We all start off with one lens as a photographer – but is that enough? Does one lens do everything we need? What is the best lens to use a photographer? I’m going to answer these questions as we look at what lenses beginner photographers actually need.
Lenses are the hot commodity in photography these days, they hold their value much more than camera bodies so if you’re looking to upgrade your photography kit for better image quality consider getting a new lens, and not a new camera body.
But if you’re at total beginner to photography understanding all the different options can feel a bit overwhelming which is why I’ll make it simple.
There are only 2 types of camera lenses in truth – prime and zoom lenses. From here you’ll hear about different focal lengths of lenses and other associated terms such as fisheye, telephoto, supertele etc.
But none of those refer to the construction of the lens, more so the focal length.
Image: Zoom lenses tend to be physically longer than prime lenses.
Prime lenses are camera lenses that have a fixed focal length. Head of a ‘nifty fifty’ lens? That’s generally a budget-friendly 50mm prime lens. This means the focal length is constantly 50mm, you can’t zoom in or out.
The benefit of prime lenses is that with having less moving parts internally the construction allows for better quality glass which, in turn, gives larger apertures (F/1.2 etc) and higher image quality.
Prime lenses tend to be smaller than zooms, but for telephoto prime lenses (600mm for example) they can be huge and very heavy (and extremely expensive too!)
Prime lenses take a bit of getting used to if you’ve not used one before. It’ll teach you more about composition as you can’t rely on the zoom all the time. Street photographers love using prime lenses due to the compact size, fast auto focussing ability and wide apertures.
A zoom lens is a lens that can change focal lengths. You can zoom further into a scene without having to move. You may see lenses described as 18-55mm this means the shortest focal length is 18mm and the longest is 55mm.
Many zoom lenses will have 2 maximum aperture sizes too. If a lens is described as 18-55mm F/3.5 – F/5.6 this means that when shooting around 18mm the widest aperture will be F/3.5. But as you zoom to 55mm the widest aperture available becomes F/5.6.
There are zoom lenses available that doesn’t have this shifting aperture issue. They are called Constant Aperture lenses – and they can be very expensive, but great quality! You may seem the displayed like this – 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II AF-S Nikkor Zoom Lens.
Zoom lenses are great choices for beginner photographers as it allows you to cover a range of distances without having to carry extra lenses. But zoom lenses can make photographers lazy and think less about the story and composition. Look at zoom lenses as a necessity for the situation rather than a shortcut.
Wildlife photographers use zoom lenses to keep their distance from their subject while getting tight shots – a necessity for the situation.
When you first buy a DSLR or mirrorless camera they tend to come bundled with what we call a kit lens. This lens is normally a zoom lens; 18-55mm or 28-105mm for example.
The are relatively inexpensive lenses just to get you started with your camera. While the quality of kit lenses aren’t fantastic, as a beginner photographer, it’s enough to get better quality shots than what you were previously.
Other pros of kit lenses include the fact they are compact and lightweight. The tend to have a maximum aperture of around F/3.5 at the shorter focal length.
But they can be a little slow, in comparison to better lenses, to focus. Think of a kit lens like a bicycle’s training wheels – a great way to get yourself started, but you shouldn’t rely on it forever.
Knowing which is the right lens for you depends mostly on what you like to shoot. If you still class yourself as a ‘general purpose’ photographer then a wide ranging zoom lens would be a good investment. It’ll help you wide and distant objects and reduces the need to extra lenses to carry are – and if you are only going to have one – invest in a good one.
Otherwise, if you know your area then buy the appropriate type of lens
● Portraits – 50 or 85mm prime lenses
● Wildlife – 150-400mm zoom
● Landscapes – 28-100mm constant aperture zoom
● Astrophotography – wide-angle prime lens
● Weddings – 28-200mm zoom lens
● Macro – 30 or 100 prime lens with macro functionality
Have a look at your camera brands recommendations of lenses that fit your needs. Don’t forget that third-party manufacturers (Sigma, Tamron, Neewer etc) exist that may also make the lens you need for your camera much cheaper.
If you are looking to move on from your camera’s kit lens use the information I’ve already laid out to decide which direction to go. Don’t throw your kit lens away – it’s always good to keep it incase something goes wrong with your primary lens.
Go to your local camera shop and get a feel for the lens you’re thinking of. Feel the weight, how fast it focuses, how easy it is handle etc. It’s hard to judge these things with online purchases, and they do matter.
Some photographer will talk about a ‘holy trinity’ of lenses that all shooters need in their kit bag. The idea is that you should have a wide lens (16-30mm), a standard (25-85mm) and a telephoto lens (100mm+) in your camera bag.
Don’t see this as a bundle to upgrade to as cost will be high. Instead if you want to cover a large range of focal lengths then purchase them in order of suitability for your current photography. Ie. a portrait photographer wouldn’t really need a telephoto lens immediately (if at all) so instead buy the ones that right for now.
You may sell and buy lenses over the years as your photography changes, but only do so when needed, rather than just chasing a deal.
With so many camera brands out there a list of the best lenses for each would take forever. Instead, I’ll give you quick recommendations for a beginner photographer, on a budget, who uses either a Sony, Canon or Nikon DSLR/ Mirrorless camera.
1. Sony E 50 mm F/1.8 OSS Prime Lens (Mirrorless E Mount)
2. Sony FE 28-70mm F/3.5-5.6 OSS Zoom Lens (Mirrorless E Mount)
3. Kipon 24mm F/2.4 Lens- Sony E Prime Lens (Mirrorless E Mount)
4. Sony E 55-210mm F/4.5-6.3 OSS Lens (Mirrorless E Mount)
1. Canon EF-S 10-18mm F/4.5-5.6 IS STM Len (EF Mount DSLR)
2. Tamron 18-200mm F/3.5-6.3 Di II VC Lens for Canon EF (EF Mount DSLR)
3. Canon RF 50mm F/1.8 STM Lens (R Mount Mirrorless)
4. Samyang MF 85mm F/1.4 Lens – Canon RF Fit (R Mount Mirrorless)
1. Nikon 35mm F/1.8 G AF-S DX Lens (DSLR DX Mount)
2. Nikon 10-20mm F/4.5-5.6 G AF-P DX VR Nikkor Lens (DSLR DX Mount)
3. Nikon Z 40mm F/2 Lens (Mirrorless Z Mount)
4. Nikon Z 50-250mm f4.5-6.3 DX VR Lens (Mirrorless Z DX Mount)
You can only ever take a photo with one lens, so deciding to have multiple lenses is only necessary when you have multiple needs. As you grow as a photographer so will your interests. Those interests may outgrow the capabilities of your current lens(es).
Invest wisely and don’t buy lenses just to make yourself ‘feel like a photographer’ – all the gear and no idea come to mind?!
The quality of the glass in a lens has a huge impact on image quality and sharpness so don’t skimp on your hobby if you’re serious about taking amazing photos. While the camera and lens won’t do all the work, it’s much more rewarding to use the right tool for the right job.
If you’ve enjoyed this guide, check out our podcast all about the ‘holy trinity’ of lenses and whether all photographers really need these 3 lenses.