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8 Things to Consider Before Buying a Camera Lens

things to consider before buying a lens

Are you thinking of purchasing a new lens for your camera? Read this article first.

Buying a camera lens is hard. You have to sort through an overwhelming number of options, all offering different features and price points. It’s enough to make anyone panic – even professionals!

Fortunately, I’ve bought plenty of lenses over the course of my photographic career. I’ve made mistakes, but I’ve learned from them. And over time, I’ve identified the key points that every lens buyer should keep in mind while shopping.

So without further ado, let’s explore the 8 items you should consider before hitting that “Purchase” button!

1. How much do you have to spend?

Everybody’s budget is different, and the amount of money you’re looking to spend determines which lenses you can (and can’t) consider.

So stop right now, and think about your ideal lens price. Is it $300? $500? $1000? $5000? No matter the figure, hold it in your mind as you read the rest of this article.

Buying a camera lens

My personal approach is to own the smallest possible number of good-quality lenses. I don’t like to overbuy; I’d rather have 3 incredible lenses than 10 mediocre ones. Yes, each of my 3 top-notch lenses will cost more, but I’ll break even in the long run. And inevitably, my current lens purchases will affect my future lens purchases, so I like to get it right from the beginning.

Think about the setup you want to own. Then, while you’re shopping, remember the big picture. Ask yourself: How does my next purchase fit into the plan?

This can lead to a big shift in your desire to buy lenses. If you know your budget from the outset and you know the type of setup you’re looking to achieve, you can stay laser-focused on your goals (instead of getting distracted by flashy features and focal lengths that you don’t actually need).

2. Do you need APS-C or full-frame lenses?

Most manufacturers offer different lenses for APS-C and full-frame cameras, which can make lens buying pretty confusing.

First, bear in mind that all lenses designed for full-frame cameras will also be compatible with APS-C cameras. So if you own an APS-C camera, you can basically purchase any lens from your manufacturer’s lineup and use it successfully.

However, lenses designed specifically for APS-C cameras won’t be compatible with full-frame cameras. So if you own a full-frame camera, you’ll need to avoid these lenses. Also, if you own an APS-C camera and you purchase a lens specially designed for crop-sensor models, you won’t be able to use that lens on a full-frame camera if you eventually decide to upgrade.

So you must ask yourself: What lens type is right for me?

Buying a camera lens

Here’s my recommendation: Decide in advance whether you ever plan to use a full-frame camera. If you do expect to go in that direction, only purchase full-frame lenses. Otherwise, feel free to consider APS-C lenses.

Note: APS-C lenses do come with some major advantages: they’re often less expensive, smaller, and lighter. But the optics can be on the weaker side, so be sure to read reviews before you buy.

3. Don’t fall into the focal-length trap

The focal-length trap has caused problems for many a photographer. Don’t let it get you, too!

You see, the focal-length trap is the belief that you need lenses covering every conceivable focal length.

If you already own an 18-55mm lens and want to buy a telephoto zoom, you might therefore believe you should avoid a 70-200mm lens (which is often an outstanding choice, by the way!), and that you should instead purchase a 55-200mm lens – so that you have lenses spanning all the way from 18-200mm with zero gaps.

Buying a camera lens

And if you already own a 24mm prime and a 50mm prime, you may believe you should buy a 35mm prime so you can fill the gap.

This is a mistake. You don’t need to own lenses of every focal length. Instead, you should own lenses that cover the focal lengths you plan to use, as I discuss in the next section:

4. What subjects are you going to photograph?

Photography is a wide-ranging art that encompasses many subject categories, including:

  • Sports
  • Birds
  • Wildlife
  • Portraits
  • Street scene
  • Landscapes
  • Architecture
  • Insects

And generally speaking, each photographic subject or genre requires specific focal lengths. If you want to capture birds, you’ll need a lens in the 400-800mm range. If you want to capture environmental portraits, you’ll need a lens in the 24-35mm range. If you want to capture insects, you’ll need a (macro) lens in the 100-200mm range.

So instead of picking your focal length based on gaps in your gear bag, pick based on the subjects you want to shoot.

Buying a camera lens

In other words, start by identifying your main subjects. Then, once you know what you want to photograph, choose the best lens (or lenses) for the job. Let focal length become a secondary consideration.

