When I first started out as a photographer, my memory of researching which lens to get was one of absolute overwhelm. The market is inundated with hundreds of choices for any budget. Where do I start? What do I choose? How do I choose? Why should I spend that much on that lens even though it’s over my budget?
Where to find help
So many questions rushed through my head that I shut down and decided to ask a couple of photographer friends instead, thinking that was the surefire way of getting quick and right answers that would aid my decision. I was wrong. They each had different things to say for different reasons. So I was back to the drawing board and had to ask myself what was right for me. At that point, I had my kit lenses that came with the camera and a 50mm f/1.8. I already knew then that it was wiser to invest in good lenses than to keep upgrading cameras and I wanted to take the first step in owning a professional lens for long term investment.
This article is about helping you decide which lens to buy next or which to use for a particular subject. It comes from my eight-year journey (going on nine) as a professional photographer. This may not be what other photographers will say if you ask them, as we all have different needs and priorities. But these are my answers and I hope will help you find your own answers too.
Questions to ask yourself
The first important question to ask yourself (regardless of whether you are a hobbyist or professional) is what is right for you as a photographer in terms of subject, style, usage and frequency? The second important question is how much use will that lens get? That is probably the best litmus test as to whether or not you have made your investment work for you.
Going back to my story above, I had upgraded my cropped sensor to a full sensor professional-grade camera and wanted to start building a professional lens collection. Photographing families was my primary focus but I wanted to expand and do more weddings. I needed a workhorse that would cater to both. As I knew I would be investing a fair amount, I wanted the lens to be worth the money in terms of usage rather than just gathering dust in the cupboard.
With weddings, it’s difficult to have just one lens because in an ideal world you need several lenses for the variety of situations that a wedding day entails. Read this article for more on that subject: 5 must have lenses for wedding photography and why. Having said that, I have shot a wedding with only one lens, the 85mm, and had to work around many limitations of having just one lens, but it is totally possible.
Before I list the different lenses and their uses, according to what I found my requirements were, here are a few things to note on prime and zoom lenses.
You will notice above that my first lenses were all primes. They are fast and great in low light. They are also smaller than zooms, though not necessarily lighter as the quality of the glass really adds to the weight. I wanted prime lenses as I knew my shoots were mostly on location. The downside of prime lenses is that you have to zoom with your feet – physically adjusting your distance continually, as these lenses have a fixed focal length. However, moving closer to the subject is NOT the same as zooming in with a zoom lens because there you are not changing your distance but rather the focal length of your lens. To read more about the intricacies of this difference, check out this excellent article; Prime Lenses: Can you really zoom with your feet?
In contrast to prime lenses, zooms allow you to stay in place and get closer to your subject by changing the focal length without sacrificing pixels or changing the sensor mode. Depending on the lens, some zooms have an aperture range while others have a fixed maximum aperture. The latter is usually in the professional range of lenses, which is reflected by a hefty price tag as well.
The fixed maximum aperture means that regardless of the focal length you are using, the lens remains at that aperture (obviously you can adjust the actual aperture you want to shoot with). So if your lens is an f/2.8, then it can go to that aperture whether you shoot at 70mm or at 200mm. Bear in mind that when dealing with macro lenses, you have to take into consideration the focusing distances and effective apertures so that the closer you get to 1:1 magnification, the effective aperture decreases. This is due to the nature of optics and is normal with macro lenses.
Zoom lenses with an aperture range, on the other hand, automatically decrease the aperture as you zoom in. For example, on a lens with an aperture range of f/3.5-5.6, the maximum aperture (widest you can use) changes automatically as you zoom in, forcing you to stop down. So when shooting at 18mm, your lens allows you to open up to f/3.5 but when you zoom in to 55mm, that lens will only let you go as far as f/5.6 at that focal length. This is a disadvantage shooting in low light conditions.
I acquired the following Nikkor lenses in this order; 50mm f/1.4, 35mm f/1.4, 105mm f/2.8, 85mm f/1.8, 70-200mm f/2.8, 24-70mm f/2.8, and 60mm f/2.8. If you shoot with a different camera, you can look up their Nikkor equivalents easily. I previous tried Sigma lenses but sold them and switched to Nikkors. I also recently added a 14mm third-party lens. I cannot justify the cost of a Nikkor when I rarely ever use that lens – it’s great for shooting super wide scenes which are perhaps 1% of my output! My thoughts below are in the context of using these workhorse lenses on a full-frame camera.
35mm Prime Lens
The Nikkor 35mm f/1.4 FX was the first professional lens I bought and for a while, it was my go-to for pretty much everything. It allowed me to shoot some landscapes when I did location shoots for both family and weddings. It is super fast and great for working in low-light especially when shooting the accessories for the bride getting ready at a wedding, or details of special items on a family lifestyle shoot. It still is one of my most reliable lenses to date.
If I get into a difficult situation on a tightly scheduled wedding day and have to make split-second decisions, this is one of the first lenses I think of to remedy a problematic situation. It is that versatile. It is great for bird’s eye view framing and shooting which is very trendy nowadays. Though not built as a macro lens, its minimum focusing distance of just under 12 inches comes in very handy and provides 0.2x magnification at that range. This is one of my favorite capabilities of this lens; it enables me to shoot this close and is fast and super sharp. Just don’t shoot this close when doing people portraits!
I also use this lens for full body portraits. Sometimes I can get away with half-body but have to be very careful of distortions. The 35mm focal length gives me ample wiggle room for cropping as well as enough space when shooting in small sized rooms which are common for my family shoots.
