Best lens buying tips for photographers

My Ten Best Lens Buying Tips For Photographers

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Are you thinking about buying a new camera lens? There are lots of things to consider. Such as how much should you spend, where does a prospective lens purchase fit into the big picture of your gear buying and even why do you need a new lens in the first place?

These are all good questions, but it can be hard to figure out the answers by yourself. I’ve been buying camera lenses for over twenty years, and I’ve learned a lot about buying camera lenses on that journey. Here are ten lens buying tips to help you figure out which camera lens to buy next.

Tip #1: Budget – how much do you have to spend?

Everybody’s budget is different, and the amount of money you have to spend determines which lenses come into consideration. But, no matter what your budget, hold that figure in mind while you read this article. You may see things in a different light afterward.

Tip #2: What’s the big picture?

Keep the big picture in mind. What lenses would you eventually like to own for your camera? What type of photography are you likely to be doing over the next five or ten years? How does your next purchase fit into this plan? Ideally, you should have a good idea of which lenses you need, and then you can plan accordingly.

My approach is to own as few, good quality lenses as possible. In other words – don’t overbuy.

For example, let’s say you are a photographer who owns just one lens, a kit lens, and your favorite subject is landscape photography.

You might decide that you need to buy a high-quality, wide-angle zoom for your landscape photos, and a telephoto zoom (such as a 70-200mm) for zooming in on details and compressing perspective. As most landscape photos are taken with an aperture of f8 or f11 lenses with a maximum aperture of f4 are fine.

For example, this photo was made with a 17-40mm zoom set to 40mm on a full-frame camera.

Wide-angle zoom lens landscape photo

On the other hand, if your main interest is portrait photography, then you’d probably want to buy a short telephoto prime with a wide maximum aperture for creating portraits with bokeh, like this one made with an 85mm lens set to f2.8.

Portrait made with telephoto lens

This type of thinking can lead to a big shift in what lenses you decide to buy. For example, a few years ago I became frustrated with the size and weight of my Canon system. I was also thinking ahead to some travel plans I had coming up, and realized it was important to keep my kit as lightweight as possible to prevent problems with strictly enforced hand luggage allowances. That led to the decision to switch to the Fujifilm X-Series system. I now have the lightweight kit required for traveling.

Learn more: Why I Changed From Canon To Fujifilm

Tip #3: New or second hand?

Don’t be afraid to buy second hand lenses. Camera stores often sell second-hand lenses at good prices with a guarantee to give you peace of mind. There are also plenty of Facebook groups where photographers sell unwanted gear. Buying second hand can save you a lot of money and help you build a good lens collection more quickly, or put money towards going somewhere interesting to take photos.

With second hand lenses the important things to check for are scratches on the front and rear lens elements and any dents or marks that may indicate the lens has been dropped or knocked (if a lens has been dropped there may be a problem with the way the lens elements are aligned leading to a deterioration in image quality).

Tip #4: APS-C, Full-frame or Micro Four-thirds?

Most manufacturers offer both APS-C and full-frame cameras in their ranges. But this makes buying lenses even more confusing.

Let’s say you own an APS-C camera. But at the back of your mind you think you might one day buy a full-frame body. That raises the question – do you buy a lens that works on APS-C bodies only (the advantage being that it is probably smaller and lighter than a lens that would fit a full-frame camera) or one that fits a full-frame body as well (which will probably be larger and more expensive)?

Tricky question to answer, isn’t it? And that’s not even taking into account the difference that sensor makes to the lens’s angle of view.

If I can give you one piece of advice regarding sensor size, it’s this (learned from personal experience): decide whether your first camera body should be Micro Four-thirds, APS-C or full-frame, then plan to stick with that sensor size in the future. Owing both APS-C and full-frame bodies greatly complicates the question of which lenses to buy and makes it harder to build a collection that contains a few, but good quality lenses.

Tip #5: Don’t fall into the focal length trap

The focal length trap is the belief that you need zoom lenses that cover every conceivable focal length. For example, if you own an APS-C camera and an 18-55m kit lens and would like to buy a telephoto zoom, you might feel that you need one that starts at 55mm so that you have every focal length covered.

This simply isn’t true, which is lucky as there aren’t many telephoto zooms that cover the 55mm focal length!

The key is to think about the subjects you’d like to photograph with your telephoto lens, then to pick the best lens for that subject. Let’s look at how that might work out.

Good lenses for portrait photography

A 50mm prime lens is a great portrait lens on an APS-C camera that gives you the benefit of high image quality and a wide aperture for good bokeh. Or you might look at a longer focal length such as 85mm or 100mm.

I made this portrait with a 50mm lens on an APS-C camera.

Portrait made with 50mm lens on APS-C camera

Good lenses for close-up and macro photography

An 80mm or 100mm macro lenses is a good choice for close-up and macro photography. I made this photo with my Samyang 100m macro lens.

Close-up photo made with 100mm macro lens

Good lenses for sports or wildlife photography

For these subjects, where there’s a limit as to how close you can get to your subject, you’ll need a 70-200mm zoom at the very least. You may even need a 300mm or 400mm lens, or a telephoto lens that covers these focal lengths.

I was able to get close enough to the action with a 70-200mm zoom to make the photo below.

Action photo made with telephoto zoom lens

The key point here is that lens choice is related to subject. The subject always comes first. Once you know what you are going to photograph, you can choose the best lens (or lenses) for the job. Focal length is a secondary consideration.