Bottom line: Don’t buy a lens because you think you should own it. Buy it because you actually need it. Make sense?

5. Should you buy a zoom lens or a prime lens?

Many photographers struggle to choose between zoom and prime lenses, and understandably so – both lens types offer several benefits and drawbacks to consider.

The main benefit of zoom lenses is convenience. If you’re a wedding photographer, for instance, it is much easier to zoom from a wide-angle to a telephoto focal length than it is to change lenses. And if you’re a landscape photographer, it’s easier to frame the scene precisely with a wide-angle zoom than it is to change prime lenses.

Buying a camera lens

Zoom lenses also tend to reduce your overall kit size. For example, a landscape photographer may need to carry lenses covering ultra-wide focal lengths, standard focal lengths, and short-telephoto focal lengths. This would require a handful of primes, but can be handled using just one or two zooms.

On the other hand, prime lenses tend to offer better image quality and wider maximum apertures (often at lower prices, too). Primes are frequently far sharper than zooms, and they have fewer optical issues (such as vignetting and chromatic aberration). Plus, try comparing an 18-55mm kit lens to a 50mm prime; the 18-55mm lens will often have a maximum aperture of f/5.6 (at 50mm), while the 50mm prime will have a maximum aperture of f/1.4 or f/1.8.

In practical terms, the prime lens will let you capture far more light (which is useful for shooting indoors or at night), and it’ll also help you take photos with beautiful blurry backgrounds.

Which should you pick? That’s up to you! It all depends on what matters; do you care about convenience? Do you want to ensure your kit is highly portable? Or do you care about background blur, low-light performance, and better optics?

Some photographers prefer primes, while others prefer zooms. Just think about your priorities. And decide what best fits your requirements!

6. Don’t forget about weight and size

Before you buy a lens, think carefully about the weight and size that you’re after. After all, you’re the one who will be carrying the equipment around – and while a hefty lens might not seem like a big deal when it’s in an online shopping cart, you’ll really start to notice that extra weight after carrying it for hours during an uphill hike.

Lens weight is a necessary evil if you’re after solid low-light performance and impressive durability. But make sure you really need those capabilities; you don’t want to decide your equipment is too heavy after you’ve shelled out the cash.

Buying a camera lens

And there’s another thing you should think about when it comes to size: filters. You can save a lot of money on filters by buying lenses will smaller diameters. Do a search for circular polarizing filters and compare the prices of the 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 smaller lens.

7. Think about build quality and autofocus

Most manufacturers offer a range of lenses: some inexpensive options, some midrange options, and some expensive or high-end options. Inexpensive lenses may seem like a bargain, but they won’t be built as well as more expensive lenses. They may also have inferior (i.e. slower and noisier) autofocus motors.

Expensive lenses, on the other hand, tend to be built well, use good-quality autofocus technology (i.e., faster and quicker), and may also feature weatherproofing (which is essential if you take photos in bad weather or dusty conditions).

Buying a camera lens

When considering a lens, remember all these points. Don’t forget to ask about (or research) the lens’s build quality, determine whether it is weatherproofed, and check the speed and quality of the autofocus motor.

8. Should you buy a third-party lens?

Third-party lenses tend to be a lot cheaper than lenses made by camera manufacturers. And while third-party brands may have had issues in the past, that’s not true anymore; these days, third-party brands such as Tamron, Sigma, Tokina, and Rokinon are highly reliable and offer a decent selection of lenses for most major camera systems.

Buying a camera lens

That said, original manufacturers do tend to offer a wider variety of options, so I’d recommend looking at both third-party and OEM models when researching new glass.

Things to consider before buying a camera lens: final words

Now that you’ve finished this article, you’re hopefully ready to grab your next lens!

Just remember the points I’ve shared, and do what you can to avoid major pitfalls (like the focal-length trap). That way, you can buy a lens that satisfies you for years to come!

What lens do you plan to buy? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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Andrew S. Gibson
Andrew S. Gibson

is a writer, photographer, traveler and workshop leader. He’s an experienced teacher who enjoys helping people learn about photography and Lightroom. Join his free Introducing Lightroom course or download his free Composition PhotoTips Cards!

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