Currently in the T version, it’s still 16 megapixels, but the color and sharpness of the Fuji X-trans sensor has yet to be beaten. I can print it as big as anything from a 24 megapixel Canon or Nikon. The Fuji has a 23mm f/2 lens permanently fixed to the retro body with a button for everything you need. The angle of view is the same as a 35mm on a full frame camera. That’s also the same focal length as the iPhone, and most popular smart phones are around this size. We’ve pulled o that camera bigger than a meter on the long edge, and it’s gorgeous.
If you have a Fujifilm body that you can change lenses on, the new Fujifilm XF 35mm f/2 R WR Lens is astonishing for it a ordable price, small size and dazzling optical results. Because it’s got less glass than the older 35mm f/1.4 the autofocus is way faster, and the lens can be the tiny jewel it is. You don’t miss the extra stop. Oh yeah, it’s weather resistant. The camera ain’t.
Before you call me a total kit lens (if not outright zoom lens) hater, the Fujifilm XF 18-55mm f/2.8-4 R LM OIS Zoom Lens is the first ‘kit’ lens that’s not made me ill. In fact, I’ve shot paid work with it and the results made the clients from several jobs really happy.
I just lock it at f/4 and carry on. It’s small, sharp and has the Fujifilm look that makes you want to stick with Fujifilm. Certainly their more recent designs. Hint, the new 24-megapixel X-Pro2 is stunningly good and they have one of the best (and most modern) lens lineups in the industry.
“f/4?” you wail? “What about the industry standard 70-200 f/2.8?” Yep, I had (past tense) one of those. I’ve tried the Sigma version, both of the Canon versions and the Tamron version for Nikon. They’re universally heavy, and particularly in Canon’s case, very expensive for something with such average image quality. Buy the f/4 version and get the same image quality with half the weight and half the cost.
In fact, I’ve never been worried about the speed of a lens. I like to shoot at f/4 where any deficiencies of a lens are gone, and a person’s whole head is in focus from the tip of the nose to the back of the ears. Most fast lenses don’t look anywhere near as sharp wide open, so why pay for what you can’t use? Lens tests show you that most lenses are free from problems around f/3.6 and at the peak of their powers at f/5.6. So why pay, in a couple of cases, 10 times as much for the f/1.2 with the pretty red ring? Ego.
For the few people that do need super speed – get a prime. You can get those easily in f/1.4 with a huge leap in image quality. They’ll leave your 70-200 in the dust. And you can get 2 primes for less than 1 ‘fast’ (ahem) zoom lens.
Now I will gladly tell you there are some situations where a zoom lens is a much better choice. Event coverage such as weddings, photojournalism and travel. I’ve been paid for all 3, and I’d probably still tell you to get 2 camera bodies and put a quality prime lens on each one. A 50mm equivalent for catching the scene, and an 85mm equivalent for catching faces, or individuals. Keep a 24mm equivalent in your bag for group photos (or the whole church).
My mirrorless rig is based around the pretty amazing for its size and price Sony A6000 (recently replaced by the A6300). I use the Sony E 50mm f/1.8 OSS Lens and its twin, the Sony 35mm f/1.8 OSS Alpha E-mount Prime Lens. I also have the kit zoom lens which is terrible in comparison.
Those lenses are APSC, so they’re tiny, optically stabilized, mostly useful in low light and super sharp at f/4 (by now you shouldbe seeing a theme) but pretty decent wide open. I’ll be honest and say they are not the sharpest lenses I’ve ever worked with, but Sony do make some ridiculously good 35mm and 50mm full frame lenses for their A7 flagship cameras. According to independent tests, they’re right up there with the best. They’ll work incredibly well on an APSC camera.
Why don’t I own them? Well, apart from the small form factor, my love for mirrorless cameras has waned – particularly due to Sony’s di cult menus and the fact that I regularly had to use them. I want a button for everything. I’m not moving on to the full frame versions like I thought I would. Sony also o ers a terrific Sony Distagon T* FE 35mm f/1.4 ZA Lens that is so good, I would have reconsidered, but the battery ran out on the camera and reminded me why I’m leaving mirrorless.
Let’s finish up with Nikon, where I su ered the kit lens just long enough to taint idea of Nikon, but to the rescue sprang the mind numbingly physics defying Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8 DC HSM Art Lens for Nikon. On paper it’s one of the top 5 sharpest lenses you can put on a Nikon, and it’s a zoom!
In real life it’s very heavy, but the image quality is worth it. It does require a great deal of lens correction, fortunately that’s done invisibly and automatically in Adobe Lightroom. Wide open at f/1.8 it can be very hit or miss with autofocus. You need a camera with a pro autofocus system, which for Nikon means the D7200 or the D500. Remember, this lens is only for APSC (DX as Nikon calls it). You should also consider that f/1.8 is probably actually too shallow for the depth of field you typically need, even at the wide end of the zoom.
It’s a terrific lens. Beautiful pictures. But the decision to purchase it was based on image quality, not speed. If you are ‘walking around’ with it, consider a monopod. Use a tripod wherever practicable, and your reward will be crystal clear images with a tastefully modern neutrality.
The best photo I ever took was an elderly gent in a fur hat at the front gate of his English garden cottage. It was in the shadow of a church that’s origins dated to the 13th century. He hand-finished Aston Martins before delivery and had worked on every single James Bond car. Ilford Xp2 black and white film. The camera was a Konica Hexar 35mm film camera with a fixed f/2 35mm lens. Almost (suspiciously) identical to the current Fujifilm X100.
The point? Who cares what lens you use – take pictures first, worry about gear second.
It’s probably part of the reason I’m still happily married to my first love.
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