Note: there is also a Nikkor f/1.8 DX which is considerably lower cost. Check for options available for your brand.
50mm Prime Lens
Like the 35mm above, the 50mm prime lens is super versatile too. It is much smaller and therefore handier, lighter, (less glass) and easier on the pocket. It is a better lens to use for half-body or slightly closer portraits especially when if there isn’t enough space in the room in to distance yourself from the subject.
One of the things I love about this lens is that viewed through a full frame camera, the angle of view most closely resembles that of the human eye (at 45mm). It helps me capture scenes that make it look like the viewer is right there looking at the scene. This is especially effective when using the layering technique which I love. This is also why I use the 50mm the lens for travel, family snaps, and even some street photography (for my personal use) on the rare occasions that I do so. This article I wrote expands on that; 5 Creative Uses for the Super Versatile 50mm Lens.
105mm Macro Lens
I purchased the Nikkor 105mm macro lens while saving up for a 70-200mm and also to have a smaller alternative. When used on a crop sensor it is the equivalent of about 150mm. At that time, I was avoiding having to carry the heavy lenses and stuck to primes with my shoots.
The 105mm is a fantastic portrait lens. I love the focal length. The compression from it makes the subjects look more flattered, and I especially love the beautiful creamy bokeh from the f/2.8 aperture. It is a sharp lens, but quite a slow one, so it’s not great for sports or shooting fast in low light as it tends to hunt for focus. It is an awesome macro lens and I use it for shooting rings and other accessories at weddings, especially those I want to get really close-up shots that I could not get with the 60mm. This lens sings at f/7 which is mostly what I use for macro shots.
85mm Prime Lens
Prior to purchasing my 85mm lens, I was saving up for the f/1.4 and read many reviews and comparisons of the two lenses. Some said the 85mm f/1.8 was better, while others said the Sigma f/1.4 was superior to the Nikkor. I ended up getting the f/1.8 for a third of the price and never looked back.
When you are used to the weight of the professional lenses though, the f/1.8 is a little disappointing because it is light in comparison and feels more plastic. Some people see that as a plus for traveling and location shoots – which I also do. It is an amazing lens, so reliable, fast, sharp and my number one choice for shooting portraits, especially wriggly kids! I never go on a family shoot without my 85mm as I need a super fast lens to capture those fleeting smiles and sharp eyelashes and this lens never disappoints! I use this for couple’s shoots, bride and groom portraits, individual and family portraits (mainly smaller groups, usually 2-3 people).
Its wide aperture allows me to use it indoors too, although being a longer lens, there may not be much space in a small room than a headshot or upper body shot. This is the perfect lens for those anyway, as you can get close enough to your subject while getting a really flattering portrait of them. Any longer and you may need to be shouting at them from far away.
70-200mm Zoom Lens
The 70-200mm zoom lens is one I could not do without nowadays. It is the ultimate portrait zoom. I shoot portraits with this lens when I am on location in wider spaces. I love the fact that even when stopped down to f/5.6 I can still get beautiful blur in the background and my subjects are super sharp. It has to be said that I do have to shoot quite far away as I like shooting outdoor portraits at 200mm, so I do end up shouting!
This is also the lens I use for weddings during the ceremony and speeches. The focal length range is perfect and allows me to mostly stay put rather than running around more than necessary, which can be really distracting during weddings.
I love cropping in camera through composition and this lens allows me to do that with great ease. If you can afford it, I recommend the 70-200mm f/2.8, without hesitation. There is also a more affordable f/4 alternative, although I have not personally had any experience shooting with it. I have read, however, that it is a great lens especially when you don’t need the wider aperture. To be honest, I rarely use this lens at f/2.8 anyway as it is heavy and I am terrified of shaking from the weight so I tend to stop down. On a tripod though I can happily snap at f/2.8, usually f/3.2 as long as I’m not photographing toddlers on the run!
24-70mm F2.8 Zoom Lens
This lens is a true all-rounder. It makes life easier in so many ways. It is fast, reliable, and although heavy, it’s quite slim. However, it is not the first lens I would reach for. Being an all-rounder makes this lens a non-specialist, in my opinion.
I love the 70mm focal length as it gives a bit more wiggle room as compared to the 85mm, but I still prefer the clean, crisp, sharpness of the image quality with the 85mm. For me, the 24-70mm lens is most useful for large and medium-sized group shots and for candid shots of children. I use this for photobooth setups and the first dance at weddings – both situations where constant focal length adjustment is required depending on how many people go in the booth, or where the couple are on the dance floor.
The quality of the image from this lens for practically any shot is still amazing and the bokeh is also pleasing. This is not my portrait lens choice but as a landscape, travelscape, snapshots, wide action shots lens, the the 24-70mm is superb.
60mm F2.8 Macro Lens
When I know I am not shooting portraits but would need a macro, I pick up my 60mm f/2.8 macro lens. It’s small and handy and has no lens distortions.
When I shoot portraits, like an engagement session for example, and need a macro for the ring, I go for the 105mm. For travel and holiday photos, where I know I would not necessarily need a flash, I take the 6omm instead of my 50mm. I can get super close-up images of details and still have a focal length still close enough to the human eye so I can get a documentary feel to my photographs. I don’t do much street photography, but if I did, this would probably be one of the lenses I would choose.
The same goes for still life. Although depending on how much focus you would want in your images, you need to adjust the aperture as well as the distance from the subject to make sure you achieve the desired depth of field.
What lenses do you have? Please share below how you use your lenses. What lenses do you use for which subjects? Which ones are your go-to lenses and why?