This is especially true now that photographers can choose from cameras with several sensor sizes (Micro Four-thirds, APS-C and full-frame). For example, if you are thinking about buying a 50mm lens then you need to understand that the nature of that lens changes depending on the sensor size of your camera.

• On a Micro Four-thirds camera a 50mm lens is a short telephoto, great for portraits.
• On an APS-C camera a 50mm lens is also a short telephoto, but with a wider angle of view, also great for portraits.
• But on a full-frame camera a 50mm lens is a normal lens, okay for portraits but better for street and travel photography.

In other words, don’t buy a lens because you think you should own it, buy it because you actually need it to photograph a specific subject.

Tip #6: Should you buy a zoom or a prime lens?

The benefit of zoom lenses is convenience. If you are a wedding photographer it is much easier to zoom from a wide-angle to a telephoto when you need to, than it is to change lenses. If you are a landscape photographer it is easier to use a wide-angle zoom to frame the scene precisely, than it is to change prime lenses.

The benefits of prime lenses are image quality and wider apertures. Compare an 18-55mm kit lens (typical maximum aperture f/5.6) with a 50mm prime with maximum aperture of f/1.4. There’s a four stop difference 16 times more light) between f/1.4 and f5.6, which helps you take photos with blurred backgrounds, and also to shoot in low light conditions, without raising the ISO too much. That’s why a 50mm prime is a better portrait lens than the 18-55mm kit lens (taking us back to the point about lens choice being driven by subject, not focal length).

For example, I made this photo with an 18-55mm lens set to 55mm, f5.6 and ISO 1600. But if I had a 50mm f1.4 lens with me I would have had the option to shoot at f1.4 and ISO 200, or any aperture and ISO combination in-between.

Photo made with kit lens

Some photographers prefer primes, others zooms – thinking about your priorities will help you decide which is best for you.

For example, if you tend to shoot at apertures such as f5.6, f8 or f11, then you probably don’t need the wider aperture of a prime lens. A zoom may be a better choice.

Tip #7: Don’t forget about weight and size

Think about the weight and size of your lenses carefully. After all, you are the one who is going to be carrying them around.

But there is another thing you should also think about when it comes to size, and that is filters. You can save a lot of money on filters by buying smaller lenses. If you’re curious to see how much, do a search for circular polarizing filters and compare the prices of the same filter in 58mm and 77mm sizes. If you need to buy a lot of filters (landscape photographers take note) then you can potentially save hundreds of dollars by buying a lens with a smaller diameter.

For example, my Fujinon 14mm lens has a filter thread diameter of 58mm. Not only are 58mm sized screw-in filters much cheaper than larger sizes, but I can use the Lee Seven 5 filter system (shown below) which is smaller and much less expensive than their larger filter kits.

Lee Seven 5 filter system for small camera lenses

Tip #8: Build quality, weather proofing and autofocus

Most manufacturers have inexpensive, middle range, and expensive or high end lenses. Inexpensive lenses may seem like a bargain at the time, but they won’t be built as well as more expensive ones, and they may also have inferior (i.e. slower and noisier) autofocus motors.

At the other end of the scale expensive lenses tend to be built well, use good quality autofocus lenses (i.e. faster and quicker) and may also be weatherproofed (important if you take photos in bad weather or dusty conditions).

Bear these points in mind when considering a lens. Don’t forget to check how well a lens is built, whether it is weatherproofed, and the speed and quality of the autofocus motor.

Tip #9: Brand name or third party?

You can often save money by buying a third-party lens for your camera, but in my opinion it is best to buy a lens made by your camera’s manufacturer whenever possible.

Unless you have a specific reason to buy a third-party lens (usually because the type of lens you need isn’t made by your camera’s manufacturer) then stick with OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer) lenses. They hold their value better, and autofocus performance is usually superior.

But there are exceptions. Recently I decided to buy a macro lens for my Fujifilm camera. Fujifilm has a good 80mm macro lens, but it’s expensive. I did some research and came across the Samyang 100mm f2.8 macro lens. The Samyang lens is manual focus and doesn’t have Image Stabilization (see next tip).

But as I always use a tripod and manual focus for macro photography these features aren’t necessary. The Samyang lens is a third of the price of the Fujifilm lens and has some great reviews. I bought the Samyang 100mm macro and haven’t regretted it.

Tip #10: Image Stabilization*

An Image Stabilizer is a motor inside the lens that moves the elements in a way that compensates for the movement created by camera shake. It is given different names by different manufacturers (Nikon, for example, calls it Vibration Reduction). It helps you take photos in low light, using lower ISO settings or smaller apertures, than would otherwise be possible. Lenses with Image Stabilization cost more than their non-stabilized counterparts, so think carefully about whether or not you need it before paying the extra money.

* Some manufacturers, like Sony and Olympus, build Image Stabilization into the camera body, not the lenses.

Next steps

Hopefully these points will help you decide which lens (or lenses) to buy next for your camera. The next step is to do some research. Read reviews on websites like Amazon, and reviews written by photographers you trust, to get a feel for the strengths and any weaknesses of a specific lens. If you can, try the lens out in a camera store, as it’s the only way you’ll get a feel for how it handles and how sharply it focuses. If you’re still stuck, find a good forum and ask other photographers what they think of lenses.

Further reading

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About Andrew S. Gibson

Andrew S. Gibson is a writer with a camera. He started writing about photography while traveling in Bolivia, and has been published in many prestigious photography magazines including EOS magazine, where he worked as a Writer and Technical Editor for two years. He lives in south Devon in the UK and is inspired by meeting new people, seeing new places and having new experiences. Check out his photography ebooks here.

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